Firings, Power Struggles and Studio Exits: Hollywood's Year of Executive Turmoil
From Viacom to Twitter to Fox and Sony, this has been an especially volatile year in the upper ranks of the entertainment business as THR parses the fallout and failures of 2016.
Sexual harassment scandals, power struggles, high-profile movie flops, poor TV ratings and even Donald Trump collided to ensure that there was arguably more turnover in Hollywood in 2016 than in any year in recent memory.
But enough about Viacom.
Actually, while that particular media conglomerate deserves its own category (and it gets one here), there’s enough upheaval to go around, and some changes can even be traced back to the devastating computer hack at Sony Pictures two years ago.
It’s not all bad, though, as some executives willingly left their companies for greener pastures, or sold and collected giant paydays by doing so.
Without further ado, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly as it pertains to Hollywood’s Year of the Big Shakeup.
The curious case of Viacom …
The 93-year-old mogul controls CBS and Viacom through National Amusements, which owns the majority of voting shares of both conglomerates. But in February, as details of sexual trysts with former girlfriends were surfacing and lawsuits were flying, Redstone stepped down as chairman of CBS and Viacom, leaving the role to CEOs Leslie Moonves and Philippe Dauman, respectively, while Redstone was crowned chairman emeritus at both companies. In a historic move four months later, Redstone and his daughter Shari fired most of Viacom’s board, setting the stage for a months-long battle that would significantly alter the executive makeup of the company he founded 45 years ago. On Dec. 16, Viacom said that after the shareholder meeting scheduled in February, the ailing nonagenarian would leave the board, though he’ll keep the emeritus title.
After a protracted power struggle pitting him against Redstone and his daughter Shari, and in the midst of underperforming movies at the conglomerate's Paramount film studio and sliding ratings at its cable networks, Viacom’s CEO was ousted during a board meeting Aug. 17. The plan called for COO Thomas Dooley to be immediately installed as interim CEO, while Dauman would remain nonexecutive chairman until Sept. 13. Dauman, though, effectively left Viacom two months earlier than that, with a golden parachute worth at least $72 million. Dooley left on Nov. 15, replaced on an interim basis by Robert Bakish, who had been running Viacom’s international operations. On Dec. 12, Viacom made Bakish its permanent CEO.
After Dauman’s departure, Viacom’s PR chief Carl Folta resigned and Paramount Pictures vice chairman Rob Moore was forced out after the studio released duds including Zoolander 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Ben-Hur. But, with the exception of the dramatic shakeup in the C-suite, the turmoil at Viacom was felt at its cable TV networks, including Doug Herzog, formerly president of the music and entertainment group. Herzog oversaw MTV, VH1, Logo, Spike and Comedy Central and was integral in the launch of such shows as South Park, The Real World and The Daily Show, but he stepped down Dec. 21, the latest casualty in Bakish’s restructuring.
Also at Viacom’s TV networks, Sean Atkins opted to step down in October as MTV’s president a year into his tenure at the network after hearing that VH1 and Logo topper Chris McCarthy would be brought in to help steer the ship. McCarthy became the cabler's third president in three years. Then in November, MTV head of originals Michael Klein stepped down after six months with the Viacom network as McCarthy promoted Nina Diaz to oversee unscripted at both VH1 and MTV. Klein oversaw both scripted and unscripted, helping fill the void created in June when Lauren Dolgen, a 19-year MTV veteran, exited her post as head of reality. Elsewhere, Nickelodeon president Russell Hicks stepped down from his post following an 18-year run at the kids-focused unit. He was not replaced. Over at Comedy Central, Michele Ganeless opted to not renew her contract and departed as president of the cable network. Her second-in-command, Kent Alterman, was appointed Comedy Central president in May.
Sex and the politically incorrect ...
The founding CEO of the powerful Fox News, Ailes, 76, was ousted from the channel he created and ran with an iron fist in July, less than three weeks after the first bombshell sexual harassment lawsuit was filed against him by erstwhile Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson. The allegations spurred an internal investigation into Ailes’ behavior and an avalanche of similar allegations followed from former and current women at Fox News. Ailes, who denies all allegations, got a $40 million payout — the remainder of what was left on his contact — and went on to informally advise Donald Trump during his presidential campaign.
