“Good food, bad mood.” That was the terse advisory from a friend as our paths crossed at a Christmas party last week (she was going, I was coming), and I gather it summed up reactions at similar festivities. There are more glowers than smiles in evidence at holiday time – indeed, many parties have been canceled (like CAA’s Golden Globes event) or scaled back. The red carpets will still be rolled out, but the fashion color du jour will be black.
It’s all about angst: Harassment allegations are spreading like a perverse contagion. Further, mega-deals like Disney-Fox may delight investment bankers but they’ll translate into job cutbacks in Hollywood (one analyst predicts layoffs of up to 10,000). The wave of consolidation strikes fear in the ranks of indie companies as well as entities like Sony or Paramount, which are ill-equipped to deal with the new rules of techno warfare. The banishment of net neutrality also delivers the message that scale will conquer all.
The bottom line: Head-hunters report that a blizzard of job applications rather than Christmas greetings are hitting the streets. And the facial expressions at holiday events reflect worry rather than conviviality.
By conventional criteria, Hollywood should be feeling positive about the media economy. Aggressive new players like Netflix and Amazon have opened up new realms of opportunity and the Apples and Googles of the world are gearing up on the sidelines. The bankers may feel that the global movie business is static, but Disney’s new strategy is refocusing on a new generation of films for online distribution — “direct-to-consumer strategy is our highest priority,” Bob Iger reiterates. Meanwhile, TV production is strong, and while the year’s film output has reflected creative shortfalls, the arrival of awards season has prompted excitement about strong new releases.
But then we get down to specifics: While Iger and Rupert Murdoch have concocted a new global power play, their exuberance has not played well on the Fox lot, even at the senior executive level. Many observers had assumed that the future of Fox would follow that of most family companies, with Rupert’s two sons, Lachlan and James, sharing stewardship of their father’s empire, as they’d been trained to do. These assumptions failed to accommodate the reality that in
Rupert’s world, there is only one imperial presence – Rupert’s. The sons, like many Fox employees, may have to scramble to avoid becoming high-priced corporate flotsam and jetsam.
Rupert Murdoch has pledged to “find opportunities for anyone impacted,” and Iger is depicted in the New York Times as “the corporate equivalent of a guardian” in protecting entities he has previously annexed, such as Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. “He is extremely good at it,” attests Mario Gabelli, whose fund has $350 million invested in that hypothesis. Fox’s 22,000 employees await evidence of Iger’s munificence, especially those on the film side. Fox and its art house division, Fox Searchlight, released some 25 films last year compared with Disney’s eight, but Disney’s output resulted in $1 billion more in box office revenues (Fox will doubtless be able to boast about scores of award nominations on the other hand).
If the Disney-Fox deal stirs discomfort, so does the incursion of the phone company; there are still doubts whether AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner will gain Trumpian approval and, if it does, how the deal will impact key TW divisions. Every corporate buyer going back to General Electric or Coca-Cola comes up with its own ideas on how to reinvent Hollywood. Assuming AT&T imposes no unexpected constraints, Warner Bros will emerge as Hollywood’s most prolific producer and HBO will surely step up its spending on content to keep apace with new competition. The ultimate autonomy of CNN also is at stake.
This much is clear: Iger is now looked on as the visionary charting Hollywood’s next chapter. Industry veterans note the irony in Iger’s new status; when he was initially anointed Disney’s CEO, Iger was dismissed as a conventional TV guy who didn’t get the “big picture.” He started as a TV weatherman and worked his way to the top of ABC, which Disney devoured. At the time, Iger’s style did not reflect the hyper-activity of the Michael Eisner-Jeffrey Katzenberg epoch at Disney. He surely would have disdained Disney’s earlier acquisition of Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax – a deal which, in retrospect, seems especially out of keeping with the Disney image.
But it’s Iger who now has the hot hand and is delaying his retirement yet again to play it. I don’t know if he plans to attend any of the town’s holiday parties, but, if he does, perhaps he can infuse some cheer into the proceedings. That, in itself, would be a useful turnaround.