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David Poland

By David Poland

A Brief History Of Disney OR Welcome To Uncle Bob’s I-Disney 3.0

Sorry… hate to be out here thinking past the Q2 writedown on John Carter, the amount of which is likely to leak out before the May 8 shareholder’s meeting. But Rich Ross’ role at Disney wasn’t quite that simple.

Bob Iger fully took over at Disney in mid-2005. Dick Cook was top dog at the motion picture group. Nina Jacobson was the head of production. Oren Aviv was the head of marketing.

Under Cook, Jacobson was making a wide array of pictures in many genres. Some were hits. Some were misses. But the big successes were still family films, mostly animation… and Pirates.

Iger’s Disney bought Pixar in January 2006 for a price that Eisner had balked at in previous years. Pixar was coming off a no-film year in 2005, which followed the success of The Incredibles in Nov 2004. Disney had tried a new Pooh film and an animated pick-up (Valiant) in 2005 and both flopped. Chicken Little didn’t flop… but it was not the breakout for Disney Animation for which they had been hoped, grossing more than $200m less than DWA’s Madagascar worldwide.

Six months later, 10 days after the massive franchise launch of the second Pirates film, Jacobson was fired. Oren Aviv, who had also been one of the creators of the National Treasure franchise, took over, still under Cook. Jim Gallagher, who was running creative services, took over the marketing chair.

Cook & Aviv pushed forward with a strategy of completely eliminating R-rated films and focusing on the Disney family brand.

This would Uncle Bob’s I-Disney 1.0.

2007’s Enchanted would be prototypical film in this era, made for families, somewhat self-referential, and successful.

But under this policy, 2008 was the first year since 2005 without a billion dollars in domestic grosses. Eight films of thirteen grossed over $50m domestic. At the top, Pixar’s Wall-E, Narnia 2, Disney Animation’s Bolt, and Bedtime Stories. Animation was John Lasseter’s place. Narnia was a movie paid for mostly by Phil Anschutz and Bedtime Stories was so expensive that even a $212m worldwide gross was not considered a win for the company.

But the next tier was Beverly Hills Chihuahua, High School Musical 3, the Hannah/Miley concert film, Step Up 2, and College Road Trip.

So of the top eight films at the studio, 2 animated, 1 financially underwhelming, 1 just an output deal, 1 a sequel from Jacobson’s regime, 1 genuine hit (BHC), and 3, count ’em, 3 from Disney TV… where Rich Ross ran the show.

At the bottom for Disney, Miracle of St. Anna and Swing Vote both were family-safe, but more adult focused films which flopped badly.

2009 began with a Bruckheimer flop (Shopaholic), a Jonas Bros concert film, a Witch Mountain sequel/reboot, the Hannah Montana movie, Earth, and Pixar’s Up.

The summer would then be balanced out by The Proposal, another legit Cook/Aviv hit. and G-Force, a somewhat surprisingly potent ($292m ww) anthropomorphic gerbil movie that cost so much that the studio still took a small writedown on it.

Meanwhile, unexpected choices were being made over Dick Cook’s head. The family-only/Disney-only strategy was pushed aside for a distribution/marketing-only deal with DreamWorks in February 2009.

Further, Disney purchased Marvel for a massive $4 billion at the end of August 2009… another brand that was self-funded.

This would be the start of Uncle Bob’s I-Disney 2.0.

Less than 3 weeks after the DW deal (and about 2 months after Pirates 4 was set), Dick Cook’s long marriage with Disney was over. Less than 3 weeks after that, Rich Ross was given the reins over the movie division. His strengths? Branding and television, having had great success with Disney Channel, which was already feeding the movie side.

The new conceit? Disney would be the home base/distributor-marketer of strong brands and the only production investment would be for animation and Disney Channel-related features.

Paramount had already gone this route, to some degree, with DreamWorks as their primary in-house content supplier, and in 2009 was rebuilding their production infrastructure. The rebuild started paying dividends last year (2011), as the studio made a majority of their product in-house for the first time in years.

Soon – long enough to take blame for the writedown on Bob Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol – Jim Gallagher was gone… and not much after that, Oren Aviv.

In classic post-big-firing style, Disney would score 2 of their 3 highest grossing films of all time in the next six months, Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3.

Industry insider Sean Bailey – also a producer of the then-upcoming Tron:Legacy – took on the movie production side and industry outsider MT Carney came in to handle marketing and But the greater pressure was on Carney, as Disney had offered itself up as the marketing machine for DreamWorks/Marvel/Pixar/Bruckheimer/Disney.

Many considered Prince of Persia the first real marketing test. Mediocre here… pretty good overseas. Carney herself took credit for the campaign for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (a Jerry Bruckheimer production)… and it flopped. Step Up 3D underperformed domestically, but did well overseas.. Secretariat underperformed. You Again flopped. But then light… Tangled outperformed the recent history of Disney animated films. And Tron: Legacy, while not a game-changing sensation, did a very solid $400m worldwide, including $172m domestic. When Gnomeo & Juliet did $100m domestic, the team seemed to be on a roll.

