Disney pins hopes on Scotland the Brave

As its boss departs, the troubled film studio is yearning for a flame-haired highland warrior princess to ride to the rescue

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Walt Disney will be hoping a ginger-haired Scottish warrior princess will turn into its knight in shining armour this summer. This is not the latest piece of cinematic trickery, however; following the high-profile departure of its chairman on Friday, the studio, increasingly, needs a saviour. And Princess Merida could be it.

Rich Ross, who is chairman of the company's film studio, announced that, after a little over two, somewhat tumultuous, years in the high-profile job, he has decided to step down, with immediate effect. "People need to be in the right jobs, in roles they are passionate about, doing work that leverages the full range of their abilities," he said in an email to staff. "I no longer believe the chairman role is the right professional fit for me."

His departure – "under pressure", according to US media – comes after Ross presided over a string of controversial executive hiring and firings, and, then, the release of a string of extremely expensive films which have largely fizzled out at the box office. Chief among them was John Carter, an ill-conceived and horrifically marketed adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs SF novel A Princess of Mars. It cost $250m to make, more to market, and was dead on arrival at the box office last month. The firm expects to lose $200m on the film, making it, on paper, the biggest flop in Hollywood history.

All of which means there are high hopes for the fortunes of the Pixar release Brave, the story of Merida, a skilled archer and the daughter of King Fergus who brings chaos on her kingdom when she defies an age-old custom. Starring Scots Kelly Macdonald (who voices Merida), Billy Connolly and Robbie Coltrane, the animation will have its European premiere at the closing night of this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival on 30 June, ahead of its UK release in August. Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, has said the arrival of Hollywood in the Scottish capital brings "tourism and business opportunities" and that Brave will be "the most high-profile film ever set in, and themed around, Scotland, featuring Scottish stars".

Studio bosses come and go, of course. But for all the expense and mess that has hastened his departure, the end of the Rick Ross era now raises some more fundamental questions both about the future of the beloved entertainment company that Walt Disney built, and of the instantly recognisable brand of films it produces.

It only seems like yesterday that Ross's predecessor, Dick Cook, a Hollywood impresario of the old school, handed in his resignation, saying that a string of disagreements with the conglomerate's overall boss, Bob Iger, had left him feeling like a "square peg in a round hole". In the two years since, Disney has tried, and largely failed, to develop a blockbuster franchise to replace its ageing cash cow Pirates of the Caribbean.

In addition to John Carter, it has produced such commercial disappointments as Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and Mars Needs Moms, none of which has merited a sequel. The company's traditional stock-in-trade, hand-drawn cartoons, have in recent years felt quaintly outmoded. And the viability of its familiar, heart-warming, family-friendly live-action films has been disproportionately affected by the ongoing decline of the DVD market.

Disney is left with something of an identity crisis. Indeed, a portion of its hopes of a summer blockbuster has in recent years been invested in Pixar, the pioneering CGI studio founded as a sort of "anti-Disney", which it eventually purchased in 2006.

Expensive to make, and creatively ambitious, Brave and its makers give Highland culture the sort of lucrative Hollywood treatment it last enjoyed with Braveheart. An awful lot of eggs are now invested in Brave's tartan basket. But in an era where a film can sink or swim on the back of clever marketing and canny executive decisions, the studio will need its executive ranks to be firing on all cylinders.

That is by no means guaranteed. Shortly after Ross was hired, he sacked a dozen high-ranking Disney executives, saying the organisation needed to be "more agile, creative, and responsive". The move created what many observers described as a poisonous atmosphere at the company. "Before he released a single movie, people had knives out for him," says a trade reporter who covers Disney. "He came from TV, so didn't have enough friends in the film business, and never bothered to schmooze the media. Every time a Disney film underperformed, you'd read articles with quotes from unnamed executives blaming Ross personally."

The movies which did succeed during his tenure were duly put down to the creative endeavour of others. Tim Burton got all the credit for Alice in Wonderland, which made a billion dollars, while John Lasseter, the Pixar founder and head of Disney Animation took plaudits for Tangled, and Toy Story 3.

On the home front, Ross's most high-profile hire, a New York ad executive called MT Carney, who had little experience of the movie business but was hired to head up marketing, left suddenly earlier this year. She was the subject of constant backbiting, and was credited with signing off on a disastrous tagline for The Sorcerer's Apprentice: "It's the coolest job ever."

Whoever succeeds Ross must do a better job of juggling some of the industry's biggest and most fragile personalities. In addition to Lasseter, Disney's stable includes Jerry Bruckheimer and Steven Spielberg – whose Dreamworks releases it distributes and markets. "You have these huge egos on the Disney lot," says Nicole LaPorte, the author of an acclaimed history of Dreamworks. "Between Spielberg, and Lasseter, and all these other people you have to make happy, it's a particularly delicate job. You have to serve an awful lot of masters."

The irony of Ross's departure is that it may pre-date some of his greatest successes. According to advance tracking, the Avengers film, which hits US cinemas this weekend, is on course to enjoy one of this year's biggest opening weekends. And his talent-picking ability won't become truly apparent until next year, when a Wizard of Oz prequel – one of the first "tentpole" titles Ross gave the green light to, eventually reaches the big screen.

Hollywood being Hollywood, there will no doubt be plenty of other people willing to take the credit, should either movie succeed in turning Disney's precarious fortunes around.