Shine's Rich Ross on One Year Back in TV -- and What Happened at Disney (Q&A)
The former studio head on reality TV's next act, what it feels like to go from buyer to seller and his advice for ousted execs (he followed it himself): "Give yourself some time to understand what worked and what didn't work."
What's your advice for execs who have lost their jobs and are trying to figure out what's next?
Give yourself some time to understand what worked and what didn't work. I was given guidance by one of the legends of the business [editor's note: Ross declined to identify the exec], and he said to me as I was deciding what I wanted to do: "Get back on the horse. It may not be the perfect job, but when you're back at work, you'll either do the best job at that job and prove that it is the right job or you'll have more options. But thinking about working and working are two different things."
Have you given that advice to others?
Yes. The difference for me is that I had so much TV experience. The great news was not only was I welcomed back, but it was to the party on the top floor. A lot of people who are losing their jobs in the film business at that level have only worked in film, and there are no jobs. So my advice to them is: Take your filmmaker experiences and your relationships into television or digital. If you're just waiting for the phone call, it's going to be a very long wait.
What's the biggest adjustment for those who move from film to TV?
I've met so many people in the film business who have decades‑long experience with storytellers, and those storytellers are interested in diversifying into television and other things -- that is their calling card. If you want to wait for the agent or manager to do the job, fine, but isn't the greater opportunity to say to FX, AMC or Showtime: "I worked with this director for five movies. How about we work together?" What I've found is that trust and loyalty are incredibly valuable. A lot of these filmmakers are concerned because all of a sudden they have to go from making one movie to making 17 episodes a season at a budget that's a quarter of the size, and everybody needs a guide. So, take those relationships and work as a team. That's what you're seeing and I think you'll see a lot more of it.
Film directors increasingly are moving into TV, and adjusting has proved a challenge. Why?
It's different. In film, the ultimate buyer does not sit in front of the [filmmaker]. The ultimate buyer is a consumer, a theater owner -- they're not in the room. In television, what's very different and what I love is that we go into the room with [FX's] John Landgraf or [Fox's] Kevin Reilly or whomever, and they're very clear what needs to happen. Filmmakers are fine as long as they're told [how much they can spend], and the problem [in film] is that the studio says, "Well, we don't want you to go over budget." And it's like, "What are you going to do about that? Because if I go over budget, you're still probably going to pay."
TV executives historically have struggled to move into film. How come?
If you were a kid of a certain age and you loved the entertainment business, film was the dream. It was my dream. When I graduated from law school, I sent résumés to movie companies and TV companies, and I ended up getting a TV job. The difference is, when I sent out those résumés 25 years ago, it was a fair fight -- I was going to have a career and learn my skills and meet people. When I showed up [in film] 25 years later, I walked into a business where I didn't know many of the people. I didn't have friends for 20 years, and I didn't hone my skills in that world. That's the greatest hurdle. And in a business that is facing challenges, I think they look at people who come in and say: "We have enough people right now. We don't need you." At the end of [my time at Disney], I was thrilled I said yes [to the film job]. It was an experience of a lifetime, and it has only been helpful in how I go forward in my career.
You've worked at both Disney and News Corp. What's the biggest difference in the cultures?
When you work at Disney, the name is a brand and there's an expectation to the consumer and crossing the line is challenging. At 21st Century Fox, the rules of the road are, "We want you to make great content and it's not within a brand definition." So I have greater breadth in this role. You learn that the individual stories are what creates the brand, it's not the other way around. But all you have to do is see Saving Mr. Banks. I was so inspired when I read the script originally that this was a story about a creative leader who had a personal relationship with the product. You look back and say, "Wow, I've lived all this time because of this man's belief and commitment."
Looking back, which of your projects has been most rewarding?
I went to the set of High School Musical, and Zac [Efron] and Vanessa [Hudgens] were singing "Start of Something New." My eyes welled up. I ran out of the trailer, and I called Anne Sweeney. She was in a meeting, and I said, "Get her out of the meeting." I said, "I've just watched something, and I'm telling you, it's going to change our lives." When we got the first cut of one of the music videos, Anne called Bob [Iger] and [Disney Channels Worldwide president] Gary Marsh and I ran over and Bob was like, "You have to invest in this." [Disney Channel] never really invested in movies before that.
And the one you'd like to do over?
The first movie I produced at Disney was a small teen comedy, Prom. What ended up happening was a small movie that was no different than any other small movie and would make back its money became fodder for people who didn't believe and trust that I could be about broader things. I realized then that had it gone later in the slate, or [if my first movie was] either a tentpole film or a grittier film, then I would have been viewed differently.
What was your big break?
I'd just started at Nickelodeon as a talent coordinator and was given an opportunity to work on an awards show. I became an associate producer of the show. I was 25, and I was given 36 famous people to get interviews with on tape, including Madonna and Michael Jordan. I delivered 35 of 36 -- the only person who said no was Bill Cosby. It became the Kids' Choice Awards, and it's still on 25 years later.