Since ex-Disney Channel exec Ross is new to the movie business, and hired a young producer (Tron Legacy's Sean Bailey) to run motion picture production and an advertising outsider ( M.T. Carney) to run studio marketing, he needed to reassure Hollywood and Wall Street that he was on top of his game. Ross apologized for being somewhat inaccessible thus far, admitting that he had a steep learning curve and wanted to put six months under his belt to figure out what he was doing. He paced in front of a Disney screening room as he delivered a well-rehearsed sales pitch for a series of trailers, clips and a timeline of the studio's upcoming slate. Unlike the other studios, Ross pointed out, Disney has the ability to keep its financing internal.
In addition to its own Disney and Pixar labels (footage from summer's Toy Story 3 looked magical, and adds Barbie and Ken to the old regulars), the studio claims ownership of Marvel, including the four films (including summer blockbuster Iron Man 2) still to be released by Paramount, and wants everyone to know it. (Marvel's The Avengers is set for May 4, 2012.)
Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider's DreamWorks is rapidly ramping up its slate, which will go out through Disney's Touchstone label. (Real Steel starring Hugh Jackman is under way and new announcements are coming soon.) All-told Ross expects to release 14 to 16 pictures a year.
Ross was unable to comment on the extended Miramax negotiation with the Weinsteins except to say that the studio is prepping the marketing on such leftover Miramax movies as The Switch as if they were releasing them, and that Disney is hanging on to animated Gnomeo and Juliet due to a relationship with Elton John dating back to The Lion King. He indicated that modest-budgeted dramas like Secretariat--an underdog story starring Diane Lane, John Malkovich and the great race horse's own great grand-son that looks to have Rookie-like appeal between the coasts--will still make it onto Disney's docket.
Jerry Bruckheimer is another key tentpole supplier, from this summer's Prince of Persia (a costly FX-crammed action adventure in the Raiders-Mummy vein) and Fantasia-inspired live-action Sorcerer's Apprentice (Nic Cage teaches Jay Baruchel the wizard ropes, while Alfred Molina's villain takes the shape of a cockroach monster) to Ross's first green light, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, which starts filming in six weeks in London and Hawaii with Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and a big international cast. Ross announced an AFI tribute to Bruckheimer to feature the stars of Bad Boys and Top Gun.
The bad news: Ross let loose a lot of corporate-speak about brands and market quadrants and giving consumers what they want, which clearly is the new company mantra as the studio seeks to narrow ancillary windows and cross-pollinate a consistent marketing message across multiple platforms.
The good news: occasionally some genuine enthusiasm for projects slipped through the awkward corporate veneer, including December sequel Tron: Legacy (3-D footage from the film was stunning) and the upcoming Prom, a coming-of-age high school story in a John Hughes/Cameron Crowe vein (which has yet to get a green light) which Ross called an authentic, honest look at teen life. He also clearly adored not only the income from Alice in Wonderland but Tim Burton himself; he gushed about his MOMA exhibit and upcoming stop-motion Frankenweenie for 2012, based on his Disney short about a boy and his dead dog, in pre-production. Ross also sounded gung-ho about Jason Segal's Muppet movie, which features many star cameos and a new character being built, "Walter."
The list of upcoming releases also includes for 2011 a new Bob Zemeckis production, Mars Needs Moms, a hand-drawn Winnie the Pooh and the retitled fairy tale Tangled in CG 3D---Disney is now considering everything as potential for 3D, Ross admitted--starring Mandy Moore as a Rapunzel who uses her golden locks as a weapon in more ways than one.
And yes, Disney is developing a Wizard of Oz prequel with producer Joe Roth. "We're talking to filmmakers, not actors," said Ross, who confessed that his favorite movie of all time is Tootsie. "It's why I wanted to be in the movie business," he said. It took 25 years, but he got there. Let's see how he does.