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What Rich Ross' exit from Walt Disney Studios is really all about

What Rich Ross' exit from Walt Disney Studios is really all about

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For the past three days, the story that's been dominating entertainment news is Rich Ross' removal as Chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

Now most of these articles seem to lay the blame for Ross' exit on "John Carter" 's box office. And while it's true that this Andrew Stanton film did play a role in Rich being shown the door last week, that movie's lackluster ticket sales weren't  quite as big a factor in this decision as you might think.

Why For? Because Walt Disney Studios rarely -- if ever -- loses money on a movie. Mind you, thanks to the vagaries of Hollywood book-keeping, it can sometimes take decades for a particular project to recoup. "Fantasia" didn't actually get out of the red 'til 1961, more than 20 years after that animated masterpiece was first released to theaters. Likewise "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" -- Walt Disney Studio's first big budget, live action adventure -- didn't officially turn a profit 'til its second theatrical re-release in the early 1970s.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So to now have people pointing at "John Carter" 's underwhelming ticket sales as the sole reason that Disney CEO Bob Iger asked Ross to suddenly exit the Company is just  silly. I mean, if that were really the case, then why didn't Bob just fire Rich last Spring after "Mars Needs Moms" crashed and burned?

No, the truth here is a bit more complicated than that. Especially when you take into consideration that -- in a lot of ways -- Ross had been Iger's designated hatchet man. Beginning in the Fall of 2009 (right after he took over for Dick Cook, the previous head of Walt Disney Studios), Rich made all sorts of staff cuts. He totally revamped the ways that the various departments at the Mouse interacted with one another.

And it wasn't Rich Ross that dreamed up this reorg. But -- rather -- Bob Iger. Who wanted Disney Studios to become a far more efficient, streamlined operation with a significantly lowered head count. And because Ross wanted to please his boss, Rich did exactly what Bob asked of him. And that included last Fall's very public fight with Jerry Bruckheimer & Gore Verbinski over "The Lone Ranger" 's then-proposed budget of $270 million.


Rich Ross with John Travolta and Kelly Preston at the March 2010 premiere of
Touchstone Pictures' "The Last Song." Photo by Kevin Winter
/ Getty Images North America

Did Ross make a few mis-steps along the way? Absolutely. Company insiders have suggested that Rich's enthusiasm when it came to the celebrity access / premiere party-related aspects of his position as Head of the Studio may have turned off more than a few at the Mouse House. But folks who worked with Ross at the Disney Channel will tell you that he had the same exact problem when Rich was in charge of the cable side of the Company. That this was a guy who just got too excited whenever he got a chance to hang out with the talent.

But in the big scheme of things in Hollywood, these are relatively small offenses on Ross' part. Which was why -- as recently as February  -- the plan was that Rich would be allowed to finish up his three year contract as Chairman of Walt Disney Studios. And then come October of 2012 ... Well, that part of Ross' deal hadn't entirely been worked out yet. Though I had heard that Disney had reportedly offered  Rich his own production company which was to have been based out of the old Feature Animation Building. Where he would have then had the chance to develop films & TV movies for Walt Disney Pictures, the Disney Channel and ABC Family respectively.

But that deal now seems to be off the table. Thanks -- in large part -- to something that Ross (or -- rather -- Rich's staff) supposedly did during the lead-up to the March 9th release of "John Carter."


Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved

"And what was that exactly?," you ask. Well, how many of you read Brooks Barnes' March 12th story in the New York Times, " 'Ishtar' Lands on Mars" ? If you haven't yet read this piece, let me direct your attention to two key paragraphs in this article:

In recent weeks, as a weak marketing campaign failed to generate audience excitement for "John Carter," Robert A. Iger, Disney's chief executive, made it clear in conversations with senior managers that he would not tolerate finger-pointing; this may be a colossal miss, he told them, according to people who were present, but it's the company's miss and no individuals would be blamed - including Mr. Stanton. Learn from it, was Mr. Iger's message.

On Sunday (March 11th), Rich Ross, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said in a statement, "Moviemaking does not come without risk.  It's still an art, not a science, and there is no proven formula for success. Andrew Stanton is an incredibly talented and successful filmmaker who with his team put their hard work and vision into the making of 'John Carter.' Unfortunately, it failed to connect with audiences as much as we had all hoped."


