By David Poland email@example.com
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.