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Sea Change At Disney

Only four months after Joe Roth ascended as chairman of Disney Studios, the entire face of the Walt Disney Co.’s motion picture division has changed – and word is that the shuffle isn’t over yet.

Last week, Disney Studios motion picture president David Hoberman – who had been in the executive ranks at the studio since 1985 – decided to become a producer at the studio. Hoberman will now produce two to three films a year through his Mandeville Films banner under an exclusive, five-year deal.

His exit from the ranks of the film division followed that of Walt Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, Hollywood Pictures president Ricardo Mestres, Disney legal eagle Helene Hahn and president of marketing Bob Levin. Levin moved into a corporate communications post.

Hoberman’s move, just nine months after he renewed his contract, has created a new structure at Disney and eliminated a layer in the Mouse House hierarchy. The planned segmentation of the marketing departments by label, which had begun before Roth arrived, has been abandoned.

Roth said that he wants to create “a more collegial atmosphere between labels” as well as between production and marketing.

The label presidents who reported to Hoberman – Touchstone president of production Donald DeLine, Walt Disney president of production David Vogel and Hollywood Pictures president of production Michael Lynton – now report to Roth.

The new structure is causing some debate among filmmakers at the studio. Some argue that Disney never needed the extra layer of management and others fear the system, without Hoberman, will not work as efficiently.

Even more discussion and speculation center around whether all three label heads will stay in place. More specifically, rumors abound that there will be a paring-down of executives at Hollywood Pictures.

Roth was quick to dismiss such speculation, saying Hoberman’s departure was “the only change being made. There will be no other changes in personnel or in the labels. The three labels will operate the same. The only difference now is that I will be working directly with the groups. I will become more involved with projects and casting, and the three label presidents will now get more involved in marketing.”

The rumors continue in part because no one under Roth – not in production or marketing – was hired by him, with the exception of Caravan Pictures marketing head Richard Ingber.

Hoberman was brought in by Jeffrey Katzenberg. Hoberman also had a hand in hiring Lynton, DeLine and Vogel. Marketing and distribution head Richard Cook was also at the studio before Roth arrived, as was publicity head Terry Press.

Insiders said Roth spent the last couple of weeks busy boning up on every project in the production pipeline.

Meanwhile, Hoberman said he was looking forward to rolling up his sleeves. He’s already picked his first project. In conjunction with Marty Katz, he’ll help bring the Ellen DeGeneres starrer “Mr. Wrong” to the screen. Katz is producing the comedy; Hoberman will exec produce. The film will be released through Touchstone and will be the first to carry the Mandeville Films banner.

The project, which is currently out to directors, is slated to begin production in April. Hoberman is said to be working out deals on other projects as well.

“As you get higher and higher in the job you feel like you become a prisoner in the four walls, and I feel that those walls have been broken down,” said Hoberman, adding that he had toyed with the idea of going into producing two years ago, but decided against it.

His move out of Disney’s executive ranks had been expected. Roth and Hoberman were known to have bumped heads on more than one occasion when Roth was a producer at Caravan. Days after Roth’s arrival, Hoberman was quoted in the press implying that he would leave – the studio only had to settle out his deal.

Both Hoberman and Roth recognized the problems early on, however, and both insist that their relationship has changed.

“When I came in, I said let’s see if we can work it out together. As it went on, even though there was some overlap with the jobs, we found we could both survive it,” said Roth. “In November, around the holidays, we decided to talk again at the beginning of the year. At the first of the year, he came back and said, T think I want to do my own thing.’ If he would have wanted to continue here, he would have.”

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