Bolstering the brand is new chief's mantra

Three months after Rich Ross put on a hard hat and started renovating the Mouse House’s executive suites, the dust is settling and the future of Disney has begun to reveal itself.

What the studio’s new chairman is building with his boss, Robert Iger, is a company clearly focused on both the bottom line and the big picture.

Disney has a lot of pipelines to fill. And after years of demanding that the studio focus on movies that define the Disney brand — and can be exploited on TV, DVD, online, and through games, theme park attractions and merchandise at its Disney Stores — Iger may finally get what he wants.

Through Ross, the studio now aims to devote most of its development and production dollars to making only a few movies per year, which will capitalize on the appeal of the Disney brand with moviegoers.

The studio’s slate will likely take the form of five tentpole releases per year: one during the spring, like this year’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and then two animated pics and two live-action films during the summer and fall. It’ll look similar to the Disney-branded roster unspooling this year.

The Mouse House, as Hollywood currently knows it, will become less of a moviemaker and more of a film distributor, turning to Marvel Entertainment (which it now fully owns) and DreamWorks to supply the rest of its slate of releases through the Touchstone banner.

Producer Sean Bailey starts this week as the studio’s new president of production. The appointment surprised some in Hollywood, but Ross isn’t looking to play it safe.

Bailey’s credits include “Gone Baby Gone,” “Matchstick Men” and “Best Laid Plans” — films that aren’t the kinds of pics Iger wants Disney to make. But Ross sparked to Bailey’s long-term thinking about the types of movies that should get the greenlight.

He pushed for reboots of “Tron” and “The Black Hole,” both of which he set up at the studio through his shingle Idealogy and both of which lend themselves to lucrative opportunities to mint considerable coin through the company’s other divisions.

Ross and Bailey will spend the next several months choosing which projects to move forward with. So far, producers who have met with the duo have often left impressed with the execs. But the big question is what kind of films they’ll make.

There are some hints of what direction they’ll take.

Ross has said that “The Blind Side” (the Warner Bros. Alcon release) should have been made by Disney. Films already in development heavily target teens and tweens, with projects about high school kids in plays or planning proms or kids discovering that their neighbors are monsters. For older auds, Disney had previously bought Bailey’s franchise-hopefuls like “Hexum,” an actioner about a worst-case-scenario analyst, and war thriller “Liberty,” which Bailey also wrote.

And of course there are also the more recognizable names like a third “National Treasure,” a fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Lone Ranger,” a sequel to “Enchanted,” a new Muppet movie, Robert Zemeckis’ “Yellow Submarine,” as well as “Jungle Cruise” and “Tomorrowland,” both inspired by Disney’s theme parks.

Disney still needs to hire a head of marketing, and the role can’t be filled soon enough since the studio has been without a marketing chief since Jim Gallagher was ousted in November.

Ross has been keen on hiring a candidate from outside Hollywood, especially an individual used to marketing packaged goods, because he believes the rollout of a new movie often closely resembles the launch of a new retail product. The cost to market a movie has also escalated over the years, so having a marketing chief with ties to brands or someone who can broker promotional partnerships is considered more valuable than ever.

The reorientation has some producers on the lot anxious that first-look deals could be reduced, though prolific producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Zemeckis are expected to stay put.

The move was probably inevitable. Studios have been earning less for their corporate parents and in down years have cut into profit margins even more.

Last year, Disney’s film studio generated $6 billion, but that figure represented just 17% of all of the Walt Disney Co.’s revenues in 2009. The film side reported just $175 million in profits last year, down from $1 billion a year earlier, according to Disney’s annual report.

Iger had called the results “extremely disappointing.”

Iger, not surprisingly, has been keen on reducing the risk of making movies whose commercial prospects seem like a gamble.

“Going forward, we will focus almost exclusively on making branded films from Disney, Pixar and Marvel,” Iger recently wrote in the company’s annual report summarizing 2009. “Consumers know and love these brands and this gives us a competitive advantage. A high-quality Disney, Pixar or Marvel film can be of great value to the entire company over many years.”

Disney had already been pursuing that vision to a certain extent, relying on its own toon shop and Pixar, as well as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “National Treasure” franchises, for example. But the Ross regime aims to make Iger’s words a mantra.

More recently, though, the Mouse House has been working to find the sweet spot with its pic mix.

While it was a critical success and has sold a lot of merchandise, especially Princess Tiana dolls and dresses, “The Princess and the Frog” didn’t exactly become a B.O. blockbuster. After nine weeks, it’s earned $99 million domestically and is just starting to unspool overseas. Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol” has fared a little better, earning $138 million, but it cost nearly $200 million.

The rest of Disney’s 2009 slate was filled with movies like “Bedtime Stories,” “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” “Surrogates” and “Old Dogs” — movies that didn’t necessarily cost a lot but didn’t lend themselves to lucrative spinoffs, either. When those films failed to perform at the box office, Iger soured on their type even more.

As a result, Ross has spent the last several months pulling the plug on those kinds of projects. He killed “Wedding Banned,” a comedy that would have starred Robin Williams, and a sequel to “Wild Hogs,” which was a major hit in 2007.

He also ended McG’s plans to reboot “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” mainly because of its hefty pricetag, creative issues that still needed to be worked out and worries that it’s an aging property. It didn’t help that “Race to Witch Mountain” failed to re-energize a 34-year-old franchise last year.

Specialty arm Miramax Films is basically out of the bigger Disney picture. The one-time production-distribution arm has become a distribution label these days: Iger says that seven films will unspool through the label in 2010, but in future years, Disney plans to release just three films through Miramax. After Daniel Battsek left late last year, its Los Angeles and New York offices shuttered as of Jan. 29. Producer Scott Rudin is starting to consider other homes for his prestige pics. (And the Weinstein brothers are reportedly looking to buy back the Miramax name.)

With Ross, Iger has an exec who knows what entertains kids and families through his many years running the Disney Channel and turning it into a franchise factory and major moneymaker with hits like “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical.”

He’s also someone Iger can depend on to make the difficult cost-cutting moves as Disney tightens its fiscal belt. Ross has already overseen several rounds of layoffs across various divisions of the studio since taking the job last October.

“Our industry is evolving rapidly,” Ross recently said in a statement. “In order to remain at its forefront, we are adapting our organization to be more agile, creative and responsive.”

Ross’ colleagues are used to that leaner mandate. He ran the Disney Channel as frugally as possible. He’s known for making quick decisions and demanding that every staffer be able to defend their role at the company.

That mentality can often seem harsh. To carry out Iger’s mandate meant wiping away any fingerprints Dick Cook may have left when he resigned from the company last September. In a housecleaning move, Ross ousted Disney’s president of production, president of the motion pictures group, marketing chief and president of international distribution, in addition to Miramax’s chief exec.

No other layoffs are planned, and Ross is working overtime to inspire his remaining staffers.

The irony is that all of these changes come as Disney is readying to unspool one of its potentially strongest slates in years, with Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” big-budget videogame adaptation “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” Miley Cyrus drama “The Last Song,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (starring Nicolas Cage in a live-action variation of the tale told in “Fantasia”), “Toy Story 3,” an animated “Rapunzel” and “Tron Legacy” all on the schedule.

“Movies remain at the core of what we do, providing many of the rich stories, memorable characters and compelling worlds that are Disney’s hallmarks,” Iger said in Disney’s annual report.

Over the past several months, Disney has struggled somewhat to find those kinds of stories. But now that its own corporate drama is dying down, the Mouse House can finally get back to making movies that fulfill that ethos.

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