Ross departure leaves Disney film division in flux

Rich Ross’ departure from Walt Disney Studios, announced last Friday, could not have been more timely.

The studio has struggled under the weight of some mighty flops of late: namely, Mars Needs Moms ($150 million price tag, $39 million box office revenue, $100 million write-down) and John Carter ($350 million price tag, $269 million box office revenue, $200 million write-down). Unsurprisingly, many fingers are pointing at Rich Ross.

Disney CEO Robert Iger hired Ross from the company’s television division in 2009 to head up the film side, a decision that reflected Iger’s inclination toward revitalizing the studio in light of the realities of dying DVD sales, lower box-office receipts, and various and sundry problems with digital distribution.

“Ross set about eliminating jobs, cutting overhead and reducing the number of films Disney releases each year. He placed increased emphasis on established entertainment brands Marvel and Pixar, which the company had paid billions to bring into the Disney family,” write Dawn Chmielewski and Rebecca Keegan in the Los Angeles Times. “The Iger-Ross game plan was to make big, ambitious films with the potential to create a cultural tsunami that would spawn sequels, theme park rides, merchandise sales and spinoff television shows.”

The transition apparently backfired, with Disney releasing only three live-action movies this year that have not come from Pixar, Marvel, and DreamWorks. It’s easy, of course, to blame the top dog for a studio’s undoing, although other industry observers have suggested Ross merely inherited an already dysfunctional organization. He simply became the scapegoat.

It will be interesting to see how Iger plans to restore the shine to the lauded studio — and perhaps keep his own job in the process.

Lee Simmons

Lee Simmons is a business writer in Austin. He covers the technology and media industries for Hoover's and offers random musings on the state of entertainment (among other pressing issues) for Bizmology. Follow him at Twitter.

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