Why Rich Ross Had Step Down Disney

It felt wrong back in October 2009 when Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger first announced Rich Ross as his movie studio chief.  And it never felt right. In the wake of the biggest write-off in Hollywood history, “John Carter” (March 9), film industry outsider Ross is stepping down, citing a lack of passion for the job:

“The best people need to be in the right jobs, in roles they are passionate about, doing work that leverages the full range of their abilities. It’s one of the leadership lessons I’ve learned during my career, and it’s something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to as I look at the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

“John Carter” was a tsunami disaster that no studio chief could survive–even if he inherited it. But under Iger’s directives, Disney Channel veteran Ross let go of many of Disney’s experienced production, distribution and marketing professionals. “Carter” was surrounded not by mitigating hits (“Pirates of the Caribbean 4” Ross could not claim, and “The Muppets” was modest),  but by other disappointments, from the worst films of producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s career to “The Prom,” which had Ross’s imprint all over it. In Hollywood, you can scapegoat the head of marketing, as Ross did, letting go of Hollywood outsider MT Carney as the dimensions of “John Carter” became clear, but you can’t escape the axe without some good news.

Any Oscar traction Disney gained under Ross’s tenure came from Pixar’s long-in-the-works “Toy Story 3” and DreamWorks–who produced “The Help,” ‘War Horse,” and VFX nominee “Real Steel”–and voiced their displeasure at some of Disney’s marketing efforts.

It’s telling that Ross is leaving just as Disney is poised to open two enormous blockbusters, from studio labels over which Ross had little oversight–“Marvel’s The Avengers” and Pixar’s “Brave.” And it would not have escaped notice that ex-Disney exec Nina Jacobson launched a successful $70-million franchise, “Hunger Games,” just as Disney took a $200 million write-off on “John Carter.”

Iger has long been straining to move more swiftly into the digital future, taking full advantage of the studio’s legacy and brand identification with audiences all over the world. That approach worked like a charm under Ross at the Disney Channels, where he molded teen stars like Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron into household names.

But bringing too many outsiders into a movie studio is almost always a disaster. The rules of this world are too entrenched and arcane, the egos too sensitive, the need to be on top of the latest marketing trends too great, for there to be any margin for error. Smart as he is, Ross’s learning curve was just too steep.

Although former Disney chief Michael Eisner, Warner Bros.’ Bob Daly, Universal’s Frank Price and Fox’s Barry Diller made the transition from television to movies without a hitch, most of the time it’s a risky move–see Paramount’s experience with Brandon Tartikoff and later, Gail Berman. There too Viacom’s Sumner Redstone charged his then-lieutenant, MTV chief Tom Freston, with making radical changes at Paramount and then threw the exec and others out when the pace of change proved too fast. New studio chief Brad Grey saved his job by importing DreamWorks’ successful creative culture to buttress Paramount’s flailing one.

The next question is who will replace Ross, who replaced the deep bench his predecessor Dick Cook left behind with a shallow one.

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