Disney looks outside studio to fill Ross role

Disney chief Robert Iger is expected to go outside the Mouse House to find the next chairman of Walt Disney Studios after Rich Ross resigned from the post on Friday, Variety has learned.

Although he wants to fill the role with an experienced film exec, sources close to the studio say Marvel Studios prexy Kevin Feige and DreamWorks co-chairman and CEO Stacey Snider are not on the shortlist for the job.

It will likely take weeks before a chairman is tapped, however.

Iger isn’t expected to begin interviewing candidates until he returns from his trip to China, where he will check in this week on various Disney ventures in the country, including the company’s theme park being built in Shanghai, and a new venture to help develop toons in the country with government-backed China Animation Group and web portal Tencent.

For now, studio president Alan Bergman and production prexy Sean Bailey will oversee the film division, where much of its upcoming release slate is set through 2014 ( see chart on page 12 ).

Despite internal discussions that Bergman, who has been prexy since 2005, and Bailey, who was hired by Ross in 2010, would split the chairman role, that won’t happen, sources said.

Ricky Strauss, who left as president of Participant Media to become Disney’s marketing chief in January, replacing MT Carney, will likely remain in the role, given that he is close with Snider and helped launch one of the company’s few recent hits, “The Help.” Participant co-produced the pic that went on to earn more than $207 million.

Instead, Iger is looking off the lot for his new chairman, and wants to hire an executive with a strong knowledge of the film biz – something Ross, who successfully ran Disney Channels Worldwide, where he launched hits like “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical,” was criticized by many at Disney and around Hollywood for lacking.

Those in the running are said to include former MGM chief Mary Parent, and “Battleship” producer Scott Stuber, with whom Parent served as vice chairman of worldwide production at Universal Pictures. Others include producer Joe Roth, whose “Alice in Wonderland” earned $1 billion and is behind next year’s “Oz: the Great and Powerful,” and “Maleficent,” starring Angelina Jolie. Roth was chairman of Walt Disney Studios from 1994-2000 before launching Revolution Studios. He also was chairman of 20th Century Fox from 1989-1993.

While Ross’ resignation follows the pricey misfire of “John Carter,” that forced Disney to take a $200 million writedown, the pic’s performance didn’t force him out.

Ross struggled with the transition from TV to film and to deliver on Iger’s mandate to make fewer films but instead make tentpoles that promote the Disney brand and spin off sequels, TV shows, videogames, toys and other consumer products, as well as theme park rides.

Many consider hiring Bailey to be Ross’s best move since switching over to the studio in 2009. His other choices didn’t go over well with the rest of the Disney ranks, however.

Those include shaking up the executive suites, ousting marketing chief Jim Gallagher for Carney, a controversial Madison Avenue hire who was replaced by Strauss earlier this year.

Ross also handed domestic distribution vet Chuck Viane international sales duties, while homevideo prexy Bob Chapek was upped to president of distribution before being moved over by Iger to run consumer products. Walt Disney Motion Pictures group president Mark Zoradi, who oversaw marketing, also was laid off, after a 29 year career at the Mouse House, causing a rift with many in the community.

What didn’t help was Ross’ difficulty in establishing close relationships with John Lasseter and his team at Pixar, DreamWorks’ Steven Spielberg and Snider, and producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Roth – filmmakers that once had an open door with Ross’ predecessor Dick Cook. Instead, he left those relationships up to Bailey to develop.

Bailey is still seen as too inexperienced for the chairman role. But he is considered filmmaker friendly, which has made him well-liked in Hollywood. He helped recruit Sam Raimi to helm “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” Jon Favreau to direct “Magic Kingdom,” Guillermo del Toro to reboot “The Haunted Mansion” and David Fincher to steer “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” while shepherding last year’s bigscreen revival of “The Muppets,” and greenlighting Roth’s “Oz” and “Maleficent” after “Alice” became a hit. He was instrumental in working with Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski to pare down the budget for “The Lone Ranger” to a level that saved its greenlight after production was halted.

