Disney CEO Bob Iger likes to keep corporate secrets. (Witness the Marvel-Disney deal. And the Dick Cook bloodletting.) So Hollywood is now desperately trying to sleuth out who’ll be in charge of Disney’s moviemaking. Pixar’s John Lasseter, DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider, Marvel’s Kevin Feige are all names in play. However, I can report that Iger is telling Hollywood that he’s already chosen Cook’s replacement yet won’t announce it for a few weeks. Still, last night, several of my sources heard that Disney Channels Worldwide president Rich Ross is being fitted with the glass slipper. They tell me Ross is likely to succeed Cook in some form, like a modified job without Cook’s lofty title of Walt Disney Studios chief.
First, I have no unofficial or official confirmation of this. But Bob Iger and Tom Skaggs love this guy who manages the global kids’ TV business — a total of 94 kid-driven, family-inclusive entertainment channels and feeds available in 163 countries and 32 languages. Also, Disney’s culture is so infamously cult-like and cut-throat that the Mouse House mostly promotes from within because its insiders distrust outsiders. And each other.
Those insiders who dislike Ross say he’s an “incredible political maneuverer and quite a back-stabber” who’s “into retribution”. (“There are likely several people at the Studio who have crossed [Ross] over the years — primarily in the marketing, music, and synergy groups — and Rich will have the last laugh,” one source emailed me.) But even his detractors find it hard to deny that Ross is a talented executive who’s made major moolah for the company and needs to be promoted before somebody finally steals him — and many have tried. His defenders insist he’s that rare combination of an adept administrator who can brand and synergize and coordinate different parts of the Disney machine. Yet who also placed #5 on Fast Company‘s 2009 list of the “100 Most Creative People In Business” for his Hannah Montana, The Cheetah Girls, or High School Musical franchises. And his orchestration of the rise and global spread of “that wildly popular, hyper, squealy, and lucrative brand of entertainment” through Disney Channels Worldwide. And his expansion beyond the box into film, radio, mobile, and online. And his targeting tween boys with the help of Disney’s ESPN for Disney XD. Who better to help mesh Marvel and Mouse? (Though Disney XD market researchers were going through young boys’ bedroom bureaus to find out what makes them tick. Ultra-creepy.)
Before film vets scoff, “But he’s a TV guy,” they should remember that Ross is also a TV movie guy. He built the hugely successful Disney Channel Original Movie franchise, which includes High School Musical 2, the highest rated telecast in the history of cable television. He also had more than a dozen of basic cable’s #1 movies among tweens 9-14 and #1 live action movies among kids 6-11 for the past 8 years.
Ross also knows how to infuse his Disney product with that “unapologetic emphasis on traditional life lessons” b.s. that made the studio famous. “They’re the same lessons that propelled the old Disney movies in theaters, the ones that entertained Mr. Ross as a child,” The New York Times has pointed out in the past. “He has encased those old-fashioned ideas in contemporary packaging, however.” And that’s Iger’s primary challenge in Disney-branded TV programs and movie productions. Ross also works on a global scale and on a multiplatform strategy including subscription video-on-demand and Internet — all integral parts of today’s movie biz.
Ross’ own bio on the Disney corporate website virtuallu shouts his successes: not only does DisneyChannel.com rank as the #1 kids entertainment website among kids 6-14, but under Ross’ watch, Disney Channel U.S. has been among the top 2 highest-rated networks in total viewers across all basic cable for 3 years and the #1 primetime TV destination for kids 6-11 and tweens 9-14 for 6 and 8 years, respectively. That’s because his Disney Channel has global hit series like Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, The Suite Life on Deck, That’s So Raven, Phineas and Ferb, The Proud Family, Lizzie McGuire, and Even Stevens. Some of these have also spun off successful soundtracks, DVDs, books, tours, clothes, games around the world.
As The New York Times said about Ross in a profile, he “probably has more influence than anyone else on the television that young children and adolescents are watching these days — not just in this country, but also in many of the 100 other nations that now carry Disney Channel programming. His shows aren’t just big children’s shows. They’re among the biggest shows, period… He did not conceive or create any of these shows, or High School Musical for that matter. But he has been an integral part of their success, thanks to his shrewd ability to coordinate different parts of the Disney machine, from radio stations to Disney-branded magazines to Web sites, and his uncanny connection to young people’s sensibilities.” That could be invaluable to Disney’s movie-making.
On the other hand, others insist former Universal Pictures topper Stacey Snider is still a possibility to replace Cook even though I was told emphatically Friday that she can’t because she’s now a long-term partner with Spielberg and Reliance in DreamWorks, But “Steven has given it his blessing,” one source claimed to me last night. (DreamWorks denies this.) That John Lasseter would be a candidate is obvious. And then there’s Kevin Feige, about whom (as I wrote last Friday) there’s been a lot of talk that the Marvel Studios president impressed the hell out of Iger during the months of dealmaking to buy the company. But if Iger’s choice is Rich Ross, then that would be a surprise to Hollywood. Or would it?