A cross-section of front-rank executives from the media and tech sectors has gathered in Sun Valley, ID, for Allen & Co.’s annual conference.
This year’s edition of the event, held each July since 1983, gets underway on Tuesday. It is unfolding in the wake of several pivotal mergers and with questions swirling about near-term M&A scenarios and the unsettled order of a commingled universe, in which traditional media and tech giants are increasingly intersecting.
Many annual fixtures at the gathering, including Disney boss Bob Iger, Comcast chief Brian Roberts and Apple CEO Tim Cook, will be back. Just about every major company represented is apt to swing more deals at some point, though the conference is not quite the seedbed of major transactions that it used to be. (Landmark mergers like AOL-Time Warner, Disney-Capital Cities or Comcast-NBCUniversal are frequently cited as having taken root in Sun Valley, but those happened generations ago by today’s high-speed standards.)
Deadline spoke with some of those in the orbit of the highly secretive event, which is famously off-limits to media coverage. (Cue the long-lens photographs of Men in Fleece Walking Down Sun-Dappled Paths.) While a wide range of topics will be covered, extending far beyond media and entertainment, one topic for Hollywood attendees will be the boom in streaming. Disney, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal and Apple are all readying new artillery for the fight with Netflix after years of contenting themselves with licensing out their content. Even if meetings don’t necessarily lead directly to deals, the conversations and panels can be salutary, even if more of the time onsite is formally scheduled, a change from the more schmooze-y Idaho past.
“It’s the kind of thing where people don’t necessarily look forward to going, but once they’re there, they see people and have interesting conversations, so they see it as worthwhile,” one veteran of the circuit notes.
Another insider says for all of its exotic optics and air of mystery, the event ultimately caters directly to clients of Allen & Co. “In the end it has a somewhat insular feel because you’re seeing a lot of the same people in the same setting,” the person says.
Founded nearly a century ago, Allen & Co. has had a prominent spot in entertainment since the boutique investment firm acquired control of Columbia Pictures in the 1970s and then profited handsomely when Coca-Cola bought the studio in 1982. It has continued to advise entertainment companies, including recently Time Warner in its deal with AT&T, but has also sought to expand into technology. It was among the firms to help Twitter stage its IPO and counseled Facebook on its $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp.
For Apple, the notion of pressing the flesh has an added appeal this year given it is soon launching Apple TV+, its ambitious bet on streaming. While some details about the strategy remain unclear, the “services” component of the new streaming entry will be key — that is, the idea of acting as a purveyor of other services and collecting a distribution fee, as Apple does with its App Store or Apple News. Cook and software and services chief Eddy Cue are shoring up relations with many of the very “frenemies” launching streaming services of their own. (CBS, whose All Access and Showtime apps were announced as launch partners, views Apple TV+ as potential rocket fuel for its streaming efforts, as Amazon Channels has been.) The positioning of Apple’s expensive and tony original programming, from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Reese Witherspoon, is a question mark for many as the fall rollout approaches.
Sun Valley always comes during “intermission” in the busy entertainment year, and 2019 has been more hectic than most. Disney closed its $71.3 billion acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox in March, just a couple of weeks after AT&T finally vanquished legal threats from the government in its $81 billion acquisition of Time Warner. CBS and Viacom have moved toward another round of formal merger discussions — a process spiced up by the prospect that CBS has also been speaking with Lionsgate about a potential purchase of Starz.
The CEOs of both Viacom and CBS — Bob Bakish of Viacom and Joe Ianniello, interim head of CBS, will not be in Sun Valley. But Shari Redstone, who heads the controlling shareholder of both companies, National Amusements, is in town.
With media kept at a distance and not even an official website maintained by Allen & Co., the Sun Valley Resort’s official Twitter account seemed to be honoring the nothing-to-see-here approach. Here’s one of its “breaking news” posts from Monday afternoon:
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