I was walking on the Fox lot not long ago when my companion, a TV producer, pointed to a figure just ahead of us. “That’s Peter Rice,” he said. “Notice there’s no shadow.”
Rice’s shadow was in fact looming behind him, but I got the joke. Rice, the newly anointed most powerful man in television, is by design so low profile he may seem absent. He dislikes parties, doesn’t do interviews, avoids fundraisers and, in meetings, may be cryptic to the point of silence.
In short, the man who, as of last week, now rules the combined TV assets of Disney and Fox, is winning renown for high clout and low visibility. Renown and also respect: To a growing, even disturbing, degree, the figures who shape decisions in global entertainment are unknown to the public and even to most of the creative community. And Peter Rice is a role model for the corporate invisibles. (Earlier today, Disney also confirmed that several of Fox’s top film executives would migrate to Disney, expanding the portfolio of another scrupulously low-profile Disney mogul, Alan Horn.)
I don’t mean to pick on Rice. In fact, while it’s probably a betrayal to admit it, I have sustained cordial relations with him over many years. We’ve had amusing and informative conversations over many meals – even the food was off the record, of course. Rice surely has the credentials to be a superb corporate leader and the discretion to sustain it.
But here’s my concern: When I first started writing about the media, its CEOs relished being public figures. They liked being out there, pitching their product and venting their opinions. A generation ago, men like Jack Warner, Steve Ross, Charles Bluhdorn or Samuel Goldwyn relished center stage. So did Michael Eisner, Les Moonves, Richard Plepler, Brandon Tartikoff and Jeffrey Katzenberg a generation later.
In today’s corporate Hollywood, by contrast, how many of us would recognize (or have ever heard from) Steve Burke, John Stankey or Reed Hastings? Or Peter Rice? At a moment when the ecosystems through which content is being created and distributed are being subject to total disruption, who out there is interested in informing the public about the impact?
Consider the overview: Many levels of the Disney-Fox empire are still in flux. Network leaders change weekly. Warner Bros and HBO are trying to figure out the mantra of their bosses at the phone company, AT&T. A semi-invisible person named Shari Redstone pulls (and unpulls) the strings at CBS and Paramount, yet no one knows her game plan. The consumer, meanwhile, can’t figure out which plug to pull, or which ticket to buy.
There are exceptions, to be sure. Ted Sarandos of Netflix has become a presence in Hollywood, convivial at functions and award presentations and serving on such boards as AFI or the Cinematheque. Amazon’s new production chief, Jennifer Salke, has gone to considerable lengths to explain her new mission to her understandably confused audience.
And then there’s Rice. When he was a young executive running Fox Searchlight, I’d heard that he had just fired a prominent director who was shooting one of his films. When I phoned Rice to confirm, a Fox publicist responded, “Peter Rice never comments and never confirms.”
I promptly drafted an email to Rice, informing him that Variety was doing a special section on him, describing his excellent talent relationships at Fox Searchlight. An hour later Rice was on the phone, his English accent typically crisp, his tone cryptic.
“I was about to scream in protest when I realized you’re messing with me,” he said. “Am I right?”
“Of course,” I said, still cryptic.
And that was the beginning of our non-cryptic relationship, which likely may not continue now that he sits atop the corporate ladder. After all, while Peter Rice is both a smart and cordial man, this is the era of the Silent CEO.