Two months ago, newly installed Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross sank producer Sean Bailey’s planned $150-million production of “Captain Nemo: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
But that didn’t submarine the relationship. On Thursday, Ross picked Bailey as the Burbank studio’s new head of production, succeeding Oren Aviv, who was ousted this week after a disappointing spate of movies.
Bailey, who has no experience as a studio executive, faces a steep learning curve in assembling slates of movies and managing dozens of executives and filmmakers. He’s also the second outsider recruited for a key movie post at the studio: Ross, tapped just three months ago, had spent his career in television, most recently at the Disney Channel.
Although Disney has its film schedule set for this year, with such major releases as “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in the wings, the two executives will have to move quickly to line up projects for 2011.
Since taking the reins last October from Disney veteran Dick Cook, Ross has been aggressively restructuring studio operations, purging a number of high-level division heads and streamlining various divisions as a way to cut costs and adapt for the digital age.
At the same time that Disney announced its new production chief, the company confirmed that it was continuing its “reorganization of the workforce,” resulting in about 80 layoffs, primarily in the home entertainment division.
“Our industry is evolving rapidly,” Ross said in a statement. “In order to remain at its forefront, we are adapting our organization to be more agile, creative and responsive.”
On Thursday, Ross continued his management shake-up by handing 23-year domestic distribution veteran Chuck Viane added responsibilities overseeing international sales. Another studio veteran, Heidi Trotta, senior vice president of studio communications, is transitioning to a consulting role, with former theme parks publicist John J. Nicoletti taking over as vice president of global communications.
Ross is also making changes in the marketing group, but has yet to name a new chief to succeed former President Jim Gallagher and his boss, Mark Zoradi, both of whom were forced out late last year.
The studio chief initially approached Summit Entertainment production head Erik Feig, the executive behind the “Twilight” franchise, for the Aviv job, but was turned down. The deal with Bailey came down quickly and was concluded Thursday morning, according to his agent, Patrick Whitesell of William Morris Endeavor.
“The thing he hasn’t done is manage a group of people -- that’s the part where he’s got to prove himself,” Whitesell said, adding, “I think they felt he was a well-rounded guy who will be a good executive.”
Bailey first came to Ross’ attention within days after Ross took the top studio job.
As the producer of the studio’s planned big-budget Christmas release “Tron: Legacy,” Bailey and the filmmakers laid out a marketing presentation for the new studio boss. Bailey apparently impressed Ross with his creative chops and his grasp of how to exploit a movie across Disney’s businesses, according to a person close to the situation.
Bailey “got his start as a writer, so that gives him a particularly interesting point of entry into such an important new position,” said director McG, who was working with Bailey on “Captain Nemo” before the studio scuttled it over creative issues. “He comes from the creative community and he’s very well liked, so he’s going to attract talent.”
Actor-director Ben Affleck, who co-founded multimedia production company LivePlanet with Bailey, Matt Damon and Chris Moore, predicts that his former producing partner will do well in the job. The two also worked together on Affleck’s 2007 thriller “Gone Baby Gone” for Disney’s specialty movie label, Miramax Films.
“I trusted his creative instincts,” Affleck said. “He maneuvered the project through the creative, marketing and distribution process and really understood the mechanics and politics of the studio system.”
Affleck said Bailey understood combining traditional and emerging media, citing their collaboration on LivePlanet’s Emmy-nominated cable series “Project Greenlight,” in which aspiring filmmakers submitted their scripts online for the chance to make a $1-million movie. The cable network followed the winner through the creative process and filmed it as a TV series.
That could help Bailey at Disney because technology plays a large role in Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger’s vision for the movie studio.
This month, for example, Disney executives demonstrated KeyChest, a new technology that would allow consumers to buy a movie once but view it anywhere, whether it be their flat-screen TVs and computers or their mobile devices. Iger has also talked about shortening the time between a film’s release in theaters and its availability in the home.