Bob Iger and Andrew Stanton at the 2008 premiere of "WALL-E."
Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

Reading between the lines here, Bob Iger was trying to help John Lasseter's very good friend Andrew Stanton save face. So Stanton's initial attempt at making a live-action feature film had misfired. Big deal. The Walt Disney Company still considered Stanton to be a very valuable creative asset. Which -- given that the two animated features that Andrew had directed for Pixar Animation Studios, 2003's "Finding Nemo"  and 2008's "WALL-E" had a combined worldwide box office total of $1.388 billion (Not to mention the hundreds of million of dollars more that the Company has made off of plush, toys, ice shows and theme park attractions with direct ties to these Pixar characters) -- was perfectly understandable.

Which was why the Company was doing everything within its power to spare Stanton any unnecessary embarrassment. With the hope that Andrew would then stay put, rather than suddenly decamp from Pixar and then go start making animated features for Disney's direct competition (i.e. DreamWorks Animation, Blue Sky Studios & Sony Pictures Animation).

And Ross -- with his own statement to the New York Times -- seemed to be backing up his boss. But just one day after Brooke Barnes' story ran in the Times, Claude Brodesser-Akners'  column was posted on Vulture.  Which flat-out stated that ...


Andrew Stanton directing Taylor Kitsch on one of "John Carter" 's visual effect stages.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... it was in fact "John Carter" director Andrew Stanton - powerful enough from his Pixar hits that he could demand creative control over trailers - who commandeered the early campaign (for this Walt Disney Pictures release), overriding the Disney marketing execs who begged him to go in a different direction.

"This is one of the worst marketing campaigns in the history of movies," a former studio marketing chief told Vulture before the film opened. "It's almost as if they went out of their way to not make us care."

According to what I've been told, an internal investigation at Walt Disney Studios in the wake of this online article revealed that it had reportedly been a member  of Ross' own staff who had provided Brodesser-Akners with the info that he needed in order to write this particular "Vulture" piece.


Rich Ross and Bob Iger at the 2009 premiere of "Toy Story 3."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Well, Rich's loyal staffers may have been looking to distance their boss from "John Carter" disappointing box office number. But Bob Iger and his team on the sixth floor of the Team Disney - Burbank  Building - supposedly saw this situation entirely differently. They felt that Ross placing his own need to protect & preserve his professional reputation ahead of the Company's needs, potentially damaging the Studio's working  relationship with Pixar senior management was an extremely poor choice. Which is why a decision was made at that time to speed exit Rich's exit from The Walt Disney Company.

Of course, the irony of this whole situation was that it wasn't Ross who'd put "The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed by Its First Trailer" item out there. But -- rather -- his loyal staffers. Who just wanted to make sure that their boss looked good.

Which -- when you think about it -- was just what Rich Ross was looking to do when, at Bob Iger's behest, he oversaw that massive overhaul of Walt Disney Studios back in late 2009 / early 2010. Because Ross wanted his boss to look good too.


Tom Staggs, Mariah Carey, Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse at last month's
christening ceremony of the Disney Dream in New York City.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And why is it so important that Bob Iger look good? Let's remember that -- back in October of last year -- Disney's CEO announced that he would be stepping down in the not-so-distant future. To be specific, in March of 2015, the Company's board of directors will name a new chief and Mr. Iger will then become Disney's executive chairman. As of June 30, 2016, Bob will leave Disney entirely and -- if the rumors are true -- pursue some sort of political office back in New York State.

And when you're running for political office ... Well, it helps to be able to point to how you reinvented a great American institution like The Walt Disney Company, making it better suited to do business in today's world. Making it far easier for the Mouse to leverage its content across multiple platforms and use new distribution channels to reach yet-untapped international markets.

And speaking of international markets ... It's worth noting here that "John Carter" has been selling far more tickets overseas than it has stateside. To date, this Andrew Stanton film has grossed $200.6 million foreign versus $68.8 million domestic.


Copyright ImageMovers Digital / Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which -- when you compare those numbers to what "Mars Needs Moms" earned last year (i.e. That $150 million Walt Disney Pictures / ImageMovers Digital production earned $21.3 million domestic and $17.6 million foreign, for a total worldwide gross just $38.9 million) -- "John Carter" suddenly looks far less like a box office disaster than many in the entertainment press would have you believe.

