As the Viacom melodrama nears its dubious climax, a growing sector of the creative community has come to accept this reality: bigger is not better. “Hollywood was far better off before the corporate giants annexed the studios and networks,” argues one of the town’s prominent players, who does not want to be identified because he works for a multinational.
Going back to the days of Steve Ross and Charlie Bluhdorn, Hollywood has always been suspicious of the conglomerators, but the Viacom fiasco has underscored the down side: Most Viacom units in film and TV, from Paramount to MTV to Nickelodeon, have been stifled, not strengthened, by their Viacom connection. And a similar phenomenon has occurred at other majors as well.
No one would argue that the stand-alone studios of Old Hollywood were models of pristine management, to be sure. The Louis B Mayers and Jack Warners had their own eccentricities, Harry Cohn his criminal connections. But they were dedicated to embellishing their product, not diminishing it.
“Today’s corporate players are obsessed with quarterly earnings,” acknowledges one former CEO. “As a result, they are risk-averse. They want product for theme parks, not theaters.” Even Time Warner, the most content-focused conglomerate, has suffered serious setbacks at its movie studio, which some critics attribute to corporate misjudgments.
The unofficial expert on this phenomenon is Ron Meyer, who during his 20-year run atop Universal has survived six different corporate owners, all of whom demonstrated unique styles of dysfunctionality in the entertainment space. Over that period Meyer has reported to Edgar Bronfman Jr., the Seagram heir; Jean-Marie Messier and Pierre Lescure of Vivendi; Barry Diller (who had acquired a big stake in Universal); Jack Welch of General Electric; and, of course, the present Comcast regime headed by Brian Roberts and Steve Burke. While Meyer doesn’t care to review the past, not one of those executive masterminds had success with Universal and its assets until Comcast came along.
Messier, a megalo-maniac, created a Viacom-like structural nightmare and narrowly avoided jail. Comcast’s five-year tenure, of course, has luckily coincided with a superb run of hits from Universal Studios and major successes in animation. It has recently upped its bet by purchasing DreamWorks Animation. Comcast’s predecessors weren’t that lucky but, further, had trouble adjusting corporate strategies to the exigencies of the movie business. General Electric tried to re-school its studio executives into a paralyzing structure more suitable to making light bulbs. GE was so rigid about meeting quarterly earnings targets that it would drastically change release dates or marketing campaigns to meet financial projections.
Proponents of the corporate giants argue that pricey superhero movies demand the deep pockets and global marketing resources of multinational companies; doubters insist that the multinationals have mandated that these are the only kinds of movies Hollywood is allowed to make — hence a self-inflicted trap.
Looking to the future, major players at the corporate level predict a wave of consolidation that will sharply alter the brave new world of entertainment. If they’re right, only three or four mega-companies will dominate international production and distribution and they may include new entries like Google or Apple. An entire new wave of strategists may find themselves in charge of navigating intellectual property through an increasingly non-intellectual landscape. The experience and durability of a Ron Meyer may be even more in demand.