But that would be amongst the last happy news of 2011. By the time DreamWorks had their first release through Disney, a marketing team specific to DreamWorks had already been built inside of Disney to mitigate concerns about Carney. Same with Bruckheimer, whose 4th Pirates landed that summer. Lasseter was also used to having a heavy hand on his films’ marketing ship.

With 8 of 14 BV releases under these three self-managers, Carney was left in real charge of African Cats, Prom, the Lion King 3D re-release, and The Muppets. The re-release was a big hit and The Muppets, a modest one.

But the pitchforks were out for Carney and with the first Marvel movie released through Disney coming, just two DreamWorks films, 6 animated films, a chimp, Timothy Green, and the scary prospects for John Carter, Carney was out before the first week of the year ended.

And now, Ross.

The elephant everyone sees in the room is John Carter. But the real angle has to be Uncle Bob’s I-Disney 3.0.

It will be ugly no matter what. But John Carter was survivable for Rich Ross, even without pointing fingers at Team Pixar and trying to throw them – The Uncrushable – under the bus. That is, if Iger’s Disney 2.0 was working. But it was not.

Ross has had his team in place for just over two years. And what is Disney looking forward to in the next 18 months? Two live-action films that aren’t from Dreamworks or Marvel (Oz & Lone Ranger). Both cost over $200 million. The one that is now is post went significantly over-budget and over-schedule. How is The Lone Ranger doing, a few weeks into production?

Meanwhile, on their other high-profile live-action film, Robopocalypse, Fox has the international, which is likely to dwarf the domestic on a film like this.

Disney is reliant (no pun intended) on DreamWorks putting out six movies a year… and that isn’t happening. Disney was looking to have Jerry Bruckheimer self-fund… and that isn’t happening. Disney is doing well with Marvel and Pixar, but they paid a boatload for both, so well as things are going, it’s no gift.

I-Disney 2.0 just isn’t working. They aren’t filling the home entertainment shelves. Because production has ramped down and they are only making truly cheap films or insanely expensive ones, Disney is not an early stop for producers. (Even on The Muppets, one of the few recent in-house hits, it’s a business they are invested in and the producer is David Hoberman, who has spent much of his career on that lot.)

The economies of scale just don’t work for studios that are half out of the game. Meanwhile, they are paying multiple marketing departments to operate on top of one another, when the whole point was to create a savings by being a one-stop distribution and marketing house.

So what will I-Disney 3.0 look like?

I have 3 versions I can imagine.

1. They hand it over to Kevin Feige, from Marvel, and double down on being a pop studio. You will find a lot of people think this is possible and few who think it’s a good idea.

2. They find an out-of-work, established name to take over. (Hard to imagine Aviv going back… but it would make perverse sense.) The problem with this is, who? Who has a name and a vision beyond the same old, same old? And even if you want the comfort of the same old, who can deliver it with a high percentage of certainty?

3. They hire The Next Great Studio Chief and really gamble, with the safety net of Marvel and Pixar, as well as DreamWorks. What would a really smart person with $600 million a year do? It could be wonderful or an utter disaster. And who would market it? (Maybe the guy who currently has the job, Ricky Strauss, can be that answer.)

But the idea of the person in charge of a movie studio being little more than a caretaker on the movie side and a brand strategist as the primary goal… not going to fly.

Ironically, it reminds me – though circumstances are very different – of Disney when Eisner, Wells, and Katzenberg arrived in 1984. Ron Miller had some success (Splash) and was responsible for lighting the wick on both Tron and Roger Rabbit. But Disney wasn’t working as a studio. It was half-alive and half-dead… which is almost worse than all dead.

I think Iger was pointing to the stands, calling the location of his home run when he went with Rich Ross. But Iger’s ideas about the movie business, in terms of a future vision, have not been well-founded. He has been very, very aggressive about seeking the future, but has not been able to make a reality out of his vision outside of a relationship with Apple. Where is DisneyGo? Where have the grand format crossover experiments been? Where is the big change generated by Disney’s leadership? It’s been there at ESPN. Not at the movie studio.

Of course, Disney is a much bigger company that The Walt Disney Studios now. That is Eisner and Wells’ legacy. Here’s hoping Uncle Bob picks wisely this third time and can leave a similar legacy of innovation. He only has 3 more years before his announced retirement. So win or lose, this is the last shot at it.

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12 Responses to “A Brief History Of Disney OR Welcome To Uncle Bob’s I-Disney 3.0”

  1. Ut says:

    I had to look around to figure out what this post was about: “Rich Ross resigned under pressure as the chairman of Walt Disney Studios on Friday, ending a two-and-a-half year tenure that was more notable for its misses than its hits” (from a NYT story). This blog is great but for those of us who don’t follow other business press (and by business, I mean the industry) you oughta put a link or a one-sentence blurb at the top of news-reaction posts like this to clue us in. And if it’s to a MCN story, more clickety-clicks for you!

