Blame it on Mars: Rich Ross done as Disney studio chief


Hired 30 months ago by Walt Disney Studios (s dis) for his accumen of churning out inexpensive, digitally-marketed youth TV hits like Hannah Montana and  High School Musical, Rich Ross announced Friday that he’s stepping down as chairman, effective immediately. No replacement has yet been named.

In his statement, Ross said the job is “not the right professional fit for me.” And in a more austere era in Hollywood, in which hits like The Hunger Games are marked by tight budget controls and savvy, cost-effective digital marketing, there’s little evidence from Ross’ studio tenure to argue against that point.

Blame the planet Mars.

Ross’ departure, which is widely being reported in Hollywood as a force-out, comes on the heels of two of the biggest money-losing flops in film history. Not only did the huge theatrical under-performance in March of Disney’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter From Mars require an extraordinary $200 million write-off, but last year, Robert Zemeckis’ animated family dud Mars Needs Moms rendered a loss on the studio balance sheets that was almost as big.

Ross’ tenure was also marred by his hire of a movie-business outsider, packaged goods advertising maven MT Carney, to head marketing for the studio. Her short, ill-received tenure ended in January, two months before John Carter‘s inauspicious theatrical release.

Inheriting both of these flops from the previous management regime headed by Dick Cook, Ross was not a Hollywood dinosaur, someone prone to carelessly throwing money at filmmakers and media buyers. He got his job by showing multi-platform marketing savvy and instincts for youthful consumer taste while serving as president of the Disney Channel.

It was there that Ross blended such elements as subscription video on demand and rich media marketing to turn Disney Channel series like Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, That’s So Raven and Phineas and Ferb into global hits.

But as noted movie-business blogger Anne Thompson points out, it’s traditionally never easy for TV executives to make the move to major movie studio chief.

Ross wasn’t able to transition his Disney Channel moxie to the movie-studio side. A year ago, under Ross’ command, the studio tried to re-create the success of High School Musical, a simple TV movie with a no-name cast that grew into a globally lucrative multi-film franchise. Made for only $8 million, Prom was a decidedly low-budget film by major-studio standards, leveraging promotion through social media in lieu of expensive TV advertising.

Grossing $10.1 million theatrically on the project, Disney didn’t bleed a Mars-shaded color of red, either. But you could begin to hear the enthusiasm for Ross’ tenure leak out of Mickey Mouse-shaped balloons on Disney’s Burbank studio lot.

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