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You're Fired! Ousted Studio Execs Reveal How They Coped -- and What Happens Next

Fired Exec Illustration - H 2013
Illustration by: R. Kikuo Johnson

Bill Mechanic, Nina Jacobson and Donald De Line reveal how to spin it, what to do first and why friends matter after a season of setbacks.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Firings are a perennial part of Hollywood life, though sometimes they are so abrupt that they take the town's collective breath away. Such was the case with the Sept. 9 dismissal of Universal chairman Adam Fogelson, who had partied at a Toronto gala for Ron Howard's Rush only hours before learning via media leaks that he was out.

In a big year for turnover, Fogelson was the third top film studio executive to lose his job. Tom Rothman was dismissed from Fox abruptly last September (and now oversees the revived TriStar label at Sony Pictures), while Jeff Robinov departed Warner Bros. in June.

PHOTOS: Top 10 Dramatic Studio Shake-ups

While Fogelson's ouster in particular stunned the industry, executives know that top jobs almost always are temporary. (NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer, at 18 years and counting, appears to be the exception that proves the rule.) "You're essentially hired to be fired," says Bill Mechanic, who was pushed out as chairman of the Fox studio in June 2000. "There is no riding off into the sunset."

How, then, do fired executives cope? THR talked to several top execs about what they did next. Their answers were remarkably similar.

HOW TO SPIN IT

"Everybody said, 'You shouldn't say you were fired,' " Mechanic says. "I did this interview saying I didn't resign, I got fired, and everybody thought I was stupid. [But] I don't think there's anything wrong with being fired in that job. Nobody lasts, nobody survives, so why would you think it's a big deal?"

STORY: Source: Universal's Adam Fogelson Kept in Dark, Blindsided by Shake-up 

Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson, dismissed as head of production by Disney in 2006 as her partner was delivering their child, says she, too, chose to tell the truth. "You're usually encouraged to come up with a party line about how you're pursuing your lifelong dream," she says. "I chose to be honest about it and not try to spin it as my choice when it wasn't." It was also important to her to "take the high road." She adds, "You can't control the outcome, but you can control how you handle it. Try to exercise candor and class and not get swept up in feeling like a victim."

TAKE A BREAK

"It's easy for your identity to get caught up in these jobs," Jacobson says. "The best thing to do is to be with your family -- and try not to lose confidence in yourself." With a newborn at home, Jacobson took six months off rather than seek a professional "rebound relationship." Mechanic concurs: "I hadn't had a vacation in years. I'd been around the world so many times and seen nothing of where I was. I started restoring humanity to myself." He also agreed to serve as president of the jury at the Berlin Film Festival "to rekindle my film roots and remind myself, it's not about what happens Friday night." (Rothman similarly joined the jury of the Sundance Film Festival.)

STORY: Why Jeff Robinov Is Stuck in Executive Jail

Donald De Line, a producer who became president and vice chairman of Paramount for 14 months ending in March 2005, says he knew exactly what his next step would be when he was asked to follow Jon Dolgen and Sherry Lansing out the door. "I just went right back to work as a producer," he says. "It was disappointing, but I knew it was 50-50 at best when that kind of changeover happens." De Line made a deal at Warners, where he remains. 

 

DETERMINE YOUR REAL FRIENDS

Contrary to what might be expected, the phone doesn't stop ringing overnight. "You think everything will evaporate, but it doesn't disappear right away," Mechanic says. "You can go to restaurants, you can still get seated. You don't become the plague." But it tapers off. "Agents don't return your calls promptly -- that takes some getting used to," he adds. "Especially when it's people you've helped before."

Jacobson says the firing put her industry friendships to a good test. "I will always remember the people who stepped up for me," she notes. That includes Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider, who offered her a deal at DreamWorks. "Having somebody who wanted me meant the world to me, and it gives you a sense of looking forward and not back."

AND THEN WHAT?

One former studio chief says the impact of a firing depends on when it happens in a person's life. "When it comes at the end of a career as opposed to in the middle, it's different," he says. "If I was 45 and had no job the next day, I would have felt different."

STORY: Tom Rothman Packs Up His Fox Office, Moves Out

Mechanic, who was in his 40s when he was let go, says he had offers but decided against taking another studio job. Had he foreseen the changes that were about to occur in the industry -- the difficulty in getting "real movies" made -- he might have reconsidered. "I don't know if it was the right decision," he says. "It's rougher. The world changed. It's taken me longer to get [projects] done, but I'm getting them done the way I want, without compromise."

Jacobson says her success as a producer helped take the sting out of the firing. "Now, when I go for a meeting in a studio and walk down those carpeted hallways ... I always feel really happy when I walk back out the door," she says. "It was like trying a food that you think you don't like, and finding out it's your favorite."