  2. ChanningTatumRules says:

    I agree with the previous post. Sometimes David doesn’t seem to write with the goal of clarity. Take this for example:

    “And what is Disney looking forward to in the next 18 months? Two live-action films that aren’t from Dreamworks or Marvel. Both cost over $200 million. The one that is now is post went significantly over-budget and over-schedule. How is The Lone Ranger doing, a few weeks into production?”

    Is it SO hard to just state WHAT that first movie was? Off the top of my head I couldn’t think which movie it was. I had to Google future Disney productions to find out he probably meant “Oz: The Great And Powerful.” And this is just one example of many such sentences that are unclear as to what he is talking about. He often writes too much in his “inside-baseball” style, often sacrificing clarity for the sake of looking like he is in-the-know and YOU the reader are not privy to what he knows. Don’t get me wrong. I find his insights and thoughts great, which is why I read the site. I just wish he had an editor to look at his stuff and say, “hey, clarify this statement to make it clear for the reader.”

  3. BoulderKid says:

    The studio’s recent output has been really uninspiring. TV adaptations and brainless sequels may be quick cash grabs but do nothing for the Disney brand as a whole. In the 90’s it was synonomous with quality, original, family film making, now Disney makes kids movies. Outside of Pixar, their only film that really played in the last five years for me was Tron.

  4. Pat Hobby says:

    Most of the time Poland has very good insights and opinions but at no time is he able to articulate those insights and opinions in a clear, well-written way. That is the price you pay with this blog. BTW, I do not think “ironically” means what Poland thinks it means.

  5. Monco says:

    I agree for the life of me I could not think what that first movie that went significantly over budget was. Thanks for letting me know that it most likely meant Oz.

  6. Chucky says:

    “Earth” and “African Cats” were from DisneyNature, a corporate “brand” that has just released “Chimpanzee.” Most everyone outside the movie industry sees DisneyNature as greenwashing.

    “Oz the Great and Powerful” — remaking “The Wizard of Oz”? God save us.

  7. arisp says:

    Dear Ut and ChanningTatumRules,

    Please take your trolling and go away.


    Everyone else here.

  8. JJ says:

    I agree about the clarity. When I first read that sentence I thought he meant the Odd Life Of Timothy Green cost 200 mil and I was like Woah, Ross def deserves to get fired for that.

  9. David Poland says:

    I am of two minds about the “clarity” issue.

    1. I am very conscious of writing so densely that it can be impenetrable. I was trying to keep this one brisk.

    2. I am fine, and always have been, with making the reader do some work… whether it’s language or the micro details.

    Yes, an editor would have demanded a clarification. And probably have been right. But I assume that if you are on this blog, reading pieces like this one – most of the commenters tend to skip this kind of piece – that you are “in the know.” But the point is taken.

    And Pat, I know what irony means. (Oy) Perhaps you just aren’t seeing how or why I see some things as ironic.

  10. Tofu says:

    Hot Blog could use more relevant linking back to MCN for context. As a reader of HB for eight years now, I’m still finding myself checking back to Google News around a fifth of the time for background.

  11. hcat says:

    Boulderkid, I think you might be looking back with rose colored glasses at Disney’s 90’s output. Flubber and Dumbo Drop, Hercules, the Ducks, and the Santa Clause movies, just as terrible as the crap they are putting out today. The only difference now is instead of spending 15 million to make the Three Muskateers, they are spending 150 million on Prince of Persia.

    And I always find it odd that people think they overpaid for Pixar. Can you imagine what Disney would look like if Pixar went to Fox or Universal? Their whole corporate identity is based on the perception that they are the gold standard of family entertainment. Without that deal they would be competing against Pixar, Blue Sky and DWA with stuff like Treasure Planet and Chicken Little and losing quite a bit of romance out of the Disney name.

  12. Khanada says:

    I’m intimately involved with the John Carter Sequel fan movement, so have been very close to all that’s happened with that film for the last few months. What is painfully obvious to me with regards to John Carter’s US box office failure is that Ross and his team seriously screwed up marketing for the film. I think this was a combination of inexperience in the movie industry and maybe even a bit of inner Disney politics going on. The “mistakes” are so glaring as to be beyond ridiculous! No mention of the source material for the story the film is based on? The 100-year old classic tale and its famous author, Edgar Rice Burroughs – creator of Tarzan? Really!? That is a real head-shaker! Now I’ve heard that Stanton didn’t want his achievements in animation mentioned in the ads… is this really true? Seems fishy to me. I just don’t buy it. And the most obvious BAD misstep is removing “of Mars” from the title. There was soooo much that could have been done SO much better and made a huge difference in its reception.

    Fact is, the US box office failure of John Carter was not due to people going to see it and hating it (the film itself is great!). It was due to people listening to negative press and NOT going to see it at all. And, the total lack of support from Disney under Ross’ control. They didn’t just do a crappy job of marketing, they turned their back on JC and ultimately threw it under the bus… kicking and pummeling it afterwards for good measure. The film, Stanton, and everyone involved in its production deserves better!

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon