BREAKING… SHOCKER! RICH ROSS OUT AT DISNEY

“It was a very difficult decision. Very. But his team lost faith in him. The town, as you know, never wanted him to succeed. And it was just the wrong fit,” a Disney insider tells me, explaining Walt Disney President/CEO Bob Iger’s decision announced today to fire Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross. Iger began discussions several weeks ago with Ross to end his tenure. But, after 2 1/2 years in the job, Ross’ own slate of movies had not even bowed: Peter Hedge’s The Odd Life Of Timothy Green (August 15th), Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (October 5th), Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great And Powerful (March 8th, 2013), Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp under the Jerry Bruckheimer banner (May 31st, 2013), Maleficent (March 14th, 2014) starring Angelina Jolie. The rest of Disney’s release slate consist of Pixar/Walt Disney Animation, Marvel, and DreamWorks pics. Disney strenuously denies there are any problems with Ross’ upcoming films. Instead, insiders strenuously complain about Ross’ personality:

“He had an ‘awareness’ issue,” a Disney source explains to me. “Sometimes people, when they’re put in a different place, they manage it well. And sometimes they don’t. It has nothing to do with the slate of his upcoming films. They’re fine. It’s just about leadership and management. Rich didn’t make the transition. He got caught up in the trappings of the job rather than the specifics. What it became about was we saw him making stupid mistakes. Focusing on things that were not important like parties and celebrities. People that were doing business with us in the film business not only internally but externally were complaining that they were having a hard time doing business with him.”

Rare indeed is the movie mogul who isn’t arrogant. But as much as Ross’ style and substance were the problems, and of his own making, so was his situation, which wasn’t. Because the Walt Disney Studios has become unmanageable. Among Ross’ most vocal detractors were Disney’s mega-shareholder Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, Pixar/Walt Disney Animation Studios  chief creative officer and mega-exec John Lasseter, mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and DreamWorks mega-filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider. The fact is that these powerful personalities — oh, hell, let’s call them what they are: major-league pricks — have come together in one place making so many demands on the parent studio that it’s hard for anyone who finds himself nominally in charge able to keep them all satisfied. Interestingly, Ross’ predecessor, the famously people-pleasing Dick Cook, did for a time and maybe could have continued well into the future. But Iger fired him, too.

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Ross arrived at a watershed time for the studio: shortly after Iger entered into the 2009 deal with Marvel. The comic book, TV, and film entertainment company’s Israeli owner Ike Perlmutter is not just a notoriously tough custumer but a budget-obsessed megalomaniac besides a recluse. He has taken control of Disney’s consumer products division already (firing here, fixing there), and my sources tell me he is making Iger’s life miserable with back-seat managing of everything, especially Walt Disney Studios. (“Iger has real problems with Ike. That’s the real story,” one of my insiders tells me. “Bob thought he could handle him. But Ike is uncharmable.”) Lasseter had the full force of then mega-stockholder Steve Jobs behind him, and singlehandedly caused the film studio to back the loser live action picture John Carter. DreamWorks, of course, drove two Universal and Paramount crazy with their constant complaining before it started to give Disney the same mistreatment beginning in 2009 and continuing through War Horse. Meanwhile, Jerry Bruckheimer’s films were falling out of favor at the box office. Now Bruckheimer is pissed that, after all the hits he’s delivered in the past, under The Lone Ranger‘s ‘favored nation’ deal negotiated with the studio to deflate a bloated budget, he (+ Depp + Verbinski) get paid big bucks only when Disney recoups.

And then there is Iger himself, infamous for firing top executives just when they’re about to turn their divisions around. Back in 2004, he inexplicably axed ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun and ABC Entertainment Television President Susan Lyne only to be embarrassed soon after when the duo’s programming made ABC into the #1 network. It’s well-documented that Iger hated their Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy and Lost. But he also succombed to complaints about Braun’s personality (and Lyne just found herself collateral damage). Same thing happened after Iger inexplicably fired Dick Cook. The then Walt Disney Studios Chairman wouldn’t be around to see Disney reap the rich worldwide rewards of films Alice In Wonderland, Toy Story 3, and Pirates Of The Caribbean 4. And that was a case where Cook had the right personality for the job – except for the fact he obeyed his filmmaker’s demands over Iger’s.

