Rich Ross Disney Ouster Means Refocus on Movies, Not Cross-Promotion

Analysis: After three years of bad results and whispering in the Hollywood wings, Disney opted for a clean break from a bad decision

Rich Ross out? Smart move, Bob Iger.

After three years of bad results, whispering in the Hollywood wings and furrowed brows on Wall Street, the Disney CEO opted for a clean break from a bad decision.  

The move comes on the heels of the company announcing a crushing $200 million loss on “John Carter,” and just four days before Ross was scheduled to introduce the Disney summer slate at the annual movie exhibitor’s convention, CinemaCon in Las Vegas.

Also read: Rich Ross Out as Walt Disney Studios Chairman

The removal of Ross without a successor in hand signals some other changes, most importantly that Disney is shifting its focus back to moviemaking and away from the dogma of cross-branding.

For months, Ross and his team had been pushing the notion that the Disney studio in the post-Dick Cook era was about connecting the various divisions of the Walt Disney Company — consumer products, the television properties, theme parks, international.

It was content-meets-marketing on steroids at a global media company with the means to do that.  

That was why, Iger seemed to argue, it was fine to put someone with no movie experience in the studio job. (Ross came from television.)

The theme had become a mantra in Rich Ross conversations, who constantly suggested that the moviemaking expertise would be ceded to partners like Marvel, DreamWorks and Jerry Bruckheimer, while he focused on business strategies from a higher altitude.

Also read: Rich Ross and His Decentralized Magic Kingdom — Is It Working?



The problem is: That didn’t work very well. 

While affable in person, Ross never gave the sense that he had a handle on moviemaking, nor any great passion for it. This is, after all, the mogul who brought us “Prom.” (Earlier this month, Disney confirmed it was making a movie based on the theme-park ride, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.)

Ross made fumble after fumble, starting with the choice of marketing outsider MT Carney, which made for movie outsiders in two key positions. Another problem was the lack of control over the studio’s public-relations strategy. Early on, Carney gave me an interview in which she expressed wonder at the weak box office of “Secretariat” — that from what is usually the most controlled PR command center in the business.

Also read: Exclusive: Disney's MT Carney, Grilled — 'A Baptism by Fire'

Last year’s stinker “Mars Needs Moms” didn’t offset the successes of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” or “Toy Story 3,” which had little to do with Ross.

Then this year came the iceberg that was “John Carter,” a mediocre movie that suffered from poor marketing and stunning budgetary bloat. 

Also read: Rich Ross and the 'John Carter' Debacle – Disney Takes It on the Chin 

An insider confirms to me that Ross’s successor will be a movie veteran, with experience in story. Certainly Sean Bailey, who heads live action, and John Lasseter, who leads animation and Pixar, have those in spades.

(I’m thinking: Why’d you guys get rid of Nina Jacobson? And now she’s produced “The Hunger Games”? Put that gal on speed-dial.)

As before, Disney will be making six tentpole movies annually. As the insider said, “Some of those movies don’t have to be franchises, they just have to be good movies.”

Also read: 'John Carter' Loss Expected to Be $200M

And that really is a welcome change, whatever Disney says officially. A movie studio has to really care about making good movies.

Disney has some good stuff coming up — not just “The Avengers,” but the buzz on Sam Raimi’s “Oz,” the prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” is exceedingly strong.

For the moment, there’s no sense of when the chairmanship will be filled. But the ouster (technically a resignation, but who are we kidding?) will clear the decks ahead of the one piece of good news on the horizon, the May 4 opening of the blockbuster “The Avengers.”

That will give the company some sugar ahead of May 8 earnings. They’ll need it, but at least now the studio can set a new, healthier path.