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Disney’s Aviv Exits as Ross Relies on DreamWorks

Disney's Aviv Exits as Ross Relies on DreamWorks

It’s deja vu all over again. A studio in management upheaval. A new studio head recruited from TV being directed to reinvent the wheel by a boss who is a film biz outsider.

It took Paramount’s Brad Grey several years to recover from his steep learning curve and early mistakes. He was bailed out by a canny business deal to buy DreamWorks, which eventually left the Paramount fold. But the studio still benefits from that deal, as many projects contain DreamWorks DNA, including Michael Bay’s fast-tracked Transformers 3, which Bay admits he was urged to prep for 2011 release.

As Disney acquisition Marvel will take time to ramp up its production, Disney’s new studio chief Rich Ross will need to rely on key supplier DreamWorks to buttress his slim release slate going forward. Fortunately, unlike Grey, Ross has forged a cordial relationship with DreamWorks partners Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider. For all their sakes, let’s hope it continues that way.

Ross continues to reshape the motion picture division. Inevitably, 20-year Disney vet Oren Aviv has resigned his post as production president.

On his way out, Aviv did not cite recent flops Shopaholic and G-Force, but the upcoming films he wanted to take credit for—Tron Legacy, Jerry Bruckheimer’s Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. He also did not mention the movie franchise that boosted him from marketing chief in the first place, National Treasure, for which he devised the story. “Oren’s significant contributions to The Walt Disney Studios are well-documented,” Ross stated, “and countless movie-goers have been entertained by his diverse portfolio of films.”

Now that Ross has evaluated the studio–and halted several go-projects, including Captain Nemo: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Robin Williams romantic comedy Wedding Banned and Wild Hogs 2 (presumably due to the execrable flop Old Dogs)–he can now steer the course for Disney’s live-action films. While Ross liked Joseph Kosinksi’s Tron Legacy enough to swiftly move to develop a The Black Hole remake with him, and has acquired rights to the Fallen books, he needs product.

Ross’s production pick will provide a clear signal of where he wants to go. Would Ross’s trusted former lieutenant, Disney Channel production head Susette Hsiung, be able to do the job? Many TV execs have faltered when they move over to a movie studio, as Gail Berman did at Paramount. It helps to have someone who knows how the game is played in Hollywood and doesn’t throw out everything in development, which can slow a studio’s momentum for years. Word is, Ross likes to disparage much of what he has inherited. UPDATE: The LAT reports that Summit production chief Erik Feig was approached for the job, but he is not leaving.

Disney needs DreamWorks to ramp up production. Luckily, their development slate is rich, with a wide range of genres and budgets. Well aware, they’re pushing forward the 17 projects they paid to bring over from their Paramount incarnation. DreamWorks films will go out under Disney’s Touchstone label (which can handle R-rated fare), starting with Shawn Levy’s VFX bonanza Real Steel, starring Hugh Jackman as a downtrodden 21st-century palooka whose clever son refurbishes his seven-foot robot boxer, for November 2011. (“It’s shades of Paper Moon,” says a DreamWorks source.) The uncast child role could be a star-maker. (Spielberg respects Ross’s ability to pick young stars such as Even Stevens‘s Shia LaBeouf.) And DreamWorks is readying several modestly-budgeted programmers in the next month that should easily beat Real Steel to the finish line. They recently acquired director Carlos Brooks’ teen thriller Someone in the Dark, as well as the Will Beall comic-book adaptation Xombie, comedy Substitute Husband and the Wicked young adult series.

Also on the front burner, though farther out, are Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens (written by the Star Trek team Orzi & Kurtzman), the Michael Crichton adaptation Pirate Latitudes and the ten-book family adventure The 39 Clues, written by Jeff Nathanson, which Spielberg could decide to take on.

He’s also prepping three biopics. Not all three will go. He definitely wants to direct Tony Kushner’s adaptation of the Doris Kearns Goodwin Lincoln (which may proceed without Liam Neeson). Playwright Doug Wright is writing a George Gershwin biopic focusing on the 30s period when the famed songwriter stretched himself as a composer. And then there’s Martin Luther King: last May DreamWorks landed coveted exclusive rights to King’s intellectual property, books, and speeches, including the famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Prospective leads Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx are lining up, although nobody’s even writing yet.

Whatever mistakes Ross makes going forward–and he’ll make a few as he figures out the landscape–he’s lucky to be anticipating six pics a year from DreamWorks.

(On the media coverage front, the LAT broke the Aviv story today, which Deadline Hollywood claimed Nikki Finke and Michael Fleming both learned, at exactly the same moment, on each coast. On their story they share a double byline. These two newshounds are hugely competitive; will they be able to work together on stories like this?)

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