Anne Sweeney on Her Final Days at Disney, Shadowing Angela Bassett and Joining Twitter
Hollywood's outgoing nine-time Most Powerful Woman is about to depart Disney as she revisits her shocking decision, reveals her progress in becoming a TV director, what she and Robert Iger talk about and how she'll judge success now
This story first appeared in the 2014 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Back on March 9, I met Anne Sweeney at a residence in Los Angeles, where she dropped a bombshell: She would be resigning her position as co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group in January 2015 to pursue TV directing. Two days later, news of the decision by the reigning Most Powerful Woman in Hollywood (she held the title from The Hollywood Reporter for nine out of 10 years) was broken on a THR cover, and the town went wild. I had never received so many phone calls and emails from people — at the highest levels — wanting to know more. Was she really going to try to be a TV director? What was her mood? Does she know how unglamorous that job is? The improbability of stepping down without a shove from the town's loftiest perch rattled Hollywood, where power is held more tightly than a good plastic surgeon's phone number. And to start a new trade at age 57 was stunning. (I know. She wasn't going to be CEO Robert Iger's heir. But the decision to leave was hers alone.) I saw Anne often this year, and each time she seemed more relaxed. On Nov. 21, I met with her in her temporary Disney office (her previous one already had been turned over to heir Ben Sherwood) for an exit interview before her January departure.
You've had several months to live with your decision. Any regrets?
No. There have been a lot of goodbyes, which have been hard because you realize a lot of people you won't see day to day anymore. That's been a little sad. But every day my decision is validated in a new way.
Everyone in town gasped at your news. Some were cynical. Tell me about those first 24 hours.
Everyone was surprised because I hadn't talked about it. This was a very private conversation that I'd had really only with Bob Iger and my husband. When anyone makes a decision that surprises everyone, what's really happening is people are asking themselves the same question: "What would I do if I had that opportunity?" The people that I'm closest to in the business called immediately, saying, "What do you need, how can I help you, what do you know, not know? Let's sit down, let's start to map this out for you."
We heard all the agencies tried to sign you.
(Laughs.) I did not sign with anyone. But there were many conversations with many very, very helpful agents; people that I had only talked to during negotiations or business deals called to ask me if I had thought about many different things.
No. I was just in a meeting before you got here, and we were wrestling down a really interesting problem. I was as engaged in the problem as I would have been a year ago. My way of working through a problem is to take it back to, "OK, I'm the consumer, what does this mean?"
How will Ben be different from you?
He's much taller. (Laughs.)
Looking back, what did you do here that will set your legacy?
I am probably best known for the technology piece, which would be the "Watch" apps and ABC.com and the iTunes deal. Those were moves that were made not because it was new technology but really out of curiosity as a consumer and realizing, as I looked at these new devices and new ways to view our programming, I wanted it as a consumer. I think the curriculum that we created at Disney Channel, the Whole Child Curriculum — which informed a lot of the development of our preschool programming that over time evolved from Playhouse Disney to Disney Jr. — was a very solid foundation for the channel that has been outrageously successful. And with the arts leaving our public schools, High School Musical was a very, very important moment for kids. The letters that we received from kids saying, "Hey, I'm that basketball player who wants to be in theater." It really reinvigorated a lot of theater groups in schools. And that was heartening because the future directors and writers who come into The Walt Disney Co. are the kids who have had creative experiences during childhood.
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I heard you've already shadowed Angela Bassett as she directed. True?
Larry Sanitsky, who is producing the Whitney Houston biopic for Lifetime, which is a member of our family, invited me to shadow Angela Bassett, a first-time director. And she was incredibly, incredibly generous to me. She asked: "Why do you want to shadow me? I'm a first-time director." And I said, "Well, two reasons: You're Angela Bassett, which brings a whole new dimension, but someday I hope to call myself a first-time director."
You walked away from that experience more excited?
More excited. And also realizing how much I had to learn.
