Galloway on Film: The Greatest Executive

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

Only one Hollywood executive today can rival Irving Thalberg — the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Last Tycoon' — even though he’s nothing like him.

In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived in Hollywood, broke and alcoholic, but full of hope that the City of Stars would somehow revive his career and turn him into an important screenwriter.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. When he failed to master the screenplay form, a lucrative contract with MGM was allowed to expire, and Fitzgerald, just like many other writers, had to subsist on freelance work. To add insult to injury, at one low point he searched in vain for copies of his novels so that his lover, the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, could read them, only to discover they were out of print. Disheartened, and maybe even desperate, he could have turned his back on Hollywood; instead, he embarked on his final (and unfinished) novel, The Last Tycoon, first published in 1941, a year after his death.

No work of fact or fiction has defined the ideal executive as lucidly as this, created the same sort of prototype for the role.

Basing his lead character on Irving Thalberg — the most brilliant executive of his day — Fitzgerald told the story of Monroe Stahr, a man snatching at the straws of love in a world inimical to it. Like Thalberg, Stahr is embroiled in a struggle for power, while remaining aloof from it; like him, he respects writers, but also considers them little more than children; like him, he is a man of mystery and majesty.

Stahr is one of the very few people who understands the business in its entirety, who views it with a vision and emotion his contemporaries lack. That’s why he so appeals to us today, and why Hollywood artists feel endlessly drawn to him — most recently with Amazon’s elegant new adaptation of Tycoon.

“You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand,” says Tycoon’s narrator, Cecelia Brady, paving the way for our introduction to Stahr. “It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.” Stahr is one of them.   

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Does anyone today hold the whole equation in his or her head?

One by one, over the past few months, studio chiefs have been toppled or have thrown in their hats, as if defeated by a challenge that seems almost too great for any single executive to bear. Amy Pascal, Jim Gianopulos, Rob Moore, Michael Lynton, Thomas Tull — each has left a top-level job. And it’s not clear whether their replacements (at least, those that have been announced) will do any better.

We’re in the midst of a new industrial revolution, the Internet era, and anyone who thinks he can master it, or understand how it relates to Hollywood, is on a fool’s errand.

When Thalberg started out, talkies had not yet come into being. Television was decades away, not to mention the computer and its digital offspring. Studios were relatively bare-bones affairs, their autonomy enhanced by the sheer physical distance between them and their overlords in New York. The three economic pillars of the industry — production, exhibition and distribution — were all in their control, before the majors were forced to divest the theaters that had given them a direct pipeline to audiences.

Today, the entertainment business is as complicated as a Rubik’s Cube. The highest-level executives must deal with television as well as film; international markets as well as domestic; budgets for individual projects as massive as the GDPs of some countries; broadcast and cable and theme parks and merchandising and licensing and piracy and government and taxes — and that doesn’t even factor in the increasing fickleness of ticket buyers, each tugged by a hundred thousand rival forms of entertainment.

The greatest executives, the ones I’ve most admired, were true lovers of film. People like Alan Ladd Jr. (the sole studio head willing to stake his reputation on Star Wars), Robert Evans (the flamboyant figure who green-lit The Godfather and Chinatown), Sherry Lansing (who proved that a woman could do the job as well as any man) and Harvey Weinstein (who invented the specialty business as we know it) believed in their gut and didn’t turn to an algorithm for advice.

Whatever pitched battles they fought, whatever victories and defeats scarred them, they battled for a cause larger than making money. Like Thalberg, they knew there was a bottom line; but like him, they were sometimes willing to defy it for the love of the movies.

I remember having lunch with another of the greats, John Calley (the longtime Warner Bros. executive who left the business for years, only to return as head of United Artists in the 1990s) and talking to him about an obscure script I had read many years before. It was Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, about as uncommercial as a screenplay could be. But Calley not only tracked it down, he even paid to have it translated into English, just in case it was worth making.

Mercurial as he could be, Calley was the kind of man who’d send one of his staff deep into the bowels of the earth, a mile underground, searching through a salt mine where UA kept its old scripts, in the hope he’d find Kubrick’s Napoleon screenplay. (He did — despite Kubrick’s insistence that no such script existed.)

That was Thalberg’s kind of thinking. A kind of thinking that is inconceivable today.

Today’s top executives face another set of issues. They’re wrestling with stockholders and quarterly reports and changing ownerships and the digital world and a million things beside just making movies. They’re dealing with an equation too complex for anyone to master.

***

Disney’s Robert Iger alone seems able to do so. He’s a businessman, not an artist, who’s grown up in a corporate culture, not the Wild West of his predecessors. But the decisions he’s made have required a vision and boldness few of his contemporaries have shown.

Last week, when I was lamenting Disney’s dominance in the theaters, a member of his team noted the guts it took for Iger to pull off his larger-scale maneuvers. It wasn’t just that he foresaw the importance of brands such as Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, or that he understood their connection to Disney’s other key divisions, such as its theme parks; it was also that he had the courage to bet on them — “bigly,” as our president would say.

When he bought Pixar for $9 billion in 2006, the animation house could easily have been at the end of its extraordinary run; when he closed a $4 billion deal for Marvel in 2009, audiences might quickly have grown sick of superhero fare; and when he persuaded George Lucas to let go of Lucasfilm, for another $4 billion in 2012, who could have imagined the success of the Star Wars films that would follow?

Now Disney’s stockholders are terrified of what will happen when he leaves. Next year, they’ll have to replace him. It’s not a good position for a would-be successor.

I can’t imagine any novelist turning Iger into a fictional hero. He has none of Thalberg’s mystique or wistful romance. But even Fitzgerald might agree he’s the closest thing we have to Thalberg’s heir.

This is what it takes to be a modern-day executive.

The age of Thalberg is over. The age of Iger has only just begun.

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