Brook Barnes’ piece in the New York Times this morning, wondering who will succeed Rich Ross as chairman of Walt Disney Studios, poses several conundrums confronting Disney chief Robert Iger that are faced today by most large companies with a collection of fiefdoms ruled by their own powerful chieftains. The primary one is: “Does running Walt Disney Studios require a brand manager, or a strong movie hand?”
Finding top executives who “have both creative and business credibility, two attributes that often do not coexist in one person,” as Barnes writes, is a tall order in Hollywood. And elsewhere. We saw it at Avon. We saw it at Hewlett Packard. We saw it at Best Buy. Heck, we probably see it at our own enterprises … and in the mirror.
Ross was vaporized last week in the wake of the “John Carter” debacle –- which itself may become a case study of failure on both the business and creative fronts despite the sterling credentials of the players involved.
Back in the days of cigar-chomping moguls, a studio was more than a footnote in the P&L of a conglomerate. All you need do is take a look at the home page that comes up when you click on the return for a Disney search, which comes up on Google as “The Walt Disney Company and Affiliated Companies,” to realize how things have changed since the time when Louis B. Meyer’s major concern was ensuring that MGM had “more stars than there are in the heavens.”
“Today, studios are embedded so deeply in media and technology giants like Sony and Viacom that their activities barely register on Wall Street,” Barnes writes. “Disney had total revenue of $41 billion last year, but only $6.4 billion came from the studio.”
To be sure, the movies fuel other activities and creating enduring --and spinoff-able -- franchises remains a critical component to the health of the megaliths.
“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,” writes the AP’s Ryan Nakashima. “For example, ‘Cars Land,’ an attraction based on the Pixar movies, will open at Disney California Adventure in June.”
Both Barnes and Variety’s Marc Graser cite inside anonymous sources in eliminating Marvel Studios prexy Kevin Feige and DreamWorks co-chairman and CEO Stacey Snide from the horse race for Ross’ old job. Iger, who has been traveling in everybody’s favorite new market, China (did somebody mention the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act around here?), will start interviewing candidates when he returns, according to the reports.
Right now, studio president Alan Bergman and production president Sean Bailey are overseeing the division, but sources tell Graser that rumors that they will split the job are groundless. Bergman, Barnes is told, is “respected” but “viewed as lacking the necessary swagger.”
Whatever that means. One nameless producer tells Graser that being head of a studio has “become a desk job that is less about being creative and more about the bottom line. It's high profile, yes, but it's not right for everyone, especially if you like making movies."
If that’s really so, perhaps that’s the problem.
“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,” Nakashima writes, and in resigning he was ”taking the fall for at least a couple of over-budgeted bombs as Hollywood shies away from taking risks on big blockbusters.”
Barnes makes the point that life is going on at Disney this week, even without a guiding hand at the helm, citing the appearance of Johnny Depp to promote his forthcoming “Lone Ranger” at a convention of movie theater owners. Tellingly, perhaps, Depp will not be portraying the strong-but-silent masked man who is traditionally the chairman and CEO of the Wild West partnership. Depp will be Tonto in the film, which is scheduled for release next year.
"It's him telling the story of the Lone Ranger. ... It's his voice," producer Jerry Bruckheimer tells mtv.com. "He's not the servant that he was in the radio series and television series. He's quite a different character."
Indeed, as the chief storyteller, Tonto will perhaps serve as an apt prototype for exactly the sort of chairman Disney Studios -- and any number of other companies whose success depends on the quality of the branding tales they weave –- needs today.