Bailey’s also been key in driving Iger’s mandate to make tentpoles that focus on the Disney brand, as the studio produces fewer films and relies heavily on Marvel, Pixar and DreamWorks to fill out the rest of its release slate.

In his letter to staffers alerting them of his resignation Friday, Ross said, “I no longer believe the chairman role is the right professional fit for me. The best people need to be in the right jobs, in roles they are passionate about, doing work that leverages the full range of their abilities. It’s one of the leadership lessons I’ve learned during my career, and it’s something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to as I look at the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

Though “John Carter” was greenlit by the Dick Cook regime and championed by Lasseter and other top Pixar Animation Studios brass, Ross is still taking much of the blame for the film’s poor performance at the box office. The pic has earned just $269 million worldwide since its release March 9, and $69 million domestically, forcing the studio to take a $200 million writedown before its second quarter earnings are released May 8.

Such a high-profile failure comes at a time when risk-averse parent companies are scrutinizing shrinking slates – Disney’s own internal wrangling over the budget of next year’s “The Lone Ranger” is a prime example – and demonstrating minimal tolerance for misses in the search for franchise hits. That’s put pressure on studio heads to perform more than ever, focusing less on the creative elements of moviemaking and more on the bottomline.

Disney did enjoy some hits under Ross, however.

The first film he officially greenlit, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” sailed past $1 billion worldwide; “Tangled” surprised many when it was able to attract a broader audience to the female-skewing Rapunzel tale, which earned $591 million globally; and “Cars 2″ revved up more than $500 million. “The Muppets” also was relaunched under Ross, with a sequel now in the works.

But there were also flops, most notably “John Carter,” “Prom” and “Mars Needs Moms,” which led to the shuttering of Robert Zemeckis’ production studio ImageMovers Digital.

Upcoming tentpoles greenlit by Ross include Sam Raimi’s “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Maleficent” and a “Phineas and Ferb” film, based on the Disney Channel hit.

Marvel’s “The Avengers,” the first film Disney is releasing since buying the comicbook publisher in 2009 for $4 billion, will bow on May 4 with what’s being predicted to be a $150 million domestic opening weekend. Ross is departing the studio before he can benefit from the film’s expected heroic haul.

While Feige has proven himself as president of Marvel Studios, launching the “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “Captain America” franchises as well as other potential series, Iger wants the exec to stay at the comicbook giant and continue to deliver the kinds of films the Mouse House needs to grow a business that attracts boys to Disney’s various divisions the way its princess and fairy lines have become a major source of revenue with young girls. Growing that side of the biz was at the center of Disney’s decision to pony up the $4 billion to buy Marvel in 2009.

The Marvel Studios topper also is considered a key liaison between Disney and Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter, who was one of Ross’ most vocal critics.

And Feige is considered a producer that would rather foc
us on building Marvel’s brand of superheroes through tentpoles he can closely develop with filmmakers, rather than consult on from afar as he’s distracted by other studio duties.

Since joining Marvel in 2000, Feige has overseen the company’s other co-productions, including Sony’s “Spider-Man” franchise, and Fox’s “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” films. Altogether, the company’s comicbook pics have generated well over $5 billion at the box office.

As for Snider, it would be difficult for her to move to the Mouse House after DreamWorks secured additonal financing from Reliance Entertainment to produce up to 10 films over the next three years, keeping the shingle afloat.

The role of running a studio has become less attractive for Hollywood’s top creatives over the years, with the conglomerates that own the majors demanding higher returns from their pics that benefit every division at a company.

With congloms focused on increasing profits, they’ve become more averse to taking risks that could produce a “John Carter” – a pricey $250 million film that won’t reap millions in additional coin from videogames, toys and other merchandise, not to mention a theme park ride at Disney’s parks.

That’s become a turn-off for many, making Disney’s top studio job a hard role to fill.

As one producer told Variety , “It’s become a desk job that is less about being creative and more about the bottomline. It’s high profile, yes, but it’s not right for everyone, especially if you like making movies.”

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