Bob Iger's studio chief hunt: Why would anyone want the job?
In days gone by, running a movie studio was a glamour job, the pinnacle of success in show business. Today? Not so much.
Movies rarely move the needle, either when it comes to shaping the country’s cultural conversation or affecting media conglomerates’ bottom lines. This is especially true at the Walt Disney Co. Two weeks after Disney czar Bob Iger fired studio chief Rich Ross, the media have tossed all sorts of prominent names into the hopper as potential successors.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like any of these high-profile candidates wants the job. And for good reason: The way things are presently organized, overseeing the Disney studio is a lot more like being a brand manager at Procter & Gamble than being a successor to Irving Thalberg, Robert Evans or any other fabled studio chief, let alone Walt Disney himself.
If the job were really a plum, DreamWorks partner Stacey Snider — who’s been at the top of virtually every pundit's list as the most attractive candidate — would already be at work, trying to ease the studio out of its post- “John Carter” doldrums. But by most accounts, Snider, who is under a long-term contract at DreamWorks, doesn’t want the gig.
It’s hardly a secret that there are dozens of better jobs in showbiz than running Disney’s studio. Under Iger, Disney is a constellation of name brands, notably Pixar, Marvel and (distribution partner) DreamWorks, that provide product along with two top-tier producers, Jerry Bruckheimer and Joe Roth. At best, the studio chief gets to greenlight a few movies a year while spending endless time and energy soothing egos and refereeing release-date and marketing-dollar competition among all of the big kahunas.
As one Disney insider put it, after wrestling with the demands of heavyweights like Pixar’s John Lasseter, Marvel’s Ike Perlmutter, DreamWorks’ Steven Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Roth, you feel more like a lion tamer than a showbiz potentate.
If I were Iger, I wouldn’t waste any time trying to find someone to stick his head into the lion's den. I’d give the job to someone who understands my every thought: myself. With Iger having already announced that he’ll be stepping down as Disney’s chief executive in 2015 — and retiring as the studio’s executive chairman in 2016 — he is clearly no longer looking at a distant horizon when it comes to reshaping the studio.
The time to whip the studio into shape is now. Iger already has a pair of competent executives in place who can handle much of the day-to-day legwork. Studio President Alan Bergman now oversees the studio’s franchises, distribution and business affairs and was a key player in the Pixar and DreamWorks deals. Production president Sean Bailey, who’d never held a studio post before, is said to be well liked and is growing into the job of building long-term relationships with filmmakers.
But what the studio needs is someone with the kind of vision that would provide Disney with a secure filmmaking identity instead of stumbling forward with a portfolio of cinematic fiefdoms, all ruled by independent warlords. Iger has the stature and the brainpower to do this himself, and has the credibility to make the kind of sweeping decisions Disney needs to move forward.
With much of the Disney empire, from ESPN to the theme parks, running relatively smoothly (or in the case of ABC, appearing to be on the rebound), Iger can turn his focus to making the studio a more attractive landing pad for top creative talent. So far, progress in moving ahead with projects with top filmmakers like David Fincher and Guillermo del Toro has been painfully slow.
To hear agents and managers tell it, Disney is like a faraway planet in the showbiz solar system, an insular institution where decision-making is often mysterious and painfully slow. Having Iger running the ship could streamline much of the process — and the company could get more bang for the $31.4 million he made last year.
Iger worked in TV for years, where the pulse and pace are considerably faster. Iger worked his way up to the top at ABC, even making a few daring moves along the way, like persuading the network to air David Lynch’s groundbreaking “Twin Peaks” series. Not every TV executive turns out to be as hapless as Ross in a studio job. Barry Diller and Michael Eisner did it back in the day. So could Iger.
Disney is a studio with enormous resources at its command. But in recent years, especially after “The Hunger Games” producer Nina Jacobson was cold-bloodedly fired as production chief in 2006 while on maternity leave, nearly all the creativity has been bled out of the organization. The studio has instead leaned on Pixar, and now Marvel, to provide the verve and landmark filmmaking that has shaped Disney’s artistic identity.
If Iger wants to leave a lasting legacy, he should roll up his sleeves and get into the trenches himself. After all, many of the brand partners were bypassing Ross and going to Iger for tough calls in the last couple of years. In Hollywood, if you want something done right, you can spend millions hiring someone with an impressive resume and hope for the best. Or you can save the company a bundle of money and do the job yourself.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Follow me on Twitter @patrickbigpix
Photo: Bob Iger speaking at the Telecomnext conference in Las Vegas in 2006. Credit: Barry Sweet / Bloomberg News