Monday, June 18, 2012

Back to Basics

A new era at Disney may have started last Monday, and few people are aware of it. I didn’t even really read much about it until the day before, and knowing how much time I have to read about just about everything, it’s safe to say this was a stealthy shift in power.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rich Ross was named Chairman of Walt Disney Studios in 2009 and even though he was at the helm for huge hits like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Alice in Wonderland, and Toy Story 3 (3 of the 11 highest grossing movies of all time), he was also largely responsible for the crazy spending (and disappointing returns) on movies like John Carter and Mars Needs Moms, both of which lost over 100 million dollars, and let’s be honest… were hugely damaging to the company’s reputation as a developer of top tier movies.

Primarily due to the failings of these two movies, and his silly attempt to pawn the issues of John Carter off on Pixar, Ross resigned in April.

This is a good thing.

I’m not saying that he did all bad. He was with the company in one way or another for a long time, and he helmed some important projects. It was just time for him to go. John Carter, especially, didn’t have to be the failure that it was, but the over-spending and poor marketing plan were crushing.

Until this past weekend, I’d not heard much in the way of rumors about who would replace Ross.

To be sure, this is a HUGE job. Let’s talk about what all it entails these days…

The Chairman is charged with overseeing:
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Animation Studios
Pixar Animation Studios
DIsneyToon Studios
Touchstone Pictures
Hollywood Pictures
Disney Music Group
Disney Theatrical Group
Disney Distribution
Disney Studio Services (This is a lot of stuff0

This also includes the new Marvel movies.

I mean… this is a ridiculously big job, handling dozens of subsidiaries, and thousands of employees. Rich Ross wasn’t that great at it, it appears.

When I read that Alan Horn was tapped to replace Ross, I got excited. I don’t know a lot about the inner workings of the Hollywood studio system, but I knew of Horn, at least a little.

Alan Horn was one of the founders of Castle Rock Entertainment. He also was most recently President of Warner Brothers. During his tenure there, he oversaw the release of the new Batman films as well as ALL of the Harry Potter franchise movies. It’s hard to argue with that sort of cohesion of process.

This was, at the outset, all I knew about Horn, and I was still pretty happy about it. Then I started to read the press info about the guy…

Some quotes:
“It’s like James Dolan hiring Phil Jackson to coach the Knicks. You feel like Disney is back in the game.” – a veteran Hollywood agent.
“A great choice, he's an executive that ran a big studio for years with a lot of success. He knows movies and he knows the business." – Jerry Bruckheimer

I like these quotes.

I also like that from everything I’ve read, it appears that Disney is refocusing on making movies. This sounds like a weird thing to say about what is a movie studio, but the thing is… in recent years, with Bob Iger running the show, the Disney focus has been on other parts of the brand. The parks. The cruise line. The merchandising. The television divisions (the very successful ABC and ESPN are both Disney properties). I’m not saying that Iger has done a bad job, because I think for the most part he has been successful. It’s just that he’s sort of marginalized the movie part of things, and thus alienated a lot of the front-line movie talent.

Now.. this is all speculation, but let’s take the epic failure that was John Carter. This was a 250 million dollar movie that featured a near-complete unknown in just about every scene. I’m not saying that Taylor Kitsch was bad, because he wasn’t the problem with that movie (or with other, non-Disney, failure Battleship), but tell me… if you’d seen the exact same campaign advertising the film, but instead of a no-name TV actor playing the lead role, you had a proven movie action movie leading man like, I dunno… Chris Pine, or Chris Evans, or Chris Hemsworth, or Christian Bale (literally any Chris, really). Wouldn’t you have thought twice before passing up on seeing it? Who knows.

Anyway, there’s a lot of speculation that Disney’s recent de-emphasis in the movie business has steered top name people away, and thus we have Taylor Kitsch instead of one of the many successful Chris actors I mentioned.

The actual Walt Disney was a man of many interests. He spent time focusing on animation, movies, television, theme parks, and you know… trains. The thing that Walt never forgot, though, was that the movie business can be the bread-winner when done right.

The thing that seems to have been forgotten is that the movies feed every other facet.

Create a new, iconic, animated film and suddenly you have new merchandise. New theme park tie-ins. New everything. A really popular movie is the gift that keeps on giving. Just look at the Harry Potter franchise. Those movies single-handedly saved Universal Studios by giving them That Magical World of Harry Potter, or whatever the hell those people are calling that thing we try not to acknowledge, but is clearly very popular.

Alan Horn brings that clout and respect to Disney, perhaps for the first time since the heyday height of Jeffrey Katzenberg. I can’t help but feel that this is the direction and the momentum that will bring Disney to new heights.

I don’t say this without reservations. Horn is 69 years old, and essentially chose Disney over retirement. It’s hard to imagine he’s got more than a hand full of years that he’ll WANT to give. I would never say a man can’t do something because he’s old, but I can certainly speculate as to the degree to which he’ll want to do it for a long time.

Five years is not a long time in the movie business. Look how long certain movies develop. It’s very possible that Horn won’t be in the working mood long enough to really build much of a pipeline, and with Iger leaving in 2015, it’s possible that five years is optimistic. Whoever replaces Iger will want his own people in places of power.

Alan Horn is beloved and well respected. He’s got a fighter’s chance to really make some hay. Maybe the best thing to realistically hope for is that Horn gets the ball rolling, and Iger sets up his and Horn’s successors to keep on running with it.

I’m not sure what it all means, but it’s worth watching, and I have very high hopes that Disney has made a choice that will ring in another golden age. My fingers are crossed.

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