February 21, 2019

Disney’s first openly gay exec

Much attention is being paid to Rich Ross, the recently crowned Disney studio chief, for snagging one of the most prestigious titles in Hollywood. There has been less news, however, regarding his status as the first openly gay exec to serve in that position.

As Patrick Goldstein notes on The Big Picture blog, Disney is considered one of the most gay friendly studios in Hollywood. It’s theme park branding of the frivolous with fantasy has long been an attraction for gay parades and celebrations. But a gay studio chief at the helm of entertainment’s most family friendly American brand?

“It’s about time!” actor/producer Howard Rosenman told Goldstein. “After all these years, what finally matters is—show me the money! It doesn’t matter what you do with your [penis], just what you do with your job. It’s a new era in Hollywood.”

Rosenman may be right that at the end of the day, only money matters—especially in this economy, where the hunger for bigger box office has trumped a whole lot more than old fashioned cultural prejudice.

And Ross knows how to bring in the green. According to an L.A. Times biography: When Ross joined Disney Channel in 1996, the network reached 14 million households. It is now available in 98 million homes in the U.S. and in 163 countries. Under his tenure, the network fielded such breakout hits as “Lizzie McGuire,” “That’s So Raven,” “Hannah Montana,” “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “Sonny With a Chance.” Disney Channel’s series and made-for-TV movies “High School Musical” and “Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie” have built lucrative franchises, generating $3.6 billion last year in sales of related toys, games, apparel, books and other merchandise.

Still, Goldstein writes, “Disney hasn’t exactly been playing up that Ross is gay,” which he answers with two possibilities. Either “Disney is hoping no one makes a fuss” or “it’s also possible that after all these years, the sexual orientation of a major entertainment executive isn’t big news anymore.”

It’s definitely not big news that Ross is Jewish—that’s a minority status that, at least in Hollywood, enjoys a myth of majority status (in reality, it’s more likely to be an advantage in business and creative power). Like Goldstein says, being gay just isn’t as riveting as it used to be, but let’s not forget it was less than one year ago when California—one of the most liberal states in the country—voted against legalizing gay marriage. (That hasn’t stopped Ross, who lives with his partner of more than 20 years, Adam Sanderson, in the Hollywood Hills.)

If Ross being gay isn’t news in Hollywood, it certainly would be elsewhere in the country. Which leads me to think that Disney wants to be provocative. After all, Dick Cook, its former chief, was largely thought dismissed in order to make way for a Disney image makeover. And with the company’s recent $4 billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, a company full of edgy, dangerous comic book characters, Ross may seem the perfect choice to integrate the new brand.

Positioning Ross to makeover Disney’s soft image is a bit ironic, since he hails from the anodyne Disney Channel. Of course its image of wholesomeness is daily subverted by its tween stars, who, off the set, are desperate to claim adulthood. In 2007, “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens, then a tender 19, was caught with nude photos on the Internet. A few months ago, Miley Cyrus, 17, the sweet-singing star of “Hannah Montana” did a pole dance at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards. Disney did little, if anything, to comment or cover up the sexual exploits of its stars, probably because it made them look cool to an older crowd; a child star with sex appeal has a better shot of transitioning into the real Hollywood.

Just like Rich Ross did.