With cosmetics and aesthetics at the top of the US film industry’s totem pole, woe betide the naïve aspirant who underestimates how much appearances matter more than substance. Especially when it comes to the appearance of failure.
Such a lesson has just been served in the Boardroom of the Mouse, with the revelation that Disney chairman Rich Ross has left the company, ostensibly thanks to the lukewarm reception afforded to campy space adventure John Carter. Roasted alive by the people who hated it, taken to heart by the people who loved it – but generally considered sort-of okay-ish by the slightly larger group of people in the middle, Carter pretty much averaged itself out in the cultural conversation. Geek sites pointed to an uninspired marketing campaign that left the public confused as to what it should expect. One even blamed the film’s director – and former Infotainment subject – Andrew Stanton for scuppering the publicity drive from the word ‘go’ with a misfiring teaser trailer. Make no mistake: the scrap over who was responsible for the film’s less-than-stellar performance has been played out on an increasingly public canvas.
But get this: according to Box Office Mojo, the film had made almost $270m at the global box office by 19 April, against a production budget of $250m. That’s after just one month on release, with further ancillary revenue due in the coming months from DVD sales. Infotainment has seen some turkeys in its time but, on that evidence, wouldn’t feel terribly compelled to shoo Carter into the coop. It is quite clearly not the box-office smash to end them all, but neither is it what you’d call a flop.
Those figures, though, have been of precisely zero help whatsoever to Rich Ross, whose farewell announcement reads like the Magna Carta of mea culpas. ‘The best 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. ‘It’s one of the leadership lessons I’ve learned during my career, and it’s something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to as I look at the challenges and opportunities ahead.’
He added: ‘I believe in this extraordinary Walt Disney Studios team, and I believe in our strong slate of films and our ability to make and market them better than anyone else. But I no longer believe the chairman role is the right professional fit for me. For that reason, I have made the very difficult decision to step down as chairman of The Walt Disney Studios.’
In other words, it’s not them, it’s me. (Never mind that the team he believes in so passionately will be restructured at the drop of a hat as soon as his successor gets his knees under the table.)
This state of affairs is even more extraordinary when some of the other films released during Ross’s tenure are taken into account: Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story 3 (both 2010) and (dumbfoundingly) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) are all enshrined in the global Top 10 highest-grossing films ever made. You would think that something like that would offset Disney’s ‘flop footprint’ and throw Ross a lifeline – but alas, it was not to be.
It’s not the first time that a Disney chief has fallen on his sword in the light of a flop-that-really-wasn’t. In 2001, Peter Schneider waved Mickey goodbye after that year’s (deserved) critical pasting of Michael Bay’s soapy World War II extravaganza, Pearl Harbor. But that film made $75m in its US opening weekend alone, achieved a final domestic tally of $188m and went on to make $144m in DVD sales.
Outside Disney, Bill Mechanic – a former Mouse House executive – left his chairman role at 20th Century Fox early in the millennium, following internal News Corporation wrangles over his decision to greenlight the controversial Fight Club (1999). Although the film underperformed at the box office, it did well enough on DVD to make Fox a $10m profit. And besides, Mechanic had already furnished the studio with the $1.8bn gross of Titanic (1998) – produced on his watch. Surely that would count in his favour? (Um… no).
Sometimes fiction can be hard to distinguish from reality. And sometimes the appearance of failure – not just in Hollywood, but elsewhere – can place an iceberg in the path of even the most glittering career.