Soft spoken but intensely focused, Brad Grey earned respect early in his career for his ability to close deals and make big ideas happen. In a business of sociopathic loudmouths, Grey shrewdly played the role of the quiet negotiator. While his rivals were manic, Grey was manipulative, fostering TV hits like The Sopranos or movies like The Departed and shaping important client careers.
Grey died Sunday at age 59, just three months after Viacom terminated his 11-year run as Paramount’s studio boss. With all his savvy and smarts, Grey had confided to friends in recent years that he felt stymied by his clumsy and visionless corporate overseers. “Running a studio can be a thrill ride because of the talent you get to work with,” Grey told me not long ago. “Corporate meetings are not part of the thrills.”
Grey and I had sustained a bemused, but occasionally tense, colloquy since January 2005, when I wrote a column in Variety welcoming him to the studio fold but warning of the hazards ahead. “Your bosses at Paramount will tell you you’re not thinking big enough, then turn around and cut your budgets,” I wrote. Grey and I had dinner, and he predicted cheerfully that this wouldn’t happen, but in fact it did. His proposed alliances with Marvel, DreamWorks and other entities were shot down by Philippe Dauman, who succeeded Sumner Redstone as Viacom’s CEO. While Grey’s film slate started ambitiously with franchise films including Transformers and Star Trek, and artful ones like Babel and Nebraska, Paramount ran out of energy in recent years. Viacom’s TV networks followed a similar decline.
Sumner’s daughter, Shari, recently installed a new corporate boss, Bob Bakish, and a new Paramount chief, the experienced and adept Jim Gianopulos, but it remains unclear whether Viacom has the resources to resuscitate itself or if Gianopulos will be given the decision-making latitude that was denied Brad Grey.
I got an inkling of Grey’s level of exasperation two years ago when he asked me to fly with him to Brown University to address the student body. His son, Max, was studying at Brown, and it was Brad’s idea to deliver a joint lecture on how Hollywood really works – the fun part as well as the realities.
“It will give me a chance to explain to my son and his friends what I do for a living,” he said. Once we’d scheduled the trip, Grey got a better idea. “We’ll do our talk, but let’s also invite Jack Nicholson,” he said. The “lecture,” I realized, was now turning into a show — but Brad was, after all, a showman.
Nicholson’s daughter was also a student at Brown, so he said he’d be glad to join the party. The event turned out to be hilarious. Nicholson marshaled some colorful war stories about his acting career, moving inevitably into a passionate advocacy for legalizing pot. Grey, while modest as always, reflected thoughtfully about his producing adventures as well the high points of his management career with the fabled Bernie Brillstein, guiding clients like Gary Shandling and Bob Saget into new TV careers as well as building their own roles as producer-managers. In shifting to corporate life, however, Grey became more subdued. While he and Brillstein were able to realize their personal dreams, the goal of re-inventing a friendly and creative corporate landscape was less achievable. The Brown students seemed to get the message as well as enjoying the war stories.
Flying back to Los Angeles, Grey suggested to Nicholson and me that there had emerged a sort of tribal disconnect between the aims and ideas of the creative community and those of the numbers crunchers – a disconnect that was difficult to resolve.
It was as though my warnings expressed semi-facetiously a decade earlier had come to pass. Brad Grey had tried to “think big enough,” but the “big” thoughts had failed to make their way through the corporate underbrush. And he now was prepared to surrender the fight. That decision was more fateful than he would have predicted.