Disney Chairman Resigns on Eve of "Avengers" Release

Rich Ross abruptly stepped down today as chairman of Walt Disney Studios, just two weeks before the U.S. opening of Marvel's "The Avengers," viewed as Disney's best bet to rebound from the disastrous "John Carter."

"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," Ross said in a statement. "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, effective today."

As debate already rages over whether Ross resigned or was fired, so too does speculation regarding his possible successor. According to The New York Times, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige and DreamWorks Studios CEO Stacey Snider are likely contenders.

The former president of Disney Channels Worldwide, where he's credited with shepherding the cable network's massive successes like "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical," Ross was named studio chairman in October 2009, overseeing the release of such hits as "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and Pixar's "Toy Story 3." However, it's the failures he'll most likely be remembered for: "Mars Needs Moms," "Prom" and, most recently, "John Carter," whose $200-million loss makes it one of the biggest flops in box-office history, alongside the likes of "Ishtar" and "Speed Racer."

Under Ross, Disney cut its film slate in half, making the success of "The Avengers," the first Marvel film it's marketed since shelling out $4 billion for the company in 2009, that much more crucial to the bottom line. By all indications, the Joss Whedon-directed movie is on track to open May 4 to "Hunger Games"-sized numbers in North America, somewhere in the neighborhood of $155 million.

"For more than a decade, Rich Ross's creative instincts, business acumen and personal integrity have driven results in key businesses for Disney, redefining success in kids and family entertainment and launching franchises that generate value across our entire company," Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement. "His vision and leadership opened doors for Disney around the world, making our brand part of daily life for millions of people. I appreciate his countless contributions throughout his entire career at Disney, and expect he will have tremendous success in whatever he chooses to do next."

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