LOS ANGELES - Call it Extreme Studio Makeover.
Rich Ross, installed by Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger as chairman of Walt Disney Studios last Oct. 5, might as well have hung out a sign reading "Undergoing Renovations" at the Burbank lot from his first day on the job.
Following a mandate laid down by Iger, Ross has set about shaking up the studio's slumping film operations. He swept out top executives, shut down several movies about to begin filming and began courting such distinctive filmmakers as David Fincher ("The Social Network") and horror veteran Sam Raimi who hardly fit the family-friendly mold at Disney.
As luck would have it, he also inherited two movies — "Alice in Wonderland" and "Toy Story 3" — that became worldwide blockbusters. In the process, Disney became the first studio to field two $1 billion movies in a single year.
Still, agents, producers and filmmakers are trying to take the measure of the TV veteran. Ross' appointment took most by surprise, and at first he was regarded as an outsider, especially because he was replacing longtime Disney hand Dick Cook. But now, despite two large summer disappointments, Ross is finding support in the community.
"You're going to have to give him time to get his people and his agenda in place," Jerry Bruckheimer said of Ross' regime, even after the rocky openings of the prolific producer's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."
"In the past, it was a struggle (at Disney to get all the divisions working together). So far, I think he's done an excellent job getting everyone's attention."
Said Jon Turteltaub, who was in the midst of directing "Sorcerer's Apprentice" when Ross arrived: "Rich was stepping into a situation where he was replacing somebody beloved on the studio lot. He was somebody who was a top-down hire, and that's not easy."
But even though his movie didn't prove a hit, Turteltaub said he appreciated Ross' enthusiasm and support.
Around town, Ross has sought to raise his profile, attending the studio's premieres and the Academy Awards in February. Most recently, he made his way to the Toronto International Film Festival to mingle with filmmakers and support "The Debt," starring Helen Mirren, one of the last remaining movies Disney will release under its jettisoned Miramax brand. While there, he even dropped by a party thrown by Fox Searchlight.
As might be expected, though, not everyone is applauding Ross' efforts to redesign the studio.
One executive with ties to Disney, while acknowledging that the new chairman is "smart, very gracious and ingratiating," said Ross still has "a big and steep learning curve. There are people that he's rubbed the wrong way. I don't hear vitriol and revolt and insurrection, but I definitely hear, 'Where's the there there? What's he trying to do? Who is he that he still hasn't quite seized the moment to create advocates?' The organization still feels traumatized by the firings. Those moments require a human touch."
Ross, traveling abroad this week, wasn't available for comment.
During the first few months of his tenure, the 47-year-old executive moved quickly to shake up things. He axed several movies — like the sequel to the 2007 hit "Wild Hogs" — that were headed toward production. In their place, production has begun on smaller teen movies like "Prom," studio franchises like the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie and Tim Burton's 3D, stop-motion-animated "Frankenweenie."
One movie, a new version of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" that was to have been directed by McG, was shut down, only to be revived a few months later as a directing vehicle for Fincher — one of several high-profile talents developing projects for the studio. Others include Burton, Raimi, Guillermo del Toro, Jim Whitaker, William Monahan, Susannah Grant, Doug Wright and Ron Bass.
While a rival studio head observed that Ross is betting on ideas for movies rather than on specific filmmakers, there are those on the lot who dispute that. "It's a very different Disney," another producer on the lot said. "I could never have dreamed of a Disney movie with David Fincher or Guillermo del Toro."
If the old Disney was very much about a brand unto itself — Disney being the sole studio that had cultivated a specific, family-friendly image in the eyes of the general public — Ross, following Iger's orders, is making sure the new Disney is more brand-oriented than ever before.
Disney itself is cutting back its own production to make eight to 10 movies a year — a mix of tentpoles, comedies, Disney-made animated pics and what the studio calls "movies that inspire." Last year, when "The Blind Side" proved a surprise commercial and critical hit for Warner Bros., Ross pointed to it as a movie that should have been made by Disney, and he subsequently signed a deal with one of its producers.
In the meantime, Ross' new team has been releasing the movies the old team left behind to mixed results. In terms of summer box-office market share, Disney was in the middle of the pack, and it lags in year-to-date ranks. However, Pixar 3-D phenom "Toy Story 3" grossed $1.05 billion globally to top all summer releases, and spring's extra-dimensional fantasy "Alice in Wonderland" conjured $1.02 billion worldwide.
At the same time, there were a couple of major misfires, like the $91 million domestic haul for "Prince," which cost $200 million to produce; even though it picked up another $244 million internationally, it was written off as a failed bid for a new franchise. "Sorcerer's," which attracted $62 million domestically and $200 million worldwide, had the less forgiving among Disney watchers wondering whether the studio had lost its marketing mojo.
But "Alice" and "Toy Story 3" did a lot to restore the studio's fortunes. Revenue for the year's first three quarters was $5.1 billion, up 10 percent compared with the first nine months of 2009.
Disney has a few more movies from the old regime to shepherd into release, but the new team has embraced them almost as if they were its own. Disney is heralding "Secretariat," the sports drama about the legendary race horse that opens Oct. 8, as a template for the studio's commitment to inspirational tales — and a possible awards contender.
Its biggest bet at year's end is "Tron Legacy," the 3-D sequel to the pioneering 1982 visual effects movie that took viewers inside a video game. Disney has promoted the movie at the past three Comic-Cons. And after consulting with the Pixar brain trust — to which the new Disney executives frequently turn for advice — the studio scheduled several days of reshoots. "Pretty much everything is riding on 'Tron,"' another source at the studio said.
Moving into next year, the new regime's first effort is "Prom," a John Hughes-esque tale about a high school prom, set for April 29. And it's looking to dominate the final weeks of May with its fourth "Pirates."
It will be several more years before Disney sees the full benefits from its acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, which it bought last year for $4 billion, though it already has begun to share in Marvel's profits. Marvel's current slate culminates with "The Avengers," which Paramount is set to release in May 2012, and after that Marvel movies then can begin rolling out through Disney on a regular basis.
More immediately, Disney will be heavily dependent on DreamWorks, which struck a distribution deal early last year. The first of the new batch of DreamWorks titles kicks in with the Feb. 18 release of the Steven Spielberg- and Michael Bay-produced sci-fi thriller "I Am Number Four," directed by D.J. Caruso.
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