So if you're not directing a show a year from now, you're fine with that?
Yes, as long as I'm learning and as long as I feel that I'm making progress. I'm learning at my own pace. But I hope to be directing.
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Could we see you working with ABC queen Shonda Rhimes?
Shonda is such a big idea. That's one of those dreams. But it just goes back to being inspired by the people who are around you and really understanding creative excellence and what goes into it. And that's why I feel lucky that I've been here and that I did get to see Shonda in action, that we had the experience of Steve Levitan (Modern Family) and countless other people who have come through the doors and given us great shows.
You've been the Most Powerful Woman in Hollywood a long time. Have you considered life without that title?
I never thought about the power. I decided a long time ago never to think about media as a mature business. It's an immature business, a growth business. The power of the company comes from the creativity, culture and people. I came in and always felt like I was building. Power, to me, is sitting in a chair with your hands folded and saying, "I'm done."
What will you base your success on the day after you're done here?
I am probably my best and hardest critic. And I have begun to map out my course of study on the creative side, and I have had many, many conversations since we spoke the last time. I believe I have found a path forward for myself. It's not what will you direct first, second and third, it's how will you learn and what are the pieces that are missing right now? And some people have taken the time to talk to me about the strengths that I am bringing in, which I didn't see myself.
I had a wonderful conversation with a director who said, "Given the kinds of deals you've been a part of that I've read about the last number of years, you have stamina. You need stamina. You need to be willing to tough it out in difficult situations. You need to understand that your job some days is to problem solve and not always about the budget. "
In Hollywood, people say once you're out of your position, you lose your friends, you don't get calls back. Are you prepared?
Well, actually I've already been living through it. And I haven't been surprised at all. The people who were pure business associates are still pure business associates, and if I'm not doing business with them, I won't see them. My true friends have been my true friends throughout. My girlfriends are still my girlfriends. None of that changed for me. Before I got here, I was Anne. And I'm leaving as Anne.
Every year when we do this issue, there is the same topic: There's a woman problem in Hollywood. There are not enough roles, yet we have more than 100 powerful women on this list. What is the disconnect?
You have to take it on a year-by-year [basis]. I wouldn't make the overarching statement that it hasn't improved. I think some years have been better years than others. Some of that is driven by economics and how hard it is to get things made. But as we see the economics of TV and film changing, as we see crowdsourcing, there could be a day when [alternative funding] actually drives a piece of content to win an Emmy or an Oscar. That will be a game-changer.
Is there a part of you that is sad a woman didn't replace you?
First of all, I did hire Ben here, but Bob Iger chose my successor, and I support his choice. And I do believe you will see a woman in that job someday and you will see other women replace men and men replace women. The culture of our company and the dynamics of our groups, we are 50-50 men and women in these executive positions. So I see it as a very fluid situation.
What has it been like for you and Iger in these final days?
It has been very warm. He has been really incredibly helpful at helping me think through some of the steps that I should take.
You don't have to be in the careful corporate confines now. Is Anne Sweeney going to tweet? [She sent out her first tweet Wednesday morning.]
She will. She will definitely be a presence in social media, but she'll be tweeting about what she knows. She is not an authority.
Will Anne Sweeney get in a Twitter war?
Anne Sweeney hopes she doesn't get in a Twitter war because she won't have [longtime Disney corporate PR exec] Kevin Brockman to pull her out of it. (Laughs.)
Will you become an activist/philanthropist like Sherry Lansing?
It remains to be seen. Our family's philanthropy is really focused on families who are dealing with autism [her son Christopher, 29, has autism]. The path that Sherry has chosen and blazed is remarkable. The fact that her foundation has been so important to Stand Up to Cancer and to other initiatives, her work as a regent for the university system in California … all of her roles and decisions continue to inspire me.
Last question: How will it feel to see a new person at No. 1?
I will applaud, and I will know that that person earned it. That is a hard spot to be.