Rich Ross aftermath: Does John Lasseter go in for the kill at Disney Studios?

And as expected, the Rich Ross era is quickly over.

It’s always callous in these situations to say “I told you so,” but when Bob Iger first announced that Rich Ross would be taking over as Chairman of Walt Disney Studios two and a half years ago there was a collective eyebrow raised across Hollywood.  Ross had turned Disney Channel into a moneymaker for Disney and CEO Bob Iger saw him as “visionary” who could streamline the movie studios offerings while focusing more on cinematic brands that could have life across the entire corporation. It’s a synergistic approach that all media companies try to achieve, but rarely succeed at (Fox and the old Viacom being the most successful).  Even with a changing entertainment landscape where more television and movie talent jump between the small and big screen, Ross did not have the background or skills to handle a job of this magnitude. And, the industry experienced this same scenario only a few years ago when Brad Grey put former FOX executive Gail Berman in charge of production at Paramount Pictures. That also lasted just about two years and was pretty much a colossal failure.

Like Berman, one of Ross’ big problems was his inability to ramp up enough quality product fast enough.  He inherited a number of films in production including “Tron: Legacy,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “Secretariat,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Tangled.”  All were green lit by his predecessor, Dick Cook, who many thought was unfairly let go.  Especially after “Alice” made over $1 billion worldwide following his ouster. Under Ross’ watch was a refashioned “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (the worst reviewed of the franchise) and “John Carter” (developed under Cook, but we’ll get to that later).  Along with President of Production Sean Bailey (good guy, but probably not around for long), Ross developed “Prom” (a cheap bomb trying to use a Disney TV formula), “The Muppets” (solid win), “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” “Frankenweenie” and next spring’s “Oz: The Great and Powerful.”  In fact, the only major new movie set to shoot for Disney is “Maleficent” with Angelina Jolie.  The rest of Disney’s 2012 release schedule includes “Brave” (an animation division production), “Odd Life,” “Frankenweenie,” “Wreck-it-Ralph” (animation division again) and a “Finding Nemo” re-release in 3-D.  And it’s only April. Even for a company looking to take calculated choices that’s a damning schedule for any studio head.  But, it also is indicative of just how long it was taking Ross to learn how the movie business works.  Talent relationships, agency relationships, strategy and production are all on a different plane than when working in television (and certainly a cable channel such as Disney Channel). If Disney hadn’t made a distribution deal with DreamWorks Studios last year (the studio released four films in 12 months), the theatrical division would have pretty much been bare. 

To make matters worse, Ross either was directed by Iger or sold himself to Iger on the fact he could cut costs in staffing and marketing.  In turn he basically gutted the entire marketing department attempting to shake things up.  Instead, he brought in a new head of marketing with no movie business experience (MT Carney) and saddled her and the company with too few people in creative, media or publicity to fashion engaging campaigns.  Carney played Ross and Iger’s “brand” game and it failed miserably with “John Carter,” but you could argue “The Muppets” campaign was too generic (the outdoor or poster hardly made it seem like a movie).  Carney’s work was so distrusted DreamWorks immediately started bringing in their own people to market their films and Ross found himself with experienced movie marketing consultants assisting on the “Pirates” franchise. Carney was the first to be let go in January.

Word is that Disney is speaking to DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider (former head of Universal Studios), ex MGM head Mary Parent (who got a raw deal when the studios money ran out right when she started) and current Walt Disney Animation head and Pixar Chief John Lasseter.  From a movie fan’s perspective it would seem as though the Oscar-winning Lasseter with his Pixar resume and Disney animation successes would be the perfect choice to revamp the movie division. Of course, Lasseter’s ego was causing problems for Ross during his entire tenure.  Lasseter’s Pixar BFF, Andrew Stanton, received significant latitude from Ross regarding the skyrocketing budget for “John Carter,” a situation where it was clear Ross, Bailey and possibly even Iger didn’t want to rock the boat with Pixar.  Lasseter also has tried to interfere with live action productions such as “The Muppets” by volunteering script notes and suggested changes.  Those suggestions obviously weren’t necessary considering it became one of the best reviewed films of the year.  It’s clear Lasseter would like the control of running the live action division, but is that the right message to send to the creative community after 2 1/2 years of Ross’ mismanagement?  Would Lasseter be able to run the division as a studio chief and not a micro-manager? It’s a huge question mark and may give many quality filmmakers pause when setting up a project at the Mouse House.

As for Ross, I vividly remember seeing him work the party and cocktail circuit at the 2010 Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals.  He was fishing for talent by crashing other studios parties (no joke), but it was an awkward sell for filmmakers coming from someone with little movie experience.  Ross’ instincts were to go for unconventional, but top tier directors.  It was the right move coming from the wrong messenger. At the Fox Searchlight Toronto party he made a point of going up to Danny Boyle, who was receiving friends and fans in the center of the room, to congratulate him on “127 Hours.”  It was one of those moments where everyone in the room looked and thought, “Why would Danny Boyle ever make a movie with Disney?”  Almost two years later, the same question would be asked. And that might be the most damning consequence of Ross’ short rein.

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