What Not to Learn from Rich Ross’ Disney Stint

When Rich Ross was tapped as chairman of Walt Disney Studios in 2009 there were the customary gasps about a TV executive being thrown to the wolves on the feature-film side.

The announcement that the former Disney Channel exec would be exiting that post will likely yield at least some analysis about bridging the gap between those worlds, which might sound interesting, but isn’t particularly illuminating.

The truth is the historical track record of former TV executives in features is probably no better or worse than movie execs who change jobs. For starters, nobody hires a new head of a division because they’re entirely happy with the results, sort of like a football or basketball coach. So the new guy always inherits some questionable material and talent.

Moreover, Disney at a corporate level has downplayed features, cutting back on the number produced and emphasizing marketing and branding over storytelling. As the Pixar guys can testify, it’s easier to make a good movie and then figure out the theme-park ride that goes with it than trying to conceive films with potential merchandising in mind. (Full disclosure: My wife works for Disney Imagineering.)

Admittedly, there have been some big whiffs in the move from TV to movies. Brandon Tartikoff‘s tenure at Paramount comes to mind, and CBS Films has thus far been unable to extend the company’s TV clout into movies.

For every one of those, though, there’s someone like Bob Daly, who did quite well for himself — and Warner Bros. — after leaving CBS; or Peter Chernin, who started at the Fox network before migrating to the feature side and eventually becoming COO of News Corp. Oh, and let’s not forget Disney CEO Bob Iger got his start at ABC.

Frankly, I think DIsney’s issues are less about Ross than a need to reconsider its feature strategy. As an analyst said after “John Carter” flopped, one of the company’s problems is by cutting back on titles, it doesn’t have enough at-bats to occasionally jack out an unexpected homerun.

None of this is an exact science, but there are some basic rules. And one of them is if you don’t regularly show up to play the game, you can’t win.



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