The job left by Rich Ross at the head of the Walt Disney Studio cannot remain vacant for long.
Disney CEO Bob Iger needs strong leadership at the head of his studio. The studio’s meandering, two-and-a-half-hour presentation to movie exhibitors last week at CinemaCon only underscored the point.
But it will not be an easy job to fill. The position offers plenty of lose-lose math: It's a high-profile job with little opportunity to make a full complement of movies. It means high-maintenance partners in Marvel, DreamWorks and Pixar who will hang the mogul out to dry when marketing and distribution don’t work and take the glory when their movies do.
On the other hand, it’s one of only a handful of such jobs on the planet. And Ross crashed and burned so badly that any sign of upward movement will look like success.
There are precious few people who can take on this job and win. Here are three we think are likely:
Why She’s Perfect: The DreamWorks chief is one of the most talented movie executives of her generation and is woefully underemployed, especially given the recent cutbacks at her company. Snider has experience running a major studio, having done so successfully at Universal. Where Ross understood brand, Snider understands storytelling. She is respected by her peers, well-liked by talent and has the personal skills to balance the towering egos of Steven Spielberg, John Lasseter and Marvel’s Ike Perlmutter.
The Problem: Snider is under contract at DreamWorks, a condition to the recent $200 million infusion of cash by India’s Big Reliance. This is not an immovable object by any stretch. Iger certainly has the leverage and the cash to negotiate an exit.
Why He’s Perfect: The head of the Fox Broadcast Network is another executive star, having spent years leading Fox Searchlight before moving into the world of television. Widely rumored to being groomed to eventually lead News Corp., Rice is smart and forward-looking, with a strong point of view about movie making. He led Fox Searchlight to an unlikely Best Picture win with the Danny Boyle drama “Slumdog Millionaire,” an underdog that went on to gross $378 million worldwide off a $15 million budget. With News Corp. mired in Murdoch’s newspaper scandals, Rice might just be distracted enough to be lured by Disney. While deeply entrenched in television, Rice’s roots are really in film – his network of friends. Also, he misses working with the likes of Boyle and Baz Luhrmann, with whom he made “Moulin Rouge.”
The Problem: Rice has a major job running the Fox network, and he hasn’t shown a desire to leave. He is almost family to Rupert Murdoch, who was close with Rice’s father, and has spent years at Fox with the likelihood of moving to something bigger. It will be tough to get him to abandon that to manage Steven and Ike and Jerry and the Pixar clan.
Why He’s Perfect: As president of production, Bailey has the advantage of being in place at a time when Disney has had far too much turnover and needs institutional stability. He knows the system and is deeply engaged in making Disney’s big bets for the coming year: “Oz: The Great and Powerful” with Joe Roth and Sam Raimi, and “Lone Ranger” with Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp. Iger is believed to like him, and he is young and can grow into the job.
The Problem: Bailey is tarnished by the Ross regime and doesn’t have experience running a major studio. He also is so new at Disney, having only joined the company in 2010 from a producing career, that he has no real connection to the Disney family and hence the core of the Disney brand.
Obvious choices that seem unlikely:
Kevin Feige – The Marvel president may have the experience, but what about his leadership skills? The executive kept his face absurdly hidden under a baseball cap while presenting his company’s slate to 3,000 exhibitors in Las Vegas. There is little in the Marvel canon that speaks to the Disney family brand. Also, he has made it known that he does not want the job.
Dick Cook – Summarily dismissed by Bob Iger after 38 years at the company, Cook knows Disney like no other living executive. But Iger will never bring him back. It’s personal: Cook, who believes with some justice that he has more Disney cred than the boss, will never show the fealty that Iger requires.
Also in the wings:
Nina Jacobson – The producer of “Hunger Games” was previously the head of production at Disney. She was dismissed unreasonably a few years before Dick Cook. She is a big talent and has proved it again with the Lionsgate blockbuster. But she has a major commitment to the franchise. For that reason alone, she is probably unavailable.
Joe Drake – Until recently the head of production at Lionsgate, the talented Drake now finds himself without a portfolio in the wake of the merger with Summit.
Oren Aviv – It would be once around again for Aviv, who already headed both marketing and production at Disney and knows both the company culture and its brand very well. Now running marketing at Fox, he’s probably a better fit back at Disney.