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Disney arrives at production crossroads

 I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly why Rich Ross got the ax as head of Disney Studios on Friday after barely two years in the job. But like a lot of people in Hollywood, I’d also be lying if I said I knew why he got the job in the first place.

   Ross was a pure-blooded TV guy. He had a long, successful stint running the Disney Channel, which is a huge profit center in the Disney universe. Then, in fall 2009, Disney chief Bob Iger unceremoniously showed studio head Dick Cook the door, ending his four-decade career at the company. People in showbiz were amazed when Iger plucked Ross from relative obscurity to take over the studio. But the message from Iger was clear: Disney needs new blood.

   Actors, directors and other talent may move between TV and film with ease these days. But showbiz executives tend to become specialists at an early age; TV is TV and film is film. And in a business where relationships make the world go ’round, Ross had no real juice with any top Hollywood talent.

   Iger, however, believed it was time to shake up the cobwebby confines of Disney. It’s been clear for years that Iger, a onetime TV guy himself, is impatient with all of the old ways of doing business in Hollywood, which is why he was the first studio chief to butt heads with theater owners over moving up the release dates of DVDs.

   Unlike a host of top executives who have lost their jobs because they made bad movies, Ross, I’d argue, is out on the street largely because he’s the fall guy for a series of questionable executive hirings at the studio.

   After all, Ross was only doing Iger’s bidding by shaking up the studio. All sorts of executives have come and gone, leaving the place in the hands of people who had no real experience doing the jobs they were asked to do.

   People who did business at Disney often came away asking the same question–who actually had the institutional memory to know what they were doing?   Ross was head of the studio, but had no experience running a movie studio.

   He hired (and then fired) MT Carney as the studio’s head of marketing, even though Carney, who’d run a small marketing boutique in New York, had no experience running a big studio marketing machine.

   Still on board is Sean Bailey, the studio’s head of production, who has earned mixed reviews. A former producer, he has had no experience overseeing a studio slate.

   Having a bunch of rookies running a studio has stymied Disney’s reinvention efforts. This was especially evident in the handling of “John Carter,” the costly live-action adventure film directed by Andrew Stanton that was greenlighted under Cook and released this March to a chorus of bad buzz and lousy reviews. It quickly ended up as the studio’s biggest flop in years.

   Stanton had unparalleled success as a Pixar writer-director, with films including “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.” But he’d never made a live-action film before, and seemed miscast as a director of a $200 million-plus epic adventure.

   If “John Carter” had been made at a studio with experienced studio executives, Stanton might have gotten some push back before he plunged off the cliff. But no one in the Disney hierarchy, certainly not Ross, had the credibility to tell the filmmaker that he was running off the rails. Disney made things worse when Carney decided to shorten the film’s title to “John Carter” from “John Carter of Mars,” making it feel less magical and more mundane.

I suspect there are a lot of other issues that helped bring Ross’ brief tenure to a close. When he got around to greenlighting a film, the result was “Prom,” a forgettable piece of teen fluff that barely grossed $10 million. He has a few tent-pole movies in the works, notably “The Lone Ranger” and “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” but he hasn’t appeared especially decisive when it came to stepping up to the plate and pushing product through the system. “Alice in Wonderland,” started during the Cook administration, was a huge hit, but it took Ross and Co. nearly a year to move ahead with a sequel, something that should’ve been a no-brainer.

   It would be silly to claim that Ross’ departure portends the downfall of Disney. The studio is poised to enjoy what may be its biggest hit in years with the arrival of “The Avengers” in May. Of course, it’s a Marvel film, not a Disney project, but give Iger the credit for bringing Marvel into the Disney fold, a deal that looks like a long-term winner. Disney’s ABC network is also in the midst of a turnaround, and its ESPN is easily the most valuable brand in sports.

   It says a lot about the shrinking importance of movie studios that the $200 million write-off for “John Carter” made hardly a blip on the stock market radar screen. Disney has the kind of deep pockets that will allow it to survive and flourish for years. But now that Iger has another bite at the apple, what will he do to bring some new life to the movie studio?

   Is it time to put an old hand at the tiller, someone with decades of experience and finely tuned creative instincts? Or will Iger double down on another newcomer?

   If you study the history of Hollywood, the track record for outsiders isn’t especially good, especially ones like Ross who had a touch of arrogance about their own gifts.

   It was hard to find anyone in the business who was rooting for him to succeed, in part because he made it so clear when he arrived that he didn’t think running a studio was really that hard.

   As it turns out, he was wrong. It is a brutally tough job, which is why so few people have done it well. If I were Bob Iger, I’d be very wary of making another bad choice. If his next pick doesn’t pan out, the person getting the blame will be Iger himself.

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