Wanted: The Next Generation of Hollywood Executives (Analysis)

 Illustration by: Gary Musgrave

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

They were part of Hollywood lore, the "Killer Dillers" of the mid-1970s. With Barry Diller in the top job, the team presided over Paramount during an extraordinary run -- with hits from the Oscar-winning Reds to the franchise-launching Star Trek and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Included in the group of brilliant young execs were future Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner; future Disney studio chairman and DreamWorks Animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg; Dawn Steel, who would become president of Columbia Pictures; and Don Simpson, who would produce with Jerry Bruckheimer such hits as Flashdance, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop.

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"Back in the day, those were the guys in the room," says a former studio boss. "Now, who the f-- is in the room? You don't see people as well-rounded and business-wise as they were."

Industry veterans believe that major shifts at top jobs could be looming at nearly every studio: Tom Rothman was dismissed in September from Fox, and more change might be coming; Comcast approached DreamWorks' Stacey Snider for a job at Universal; Paramount has pushed troubled movies into 2013 (and not even Sumner Redstone can live forever); Warner Bros. must deal with the departure of Barry Meyer at the end of 2013; and rumors persist that Sony Pictures might be for sale. But the question of who would fill posts -- never an easy call -- seems harder than ever to answer.

When Disney chairman and CEO Robert Iger hired former Warners president Alan Horn in May to replace Rich Ross, 50, after a 2½-year tenure, the relief in Hollywood was palpable. Horn might be pushing 70, but experience and maturity suddenly were cool again.

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But why do the ranks of the young include so few candidates who seem prepared to contend with big jobs? Some speculate that in the digital age, with IPOs minting new-media millionaires, Hollywood has lost some of its cachet. And as studios have become less significant within big corporate machines, the jobs have become less creative, less challenging, less fun.

"One of the reasons movies kind of stink is because they're now so low on the totem pole of greater corporate interests," Diller told the radio show Marketplace on Oct. 2. "When I came to Fox … maybe 20 percent of its revenue came from television, 80 percent from film. Look what Fox has become -- multiple cable networks, international distribution all over the world, controlling interest in BSkyB. In other words, it's a multidiversified company."

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Bold players who placed smart bets have been replaced by "greenlight committees," as film execs once defined by their creative decisions now are graded on franchise management and how they play corporate politics. "The ones who survived from my generation were the most outspoken," says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who rose to production chief at Warners before becoming a producer. "A few of the politicians survived, but not many." Now, he adds, it seems the other way around.

And the corporate environment, with its relentless emphasis on results, has become stultifying. "I thought, 'Get me the f-- out of these meetings,' " says a former studio chief. "How did I end up making 'product'?"

Another ex-studio boss says the problem might be that in the wired world -- with windows collapsing and once-reliable revenue streams drying up -- top jobs simply have become far more difficult. Success stories involve partnerships, acknowledged or not. Another former studio boss concurs, citing the team of Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal at Sony: "He's genuinely interested in emerging markets and new delivery systems, and she's genuinely passionate about movies."

Maybe it always was about partnerships. After all, what were the Killer Dillers but a team? Eisner's great post-Paramount success at Disney came when he was partnered with Frank Wells and Katzenberg. Once he was on his own, the decline began.

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If that was true then, says a former studio chairman, it's even more true now. "There is no one person anymore who can do it all," he says. "The business is so unlike what it was that there is no training ground for it. It's wrong even to compare it to the way it used to be."

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