Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: After Stacey Snider last week got the endorsement from the Murdoch clan to become film chairman next summer, moving longtime chief Jim Gianopulos to an undetermined role upstairs, talk around town has focused on several issues. 1) Everybody understands why succession tremors could be so profound at Viacom, but they are surprised they have reverberated at two of the most stable film studios in town – Fox and Disney, where they still haven’t found a successor for Bob Iger. 2) All wondered how Snider’s ascension will impact film division presidents Emma Watts, Elizabeth Gabler, and Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley. After all, it was widely known that Snider was imposed on them by Rupert Murdoch, and that no one rolled out the welcome mat for her. Even though it was always possible she would be the eventual successor to Gianopulos or at least share power with him the way that Tom Rothman did for so many years, word was that the well established division heads didn’t seek her help, or make her feel needed. It got to the point people were confused what role she played, with plenty of rumors she might be exiting. Outwardly, she swallowed her ego and played the good soldier. Behind the scenes, she made it clear she would leave unless her future was solidified publicly. Sources said that the prospect of a place at Viacom or a top job elsewhere helped bolster her leverage. And then James and Lachlan Murdoch made it clear, in a hastily prepared announcement, that it will be Snider who carries Fox’s film fortunes into the future.
Gianopulos and the division presidents who’ll be reporting to Snider in a year are accomplished executives with long track records, who’ve played the political game required to survive so long. They’ve got a year to find common ground and trust with Snider, because a chairman always wants to feel the team under them is loyal. The last time I can recall something comparable to the events of last week, where a disrespected party was suddenly given the reins, came in 1993 when Paramount production president David Kirkpatrick was downright dismissive about producer Stanley Jaffe’s aspirations to direct the anti-Semitism drama School Ties. When Jaffe was suddenly made film chief, do you remember what happened to Kirkpatrick? He famously found his office furniture on the lawn outside, and he ended up suing Paramount claiming his career was destroyed in an act of revenge. I have been loving the ruthless parlor games in this season’s Game Of Thrones, but you don’t see the Jaffe-Kirkpatrick or Katzenberg-Eisner dramas anymore, except maybe at Viacom. Peter, what was it like to be at a studio when a seismic change like this happens at the top?
BART: Executive jobs in Hollywood are a study in evanescence. My good friend Peter Guber and I had a ritual: Whenever I got a hot new studio job (there were three) Guber would call on my first day to remind me, “You’re renting your new office, you don’t own it.” Then he would suggest an exit strategy (always a wise one). On one of my studio jobs, I realized during week one that all my office furniture had been rented, and not taken from the studio’s fine inventory of executive furnishings. That was signal enough (I lasted eight years anyway).
Your premise is correct, Mike, that this week’s executive shifts will surely trigger a series of new ones. Wouldn’t it be predictable for Stacey Snider over time to build her own team at Fox? She has a great gig but a demanding one. I wouldn’t want to inherit a running dialogue with Jim Cameron, a filmmaker who gives the term “rigidity” new dimension. Remember Bill Mechanic, who once was the Cameron caretaker? Meanwhile, I suspect Gianopulos will be delighted to shed his responsibilities. A genial, thoughtful man, he has vintage cars to race, guitars to practice, children to raise, and a lovely wife with whom to travel. He’s the winner in all this.
FLEMING: I’m not sure he sees it that way at this point; it is being interpreted around town that he was moved out of her way. When you look at the foreign operations of studios, Warner Bros and Fox are considered the best and he built the latter’s. So surely, being out-gamed in this shake-up by Snider has to hurt, and he might not be content to dwell in an unspecified parent company post. Will he become what Ron Meyer is to Universal? Fox can certainly use a “Jim whisperer” (Cameron doesn’t listen to many studio executives, Gianopulos is one of them and Fox has committed a billion dollars to four Avatar sequels with a filmmaker who has been known to blow past budgets). Or will Gianopulos look elsewhere to replicate what happened with Alan Horn, who was unceremonious exited by Warner Bros, and now sits pretty, presiding over Disney’s hit-making film silos?
BART: The picture at Viacom carries vastly more dramatic thrust. Even Eugene O’Neill couldn’t have conjured a family melodrama this complex. For one thing, who is going to run that place? Or can anyone effectively run Paramount until the corporate politics are resolved? It will be tough enough for Stacey Snider to negotiate with Cameron, but who will negotiate with Sumner Redstone? Or his daughter, Shari? Or with Les Moonves, if he wants to run Viacom and is denied the job? Further, how can decisions be made on production issues when the company is paralyzed by its melodramas? My favorite survivor in the Viacom follies is Tom Dooley, a very cool and charming Irish guy who, as chief of finance, earns a bloody fortune and keeps clean of politics. Over the years whenever I needed a “native guide” on Viacom or Paramount issues, Dooley would always quietly provide me with off-the-record advice.
