Rich Ross named chairman of Walt Disney Studios


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Rich Ross, the television executive who helped revive the moribund Disney Channel, now has to prove he can work movie magic at Walt Disney Studios.

The 47-year-old former talent department head has been tapped by Disney Chief Executive Robert A. Iger to fill the post formerly held by Dick Cook, who was ousted last month after clashing with his boss and failing to deliver enough hits over the last year.

Iger will look to Ross to reinvigorate Disney’s flagging box-office fortunes and develop film franchises that can be sold across the entertainment giant’s lines of businesses — including theme parks, consumer products and television — as well as grapple with a host of technological issues that are quickly reshaping Hollywood.

“Rich has an outstanding record of creating high-quality family entertainment that delights audiences around the world,” Iger said in a prepared statement. “With his success in building the Disney brand across many of our businesses, his astute marketing sensibility, his proven ability in working effectively with talent and his skill at navigating complex global markets, I’m confident he’s the perfect leader for our studio group.”

By picking an executive from outside the clubby precincts of the movie business, Iger is signaling that he wants Ross to shake up a studio that the Disney chiefviews as entrenched in the past, from relying on high-priced, aging stars to open films to spending extravagantly on movie marketing.

To achieve this, Ross may be borrowing liberally from the playbook he followed to turn around Disney Channel, which has eclipsed the movie studio in recent years as a hothouse for talent and ideas that could be packaged and resold across the company’s various platforms. Ross has proved himself adept at turning entertainment into brands -- high profile examples include ‘Hannah Montana,’ which launched pop star Miley Cyrus’ career, and ‘High School Musical,’ which was created for television but quickly found life — and revenue — in recorded music, a big-screen blockbuster and a stage show.

Indeed, at a company that stresses team playing among its executives, Ross may be the ultimate team player.

“I am very excited to play a key role in continuing the storytelling legacy of The Walt Disney Studios. There has never been a better time to entertain our global audiences with high-quality and compelling content and introduce new characters that will become family favorites. I look forward to working with Bob, the team at the studios and all of our Disney family towards that goal,” said Ross.

Since his arrival at Disney Channel in 1996, Ross worked closely with other divisions of the Burbank-based company. For example, when the channel cast Cyrus as Hannah Montana in 2005, Ross ordered an internal “road show” to introduce the new program to other parts of Disney. Within six months of the show’s premiere, the consumer products group was shipping Hannah Montana clothing to stores — shaving a year off the time required for new TV-linked merchandise to reach retail outlets.

Such cross-division collaboration is a priority for Iger, and something he felt was lacking at the movie studio. Moreover, Disney Channel, under Ross’ lead, has become a model for Iger’s oft-touted franchise strategy, in which entertainment properties can feed other parts of the Disney empire.

A prime example is 2006’s “High School Musical” — a chaste tale of improbable high school romance between a brain and a jock. Ross revved up the Disney marketing machine, leading to the release of a soundtrack that was a top-selling CD, a sold-out 42-date concert tour in North and South America, a show at Disney’s theme parks and a slew of merchandise.

The2007 sequel, “High School Musical 2,” became the highest-rated telecast in cable history at the time, and the third installment in 2008, “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” raked in more than $250 million in worldwide box-office sales. Merchandise based on ‘High School Musical’ and other Disney Channel movies and TV series accounted for $3.6 billion in retail sales worldwide last year -- not including DVDs and CDs.

But despite his success in television, Ross has virtually no experience in feature films — a more protracted process and one encumbered by big egos, longtime habits and much higher-cost structures. He must quickly reach out and calm anxieties among Disney’s movie talent, including director Steven Spielberg, producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Scott Rudin, and stars like Johnny Depp — all of whom were close to Cook and distraught over Iger pushing him out.

High on Ross’ list doubtless will be figuring out how to integrate the latest planned addition to Disney’s family, Marvel Entertainment, whose library of super-hero characters the studio will seek to exploit. Disney has lagged behind rival studios that have successively produced film adaptations of Marvel properties such as X-Men and Spider-Man.

Another priority for the incoming studio chief will be forging ties with Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios, which recently signed a multiyear distribution deal with Disney and expects to supply the studio with four to six movies a year.

But Ross’ greatest challenge will be to address Disney’s creative dearth. Although Disney isn’t the only studio to have suffered a bad year at the box office, the division lost $12 million in its most recent quarter — its first loss in four years. A number of its recent movies, including the Adam Sandler family comedy “Bedtime Stories,” the costly 3-D guinea pig saga “G-Force,” and the latest installment in the 1970s ‘Witch Mountain’ sci-fi adventure franchise, “Race to Witch Mountain,” failed to attract wide audiences.

Andlike all studio heads, Ross will find himself grappling with a number of sea changes in the business caused by a slump in DVD sales — the most lucrative part of a film’s revenue stream — and technological shifts that have changed how, when and where people watch movies.

--Dawn C. Chmielewski and Claudia Eller

Previous posts:

Rich Ross is headed to the movies

Disney’s Iger needs to move quickly


Johnny Depp bummed about Dick Cook’s exit

Dick Cook out at Walt Disney