Executive Firings: What's Behind Hollywood's Season of the Witch Hunt (Analysis)

 Illustration by: Jacob Thomas

THR's studio-by-studio breakdown reveals surprising new details of the movie business' biggest executive upheaval in years -- Sony's hunt for money, will Jeff Robinov finally land at Fox? -- and the politics of the shake-ups.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Hollywood executives aren't an endangered species -- yet. More than at any time in years, it's open season on movie moguls. Amid skyrocketing costs and a sea change in how people consume entertainment, a sense of panic seems to have enveloped corporate CEOs, financiers and shareholders. Even as the global box office hit a summer record in both admissions and revenue, top execs are being picked off at an alarming pace.

Beginning in early 2012, the current wave of firings and executive suite reshuffling hit Disney first, as chairman Rich Ross exited under the cloud of megabomb John Carter. Then Fox co-chief Tom Rothman was shown the door. The town knew an overhaul was coming at Warner Bros., where a three-executive "bake-off" drama was taking place, but when Kevin Tsujihara got the top job and TV chief Bruce Rosenblum and film head Jeff Robinov soon left, it was no less cataclysmic. More recently, the ax suddenly fell at Universal and Sony. Focus Features CEO James Schamus was abruptly dismissed Wednesday and replaced by FilmDistrict's Peter Schlessel. Paramount on Tuesday announced it would lay off 110 employees, but so far its top execs have been spared.

PHOTOS: Executive Firings: Hollywood’s Season of the Witch Hunt

Such frenzies of upheaval seem to pop up periodically in the movie business. For instance in 1984, when Paramount's corporate boss Martin Davis forced out Barry Diller and Michael Eisner because he was jealous of all the attention they were getting for their success, it triggered a domino effect that led to big changes at Fox and Disney. But this time, it's not just a matter of boardroom egos. There are a number of specific factors in play. At the top of the list is the fact that even as most of the studios have cut back on the number of movies they make, while also inviting in more investors to share the risk, the big tentpole bets have just become too risky. "The studios have gotten into a rut -- they're making Iron Man 65 and Superman: Version 18," says analyst Harold Vogel. "And when you have the budgetary collapse of these large films, as you did this spring and summer, it puts the execs under added pressure. Those kinds of films give a kick in the pants to the people who watch budgets and assess risk."

Universal chairman Adam Fogelson endured last year's Battleship and had enjoyed several 2013 successes, but when the brass at the Comcast-owned NBCUniversal turned their attention to Universal, he was out and Ron Meyer and Donna Langley were paired with Jeff Shell, whose experience is mostly in television. Sony's Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal could have found themselves on the hot seat for recent misfires, but instead they moved quickly, declaring change at the studio was needed as they fired their marketing president Marc Weinstock.

STORY: Executive Firings: Which Perks Are Lost With The Job

Digital technologies already have impacted music and TV and are just beginning to hit the film industry, as going to the movies now competes with streaming media and video-on-demand. When analog-bred execs are ushered off the lots, jobs often are being given to those versed in digital distribution, like Tsujihara, or digital marketing, like Sony's Dwight Caines, who inherited part of Weinstock's job.

"We're coming out of a 20-year period where there was a degree of stability, but the technology has gradually changed. Many of the studio heads are not as young as they used to be, so a generational shift is inevitable," adds Vogel. But another problem plaguing Hollywood is a dearth of strong executive talent. Which is why Alan Horn, eased out of Warners in 2011, was soon scooped up by Disney's Bob Iger. Even as execs find themselves on the firing line, there's a sense of reluctance to let the next generation take over. What follows is THR's analysis of each studio's recent executive moves.

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