FLEMING: The Viacom drama keeps giving and giving, including today’s dialogue with Philippe Dauman where he talked about what a fun place Viacom was to work, how well everything was going, and how the depiction of drama was most a media-generated exaggeration. So much of what is happening seems like a bad episode of Dynasty. Viacom watchers tell me that despite Dauman saying that his corporation is a pioneer in the digital space, it isn’t; the film division hasn’t made enough movies; and watchers note that if the corporation wasn’t so busy spending $18 billion over three years to buy back shares, it might have helped the film studio by buying Marvel or DreamWorks Animation or Lucasfilm, companies that released movies through Paramount. Stock has plummeted, making the $54 million man Dauman an easy target. In the bigger picture, who really is right to be the chairman at these companies? The people running all of them are getting up there in years. At some point, we all look around and realize we’re dinosaurs with one foot in a tar pit. The landscape transforms so quickly; how can any of these moguls have the youthful touch to be versed in digital and where all that is going, and be able to see down the road and grasp what form these business are going to take? Will it come from digital empires like Apple and Google, which have been knocking on the door and has the resources to buy a studio or be a significant piece of an acquisition?
BART: My advice to Viacom’s newly recruited board of directors is that they beg Tom Freston to return as President (Sumner once fired him) and beg Dooley to be his chief operating officer. As for Philippe Dauman, I will arrange for Peter Guber to coach him on his exit strategy, just as he did on mine. After all, Dauman’s legal fees will be paid by Viacom (we learned last week). Even though he’s arguably working against the interests of Viacom, as defined by Sumner and/or Shari. Dauman, 62, was granted some $54.1 million in overall compensation in the year ending June 30, pretty nice pay considering that the company he headed lost 33% in stock value last year. So he needs some help covering his legal costs.
FLEMING: Back to Fox for a moment. There is much discussion at the agencies over what might happen, because they are making deals now on films that won’t come out until this succession plan happens. What people have told me is that Gianopulos would have liked to remain chairman until that first Avatar sequel was released in late 2017. He has relationships with key directors like Cameron, Ridley Scott, Bryan Singer, Matthew Vaughn, many forged as Gianopulos barnstormed the foreign markets with those filmmakers. He stood by Scott when films like The Counselor and Kingdom Of Heaven didn’t succeed, and that has led to The Martian and the upcoming Alien: Covenant and Scott lining up Fox projects it will take him years to make, even at the voracious pace he works. Gianopulos’ relationship with Cameron is strong; he was integral in keeping Cameron in the Fox fold when the director seriously considered directing Angelina Jolie in Cleopatra at Sony Pictures, but instead made a massive deal for Avatar sequels that will keep the filmmaker engaged for the better part of a decade. Gianopulos, and Watts, also took a big chance on Deadpool, a X-Men spinoff that became the world’s highest-grossing R-rated movie ever at $775 million. They were supportive on The Revenant, even though it was New Regency, Ratpac and a couple other financiers who were on the hook for the budget and overages.
At the same time, what I’ve been told about Snider is that despite underachieving for a while, she is a filmmaker-friendly executive, a strong manager who answers calls and reads voraciously, reflected in the notes she provides. She endeared herself to Scott by pushing The Martian as an Oscar candidate last year when the studio expected to concentrate on the David O Russell film Joy as the big awards-season hopeful. She’s made a positive impression with Singer. I’ve been told that she might not be the best picture picker, and might never have been comfortable with Deadpool, but that she likes to surround herself with strong executives and can be persuaded by their passion. And she listens. You look at all of her execs at Universal, from Scott Stuber to Mary Parent, Donna Langley, Dylan Clark and more who’ve gone on to other successes; Snider allowed them room to flourish. It will be very interesting to see if Snider bonds with the current film teams, now that it’s very clear they either embrace her or look elsewhere for work. They’ve got enough franchises and cornerstone filmmakers to keep stability –those Avatar films will start coming end of next year. Watts (rumored to have clashed loudest with Snider) has helped build many of those franchises, from the X-Men to Apes to The Kingsman. Watchers say to keep an eye on whether Snider starts bringing in execs in secondary positions. That might be a signal they’re being groomed for bigger jobs in her regime. That is the way that Sony’s Rothman did it when he first brought Sanford Panitch over from Fox, reuniting with him and giving him the job of overseeing local-language productions. Panitch was then tapped to become Sony Pictures president after a year or so. Fox will be a studio well worth watching over the next year or two.