Inside the jockeying for top job at Warner Bros.
CEO Bewkes hired headhunter; new role likely for Meyer
Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeffrey Bewkes might have gotten a bit ahead of himself when it comes to planning succession at the industry's dominant film and television studio. Now he seems to be resetting the clock.
In March 2009, it appeared that Bewkes was moving executives Barry Meyer and Alan Horn into retirement. With the invaluable Harry Potter franchise winding to a close and with the digital revolution well under way, Bewkes gave Meyer, 66, and Horn, 67, only two-year extensions on their contracts, which expire at the end of 2011. A reorganization could be announced as early as this fall.
Bewkes denied that he was pushing the team out. "They are at the top of their game," Bewkes told THR a year ago. "But they have been doing this for going on 12 years. They don't want to stay here forever. It's possible I could have gotten them to stay another year. More than that? No."
Now, make that yes -- at least when it comes to Meyer. Having cast about (including hiring a headhunter), it seems that Bewkes has not found a candidate to take over -- at least, not one who is free to take the job now. Betting within the studio is that Bewkes will extend Meyer's tenure for up to two more years -- an imperfect solution but one that would give Bewkes more time to replace the leadership at the studio.
Bewkes' problem appears to be that he wants to hang onto three in-house candidates for promotion -- all valuable but none who he wants to anoint for the top job quite yet. The contenders are Jeff Robinov, president of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group; Bruce Rosenblum, president of the Warner Bros. Television Group; and Kevin Tsujihara, president of the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group.
Spokespersons for Time Warner and Warner Bros. Entertainment declined to comment.
But according to several knowledgeable insiders and observers, the three contenders for promotion are like the porridge in Time Warner's version of the Three Bears -- none of them is just right.
Running the digital unit, Tsujihara has business chops and a new-media background but lacks a track record on the creative side. Robinov has shown great strength running the movie division but lacks business experience and corporate polish. He also is going through a difficult marital split. And Rosenblum is rooted in television and has sharp corporate elbows.
"If [Bewkes] thought one of these guys was an obvious candidate, there would be no discussion," a major Warner shareholder told THR.
The history of Hollywood is replete with tales of corporate strategy gone awry when a company tries to retain more than one valued executive seeking promotion. Viacom's Sumner Redstone made what is now considered to be an ill-advised decision to split his company in two to give Les Moonves the top job at CBS and Tom Freston control over Paramount, Nickelodeon and the remaining Viacom properties. Now Bewkes is trying to finesse exactly that kind of treacherous situation.
A number of industry observers with connections deep inside Warners expect Bewkes to retain Meyer -- assuming he will agree to stay -- while creating a power-sharing arrangement that will grant all three executives relatively equal status. (Some observers also believe there might be a role at the company for Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System, and some believe Bewkes intends to take a more hands-on role at the studio.)
Said one source who's been following the developments closely, "Right now, as far as I can tell, they don't have a scenario where the three guys can feel comfortable staying unless Barry is over all of them."
A Warners hand predicted, "Barry would serve as regent for at least a couple more years so that the other three guys don't throw pies at each other."
Since they were given the reins in 1999, Meyer and Horn have had more than their share of big-ticket wins. Buoyed by such franchises as Harry Potter and Batman, Warner Bros. Studios has hit the $1 billion mark at the domestic box office 10 years running, and the Warner Bros. Television Group has dominated small-screen production with hits ranging from "ER" to "Two and a Half Men."
Despite the success of the film division, it seems clear that Bewkes does not intend to keep Horn on the job. A Warners veteran said Bewkes and Horn were never close and that Bewkes very likely feels much of the credit for the film division's success is attributable to projects set in motion by Robinov or even the previous regime (a point that many in the industry would say is grossly unfair).
Still, for the near term, no one expects Bewkes to unleash the kind of wholesale changes that Disney CEO Robert Iger set in motion went he installed former cable guy Rich Ross as chairman of Disney Studios in October.
A major shareholder signaled his approval for what appears to be an interim plan. "If Barry's willing to work some more, I think Barry does a good job," he said.
Indeed, little is not working at Time Warner these days. The company recently reported better-than-expected second-quarter results. Its filmed entertainment segment saw revenue increase 8% to $2.5 billion, in part thanks to "Clash of the Titans" and "Sex and the City 2," both of which did twice the business overseas that they did domestically. Since then, Christopher Nolan's "Inception," a $160 million gamble with its twisty brain-teaser of a plot, has grossed more than $658 million worldwide.