So -- just to recap here -- while "John Carter" did play a role in Rich Ross' exit from the Mouse House, it wasn't that movie's grosses or marketing that did the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios in. Not entirely, anyway.

Because -- when you get right down to it -- this isn't really a story about Rich Ross' exit. But -- rather -- one about making sure that Andrew Stanton stays right where he is right now. Working for Disney and Pixar.


Andrew Stanton and the Best Animated Feature
Academy Award that he won for "WALL-E."
Copyright the American Broadcasting
Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

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  • I find it hard to believe that it was just Rich Ross's subordinates who piled the blame on Pixar . . . Rich Ross had a reputation for being obnoxious.  Ross hired MT Carney who had little to no movie business experience to head marketing.  Carney is from New York, Iger wants to go back to New York, Rich Ross is from New York . . . I can't help but feel that the eastcoast business attitude is to milk Disney as much as possible, given how Disneyland is geographically such a long distance away, a lot of these folks didn't grow up with Disney in the same way that others have.  Eisner boasted he never watched Disney movies as a kid, I wonder what Iger did?  

    Given how valuable Pixar is to Disney, I would hope that they would hire people who have a record of success in movies and care about Disney values, rather than wanting to use their hundreds of millions of dollars from Mickey to become a New York politician.  Iger's made some OK calls, but immediately announcing a plan for 'Avatarland', a movie filled with military macho violence and a smoking heroine, in order to compete with Potterland was idiotic.  Iger's obviously on his way out, and doesn't have an overall vision for what the company should stand for, IMHO.  Please let the next one in Iger's position be more down to earth and have a longer range view.

  • I'd back Andrew Stanton over Rich Ross any day, so I fully understand if that is what this was about!

  • Thanks for your article Jim.  I enjoy your stuff and love your tp.com podcasts from the parks.  Keep up the good fight, we disney purist love hearing your take on things.

  • I wish the mainstream news outlets would report this information. When ABC news radio mentioned Ross' departure the other day, they went out of their way to kick John Carter in the stomach and talk about it like it was the crown jewel of Disney cinematic failures.

    Thanks, Jim for being the journalist we deserve.

  • I saw 'John Carter' and really enjoyed it. It was well written and looked amazing. I don't think we've had a epic sci-fi film of that magnitude since the '70s or '80s and reminded me of the old Lucas and Spielberg type action/adventure films. Plain and simple the problem was not Stanton's marketing...which sounds like a complete crock to me and made up, because there was no marketing for this film. That was the failure. A few posters and billboards with just the name 'John Carter' is not a marketing campaign. I never even saw a trailer. The original title for this film was 'John Carter of Mars' and used to be the listing on IMDB. When they posted the billboards with 'John Carter,' I was confused, because that was not the original title and made no sense, since 'John Carter' is not an American, household name, even though it is in Russia. The original working title makes sense and would draw audiences because it would give them the idea that it is at least a sci-fi film set on Mars. If you noticed at the end of the film it said, 'John Carter of Mars,' because that is the title that Stanton fought for but Disney would not let him use, because they said the word 'Mars' did not do well with women test groups. Disney marketing also said they could not use the word 'Princess' in the title, even though that is in the book title, because that word does not do well in men focus groups.

    If you were to ask insiders they would tell you that Disney marketing and Rich Ross were the reason for the failure of the film. Rich Ross had no interest in the project and regularly made it known that he had no interest in supporting it, thus, there was no marketing on the film. He wanted it to fail and made it known. Basically, he thought he could out muscle Stanton and overestimated his value. Also, it sounds like Disney Marketing trying to cover their *** and throwing the blame on Stanton because not only did he not get his marketing campaign, he barely got one at all. Calling it 'John Carter' was Disney Marketing's idea and I know that Stanton's team was constantly butting heads with Disney Marketing team because they would not give them the campaign they wanted and kept blaming it on not testing well with focus groups. But, they were fired, so, that's not longer a problem.

    This was a really good film that was buried under political red tape, simply because Ross did not want to do science fiction films, and did not want have to do John Carter sequels. Executives butting heads and trying to bury projects and point the finger is nothing new. This would not be the first time grown men battled for power over a project, only to let the project suffer, and I'm sure it will not be the last.

