Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Is Disney turning a setback into a crisis?

It certainly looks that way. Last Friday it emerged that Rich Ross had resigned as head of Walt Disney Studios. The move seems to have been triggered by the high-profile failure of Andrew Stanton’s flatulent space opera John Carter. As …

Mon, Apr 23, 2012, 22:52

   

It certainly looks that way. Last Friday it emerged that Rich Ross had resigned as head of Walt Disney Studios. The move seems to have been triggered by the high-profile failure of Andrew Stanton’s flatulent space opera John Carter. As you will be aware, panic had set in some months before the film was released and its underperformance at the US box-office appeared to confirm all the gloomy prognostications. The film has, at time of writing, made a paltry $69 million in its domestic run. It is still possible that, as Disney prematurely announced, it could lose as much as $200 million when all the sums are tidied up. If that were the case then it would stand as the biggest box-office failure of all time.

I don’t know what you’re grinning about, mate.

That said, you have to feel a little sorry for Mr Ross (as sorry as you can manage for a multi-millionaire). John Carter has actually done passably well outside the United States. With $200 million in its rest-of-world ledger, the picture didn’t exactly flop in the old countries.

The skinny out there in the alleys suggests that Ross, who emerged from Disney’s TV wing, didn’t have the stature to rein in Stanton. You can understand his position. Stanton, director of Finding Nemo, had made Disney millions. If some bloke off the telly had told him to pull back from the cliff, he might very well have politely told that executive where to shove it. After all, before release, the word on Titanic was entirely negative and that didn’t turn out too badly.

There were other notable failures during Ross’s reign. You have probably barely heard of something called Prom. Well, that’s the point. The teen flick was supposed to finesse Glee’s success into a mainstream movie hit, but it bombed pathetically on release. Mutterings began that this was yet another example of TV thinking. Nobody could blame him for the relative underperformance of Cars 2. The entire Red Army would have failed to stop John Lasseter pursuing that project. (And let’s not forget that it was still the 10th biggest film of 2011.)

Conversely, he can hardly take any credit for the enormous, baffling success of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Blander Tides. A monkey in a hat could have ushered that unlovely product to its jaw-dropping $1 billion.

What really strikes one about the news is that comes a week before — barring an extraordinary catastrophe — Disney is set to have an enormous hit with Marvel Avengers Assemble (or whatever it’s called today). “Ah yes,” I hear you say. “But that film springs from a deal done with Marvel several year ago. Mr Rich was not really a player.” But here’s the thing. As the mainstream currently stands, it’s hard to see what influence any CEO can have over future profits. Every film in the top 10 from 2011 counts as some sort of sequel. All the executive had to do was press the green-button on part four, five or six. That monkey in the hat, if so challenged, would have no problem accumulating a whole truckload of bonus bananas. The only film in the list whose creation involved any sort of risk was The Muppets. Guess who distributed that film? A clue: their logo features a fairy and a magical castle.

The Ross story just demonstrates that, when something goes wrong at a movie studio, a ritual head must roll, whether or not its former owner was responsible in any meaningful way. At least, the poor bloke was willing to take a risk on something that wasn’t a blasted sequel.

Anyway, if your monkey is interested in being paid a squillion dollars to press a big green button, Disney are currently looking for a new studio head. Pixar’s Brave could still be huge. The Avengers can’t fail. If Coco sits quietly in his cage he could, by year’s end, find himself praised as a genius to rival Irving Thalberg or Jack Warner.

 

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