A producer was explaining to me the other day what it feels like to make a movie atDisney. “I feel like an alien,” he said. “No one is left at a management level who is grounded in the movie business.”
He’s not alone in his feelings. The abrupt departure of Rich Ross on Friday brought down the curtain on one of the most ill-starred regimes in recent Hollywood history. It also raised a discomfiting question about the attitude of Robert Iger: Can a CEO who basically distrusts the movie business find a productive way to guide his company through its minefields?
Given his announced intention to step down in 2015, Iger has a limited timespan to come up with an answer. The Disney empire mints money from its theme parks and from ESPN, but movies are key to the Disney legacy. I was once given a lengthy private tour of Disneyland by Walt Disney and, as much as he loved his theme park toys, the craft of storytelling on film was still his guiding passion. Old Walt would be distressed to review the present state of his dream factory.
Iger has tried to solve his problem by outsourcing his film ventures — hence the deals with DreamWorks,Pixar ($7 billion) and Marvel ($4.2 billion). Ross, an emigree from the Disney Channel, was supposed to supervise a limited number of inhouse live-action movies (a skimpy three in the past year) and reinvent the marketing and distribution of the others.