The longtime Access Hollywood host spent less than a month as a member of the Today show team after the leak Oct. 7 of a scandalous video of Bush and Trump having an extremely lewd conversation about grabbing women. Trump later dismissed the controversy as “locker room talk” between guys, but Bush, 45, parted ways with NBC on Oct. 17, after several days of tense negotiations. He reportedly left with around $10 million, the value of his original three-year deal at NBC News.
Disney’s ESPN fired the baseball analyst in April after he tweeted an image of a man scantily dressed (sort of) as a woman with the text: “Let him in to the restroom with your daughter or else you’re a narrow minded, judgmental, unloving, racist bigot who needs to die!!!” It wasn’t the first time ESPN objected to one of Schilling’s tweets, as a year earlier the network suspended him for comparing Muslim “extremists” to Nazis.
The C-suite (non-Viacom) …
On July 1, the octogenarian media mogul stepped down as CEO of 21st Century Fox, replaced by his son, James Murdoch. The elder Murdoch became executive co-chairman along with his other son, Lachlan. At the same time, the conglomerate said that COO Chase Carey would become executive vice chairman at least through June 30, 2017. While some were disappointed that the well-regarded Carey wasn’t elevated to CEO, Wall Street largely applauded a smooth transition that was free of drama or controversy — save for a few groans about perceived nepotism.
When Disney promoted Staggs from CFO to COO in February 2015, it was to groom him for the CEO role when Bob Iger steps down at the end of June 2018. Then, Staggs shocked colleagues and Wall Street when he said in April that he’d be leaving the company in a month, with insiders saying his decision was based on the board’s lack of confidence in him as Iger’s potential successor. Disney’s board said it would widen its search for a CEO-in-waiting, and the conglomerate has been without a COO since Staggs left in May.
Change-of-control and the golden parachute (non-Viacom) …
European cable giant Altice closed its $17.7 billion acquisition of Cablevision Systems in June, ending Dolan’s reign as CEO of the cable TV operator his father, Charles, founded five decades ago. James got roughly $128 million at the close of the deal, and the acquisition also meant the departure of James’ wife Kristin, who had been COO. James remains executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, which Cablevision spun off as a separate company in 2015, and also of MSG Networks, the regional and satellite TV network focused on sports. And in November, James and Kristin founded Dolan Family Ventures, which plans to make investments in data, analytics and tech businesses.
Comcast’s $3.8 billion purchase of DreamWorks Animation meant Katzenberg would no longer be CEO of the company that he, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen spun out from DreamWorks a dozen years ago, but he’d be walking away with a $400 million paycheck. Comcast’s acquisition of the studio behind Shrek and Kung Fu Panda closed Aug. 22, when Katzenberg assumed the role of chairman of a new entity called DreamWorks New Media, presumably giving him oversight of Awesomeness TV and some other digital assets. Katzenberg, known almost as much for his political activism as he is for his prowess as a media mogul, most assuredly has bigger plans, though he hasn’t revealed them yet.
Studio bosses and their underlings (non-Viacom) …
The head of 20th Century Fox film group intended to leave when his contract expired June 30, 2017, at which time he’d be replaced by Stacey Snider and he’d take on some sort of advisory role with the film studio. Instead, James Murdoch, the newly installed CEO of the studio’s parent company, accelerated the process by naming Snider chairman and CEO on Sept. 1. The adviser job never materialized for Gianopulos, and it remains to be seen what the longtime movie executive plans to do next. One of Snider’s early moves included hiring Pamela Levine as president of worldwide marketing, which was followed by domestic marketing president Marc Weinstock saying he will leave at the end of the year to become president of Annapurna Pictures, the studio run by Megan Ellison.
Sony Pictures arguably has been in near-turmoil mode since the infamous computer hack of November 2014. In June, Belgrad, a 27-year veteran with the studio, stepped down as president of the motion picture group to become a producer. The move came one day after the studio’s TV chairman Steve Mosko parted ways, and five months later Andrew Gumpert exited Sony’s motion picture group, where he had been president of business affairs, to become COO at Paramount.
Warner Bros. announced Dec. 14 that Silverman, president of creative development and worldwide production, would step down, replaced by Toby Emmerich, who was named president and chief content officer of Warner Bros. Pictures Group. The move came 11 months after Silverman inked a three-year contract, and in the midst of AT&T’s planned $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, the studio’s parent company. Silverman said he was leaving to form a fund-based venture for investing in film, TV, technology and China, and said Warners would be a substantial investor in the new firm.
TV turmoil (non-Viacom) ...
