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Disney revamps film operations

Rich Ross' promotion at studio appears imminent

Since Dick Cook left a few weeks ago, the question was who would replace him as head of Walt Disney Studios. Now it seems to be a question of when, not who.

Most insiders consider it a fait accompli that Disney Channels Worldwide prexy Rich Ross will soon be elevated to a role overseeing at least the Disney-branded portion of the Mouse’s studio operation.

The planned revamp of Disney’s film operation came into sharp focus Sept. 18 with the abrupt exit of Walt Disney Studios chairman Cook, a 38-year Mouse House vet. Cook’s departure followed a string of recent B.O. disappointments, including “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” “Race to Witch Mountain,” “G-Force” and “Bedtime Stories” (Daily Variety, Sept. 21).

Ross quickly emerged as the leading internal contender for a promotion at the studio.

Ross has been with Disney Channel since 1996, starting out as senior veep of programming and production. He’s been the key creative architect of the cabler’s ascent to the top of the kidvid pack during the past five years with hit original skeins including “Hannah Montana,” “Wizards of Waverly Place” “The Suite Life With Zack and Cody,” “That’s So Raven” and the “High School Musical” telepic franchise.

Ross was promoted to prexy of the worldwide Disney Channel portfolio in 2004. He’s known to have a strong relationship with Disney CEO Bob Iger, and he’s known for his success in leveraging Disney Channel assets through various Mouse divisions — something Iger has cited as a key priority for all of Disney’s business units.

With the expansion of Disney Channel’s original programming endeavors, Ross has also become well versed in the marketing and business aspects of managing successful franchises.

Ross has been a top lieutenant of Disney Media Network co-chairman/ Disney-ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney. The two worked together in the 1980s and early ‘90s and at FX from 1993-96 before both moved to Disney. But with Sweeney firmly in command of all of the Mouse’s TV biz (other than ESPN), Ross had little room for advancement on the TV side.

The Mouse House is making renovations that are a small part of the Disney-ABC empire, but mark major shifts on the film side — and in the indie world.

As Disney chief Robert Iger readies to announce a replacement for studio topper Dick Cook, the studio continued the overhaul of its film operations Friday with word that it will restructure Miramax, consolidate operations and reduce the number of films the unit releases.

It’s a good news/bad news scenario. While other studios have basically pulled the plug on their specialty labels (e.g., Paramount and Warner Bros.), Disney declined to do that with Miramax. However, it’s planning to cut the annual output from eight films a year to three, and the staff, which numbered 80, is expected to be slashed to 20.

For many years, studio specialty labels provided solid and steady income to their parents, and dominated awards season. But in the past few years, aggravated by the economic downturn, studios around town are saying it’s become more difficult to recoup the costs on adult-targeted pics.

Disney, in the midst of restructuring its upper ranks, is putting a greater emphasis on tentpoles and family fare.

With the Miramax downsizing, prexy Daniel Battsek will continue to oversee creative, development, production and business and legal affairs out of New York. Walt Disney Studios will handle most marketing, distribution, operations and administrative support functions from its Burbank headquarters.

The label’s survival, albeit in smaller form, was likely helped by the fact that the studio has a first-look pact with Scott Rudin, whose “No Country For Old Men” won the best picture Oscar in 2007 for Miramax (and partner Paramount Vantage) and who drew a number of noms for the shingle with “Doubt” as well.

Miramax could continue to be a home for Rudin’s more high-profile dramas given that Disney will have to find a spot on its own slate for films from other producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, as well as pics from DreamWorks, for which it will turn to Touchstone.

The ax is likely to fall on Miramax staffers this week. The cuts could run deep, with industry insiders suggesting that about 20 staffers will remain from the roughly 80 people now employed across Miramax’s offices in Los Angeles and Gotham. Departments expected to be hit hardest are marketing, publicity, distribution and production.

Evidence of Disney’s plans for the unit emerged several weeks ago, when Miramax’s former West Hollywood offices were shuttered and staff moved onto the Disney lot. At that time, rumors started to spread that the division would be folded into the main studio.

As for Miramax, the Mouse declined to say how many films the unit will now produce. The company released eight films in 2007 and eight last year. This year, it’s released five titles, with “Everybody’s Fine” still to bow on Dec. 4.

The announcement of the Miramax news came after a companywide meeting on the Burbank lot Friday.

“Disney has a first-rate marketing and distribution team operating globally,” said Alan Bergman, prexy of the Walt Disney Studios. “This restructuring maximizes operating efficiencies and provides significant cost savings while allowing Miramax to focus on its greatest strength: the creation of high-quality entertainment.”

(Sharon Swart contributed to this report.)

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