Disney's Head of Research, Louise Chater, Exits Under Cloud of Questions (Exclusive)

Walt Disney Studios' head of movie market research, Louise Chater, was precipitously dismissed from the studio in late September

The head of movie market research at Walt Disney Studios, Louise Chater, was dismissed from the studio in late September under cloudy circumstances that involve an anonymous letter about her sent to the studio, TheWrap has learned.

Getty ImagesChater joined Disney in March 2011 from First Movies International, a movie research company where she was founder and CEO. Under Chater, Disney moved a large portion of its research screenings and material testing to First Movies, three knowledgeable individuals told TheWrap.

At the heart of Chater's dismissal were unproven allegations raised in an anonymous letter to Disney earlier this year, suggesting First Movies benefited improperly from Chater's position as head of research, according to those individuals. 

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But Chater's representative told TheWrap that the letter amounted to a targeted smear campaign and that she received no financial benefit from First Movies after leaving for Disney.

First Movies was acquired in April of this year by Penn Schoen Berland, a market research consultancy with roots in political research. The sum was not disclosed. The company did not return calls and emails asking for comment.

A lawyer for Chater provided documents to TheWrap from the audited financial statement of First Movies in 2010 that state that she resigned as a director of the company in November 2010.

“Ms. Chater did not receive any compensation directly or indirectly from or in connection with First Movies since leaving its employment,” said Michael Plonsker of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P.

He added: "I have also verified with First Movies that Ms. Chater never owned any financial interest in First Movies other than stock options, which were never exercised. Those stock options lapsed on November 18, 2010, when Ms. Chater stated her intention to leave First Movies."

Disney does not comment on personnel matters and would not say whether Chater retained any financial ties to First Movies when she joined the movie studio. It is not unusual for executives to join vendor companies, and usually they must give up ownership stakes in their own companies in order to avoid the appearance of self-dealing.

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A spokeswoman for Disney told TheWrap: “I’m not saying anything on the record about employees, current or former.”

Chater exited the studio with a settlement agreement that prevents her from discussing the matter, according to a knowledgeable individual. Her LinkedIn page indicates that she left Disney in September.

Chater is a veteran market researcher who specializes in international markets and cultures. In a 2009 interview with TheWrap, she explained that she “conducts tests in more than a dozen countries, including across Europe, and in the burgeoning film markets of Russia, South Korea, Brazil and India.”

Research professionals in Hollywood told TheWrap they were at first thrilled when Chater was named SVP of research at Disney, replacing a longtime executive who they say often rejected their findings.

But Chater’s transition to the role at Disney — not unlike that of a more high-profile predecessor in marketing, MT Carney, who exited in January — became contentious, especially as research firms, such as NRG and Ipsos MPG, saw business that had previously gone to them sent to First Movies.

“She gave all the testing to her old company,” one research executive told TheWrap. “We all know that happens. But this was egregious.“

But individuals close to Chater and Disney say there has been a campaign to discredit the executive, referring to the anonymous letter sent to Disney and members of the media. No such letter was received by TheWrap.

Studios spend millions of dollars every year on market research. An individual with knowledge of Chater’s dismissal said questions arose within Disney when executives inquired into research conducted on "Lone Ranger" concepts before any marketing materials were produced.

“She was spending money on research that Disney questioned,” the individual told TheWrap. “She commissioned research to go to First Movies before there were any materials to be tested.”

But another individual with knowledge of the research said Chater did a "brand health check and positioning study" on "Lone Ranger" that was approved by "many of her superiors."

No replacement for Chater has been named, Disney said.