After 33 years with HBO, including nine as programming president, Lombardo stepped down from one of TV’s most coveted jobs in May. The news came four months after drama head Michael Ellenberg exited, with head of comedy Casey Bloys scoring his first of two 2016 promotions that would see him ultimately replace Lombardo. The change came after HBO's $100 million Vinyl tanked amid other stalled, high-profile projects from producers including David Fincher. Lombardo, meanwhile, still has a producing deal with HBO.
Universal Television head Bajaria was pushed out in May from her post at NBC's sibling studio for what insiders say was a failure to supply homegrown content to NBC in an era of vertical integration, where ownership and stacking rights can boost the bottom line. Four months later, Bajaria landed at Netflix as vp content.
The ABC Entertainment Group president was ousted in February following a six-year run at the network. The news, which paved the way for Channing Dungey to become the first African-American woman to run a broadcast network, followed clashes with Disney | ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood and scripted misfires that included The Muppets, Work It and Mixology. Sources say Lee is working with CAA on a possible scripted TV venture.
The techies (non-Viacom) …
The Democratic activist and former California gubernatorial candidate scored a small fortune when AOL acquired her Huffington Post new-media company for $315 million in 2011. She remained as president and editor in chief — even after Verizon bought AOL for $4.4 billion a year ago — but she announced in August that she was stepping away from HuffPo to launch a health-and-wellness company called Thrive Global.
The turnover at the Jack Dorsey-run social network wasn’t limited to one executive or even one department. It started in January when the heads of product, engineering and media all left. Kevin Weill, formerly Twitter’s vp product, has since taken over product at Instagram, while former Twitter vp global media Katie Jacobs Stanton has become chief marketing officer for genomics startup Color. Vine general manager Jason Toff then ditched Twitter to work on virtual reality at Google, and over the summer communications chief Nat Kerris departed along with several members of her team. Adam Bain, the COO, left in November, and chief technology officer Adam Messinger capped off a year of massive upheaval by tweeting on Dec. 20 that he was leaving the company after five years.
After four years as Vimeo’s CEO, Trainor stepped down in June and was replaced on an interim basis by Joey Levin, the CEO of parent company IAC. Trainor, a former AOL executive, wrote in a staff memo at the time that he planned to “live life.” Since his departure, Vimeo — which has long positioned itself as an ad-free alternative to YouTube — announced plans to push aggressively into the subscription video space.
Ricky Van Veen
Seventeen years after he co-founded CollegeHumor as a destination for comedy articles and videos, Van Veen announced that he would be departing the company for a new job at Facebook as head of global creative strategy. One of his first tasks: selecting video producers to fund as part of Facebook’s new push to seed more high-quality, mobile-first content for its new video tab. In recent years, Van Veen had been less involved in the day-to-day at CollegeHumor, which he sold to IAC in 2006. He held several jobs at IAC, including running TV production company Notional, an Electus shingle known for Food Network series Chopped.
The former NBC Universal co-chairman officially left Electus, the studio he co-founded with IAC in 2009, in early 2016 and quickly joined forces with Howard Owens at Propagate Content. It marks a reunion for the two men, who co-founded Reveille in 2002 and went on to produce The Office, The Biggest Loser and Ugly Betty. Silverman is serving as chairman and co-CEO of the new venture, which Owens started last year. Their first big project: reality series Planet of the Apps, produced in partnership with Apple, that will explore the world of app development with guest mentors Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, will.i.am and Gary Vaynerchuk.
Nearly one year after being upped to head of Maker Studios, Holt announced Dec. 20 that he will step down from the role and move into a corporate gig with Maker owner Disney. The former Myspace Music executive joined Maker in 2011 and along with then-CEO Ynon Kreiz helped to sell the digital business to Disney for $500 million. When Kreiz left the company last December, Holt assumed the top job. Now, he will serve as executive vp media and strategy, focusing on how to monetize Disney’s digital businesses.
A little more than a year after stepping down as Hulu CEO in 2013, Kilar emerged as the founder of Vessel, a subscription video service. But after a rocky two years in which Vessel had a hard time finding people to pay for early access to its library of shortform videos, the company sold to Verizon for an undisclosed price. Vessel was shut down in October and Kilar did not make the transition to Verizon. Meanwhile, his co-founder, Vessel chief technology officer Richard Tom, took a position leading technology and operations for Verizon Entertainment as it looks to accelerate its digital video efforts.
Lesley Goldberg, Natalie Jarvey and Marisa Guthrie contributed to this article.