Well — it’s happened. To no-one’s great surprise Marc Shmuger and David Linde have been booted out of Universal following a dismal year. In the same week, Dick Cook was replaced at Disney Studios by former Disney Channel chief Rich Ross. So with more heads rolling than Sleepy Hollow, what kind of talents are studios looking for? Here’s The Big Picture’s analysis:
Until a decade or so ago, it was pretty easy to identify what it took to run a movie studio. The best executives had the same kinds of skills — they were movie pickers. They could identify a good script, figure out the kind of talent who should star in it and hire the right filmmaker to make it, all the while having a relatively good grasp of its commercial potential. But studios aren’t movie-idea incubators anymore. They’re brand businesses, always on the lookout for a project that can be transformed into a franchise that not only has worldwide appeal but — even more crucially — can be duplicated over and over in sequel form.
Now that they are so dependent on the franchise business, studios need leaders with a skill set that is something closer to an advertising brand manager. It’s hardly a surprise that Disney, which is now largely a collection of identifiable brands (Pixar, Bruckheimer, DreamWorks and Marvel) has replaced Cook with Disney Channels chief Rich Ross, who has overseen the creation of such successful young teen brands as “High School Musical” and “Hannah Montana.”
With rare exceptions (meaning Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean”) the movies that have been the biggest profit centers for studios in recent years, such as “Harry Potter,” “Transformers,” “Batman,” “Spider-Man” and “X-Men,” are films that rely more on our collective pop-culture subconscious than any individual movie star or creative talent. Even as recently as four or five years ago, you’d measure the value of a studio chief by his or her relationships, either with A-list stars or the top writer-directors in town who could supply ready-to-shoot, talent-friendly scripts. But at today’s studios, the real payoff comes from acquiring a new, well-known pop-culture brand, a brand with the kind of kinetic energy that appeals to moviegoers who speak different languages and live in all sorts of different cultures.
The big movie brands no longer depend on top talent. It hardly mattered who was cast in “Harry Potter” or “Transformers” or “Spider-Man.” The character, already clearly a part of the pop-culture firmament, was the star, not the actor. The same goes for the filmmaker, as the evolution of “Harry Potter” has proved, with the various installments all padding Warners’ deep pockets, regardless of whether a real auteur — like Alfonso Cuarón — or a journeyman director was at the helm.
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