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.