The Iger sanction: Fix the pix, pronto

Wary of film, the Mouse chief must lay foundation for conglom's future

Rich Ross resigns as Disney Studios chief

A producer was explaining to me the other day what it feels like to make a movie at Disney. “I feel like an alien,” he said. “No one is left at a management level who is grounded in the movie business.”

He’s not alone in his feelings. The abrupt departure of Rich Ross on Friday brought down the curtain on one of the most ill-starred regimes in recent Hollywood history. It also raised a discomfiting question about the attitude of Robert Iger: Can a CEO who basically distrusts the movie business find a productive way to guide his company through its minefields?

Given his announced intention to step down in 2015, Iger has a limited timespan to come up with an answer. The Disney empire mints money from its theme parks and from ESPN, but movies are key to the Disney legacy. I was once given a lengthy private tour of Disneyland by Walt Disney and, as much as he loved his theme park toys, the craft of storytelling on film was still his guiding passion. Old Walt would be distressed to review the present state of his dream factory.

Iger has tried to solve his problem by outsourcing his film ventures — hence the deals with DreamWorks, Pixar ($7 billion) and Marvel ($4.2 billion). Rich Ross, an emigree from the Disney Channel, was supposed to supervise a limited number of in-house live-action movies (a skimpy three in the past year) and reinvent the marketing and distribution of the others.

Ross brought in an outside marketing guru, MT Carney, to force-feed some Madison Avenue thinking but that didn’t last. Meanwhile virtually the entire executive team of the Disney studio was lined up for execution starting with Dick Cook, the chairman, then moving on to the veteran chiefs of marketing and distribution.

Following on the high-voltage management style of Michael Eisner, Iger was supposedly bringing an orderly calm to the company. I remember having a pleasant breakfast with Iger at the Polo Lounge in September 2009, during which, in his usual congenial fashion, he laid out his thinking about the movie business. He was not a movie person, he explained, but he believed that film was the unique resource that creatively fueled the theme parks and the network and even the cruise ships. Like it or not, Disney was about movies.

What he did not tell me was that his first meeting that day had been called to fire Dick Cook.

The Iger commitment, it turned out, was not intended to encompass “Mars Needs Moms” or “John Carter” — catastrophes that represented a combined $300 million writeoff. By tracking blame back to Dick Cook, however, Disney insiders inadvertently created an industry joke. By tracking blame back to Dick Cook, however, Disney insiders inadvertently created an industry joke: At every studio in town, anyone’s flops were facetiously labeled “Dick Cook projects.”

There is no easy fix to Iger’s movie dilemma. The people who preside over his key filmmaking constituencies at Marvel, Pixar and DreamWorks need to have confidence in Disney’s ability to marshal marketing resources behind their product.

Ironically, it was about 20 years ago that Jeffrey Katzenberg, then Disney’s young president, wrote his famous “Katzenberg Memo” in which he warned that dependence on “bloated event films” would be a blueprint for disaster. At the time, Katzenberg was offended by the cost of Warren Beatty”s ‘Dick Tracy,” which he cited as a dangerous example of “losing control of our own destiny.”

Katzenberg ended up enmeshed in his own pricey battle with Eisner, claiming the company owed him bonuses totaling $250 million. That litigation, plus the bizarre subsequent hiring of Michael Ovitz, cast a pall over what had been a superbly productive regime (the Disney empire had soared from a $1.7 billion enterprise to one with revenues of $23 billion).

Bob Iger has done much to stabilize the megacompany since his appointment to CEO in 2005, but he’s said he plans to depart the company in a few years, thus constructing a demanding timetable to set things right.

And he knows that from somewhere out there, Walt Disney is glowering down upon him.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

    Film Review: 'A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon'

    No asteroids are hurtling toward Earth in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” though a flying frozen pizza does softly slice the top off an elderly shopper’s hairdo: That’s roughly the level of quirky peril we’re talking about in the latest outing from Aardman Animations, and as usual, the British stop-motion masters cheerfully prove that [...]

  • Slam

    Film Review: ‘Slam’

    The disappearance of a fearless female Palestinian-Australian slam poet triggers suspense and powerful social and political commentary in “Slam,” an outstanding slow-burn thriller by expat Indian filmmaker Partho Sen-Gupta (“Sunrise”). Starring Palestinian actor Adam Bakri (“Omar,” “Official Secrets”) as the missing woman’s conflicted brother, and leading Aussie performer Rachael Blake as a troubled cop, Opening [...]

  • Igo Kantor

    Igo Kantor, Producer and Post-Production Executive, Dies at 89

    Igo Kantor, whose Hollywood career took him from Howard Hughes’ projection room to supervising post-production on “Easy Rider” and producing B-movies like “Kingdom of the Spiders” and “Mutant,” died Oct. 15. He was 89. Kantor, who was born in Vienna and raised in Lisbon, met “Dillinger” director Max Nosseck on the ship to New York. [...]

  • The Lion King

    Average Movie Ticket Price Falls 4% in Third Quarter of 2019

    Average ticket prices for the third quarter have dropped 4% to $8.93, down from Q2’s $9.26, the National Association of Theatre Owners announced today. However, compared with the third quarter of 2018, ticket price has risen 1.1% from $8.83. The summer box office is down 2.13% from 2018, though the third quarter box office is [...]

  • Tilda Swinton to Preside Over The

    Tilda Swinton to Preside Over Marrakech Film Festival

    Tilda Swinton, the iconoclastic British actress and producer, is set to preside over the 18th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival, succeeding to American director James Gray. Swinton, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for best supporting actress for “Michael Clayton,” has been leading an eclectic acting career. She has collaborated with [...]

  • The King Netflix

    Middleburg Film Festival Brings Hollywood to Virginia

    For the last seven years, audiences have flocked to the Middleburg Film Festival. Running October 17th – 21st, and situated in the wine-country hills of historic Middleburg, Virg., the festival usually highlights some of the year’s buzziest titles, and 2019 is no exception. “We’re a smaller festival with fewer overall screenings than other events, so we [...]

  • Kelly McCormick and David Leitch'Fast &

    'Wheelman' Director to Helm 'Versus' From David Leitch, Kelly McCormick (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Wheelman” director Jeremy Rush is in negotiations to helm the action movie “Versus,” with Kelly McCormick and David Leitch producing. Rush will direct the Universal movie from a script penned by “Three Musketeers” scribe Alex Litvak and “American Assassin” writer Mike Finch. Plot details are being kept under wraps, though it will follow the genre [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content