Pity the poor movie business. Nobody likes it anymore. Except those who actually are in it on a day to day basis, and even they don't really, because it's just no fun anymore. But what the huge corporations that own the studios really don't like is the version of the movie business that they seem to be in, because it's just not working for them like it used to. Or as Steven Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal reportedly put it when speaking at CAA's recent retreat, it's a business in steady decline.
It wasn't always this way. Remember the good old days, I don't know, say seven or so years ago, when studios were big and released 25 or more pictures a year, DVD sales were still growing and the job of studio chairman was a powerful position not only in and of itself, but equally within the corporations that own the studios? Unfortunately, the answer is not that the pictures have just gotten smaller, because quite the opposite is true. Being studio chairman is still a great job (come on, having de plane at your disposal is totally boss) and still a really big job. And as chairman you can always get yourself into a lot of trouble. It's just unlikely anymore that "your" greenlight decisions are going to take the company down along with you, cause it to sell off the backlot or even cause the stock market to notice much. Besides, by way of example, what's a $200 Million write-down on John Carter (of Mars, or otherwise) when your company does over $40 Billion in annual revenue and a significant percentage of the earth's population has seen The Avengers, probably more than once.
The movie business has always been a tough, messy business and almost every studio chairman has a shelf life. But what's really gone are the days of new studio heads having the time and luxury of taking credit for the success of their predecessor and blaming them for the failures, and then graciously allowing their successor to do the same. Because it used to be a small business and one day you might be someone's boss and the next their subordinate. Now, when you're out, there's nowhere to go, the genius that got you the chairman job having evaporated. And you can't go to another studio as a shadow government in exile, being taken care of until the next gig comes along. Because it's not there.
Neither Rich Ross' hiring for the top job at Walt Disney Studios, nor his firing, should have been that big a surprise. "Outsiders" have always come into the business, looking to fix it. They come from TV, or they're independent producers, lawyers or car salesmen. The issue isn't that someone is a TV person who gets rejected by the movie business organism like a foreign body (everybody knows TV is where the real money is anyway, and often on HBO and Showtime, the talent). Nor is it that the skills that made someone a success in a different area of the content business -- the ability to manage the creation and distribution of content and the internal and external talent, and their representatives, that are essential to that process -- are not transferable. And, it's not like someone who was extremely successful for many years in another business enters a new one and gets stupid (something more common in the ownership of professional sports teams).
Rather, it's the disconnect between the truth about how the movie business works and how success, or failure, is judged. And by who. Movies are a continuum and the result of many peoples' creative input, and business judgment, especially in the corporate environment within which studios exist. (Scene note: send in the accountants). So the idea that the making and marketing of a movie is the result of a singular decision maker (Dramatis Personae: The Chairmen) has more to do with our need to assign credit and blame to an individual in a business where the reasons for success, or its lack, are elusive.
It's the Hollywood eco-system of blame and credit that mandates that SOMEONE must be responsible, notwithstanding what is by nature a collaborative process. Because if all are to blame, well, you know the rest. Maybe, then, in the studio world it's more important how the product is brought to market -- so the key relationship with talent is not necessarily the chairman of the studio, but the person running marketing. That's when it's too late to change anything. And the second-guessing starts.
For those in the running for the job of running a studio, what makes a chairman most? It's the ability to manage up, and down, and in and out, all at the same time. Inside, it's managing the corporate bosses (DON'T WORRY, IT'S ALL UNDER CONTROL) as well as those below you who are doing all the work. Outside, it's managing the talent, and their representatives, and the mob at the studio gates. With the grosses available to anyone and the mystique of stars gone, the movies and the business of them belong to everyone. And we all keep score with the weekend box office, even though ticket prices are the same regardless of what the product costs. For the corporate bosses and the public, it's the same question: WHY CAN'T WE (THEY) JUST MAKE GOOD PICTURES?
At some point, Disney will find its chairman and the studio will continue on, just as it has before. And no matter how liked the new chairman is, someone will have a complaint. For in Hollywood, everyone has a "but" after his or her name. I like (your name here), but they didn't, or aren't __________. Or they are. For the giant corporations that own the studios now, the best strategy is continuity of management. In a business that is centered on the creation of intellectual property assets that last forever and can be sold again and again, the worst strategy is one that is short term.
Or one based upon fear. Theoretical fear has always been the currency of the studio system, but it was sort of motivating. Now, it's actual fear. Because it all may be over. Oh not the studios, because they'll likely go on, in one form or another, as distribution entities or perhaps just studio tours. But, rather, it's the studio way of making pictures and all the overhead that goes along with it that may have seen its better day.