Brad Grey's Paramount Exit and Studios in Turmoil

Paramount's Brad Grey is merely collateral damage in an industry that’s figuring out how to survive.

It's one of the worst-kept secrets in journalism that most public figures play a role in creating their obituaries. They don't decide the wording of the stories or even the angles such final assessments take; but prominent people usually grant major newspapers interviews about their lives and careers, often multiple times over the years, and in doing so subtly shape how they'll be perceived.

Such luminaries as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, not to mention local heroes like Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep, probably have already had conversations with The New York Times and other publications about their work and experiences — exit interviews, as it were, long before their exits ever take place.

Now might be a good time for Paramount CEO Brad Grey to consider such a move. I don't mean to suggest the 59-year-old's career is over, but clearly an important part of it is winding down. It would be good to learn what he's thinking as talks move forward for him to leave the studio, as well as his ideas on the underlying causes, the peculiar way in which an individual's fortunes brush against those of an entire industry.

Because it's obvious that far more is at play here than one man's successes and failures. The film business is going through a remarkable upheaval, leaving its workers at a strange intersection where broad trends and personal trajectories collide.

Look around town, and you'll notice that one major studio executive after another has been sent spinning, like so many skittles scattered by balls larger and faster than any they could ever block. Amy Pascal, Jim Gianopulos, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Lynton — they're just a few of the towering figures who've left their jobs after years, or are about to do so. And there is no indication that their successors will last as long.

There was a time when you could measure studio eras by the people who ruled them: There was the age of MGM's Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer; the age of Universal's Lew Wasserman and Sidney Sheinberg; the age of Warners' Bob Daly and Terry Semel. Not any more. Executives' careers are briefer now, and they're likely to become briefer still.

Forget three strikes and you're out; these days, a studio chief is lucky to get to bat. As technology shifts at the speed of light, Hollywood will be forced to shift just as fast. We're not passing from one age to another; we're entering a time of perpetual change. How odd that this most capitalist of industries might be America's foremost exemplar of permanent revolution.

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That's been apparent in film for some time, where flux and fluidity have replaced stability and security. Fox, Warners, Sony and Paramount have all gone through rounds of musical chairs, and you can bet more will follow. Now it's Paramount's turn. With Rob Moore and Philippe Dauman having been given their walking papers, it was inevitable Grey would follow. All that remains to be seen is when, where and how he finally says goodbye.

The last time I can recall such turmoil was in the mid-1990s, when a host of people moved in and out of top jobs. But that was easier to explain. Back then, you could boil it down to one fundamental cause: the death of Frank Wells. When the Disney president died in a 1994 helicopter crash, his death unleashed a struggle for power. Michael Ovitz stepped in and Katzenberg stepped out, the former to resign within a year, the latter to create DreamWorks.

Looking back, subterranean shifts were also taking place in the business that nobody really understood: If Hollywood had been dominated by production people, it was now being dominated by the dealmakers — hence Ovitz and Ron Meyer (previously the founders of CAA) became the kings of this new country.

Still, the turbulence of the 1990s was mainly the result of one man's death, while the current chaos seems to be caused by something far greater. The movement we're seeing at the top isn't so much about any individual's performance as it is about an industry struggling to survive.

Profits are less than they should be, given the growing worldwide population and all the new technologies providing ways to reach it. Instead of riding the wave of change, most executives are drowning beneath it. Rather than chart a new course, they've kept doing things the old-fashioned way, following the truism that bigger means better. But bigger can also mean a quick way to go bust.

Rivals long to emulate Disney's Robert Iger, who's bet his empire on branded product from the likes of Marvel, Pixar, Disney Animation and Lucasfilm (as well as in-house product developed by production president Sean Bailey). But Iger benefits from Disney's toy stores, theme parks and TV channels, while most of the other studios can only pray for that kind of pipeline.

Without such outlets, their way forward is unclear. Go small, and there's the risk of being dwarfed by the competition; go big, and there's the danger of toppling over altogether.

One day, we may have a clearer take on all this. We may smile fondly at the executives trying to navigate their way to success, just as we do at the silent screen honchos who refused to come to terms with the impact of sound. But for now, it's all murky. The future is hidden, the present hard to understand.

Given this, Grey did well to last as long as he did. Now he's collateral damage in an industry that's in the midst of a revolution — and as we all know, revolutions have an awful tendency to chop off monarchs' heads.

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