3 Lessons to Learn From Rich Ross’ Disney Departure

Guest Blog: Now that Rich Ross is out at Disney, here’s a little advice for the next guy in the hot seat

1)  It's good to be humble. Rich Ross, the short-lived and now-departed Walt Disney chairman, was rumored to have a “touch of arrogance” and a flippancy about the ease of running a studio. Arrogance is a tough proposition when you’re great at your job, which he clearly was at Disney Channel, but when you’re in a new gig outside your area of expertise and facing a learning curve as steep as the climb at K2, a little humble pie can help motivate the Sherpas getting you up the mountain.

It’s hard to say negative things about someone who is both successful and humble. So try to be. Especially in the face of uncertainty. Arrogance only alienates the people whose help you need to make your tenure a success. If you’re running the place, you’re going to get the credit anyway. Humility — it wears much better than arrogance.

Getty Images

2)  It’s not who you FIRE, it’s who you HIRE. Rich Ross did a lot of housecleaning in his short stint as studio chairman. He fired the chief of Miramax, the marketing president, the president of the Disney Studios Motion Picture Group, the head of film production, the head of distribution, the head of physical production and the head of casting.

He did hire a new head of marketing but then fired her less than a year later. Termination, it seems, was the new normal. But firing people should have made room to hire the people necessary to make a profitable film slate. Apparently that wasn’t the case. Ross himself was fired after fewer than three years on the job. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

3)  It’s not about the movies you DON’T make, but the ones that you DO. Cost-cutting, belt-tightening and streamlining are sometimes necessary corporate maneuvers. Cutting back was the clear mandate implemented by Ross. But rarely do reductions propagate growth. Reducing Disney’s homegrown film output to a trickle and narrowing the studio’s genre focus put a ton of emphasis on just a few enormous bets.

Not to say that "John Carter" was a bad idea — it was — but in the end, it’s not a reduced film slate that spells success, it’s the films ON that slate that dictate the studio’s fortunes. $300 million in write-downs later, would it have been better to have made more films and had more people at the studio to help usher them into theaters? A focus on eliminating, reducing and mitigating means the focus is NOT on growing, nurturing and building.

Scaling back your film slate by definition means you’re looking for fewer great ideas, fewer projects that could be the next big success and fewer chances for a breakout surprise hit. You can’t think expansively and contractively at the same time. Cutting back creates a culture of cutbacks, not spring-forwards. As we know, the film business is filled with nothing but surprises. Better to create the preconditions for surprise by creating an expansive culture of possibility.

Now that Iger is poised to take advantage of lesson #2, above, here’s a little advice for the next guy in the hot seat.

1)  Great ideas. Only cut your film slate to a few movies if you’ve got some really, really fantastic ideas for the very few films you ARE going to make. Board games, TV shows from the '70s and old, rarefied literary IP don’t count. Wow us with something original and special.

We’re fortunate to be back in a time in the film business where the idea is what drives moviegoers into theaters. So focus on the bright, big, shiny, new, fun, fresh, high-concept ideas. Great ideas are our lifeblood and will always will drive our business.

2)  Take modest risks. Keep budgets somewhere south of zany and inane. “Responsible” has a nice ring to it. That will allow you to make some bets on projects that might be a little outside the box or sound a little risky. Whatever happened to hitting a successful single or double? Wasn’t that the whole premise of the "Moneyball" strategy that reinvented baseball and made a good film? You need runs to win; to get runs you need players on base, so recruit the team that can get you on base the most.

Find the slate that’s a mix of films and concepts that can get you on base a lot. That sets the stage for that grand slam that brings everyone else home. It beats swinging for the fences the few times you’re at bat and striking out. The writedowns from two big whiffs alone could have financed a whole new stadium to play in.

3)  Vision. Oh yeah, that vision thing. Surprise, surprise — It all comes back to vision. Having a vision for the future. Having a sense for the zeitgeist. Having a gut response to great ideas and storytelling. Let’s get back to a place where we embrace visionaries at the reins of film studios. The studio that bears Walt Disney’s name should have a visionary at the head of its film business.

Savvy corporate managers are an instrumental part of running an enterprise as vast as Disney, but just as important are the creative visionaries who deliver the big ideas (or who can deliver the teams that deliver the big ideas). If you find yourself lucky enough to be running the studio next, before you drive through its Burbank gates your first day on the job, make sure you have some big ideas in your back pocket. The studio, the audience and the film business at large deserve it.

And they'll reward you for it.