The Death of the Hollywood Dynasty

Getty Images
Rupert Murdoch

It's time for the mega-families that are clinging to power to let go. The sooner they do so, the better, writes Hollywood Reporter executive editor, features, Stephen Galloway.

Once upon a time, family was central to Hollywood’s concept of itself. Clans like the Warners and the Zanucks controlled entire studios, often battling among themselves but never relinquishing their crowns.

It was one reason The Godfather had such resonance within the entertainment industry, even more than in the world at large: Hollywood knew all about families, their machinations, their infighting, their dysfunction; it knew which of the kinfolk got the good genes, which the bad, and which should be sleeping with the fishes.

The scions of these families spread through the business, taking key positions at one studio or another, using their knowledge and contacts to boost their careers. There were Ladds and Prices, Goldwyns and Disneys everywhere to be seen. Having a lustrous name opened doors, as it still does, though the doors were bigger back then and likely to stay open a lot longer.

Many who entered them did terrific work, though hardly ever at the level of their progenitors. Others clung to jobs that everyone (including their families) knew they didn’t deserve. Few were axed in the good-old-bad-old-days, because in the clubby world of Hollywood, it was easier to keep a dud on the payroll than fire him.

In the best cases, the sons of these families (they were almost always sons, rarely daughters) became successful producers like Richard Zanuck or executives like John Goldwyn and Alan Ladd Jr. In the worst, they tried to take over the empires their parents had built.

And that’s where the concept of dynasty — call it blue-blood nepotism, if you prefer — went disastrously wrong.

Each time family has turned to family to take over a business, something has failed. Not, perhaps, when a dynamo builds on the small-scale operation he has inherited — as Rupert Murdoch did with his father Keith’s newspapers — but certainly when he or she tries to take a huge firm to an even higher level (or, even worse, when he persuades his family to buy into it, as Edgar Bronfman Jr. did to catastrophic effect with Universal in 1995).

Nowhere has this been clearer than with the two most prominent families now at the summit of the industry, the Murdochs and the Redstones.

Many questioned Sumner Redstone’s wisdom when he bought Paramount Pictures in the first place, paying an exorbitant $10 billion in 1994 and wresting the studio from Barry Diller’s grasp at the end of a ferocious, months-long battle. Others were dubious about some of the people he hired or promoted: among them Brad Grey as Paramount chairman and Philippe Dauman as CEO of its parent company.

But at least Redstone entered the business with a vision, building his own empire from his father’s modest theater chain. Few could say the same of his daughter, Shari, who’s at the helm of his businesses now. She has waged war with some of her own executives in an attempt to merge CBS and Viacom and has yet to figure out a strategy that will allow either of those companies to compete with deep-pocketed contenders like Netflix and Amazon.

Too much of Redstone’s time has been spent on internecine battles, too little on getting Paramount the substantial funding it needs to challenge other studios like an ascendant Disney, whose blockbusters regularly cost $300 million and more.

Then there are the Murdochs. No one doubts Rupert’s brilliance as a visionary (if ruthless) businessman. But I’ve yet to meet a high-level Hollywood player who says the same about his sons. That became abundantly clear when Disney bought most of the Murdochs’ Fox assets and failed to give James a top job. Instead, it opted for the Murdochs’ protégé, Peter Rice, a gifted Englishman who for decades had served as their intellectual valet.

If a recent New York Times magazine series on the family proved anything, it was the crippling level of dysfunction that hobbled not only James and Lachlan but 21st Century Fox, the company they were named to lead in 2015, when Rupert named them CEO and executive co-chairman, respectively. The one member of his family who merited a lofty title, Liz Murdoch, had the sense to keep a distance. (She may still prove triumphant, if she goes into business with former Fox studio chairman Stacey Snider, as has been rumored — or at least was for a while.)

Perhaps Murdoch knew deep down that neither of his sons had the savvy to follow in his footsteps. And perhaps that’s why he made the stunning decision to sell his assets to Disney, knowing they’d be in safer hands with its leader, Bob Iger, the most admired entertainment executive alive.

If so, he accomplished two goals. He may, tragically, have brought an end to a storied studio. But he also, thankfully, taught Hollywood that no dynasty needs to last forever, that even the most feared of families can eventually cede power.