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."
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Rich Ross was asked to step down from his high-powered, if short-lived, job as Walt Disney Studios film chief in April 2012, he considered his options. There were the more traditional routes: Find financing and become an independent producer or return to running a television network or corporate entity, as he did with much success as president of Disney Channels Worldwide from 2004 to 2009. But Ross says neither sounded appealing, noting he enjoys the manager role too much to thrive in the former and that a been-there, done-that mentality prevented him from considering the latter.
The opportunity to run Shine America presented something far more alluring: a chance to be entrepreneurial while having the deep pockets of owner News Corp. What's more, the role would return him to his TV roots and reunite him with Shine Group chairman Elisabeth Murdoch, with whom he had worked two decades earlier when they launched FX. Ross, 52, a New York native with a law degree from Fordham, began at Shine in January. He has spent the year bulking up its already robust unscripted slate (The Biggest Loser, MasterChef, Fox newcomer Slide Show) while pushing the 100-employee company into scripted. FX's The Bridge, renewed for season two, was Shine America's first foray, with at least three more scripted efforts, including Fox's Broadchurch adaptation Gracepoint, in the works. Looking ahead, Ross plans to have as many scripted projects as unscripted, and he's eager to supplement adaptations with originals. The ultrafit executive, married to longtime partner Adam Sanderson, sat down to discuss the future of reality TV, how execs should handle being fired and what he learned from his tenure in film.
What's most surprising about becoming a seller after a career as a TV and film buyer?
What's changed dramatically over the last number of years is how difficult it is to be a network with so many people watching so many things. The buyers are buying more than ever to try to satiate the interest of the viewer and entice them, so it seemed to me a perfect time to be a content creator. I ask everyone here to start with, "Who is the client?" and that comes from me being a buyer. We hired our first head of research, and when we go in to pitch, we actually know whom we're pitching. It's not the random nature of the past.
You had big success with merchandise for such Disney Channel properties as Hannah Montana and High School Musical. How important will that be at Shine?
We have a group called Shine 360, and their job is to find those opportunities and exploit them. It's not about the coffee mug; it's about the right thing for the right property and doing it at the right time. Because otherwise it looks mercenary, and your viewer votes no on your coffee mug and your show. We've explored a MasterChef tour because there's a passionate fan base and opportunities in health and beauty with The Face [on Oxygen].There can be opportunities in scripted, too, which we're seeing from AMC with Walking Dead.
What aren't you doing that you'd like to do?
I want to dimensionalize our unscripted business. We've been successful with competitive reality, but I'd like to have more docusoap storytelling. We have some in development.
Docusoaps like Duck Dynasty have been hits on cable but not broadcast. Does that concern you?
It's coming because all of the broadcasters are looking more in the area. What we've been pitching are things that fit either as a drama or as a comedy. We have something that doesn't sound like a comedy, but when you see the tape, you realize there's a comic element. And it's a half-hour, so it can play with a Modern Family rather than be something that you have to find a slot for at 9 to 10 on a certain night. The networks are looking for companions. They're still aggressively looking for competitive reality, too, but it's about the humans in them, not just the predicaments they're found in. People need to come back for the people, which is why The Real Housewives has worked. People feel they know them.
There has been so much upheaval this year in the executive ranks in film. Why?
When people are worried about whether there are answers [to why something isn't succeeding], they often look to the people. The studios are becoming … the negative or tabloid term would be "fiefdoms," but the reality is that they're brands, whether it's Pixar, Legendary or Tom Cruise. And then the question is: Who's running the show? The empowered people at the studios right now are the storytellers. So it's John Lasseter and J.J. Abrams and their kin, and to me that makes a lot of sense. How you manage at the top is ever more complicated, and people are losing their jobs ultimately because of the commercial inevitabilities. But the stories are being told because there are still and will always be gifted filmmakers with homes at these studios.
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.