Entering the fall TV season, more than 80% of the company's soundstages are occupied by shows including those headed by Ellen DeGeneres, George Lopez and Conan O'Brien.
Plus, Warner Bros. has weathered the recession: In 2009, it went through a tough belt-tightening, laying off about 10% of its staff, or about 800 jobs.
But the studio still faces challenges, and there's some nuance to handicapping the contenders.
-- Jeff Robinov: Directing film operations under Horn, Robinov -- a former ICM agent who joined Warners in 1997 -- needs to come up with a slate that can work some magic. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I" opens Nov. 19, and when "Part II" is released in July, the eight-film series -- which has returned more than $5.4 billion in worldwide grosses to become Warners' most successful franchise -- will have run its course.
Since taking over the motion picture group, Robinov has consolidated power with dazzling speed. He has shaken up DC Comics, appointing Diane Nelson, who had been running the direct-to-video unit, as the new president of DC Entertainment with the goal of bringing more DC characters to the big screen with the same effectiveness that Marvel has demonstrated.
He also expanded his power base by promoting Sue Kroll to president of worldwide marketing, combining the domestic and international divisions. "Choosing Sue was definitely something that was manufactured by Jeff, and he gets the credit for the turnaround in the marketing space," another studio insider said.
Last year, when it came time for Robinov to negotiate his own contract renewal, he pressed Bewkes to commit to a guarantee that he eventually would be given Horn's job. Bewkes, according to several sources, didn't go that far but since has signaled to Robinov that he's in line to take over Horn's role.
"I heard Jeff said, 'It's my way or the highway,' but Jeff Bewkes sweet-talked him into it," one source said.
Sources believe Bewkes will take steps to placate Robinov given his success. "My understanding is that it will be cold comfort," a source close to the studio said. "He really wants clear ascension into that Alan job."
-- Kevin Tsujihara: If Robinov has creative experience without the business chops, Tsujihara presents precisely the opposite. He isn't well known within the Hollywood creative community; his calling card is that he's been on the cutting edge of new delivery systems. In 2005, Warners became the first studio to put all its home entertainment divisions -- home video, online, games -- under one exec.
Not everything has panned out for Tsujihara, like allowing Warner Home Entertainment to push for the HD DVD format that ultimately lost out to the Sony-backed Blu-ray Disc. But since joining the studio in 1994 -- he originally was involved in managing the Six Flags parks -- Tsujihara has steadily conquered the new-media environment, where Warners often leads the pack.
-- Bruce Rosenblum: A former entertainment attorney who has been at Warners since 1989, Rosenblum has beefed up the TV side, corralling an all-star lineup of producers including J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer, Chuck Lorre, John Wells and Mike Fleiss. If crowning a new CEO is decided by who generates the most revenue and profit, the guy running the TV side of the business would be the hands-down winner, accounting for more than 50% of the company's earnings. But there are questions about Rosenblum's people skills, a source close to the studio observed, and television is "an old-media platform on which to build a candidacy."
The ace in Rosenblum's hand may be that he's following the same career track that Meyer himself took to the top. And there are those who argue that TV is the best training ground for the top executive suite -- not just because of the revenue it rakes in but because television is intrinsically a more complicated, multifaceted business than film and requires a broader skill set. At News Corp., for example, Peter Rice is being groomed for a top leadership role, so he was moved from his position atop film specialty division Fox Searchlight to get experience in TV as chairman of entertainment for the Fox Networks Group.
Within the larger Time Warner family, Kent might have the advantage of a trajectory closer to that of Bewkes. As chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System, Kent comes up through cable, as Bewkes did through HBO. But Kent has his hands full with CNN: Even though the news network is profitable, its ratings have been in free fall -- and insiders are divided on whether he remains in contention.
Bewkes still could do something unexpected. The Time Warner troops were surprised last month when he recruited Jack Griffin, the former head of Meredith Corp.'s National Media Group, to replace Anne Moore as CEO of Time Inc.
But Laura Martin, an analyst for Needham & Co. who follows Warners, said that's not the usual approach at the company. "It's a pretty tight-knit culture," she said. "It would be hard to bring someone in from the outside."
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