Disney: Help wanted for high-risk, low-reward job as chairman

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Wanted: Experienced executive who can turn around an unstable film studio and manage the egos of some of Hollywood’s biggest power players including Pixar animation guru John Lasseter, DreamWorks partners Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider, mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Marvel chief Ike Perlmutter.

Reward: Not much.

Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bog Iger, in other words, won’t have an easy time finding a new studio chairman to replace Rich Ross.


Once considered one of the most powerful and sought-after positions in Hollywood, running the 89-year-old Burbank studio behind ‘Snow White,’ ‘Mary Poppins,’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ now seems about as desirable as playing Goofy on a hot day at Disneyland. The buzz in Hollywood since Iger fired Ross last Friday has been less about who’s angling for the job and more about who would want it.

The reason: Iger’s strategy of turning Disney into a collection of brands means that most of the films it releases are not overseen or greenlit by the studio chairman, as they are at rival companies. Next year, for example, Disney will release five movies (including two 3-D re-releases) from the Pixar and Disney animation units headed by Lasseter and Ed Catmull; two superhero films from Marvel, a subsidiary run by CEO Perlmutter and President Kevin Feige; and at least one from DreamWorks, the independent studio that has a distribution deal with Disney.

Only two films on Disney’s 2013 slate were approved and overseen by Ross himself: ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful,’ based on the classic book series and movie, and a new version of ‘The Lone Ranger’ starring Johnny Depp. And both have powerful producers who are themselves forces to be reckoned with: Bruckheimer on ‘The Lone Ranger’ and former Disney studio chairman Joe Roth on ‘Oz.’ The studio is responsible, however, for advertising and releasing the movies from all of its brands and partners, meaning Ross’ successor are easy targets for blame if those pictures don’t work. People close to Disney but not authorized to speak publicly say that Lasseter, Feige and Snider are all intimately involved in marketing plans and were bitter about having their films promoted by inexperienced outsider M.T. Carney, who Ross hired in 2010 and had to dismiss early this year.

Though Ross’ departure came soon after the failure of ‘John Carter,’ for which Disney is taking a $200-million write-down, people close to the studio said it had more to do with his inability to win allies inside and outside of Disney. Lasseter, Perlmutter, Snider and Spielberg were all said to have been unhappy with his leadership, and numerous lower-level employees at the studio, plus agents and producers around Hollywood, complained that Ross did not clearly articulate the types of projects he wanted or his vision to transform the studio.

In addition, Ross replaced nearly all of the seasoned movie executives at Disney with less experienced hands. Some, such as production president Sean Bailey, are well-liked, but others, such as Carney, were spectacular failures. (So far, Carney’s successor, Ricky Strauss, is winning higher marks.)

Thus, less than three years after he stunned Hollywood by replacing veteran Dick Cook with Ross, who had a successful tenure running Disney Channels Worldwide but had never worked in the movie business, Iger must go back to the drawing board — again.

Disney’s CEO is now faced with the humbling task of finding a chairman capable of endearing himself or herself to colleagues and Hollywood’s creative community who also possesses the skills to update the studio for the digital age — one of the ostensible reasons Cook was fired.

The studio is currently being run by several executives previously under Ross who now report directly to Iger, including President Alan Bergman, who oversees distribution and business operations, and Bailey. It’s an unusual situation in Hollywood, where top executives usually aren’t fired without a replacement lined up in order to prevent the kind of instability and uncertainty now present on the Disney lot.

Already, many of the names that first popped up as potential successors for Ross have quietly made clear that they’re not interested or are unavailable.

Feige, who has produced Marvel’s string of hits including two ‘Iron Man’ films, ‘Thor’ and ‘Captain America: The First Avenger,’ along with next week’s hugely anticipated ‘The Avengers,’ is telling associates that he’d prefer to stay in his current job, according to two people familiar with the executive’s thinking.

Lasseter, who lives near the headquarters of Pixar Animation Studios in Northern California’s Emeryville, is said to be happy staying in charge of Disney’s fabled animation operation. Snider, who previously ran Universal Pictures before moving to DreamWorks, is obliged to sign a multi-year contract extension as part of a $200-million refinancing with backer Reliance Entertainment, making her unavailable even if she wanted the job.

Roth, who ran Disney Studios from 1994 to 2000 and has also headed 20th Century Fox and Revolution Studios, is not interested in the position as he is busy producing three upcoming movies for Disney: ‘Oz,’ a sequel to the 2010 blockbuster ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ spin-off ‘Maleficent,’ as well as the FX/Lionsgate television show ‘Anger Management’ starring Charlie Sheen. He also owns Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders.

At a presentation of Disney’s upcoming movies at the CinemaCon gathering of theater owners in Las Vegas this week, things appeared to go smoothly despite the instability in Burbank. The studio brought out stars including Depp, James Franco and Mila Kunis and had executives including Bailey, Feige and Lasseter discuss the slate, along with Bruckheimer and Roth.

On the press line beforehand, however, the tension was evident.

Asked if she was worried Ross’ exit might affect the marketing of her Pixar animated film ‘Brave,’ producer Katherine Sarafian quickly changed the subject.

‘We feel like we’re in good hands, and here to talk about ‘Brave.’ I think we’re doing all right,’ she said.

Almost immediately after Sarafian had uttered the words, a Disney publicist rushed over and implored a reporter to stop asking filmmakers questions about Ross because it was making them ‘uncomfortable.’


Rich Ross’ departure sends aftershocks at Disney

Photos: Rich Ross at Disney Studios: Hits and misses

Disney expects $200-million loss on ‘John Carter’

— Ben Fritz

Times staff writers Amy Kaufman and Richard Verrier in Las Vegas contributed to this report.