Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross may be gone, but his legacy loomed large on the stage at CinemaCon Tuesday, as the Disney team presented a film slate largely conceived or overseen by the executive who resigned just last week.
It was an awkward dance at times, as the strategy that Ross had helped bring about — more branded content, fewer films — has been tarnished by his departure and by the spectacular failure of "John Carter."
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Ross announced he was stepping down last Friday, saying the job was not the right professional fit. Disney insiders have said that his replacement will come from the film world, not the cable industry that weaned Ross.
That didn't stop Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vice president of distribution, and the other studio bigwigs from hammering home the notion that the company has the best brands in the business now that it houses both Pixar and Marvel under one roof.
To be sure, many of the films Ross had at least some part in bringing to the screen played well with the theater owners who flocked to the Las Vegas trade show this week to see what the major studios have been cooking. An extended series of clips from "The Avengers" popped, with the audience laughing at all the right moments and clapping as Thor, Iron Man and Captain America squared off.
Likewise, the first 30 minutes of "Brave," Pixar's first attempt at crafting a story around a female protagonist, were visually stunning. The film is bolder than many of the previous films from the animation house that center on talking toys or loveable fish. This one has a true human heart.
"Oz: The Great and Powerful," Disney's origin story about the wonderful wizard, looks like it could be a visually arresting event film like "Alice in Wonderland."
But to paraphrase Johnny Carson's joke about the Oscars, it was 30 minutes of sparkling entertainment spread over a three-hour show. There were bagpipers, Muppets and visits from stars such as Johnny Depp and Jennifer Garner, but it was hard to escape the uncomfortable and unacknowledged truth — the studio is leaderless.
Even with Ross at the helm, Disney often appeared directionless. Though it was probably not his intent, Disney Production President Sean Bailey unwittingly acknowledged the studio's existential crisis at one point.
Bailey said the company has asked itself, "what does it mean to be a Disney movie…and it's a difficult question."
Among the answers he arrived at were that Disney films should "speak to the core of human experience" and show "the wonderment, the joy" of life.
As evidence of this approach, Disney presented "The Odd Life of Timothy Green," the story of a childless couple whose dreams of having a son are realized after they bury a list of attributes of a perfect offspring in the backyard. It's exactly the kind of small, heartfelt movie that probably won't inspire a theme park ride.
There was also "The Lone Ranger," an update of the Western television and radio program from Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, that dominated Ross' tenure when a standoff over a rumored $250 million budget saw the production shut down. It began shooting in February after the filmmakers agreed to dial down the costs.
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Bailey, it should be said, is considered to be a possible replacement for Ross, as is Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, who also was on hand to present footage from his shop's future superhero projects.
In another piece of unanticipated symmetry, Joe Roth, the former Disney Studios chief, made an appearance to present a sneak peek of "Oz: The Great and Powerful."
So what does the post-Ross future hold? Based on Disney's presentation, a Marvel and Pixar dominated slate. Over the next two years, the studio will roll out sequels to "Iron Man," "Thor" and "Captain America"
Pixar will pull its own weight with a "Monsters University," a prequel to its hit "Monsters, Inc.," as well as a film based on the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos and "The Good Dinosaur," about every child's favorite Jurassic-age critters.
But on the live action side, where Ross held sway until a week ago, the cupboard is looking a lot less bountiful.