  • Regarding Anonymouse's comment that "given how Disneyland is geographically such a long distance away, a lot of these folks [New Yorkers] didn't grow up with Disney in the same way that others have."

    Except for the fact that Disneyland is on the West Coast, we most certainly grew up with Disney.  I've been a  a life-long New Yorker for 63 years and grew up on Disney movies (I still remember Pinocchio from 1951), Disney TV shows (going back to watching the Mickey Mouse Club every day), and visiting the Disney-built attractions at the New York World's Fair numerous times.  The attendance figures at Walt Disney World also show how popular Disney is with New Yorkers.  

    Yes, there are some of my snooty fellow New Yorkers, especially in the media, that look down on anything Disney and who complain about the "Disneyfication" of Times Square.  The overwhelming majority loves Disney as much as the rest of the country.  Even as much as those living near Disneyland (which I will be visiting at the D23 event in August).

  • Very interesting.  I thought Ross voluntarily quit Disney, and was thinking "Where is he gonna go after an epic fail like Carter?"  Now it's making more sense.

  • I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion and the making of featurette over the weekend.  Hitchcock wanted to name the movie Johnnie after the Cary Grant character in the movie.  The studios marketing team made him change the title to suspicion.  I think it's odd that now Hollywood's marketing team goes the complete opposite direction, and titles a movie after the main character.

  • This has to be one of the most informative articles I've ever read on the Disney honchos.  I feel like it was a Rosetta Stone that decoded all of these secrets.  It was excellent and provided insight I've never had before into what REALLY goes on at Disney in the board rooms. THANK YOU

  • Several media sources have noted that Iger has little patience or tolerance for the movie business in general. If Iger "dislikes" the movie business and better likes "business" in general, perhaps he would feel more comfortable leading P&G or Coca-Cola? Show business has always been about business, but at least studios were once led by creative-minded business people.

    Of all the studios, Disney, even in its weak early 80s, still got props for embracing creativity. Now, it's just another "brand" to people like Iger. Pathetic. Hiring Rich Ross was a bigger decision-making blunder than ANY decision Rich Ross ever made. Other than Netflix's recent missteps, I can't think of another "brand" that misses the mark as much as Disney does with its loyal customers. Most of the people at the top don't even know what Disney is to most of us, nor do they care.

    What is a Disney movie anymore? Does anyone at Disney even know? Iger's entering where Eisner was living about a decade ago, running on fumes and counting down the clock. Disney deserves better leadership.

  • I don't understand all the anger at Bob Iger expressed in these comments.  The idea that Iger doesn't get Disney is silly.  Iger was the one who brought Pixar home to Disney--a deal that would have been impossible with his predecessor.  It was Iger who greenlighted spending all the money to fix California Adventure.  It is Iger who finally closed the deal with Shanghai and got that resort underway.  I will also remind everyone that it was Iger who saw the opportunity to restore Oswald the Rabbit to the Disney realm.

  • What you all are missing is that John Carter cost $250M to make.  I have seen it, and I ask, where was the money spent.  It's a decent movie, but clearly, nothing new or exciting.  Basically, everything in that films i have seen before. No amount of marketing would have made watching the film any better.And clearly, based on word of mouth regardless of the marketing, no one recommended it as a must see!

    A giant waste of money, unless Andrew makes Finding Nemo 2 or another Pixar Animated film. To paraphrase John Lasseter himself, Pixar doesn't make adaptations of any other stories, they make only original films.  John Carter was NOT ORIGINAL.  Andrew should stick to what he knows.

  • @Jaime: Perhaps John Carter didn't seem original to you because countless films have homaged/stolen from/been inspired by the original John Carter novels by Burroughs. Disney marketing certainly didn't help matters by ignoring the debt that films like Star Wars and characters like Superman owe to Burroughs' books in the marketing materials until weeks after the film had opened. But your claim that Carter lacks "originality" has to do with your lack of awareness regarding the property and its history, not the film as it exists. That's not a dig at you at all, by the way. Disney marketing (which may have been pushed around by Stanton, or may not have been - I don't know) failed audiences thoroughly in promoting the film. They could and should have emphasized the indisputable fact that Carter is the genetic granddaddy of modern and classic sci-fi and fantasy.

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