History has shown Hollywood’s parent companies often wait a beat or two before firing its movie moguls for being boobs. Sony axed the self-promoting and self-immolating Mark Canton just before he gave the studio a history-making box office gross. Universal at least waited until the much-dissed Marc Shmuger released a string of film disasters before showing him the door. And Viacom didn’t react prematurely when TV-turned-movie guy Brad Grey was the target of slings and arrows for his preening personality during his first years as chief of Paramount. By 2011, Paramount led all studios in market share (but not profits).

In fact, as recently as yesterday, a rumor swept the Disney lot that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige would be replacing Ross on the eve of the May 4th release of that Disney-owned studio’s hotly anticipated and surefire blockbuster The Avengers. (“He’s a creative. I don’t know that Kevin wants a desk job,” an insider tells me today.) But already under the studio’s umbrella are other possible Ross replacements: Snider, Lasseter, Participant Media’s Ricky Strauss recently named Walt Disney Studios’ worldwide marketing chief, and yes even Bruckheimer who cut his teeth as a Paramount exec. Names of outsiders like Mary Parent are in the mix as well. In the meantime, the studio will be topped by Ross’ production head Sean Bailey and president Alan Bergman who are also in the running. With Disney’s earnings report coming May 8th, Iger must surely announce Ross’ replacement before meeting with Wall Street analysts. And Iger firing Ross shows investors that he’s blaming someone — however fairly or unfairly (see story to come)– for Disney’s recently announced $200M writedown of John Carter. Even though the film wasn’t greenlit by Ross (it was greenlit by predecessor Dick Cook and championed by John Lasseter), it was still overseen by him and mismarketed by his studio — and became one of the most public and expensive film failures in Hollywood history. As a Marvel insider tells me, “We all expected Rich to not make it. But no one expected it to be this quick.”

When Iger was fitting Ross with the studio’s glass slipper, the Disney chief loved this guy who managed the company’s global kiddie’ TV business — a total of 94 family-inclusive entertainment channels and feeds available in 163 countries and 32 languages. Camp Bob hailed the hiring as a ‘creative’ choice back then. But Disney’s culture is so cult-like and cut-throat that even when the Mouse House promotes from within it distrusts insiders as well as outsiders. Immediately Ross was labeled an “incredible political maneuverer and quite a back-stabber” who’s “into retribution”.

True, even his detractors found it hard to deny that Ross had made major moolah for the company and needed to be promoted before somebody finally stole him. (And many tried. Which is why Viacom should put Ross in charge of its flagging Nickelodeon where he worked once upon a time.) Ross’ specialty was branding and synergizing and coordinating different parts of the Disney machine. He also placed #5 on Fast Company‘s 2009 list of the “100 Most Creative People In Business”. Iger even promoted Ross to Marvel’s Perlmutter as the Disney exec most knowledgeable about tween boys because of Disney XD. But film vets scoffed, “he’s a TV guy”.

With Iger’s blessing, Ross was in charge of pretty much firing everybody and then replacing them. His choice of Sean Bailey as his No. 2 was out of the box yet quietly popular. But his hiring of MT Carney was decidedly not. After more than a year and half in the job, and speculation since her arrival that she was going to be canned, MT Carney was officially ousted in January as President of Worldwide Marketing. She had been handplucked by Ross despite her having no movie biz experience. (Instead she had experience promoting packaged goods.) Like with Ross, the knives were out for her from Day One by Hollywood’s tight-knit film marketing community which didn’t want outsiders to succeed on its turf. But she was a disaster, and Ross did himself in by choosing her.

Ross also found disfavor by seeming to publicly take credit for Cook’s movies. (He said by way of an apology that he was only marketing them to the hilt.) Ross then demonstrated a frustrating slowness to make his own mark on studio filmmaking by taking way too long to start greenlighting pics. Now that he’s ousted, his legacy consists of only Prom. Will his other movies become blockbusters or bombs?

NEXT: What Went Wrong With Rich Ross And John Carter