- Associated Press - Sunday, April 22, 2012

LOS ANGELES — Disney movie-studio boss Rich Ross stepped down on Friday, taking the fall for at least a couple of overbudgeted bombs as Hollywood shies away from taking risks on blockbusters.

His resignation came after two years in a row of nasty March surprises, both ironically having to do with the red planet. Last year, it was “Mars Needs Moms,” a creepy animated movie that lost $70 million. This year, it was “John Carter,” a sci-fi action movie set on Mars that resulted in a $200 million loss for Disney.

Mr. Ross, 50, said in a memo to staff that he no longer thought his role as chairman of Walt Disney Studios was “the right professional fit.”

The move was not surprising to analysts, coming a few months after studio marketing chief M.T. Carney also departed because of a string of lackluster releases.

Disney CEO Bob Iger, who said last summer that big-budget movies were getting “increasingly more risky,” thanked Mr. Ross for his years of service.

Disney’s most successful movies recently have been made by studios it has bought, including “Toy Story” maker Pixar, which will release “Brave” in June, and Marvel, which will release the much-buzzed “The Avengers” overseas next week.

Under the Touchstone brand, Disney also distributes movies made by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks production company, including “War Horse.”

Fixing problems at the studio is seen as crucial for the company because movies launch characters that are developed into Disney toys, theme park rides, books and video games. For example, Cars Land, an attraction based on the Pixar movies, will open at Disney California Adventure in June.

“For Disney, it feeds a lot bigger value chain,” said Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger. “This is a more significant move for investors of Disney than it would be at other companies.”

Although some of Mr. Ross‘ troubles stemmed from films put into production by his predecessor, Dick Cook, analysts said his inability to prevent big losses was what led to his exit.

“At some level, he takes responsibility for not fixing them or shutting them down,” said Needham & Co. equity analyst Laura Martin. “They need to lower the risk of entry and build franchise films from that base. Not go all in, hoping it works out.”

Part of the estimated $250 million budget on “John Carter” can be attributed to the notion that the movie could become a multipart series, as it was based on a trove of books by the late Edgar Rice Burroughs. The series began with “A Princess of Mars” in 1917 and carried through to the posthumously published “John Carter of Mars” in 1964.

The movie, starring Taylor Kitsch, had a budget that rivaled what 20th Century Fox spent on “Avatar.”

But “John Carter” made just $269 million at box offices worldwide, while “Avatar” took in $2.8 billion. After splits with theater owners and marketing expenses, Disney said “John Carter” would cause a studiowide loss of $80 million to $120 million in the January-through-March quarter.

Mr. Ross took the job just 2½ years ago with a mission to cut costs and develop new hits. He brought “High School Musical” and “Hannah Montana” to TV audiences when he headed Disney Channels Worldwide.

Mr. Ross spent much of his early tenure at the studio cutting costs and canceling projects that weren’t seen as important to the Disney brand.

He shut down the San Francisco-area motion-capture facility used to digitally animate Jim Carrey’s Scrooge character in “A Christmas Carol,” sold the award-winning Miramax label to outside investors and cut such movies as “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Wild Hogs 2” from the development slate. Last year, he suspended production on “The Lone Ranger,” starring Johnny Depp, until its budget was trimmed.

But those efforts were overshadowed by movies that were released but failed to excite big audiences, including “Prince of Persia,” “Prom,” “Secretariat” and even “Winnie the Pooh.”

Mr. Ross told staff in a memo Friday that “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.”

“I no longer believe the chairman role is the right professional fit for me.”

Mr. Iger wished him well in a statement.

Rich Ross‘ creative instincts, business acumen and personal integrity have driven results in key businesses for Disney,” Mr. Iger said. “I appreciate his countless contributions throughout his entire career.”

Mr. Ross‘ resignation is effective immediately. Disney did not name a successor.

A couple possible candidates for elevation at the studio are John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, who together built Pixar from a computer imaging company into an animated-movie powerhouse. Since Disney’s acquisition in 2006, the men have held top jobs overseeing animated movies at Pixar and Disney.

The men have helped Disanimated films move “in the right direction,” said Don Peri, the author of several books on Disney animators, including “Working With Disney.” He declined to speculate on whether they would make good studio heads.

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