Commentary: With a case of the clamps, the CFO is now a studio's most valuable player

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It could sound impertinent if not tone-deaf to talk about all the downbeat news out there in the wake of such a festive awards season weekend. But despite donning all the finery and gorging on the finger food, there's no getting away from the sobering world in which we live. Unemployment at 7%, the country's deficit at $1.2 trillion, Macy's having to shutter stores, and the porn industry only half-jokingly lining up for its share of bail-out money.

What the awards season does have going for it, though, is just what an impressive batch of movies have been put together during the past year or so, despite the writers strike, the beginnings of the economic downturn and the general naysayers who argue that kids have lost interest in celluloid and are moving on to other things (think video games, iPods and other yet to be invented gizmos and gimmicks). Maybe.

That defection by the kids might yet take hold, but for the moment folks young and old did largely flock to such tentpoles as Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight," Disney-Pixar's "WALL-E" and Universal's "Mamma Mia!" -- these being highly successful commercial movies that also gained traction as awards contenders.

Then there is the equally impressive range of artier, more indie-spirited movies, ranging from the evocative ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") to the rollicking ("Slumdog Millionaire") to the politically passionate ("Frost/Nixon" and "Milk") to everything in between. As I said, an eclectic batch from which to choose.

What has to be really frustrating for the producers and studio executives behind these movies is just how badly their parent companies seem to be doing. (All told, the Big Six congloms have recently written off some $40 billion in assets.)

"We did our part, but at this point it doesn't seem to matter all that much" is how one pent-up exec expressed it.

Thus, at the very juncture "Dark Knight" rings up almost $1 billion in worldwide grosses and lands a bunch of kudos, Time Warner announces that it's faced with taking a $25 billion "impairment charge" in relation to its underperforming cable, publishing and online assets. (That's a quarter of what was spent to merge TW with AOL nine years ago.) And TW is not alone.

To shore up his own privately held National Amusements, Sumner Redstone has had to resort to using Viacom and CBS as collateral, selling off shares at a time when those companies' stocks have been battered.

As with TW, Viacom's Paramount is showing signs of renewed vigor, re-signing chairman Brad Grey, moving beyond its breakup with DreamWorks, fielding a prestigious Oscar contender in "Button" and gearing up for J.J. Abrams' take on "Star Trek." And for all the challenges facing the broadcast TV biz, CBS has put together a successful primetime roster.

Similarly over at Sony, the film studio has just come off one of its more profitable years, with not a single movie losing money, and yet the parent company is going through contortions in having to scale back its consumer electronics operations and institute belt-tightening throughout the conglomerate. Sony chairman Howard Stringer's pared-down physique may be an apt symbol of the shrinkage that is suddenly de rigueur in Tinseltown.

How far we've come in a decade: What were once much ballyhooed as the joys of conglomeration -- all those synergies and cross-collateralizations and stocks that would only and ever soar to new heights -- are now being quietly downplayed or actively jettisoned. Being a pure-play company is a trendy concept again.

Not that I have any sure-fire predictions for the next decade, or even for the coming year, other than my hunch that a lot of people are going to get more cantankerous (I'm betting the legal tussles over "The Watchman" and "Two and a Half Men" will not be anomalies) and secondly, that the single most- listened-to execs at Hollywood companies will be those otherwise low-key, low-profile CFOs and business affairs types.

Not that media CFOs are necessarily giddy about being in the limelight.

A just-released study by Baruch College suggests that the country's top corporate financial officers are more pessimistic than ever, worried not just about the worsening economy but jittery about higher interest rates on borrowings and freezes on staffing.

Whatever else one may have signed on to do at the film and TV companies -- and most folks would say it wasn't to spend their time poring over Excel spreadsheets -- this year everyone will be taking their cues from what the moneymen say has to be done.

"I used to spend my weekends reading a script or two or going out to parties to network and such, but now there aren't so many parties and I'm doing overtime with budgets, trying to figure out how to do more with less" is how one mid-level studio exec put it to me. She would have been quoted but was embarrassed that her vaunted creative decisionmaking had come down to how to juggle nickels and dimes.

If you ask any of the important studio financial types to comment on the newfound cost-consciousness that now blankets the town like a winter mist, the automatic response is that their particular studio, "unlike others," has always been fiscally responsible if not downright conservative. Well, maybe, but that doesn't explain why almost everywhere clamps have just been put on expenses, corporate jets have been curtailed, and paper clips are being parsed out.

I guess the question that really matters is whether doing things more economically is going to affect the quality of what's being made or in some insidious way messes with the risk-taking DNA at the core of the creative community.

Lest we forget, no one ever walked out of a movie and praised the fact that it was brought in under budget.
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