Barry Diller on His Floating Island, Dream of Riding a Gondola to the Hollywood Sign and Peak TV

Diller Island_Barry Diller_Inset - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Pier55 Inc/Heatherwick Studio; Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Yahoo

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the IAC chair talks about his newly revived Pier 55 project — aka "Diller Island" — and what really happened behind the scenes. He also has some choice words for Cynthia Nixon but steers clear — at least this time — of criticizing President Trump.

It isn’t always easy being Barry Diller. The fierce resistance the 76-year-old billionaire encountered from a local civic group against his plans to build a floating island off Manhattan’s Pier 55 left him exhausted and disillusioned. But the project is back on track, and Diller’s spirits are renewed. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Diller dished on how he feels “no vengeance” for his opponents and his dream of adding even more radically ambitious civic projects.

Back in September, the Pier 55 project looked like it was dead. Did you really think it was done or did you walk away as some sort of tactical chess move?

It really wasn’t tactical. After three years of being tortured by less than a handful of folks in New York and then, when it looked like we were going have another delay that would last a year, I just said, "I’m out." It’s just not atmospherically something that a sane person would continue. My family really said, "Stop this. This is making you crazy." So I did, and I didn’t think much of anything other than: "This process is over. Maybe another one will start, but this process is over." And then Governor Cuomo really rescued it.

So then what happened?

What happened was he called me very quickly after I had withdrawn and said, "I’d really like to try and help this." And I said, "Please don’t, because I’m just not in a mood. It’s just been too destructive. Give it a little time." And about a month later he called me and he said, "All right, is now good?" He said, "Let me see if I can come back to you after talking to the opposition and come back with something that you’d accept." I said, "Let me be clear: I have no concessions to make because I’ve done nothing wrong and all I want, if I can have it, is the ability to build this Pier 55 park." He called me about three weeks later and said "I’ve done it." I said, "Well, that’s the good news and the bad news."

In September, you mentioned several reasons why you were walking away. One of them was the escalating costs. As far as I know that hasn’t changed. What are your plans to deal with the costs?

Well, I’d like any suggestions as to what I should do. Other than write checks, there’s nothing much we can do. We want to build it right and yes, it’s true the delay was costly, but my family’s lucky. We have the resources and we’re going do it.

What strikes you as the most remarkable thing about the project’s revival?

If it hadn’t come together so nicely and neatly I probably wouldn’t have proceeded because everything is a struggle and you shouldn’t be such a wuss, but you let obstacles push you away or deter you. But this project is now 6 years old, so it has been a siege — but it did come back remarkably whole, so to speak. We didn’t make a compromise in what the plans were. Now, we’re in the build process and we’re just beginning the programing process and it’s exhilarating. To do a project like this, which is purely for people’s pleasure, there are no rules. … This is for the pleasure of the people of New York and the people who visit New York, and how could that not be joyous. You’d have to be really dark.

You have spoken about the struggle and battle you’ve been through with this project. Why do you think a philanthropic project like Pier 55 became so bruising? Has philanthropy come to mirror American politics? Is the saga of this project indicative of something larger?

No. I mean look, you can put anything in the context of its faults, but in fact we had, since the very beginning, the absolute endorsement of our community boards, which are usually quite noisy and can be very difficult in New York. We had every major group from the beginning. We only had 30 extremely noisy and well-funded people who opposed us. We got caught up in something. There are so many easily erected obstacles if somebody wants to do so. The legal process left us so vulnerable, and that doesn’t reflect anything other than, you know, good stuff’s tough to do. And maybe it should be.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, you used the word “jinxable” to describe yourself. I interpreted that as a nod at the Durst family because of the title of the HBO series The Jinx, which was about Robert Durst, Douglas’ brother who funded the lawsuits that tried to block the development. Am I reading into that quote too closely?

(Laughs) No. No, it’s not so — but I’ll take it.

Have you talked with Douglas Durst? Have you two buried the hatchet?

No. But I’m very lucky. Things that are difficult or unpleasant, I somehow have this magical thing of wiping it relatively clean. So I’ve got no vengeance.

How do you feel that the Pier 55 park can differentiate itself from the other outdoor venues like Central Park and Governors Island? The city already has a pretty rich cultural environment.

The truth is there’s nothing in the area other than the High Line, which is a wonderful thing. But it’s a walk-through. It’s not for resting and relaxation and stimulation from the arts. There’s really not very much of that. There’s one venue in Central Park — the Delacorte Theater — but no, it’s not like the area is overloaded with venues. Also, architecturally it’s unique — you’ll either like it or you won’t. But it’s definitely unique.

Another criticism leveled at the project was that it was yet another venue catered to rich people.

I think it’s a crazy concept to say that a park on a pier is actually [just for the rich]. Will some rich people be there? Yes. As will some poor people and some people of all colors and all this and all that. That’s what these things are — thank God. The great thing about wandering around New York is you can’t walk down a street without hearing multiple languages. I think that’s fantastic and it’ll happen on our pier.

The fact that this question of class is brought up so quickly strikes me as somewhat indicative of what’s going on in the culture at large. Is there some sort of rote response to go after wealthy individual like yourself no matter what you do? Does that say anything to you about what’s happening in America or across the landscape?

I don’t want to. … I’m such a trasher of our current administration and those affairs, but I’m too cat-nipped to respond.

Here in L.A. I read with great interest about this gondola project that you are proposing that would take people to the Hollywood Sign. This sounds kind of nuts. How realistic is that?

Time will tell, but we are starting the first phase of the project which is really — we’re funding the discovery phase, which is feasibility. We have encouragement from the administration of the Los Angeles Mayor's Office, so we are going to see. The early work says it is feasible. It’s going to take a while — and God knows it’s not an easy project — but it’s also a juicy, wonderful idea.

I wanted to get your thoughts on Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign. Could this be a game changer?

No. I am not excited.

Because she’s a celebrity?

Not excited. Period.

Finally, I am curious to hear your thoughts on the recent super contracts offered to Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. As someone who helped shape the industry, are you shocked by these figures and the size of these overall deals?

No, not really. It’s inevitable these things are going to continue. Netflix in particular has so many subscribers go in the opposite direction, which inevitably they will. For now, everybody should enjoy it.