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What even was 2021 in Hollywood, anyway?
It wasn’t really the beginning of anything or the end of anything — just more uncertainty in terms of the shifting map of the industry. Boom for content creators, bust for a lot of studio movies, but overall a year saturated with more than the usual amount of anxiety.
For those who came up in the business, the change has been dizzying and disorienting. Fox is gone, ICM is going, MGM’s fate is murky, the future of some other stalwarts is cloudy at best. As one young-ish legacy-studio exec puts it, “What the fuck is this business becoming?” In the past, he says, “The worst thing that would happen is a tentpole that bombed. Now you have an industry imploding. The infrastructure is starting to crumble. What this business looks like in five years is terrifying.”
Not so very long ago, this executive’s simple dream was to work for a thing called a film studio that made a variety of movies, including some that were meant to shoot for awards, others that were meant to make money by the bucket and a few that were modest rolls of the dice that might surprise everyone by having an impact on the culture. The idea was that people might see these movies in the dark, maybe even ignoring their phones for a couple of hours. Now, he asks, “Are we all going to be a version of Netflix eventually?” Even becoming a faint imitation of that may be beyond the grasp of most legacy companies, though they seem to have no choice but to die trying.
The stresses of the rich and powerful are not the stuff of real tragedy, but in Hollywood this year it was possible to recognize the uneasiness that builds in a Shakespeare play when the proper monarch isn’t on the throne. There hasn’t been a real leader in this industry for years now. As the business has transformed at ever-increasing speed, no one has emerged to take the place of Lew Wasserman or Bob Daly or even Mike Ovitz. Some might say Ted Sarandos is king, given the dominance of Netflix, but he’s hardly the ultimate industry power-wielding heavy, and obviously he’s not the man to lead the legacy studios out of the difficulties that his company has created for them.
At such a time, it feels like a lump of coal in the stocking that WarnerMedia employees got a holiday video message from a man who many had hoped would be the Ghost of Christmas Past by now: AT&T chairman John Stankey, decked out in a Santa hat and a red plaid onesie with “Papa Bear” emblazoned on the chest.
Sitting beside a roaring fire in the hearth, this chilliest, business-MBA-wonkiest of executives said the company’s performance was “certainly the best gift I’ll receive this year — which is more than I can say for my new pair of slippers from my family.” Offering a revelation that one can only hope is based not in fact but in someone’s idea of a clever bit of folksy writing, Stankey said his family gives him slippers every year, “and I don’t even wear them!” With that, he models giant brown paw slippers and then says, with mock exasperation, “I don’t know if I’m supposed to be a wolf, a bear or whatever.” (A bear, John. Based on the stock price, a bear.)
“This is an attempt to humanize him, which they’ve tried before,” fumes one former WarnerMedia insider. “People are stunned. This is one of the greatest companies in America. Or was! He’s crowing about their performance and strategy? Don’t people get fired for destroying $80-plus billion dollars of value and turning an iconic Hollywood studio into a disaster?”
There’s been a lot of lame-duck leadership discomfort to go around this year. Disney has been in transition, too, as Bob Iger heads ever so slowly toward the exit. The year was a continuation of tension between him and his supposedly handpicked successor as CEO, Bob Chapek, a company veteran who is still seen as an outsider, and whom Iger cannot bring himself to praise, however faintly. Chapek seemed to confirm all of Hollywood’s worst fears about him in July by getting the company sued by Scarlett Johansson, turning her into an industry martyr. (The suit settled, but the memory lingers.) And in November, Chapek said the company would plunge into gambling territory that Iger had deemed off-limits for Disney.
After months of speculation, September saw the ouster of one of Hollywood’s more seasoned and popular silverbacks, Paramount’s Jim Gianopulos. While parent ViacomCBS pitched the new head of the studio, Brian Robbins, as a creative who has acted, directed and produced, many industry veterans view him — fairly or not — as the guy who impressed Shari Redstone with Paw Patrol. “You’re a placeholder, dude,” says one. “You’re there until they sell it.” In the same month, the town learned that ICM will vanish into the maw of CAA, leaving agents there with months to ponder their chances of survival.
Is it any surprise that Hollywood is turning its frightened eyes to Discovery’s David Zaslav, who will take the helm of the new, post-merger Warner Bros. Discovery sometime in the months ahead (unless the feds get in the way)? A few short years ago he would have been greeted with hostility and suspicion, but now even his home-renovation choices are treated by one longtime insider as a sign of his commitment to bring some glory back to Warners. “To me, the first clue was that he bought Bob Evans’ house,” this person says. “If you blew on it, it would have fallen down. And then he’s restoring it, not to Evans’ plans but to the original 1941 John Woolf plans.” (Woolf was the master of Hollywood Regency design, so at least the house will have Hollywood luster, even if Hollywood itself doesn’t.)
Zaslav has set about creating the perception that he means to be a king, meeting with “everyone who’s ever watched a movie or TV show,” as one top exec at a rival studio puts it. Among other ideas he’s floated is working with the National Association of Theatre Owners to help bring back the moviegoing experience. He presents this as part of restoring Warners to its preeminent position among the Hollywood studios. One of Hollywood’s favorite guessing games now is who will be part of the Court of Zaslav. He and his people act as though anything’s possible, mentioning a slew of names that include the most established Hollywood players. Why not Donna Langley? Why not Peter Rice or even — incredible as it may sound — Kevin Feige? (All are under contract at the moment.)
Reality may hit as Zaslav starts dealing with the company’s heavy debt, and when he follows his past practice of setting tough targets and torching those who don’t meet them. The only sure things are that Kathleen Finch, now Discovery’s chief lifestyle brands officer, will have a powerful job, and that HBO boss Casey Bloys is safe … for now. But one exec who has worked at Discovery ponders what will happen when Zaslav starts to interfere with HBO. Not that Zaslav will set out to interfere, this person says — it’s just that “he won’t be able to help himself.”
So we cruise into 2022 with a resurgent pandemic and much that remains pending and unknown: the Discovery-WarnerMedia marriage, Amazon’s acquisition of MGM, the CAA-ICM deal. Ghost managements are in charge, with Jason Kilar tweeting cheerfully about WarnerMedia as if the clock weren’t ticking. Mike De Luca speaks on MGM’s commitment to “the movies Hollywood used to make — bold provocative originals,” as if the future of not only his studio but movies themselves weren’t a big question mark.
And at Netflix, Scott Stuber tells The New York Times that the streamer has a revolutionary idea: “If you have the budget to make 14 movies and you only have 11 great ones, let’s just make 11,” he said. “That is what we need to aim toward because you really are in a deeply competitive world now, and you want to make sure that you’re delivering at a pace that people see greatness consistently instead of randomly.”
Now, why didn’t anyone else think of that?
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