Disney studio chief quits after 'John Carter' bomb

By Ryan Nakashima

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

LOS ANGELES — Disney movie studio boss Rich Ross stepped down on Friday, taking the fall for at least a couple of over-budgeted bombs as Hollywood shies away from taking risks on big blockbusters.

His resignation comes after two years in a row of nasty March surprises, ironically both having to do with the Red Planet. Last year it was "Mars Needs Moms," a creepy animated movie that lost $70 million. This year, it was "John Carter," a sci-fi action movie set on Mars that resulted in a $200 million loss for Disney.

Ross, 50, said in a memo to staff that he no longer believed his role as chairman of Walt Disney Studios was "the right professional fit."

The move was not surprising to analysts, coming a few months after studio marketing chief MT Carney also departed because of a string of lackluster releases.

Disney CEO Bob Iger, who said last summer that big-budget movies were getting "increasingly more risky," thanked Ross for his years of service.

The Walt Disney Co.'s stock rose 27 cents to close Friday at $42.35.

Disney's most successful movies recently have been made by studios it has bought, including "Toy Story" maker Pixar, which releases "Brave" in June, and Marvel, which will release the much-buzzed "The Avengers" overseas next week.

Under the Touchstone brand, Disney also distributes movies made by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks production company, including "War Horse."

Fixing problems at the studio is seen as crucial for the company, because movies launch characters that are developed into Disney toys, theme park rides, books and video games. For example, "Cars Land," an attraction based on the Pixar movies, will open at Disney California Adventure in June.

"For Disney, it feeds a lot bigger value chain," Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger said. "This is a more significant move for investors of Disney than it would be at other companies."

Although some of Ross's troubles stemmed from films put into production by his predecessor, Dick Cook, analysts said his inability to prevent big losses was what led to his exit.

"At some level he takes responsibility for not fixing them or shutting them down," Needham & Co. equity analyst Laura Martin said. "They need to lower the risk of entry and build franchise films from that base. Not go all in, hoping it works out."

Part of the estimated $250 million budget on "John Carter" can be attributed to the notion that the movie could become a multi-part series, as it was based on a trove of books by the late Edgar Rice Burroughs. The series began with "A Princess of Mars" in 1917 and carried through to the posthumously published "John Carter of Mars" in 1964.

The movie starring Taylor Kitsch had a budget that rivaled what 20th Century Fox spent on "Avatar."

But "John Carter" made only $269 million at box offices worldwide while "Avatar" took in $2.8 billion. After splits with theater owners and marketing expenses, Disney has said "John Carter" would cause a studio-wide loss of $80 million to $120 million in the January-March quarter.

Ross had taken the job just two and a half years ago with a mission to cut costs and develop new hits. He had brought "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana" to TV audiences when he headed Disney Channels Worldwide.

Ross spent much of his early tenure at the studio cutting costs and canceling projects that weren't seen as important to the Disney brand.

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