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Disney's Rich Ross scopes beyond Hollywood for new marketing head [Updated]

January 29, 2010 |  8:31 am

 For the last 2 1/2 months, one of Hollywood's most powerful marketing machines -- Walt Disney Studios -- has been operating without a marketing chief. That could soon change.

Studio Chairman Rich Ross has met with his executives and told them that he plans to hire someone outside of Hollywood's usual movie circles to replace former marketing President Jim Gallagher, ousted in the fall. He has narrowed the list of candidates and is meeting with a small number of finalists, said a person close to the matter.

Ross has scoured some big ad agencies -- including TBWA\Chiat\Day -- seeking candidates who have overseen innovative campaigns for major brands. He's also weighed bringing in someone from the video game or tech industries -- or the very least, someone savvy about harnessing social networking and emerging technologies to sell movies, according to several people knowledgeable about the search.

The studio head and Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger are repositioning the studio for a future that includes the digital distribution and promotion of movies across multiple platforms. Iger believes that Disney has been out of  sync with a rapidly evolving film business and that many of the old guard were too resistant to change.

Ross, who through a spokesman declined comment, hired an executive search firm to identify candidates in and out of Hollywood. He personally approached movie marketing executives at rival studios but came away empty-handed. He has told people in the industry that he is anxious to have an executive in place in a matter of weeks, given the fast-approaching launch of such major releases as director Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," which opens March 5.

Disney has a number of event films coming this summer, beginning with producer Jerry Bruckheimer's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" over the Memorial Day weekend, Pixar Animation Studios' "Toy Story 3" in June and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," starring Nicholas Cage, a month later.

After ousting Disney's marketing president in the fall, Ross appointed a five-person marketing council to oversee the campaigns. Ross, the former head of the Disney Channel, is intimately involved in all marketing decisions, say people at the studio.

Traditional Hollywood marketers question the wisdom of Ross hiring an outsider with little or no experience selling movies and limited relationships with powerful producers who have a strong voice in how their films are promoted. Along with Bruckheimer, Disney's stable of top-tier filmmakers include Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg.

This wouldn't be the first time a Hollywood studio reached outside its borders to recruit marketers, with mixed results. Disney, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and Paramount each have hired marketing heads from consumer products companies like McDonald's, Burger King and Revlon, or ad agencies. But movie marketing veterans contend that selling burgers or soda and promoting movies are two entirely different things.

Since succeeding former Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook in October, Ross has been carrying out a restructuring of the studio's production, marketing and distribution units, relieving nearly every division head and bringing in new blood.

He is expected to broaden the role of marketing just as he did with film distribution, bringing theatrical, home video and digital under a single executive, Bob Chapek.

-- Claudia Eller and Dawn C. Chmielewski

Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross, at left, joins actor Josh Duhamel and studio production president Sean Bailey at Wednesday's premiere of "When in Rome," at the El Capitan Theatre. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency / Nina Prommer

(Update, 6:05 p.m.: an earlier version of this post misidentified Bailey as producer Gary Foster)