Two's company

Studios are increasingly turning to leadership teams to guide them through today's complex business environment, but are two heads really better than one?

Early in their run as presidents of production for Columbia, Doug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach sensed that they weren't reaching their full potential. True, they had great respect for each other. True, they were extremely successful in their jobs. But despite their equal titles, both suspected they were not operating genuinely and effectively as partners.

"Initially, we were much more parallel executives than partners in the running of a department," Belgrad recalls. "We had sort of separate slates, with equal authority. We had separate relationships, and while they began to overlap more and more, we were still not working as a full partnership."

So the duo took action. Calling on Insigniam Performance Inc.'s Nathan Rosenberg, a management expert who had frequently worked with the studio, they sat down and discussed what they might do better. To both executives' surprise, Rosenberg told them one pivotal thing: Stop being nice!

"We both suffer from wanting to be nice guys, so your inclination is always to say, 'That's interesting,'" Tolmach notes. "That's not a good partnership. A good partnership is honest and genuine, and sometimes, it means hearing things you just don't want to hear."   

Of course, it was great that each would praise the other's ideas, that one would herald the other's good work. But they were approaching their tasks as separate individuals, linked yet not united.

"Nathan said, 'Quite honestly, partnerships typically don't work,'" Belgrad recounts. "'People don't have shared agendas and interest and compensation. If you want to be true partners, you have to think of it as an actual partnership.'"

Over the next few months, with Rosenberg's counsel, Belgrad and Tolmach started doing just that, making moves that would bind them together in their own eyes and others'. They announced that they would take all lunch meetings together. They learned to present decisions as joint conclusions. And they started referring to projects as "our," as opposed to "my" or "his."

The result is an executive combination that surpasses mutual respect and functions as one of the most genuine partnerships in the business.

"They are very committed to being partners, and they work very hard at it," says Belgrad and Tolmach's boss, Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal. "They don't talk to me about stuff they haven't talked to each other about, and they don't talk to their staff about stuff they haven't talked to each other about. I have seen a lot of people over the years try to do this who don't spend as much time as they do figuring out how to manage together."

Tolmach and Belgrad represent a growing trend in Hollywood, which has seen an almost startling increase in executive partnerships over the past few years. Such partnerships are not about two executives working in tandem; they are about two people functioning almost as one.

Such partnerships stand in stark contrast to the town's early history, when larger-than-life figures such as Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn dominated their studios and a "partnership" -- like that of the various Warner brothers -- was simply an elegant term to mask internecine warfare.

Today, genuine partnerships abound throughout the film world. Aside from Tolmach and Belgrad, there are Universal chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chairman David Linde; Paramount co-presidents of production Alli Shearmur and Brad Weston; and the best-known team of all, Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos.

To a distant observer, these joint roles might seem to indicate that Hollywood is moving away from the raw individualism of its golden era toward a kind of teamthink. But most power-sharing executives don't see it that way; rather, they believe their partnerships reflect the growing complexity of the business itself and the enormously more-encompassing nature of their jobs.

"The activities of a studio span from the earliest development to the newest technology and everything in between," Gianopulos says. "It's a global business of production, and marketing, and cable television sales, and international and home entertainment, and video games and all the various permutations of creating and delivering content. And when you talk about an organism that complex, it requires people to be able to work in a variety of roles."

Requiring an executive team? "No," he says. "It needs about 3,000."

But, he continues, "There is that thing about two heads being better than one, which is an old cliche but happens to be correct. The complexity of the issues you face does require that there is someone to bounce ideas off of and share guidance with."

Adds Pascal: "The job has gotten so difficult, and you have to have so much information, and there are so many things to take care of and so many people you are dealing with (that a partnership helps). And it is also good to have somebody who tells you the truth. When your livelihood and that person's are both depending on it, you get really honest with each other."

The shift toward shared responsibility first became evident at Warner Bros. in the 1990s, when then-chairman and CEO Robert Daly elevated his longtime deputy Terry Semel to be his equal. Theirs became a partnership of legendary success, which not only spawned a host of successful movies but defined Warners as one of the best-run studios in town.

"Bob and Terry had a very transparent relationship," one of their key lieutenants, Bill Gerber, remembers. "Neither of them had an agenda, and they were truly partners from the very beginning. And they both had different strengths: Bob had more of a television career; Terry had more of a film career. They both knew a lot about each other's business, but they played to those strengths and let the guy who knew more about a situation make the ultimate decision. It was very seamless."

Despite the fact that Semel started as Daly's deputy, Gerber continues, "When they became partners, it was 50/50, and you never saw Bob pull rank. They were really unique guys; they figured it out and left their egos at the door."

Flush with their own success, Daly and Semel attempted to brand their working relationship on the system they oversaw by promoting two executive vps, Gerber and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, to presidents of production after Bruce Berman exited the studio. It was an unmitigated failure, an unruly situation fueled by rivalry and uncertainty, with most insiders assuming one of the two men would ultimately win out over the other -- which eventually happened when Gerber left to become an independent producer.

"We never did a good job of dividing up the work," Gerber recalls. "We ran into each other way too often on too many things. The beauty of Bob and Terry was, they just found a way never to contradict each other and never to bring any of their personal agenda into the work. And we never figured out how to do that. We were both saying yes to stuff, no to stuff. People were playing us off each other."

Unlike their mentors, Gerber and di Bonaventura essentially brought the same skill set to the table: Each came from a background in production and development; each had grown up within the studio system -- in contrast to, say, Pascal and Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton, where one has training in production and the other has a business background.

Did the two Warners executives' professional similarities undermine them? Actually, such an interpretation would be simplistic. Talk to the executives who have successfully partnered, and each will present a very different rationale for their partnership's success.

Two elements are cited as crucial by all the partners: communication and complementary work styles. "I worked at Universal for many years, and I observed the strength of the partnership between (then-studio vice chairmen of worldwide production) Scott Stuber and Mary Parent," Paramount's Shearmur says. "They both had extremely complementary skills and were able to accomplish a great deal by combining their talents. Partnerships work when people have complementary values and tastes. Brad (Weston) and I are complementary, though we both love movies and are extremely passionate about filmmakers."

Defining just how two executives complement each other is complicated. In terms of taste, the Paramount toppers clearly overlap. Indeed, Weston notes that when he and Shearmur sat down to discuss their joint roles (during a private lunch they had before assuming the co-presidency), each came armed with a list of filmmakers he or she wanted to work with. The list, he says, was almost identical.

Not that the executives themselves are identical. "We have different styles in how we oversee movies," Weston says. "Alli is more classically trained and therefore more detail-oriented and more meticulous; I am coming from a producorial background. I believe philosophically as an executive that you need to intuit when to get involved in a problem and when not."

Weston and Shearmur also came from somewhat varying backgrounds: Shearmur had grown up as a development executive, while Weston had been an independent producer before joining Miramax's Dimension Films label. But they knew each other well before they teamed, having long had a set of mutual friends.

For Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, success comes from a decades-long friendship that began when both were junior players in the burgeoning field of specialty film.

"I met Michael in 1979," Bernard says. "We were working at a company called Film Incorporated. I was distributing (1979's) 'The Shout,' and Michael was selling movies to prisons."

Later, they also worked together at United Artists when Bernard joined the studio to form its classics division, while Barker was handling nontheatrical sales. Chafing under the direction of then-executive David Begelman, the two left to found Orion Classics before eventually joining Sony.

For many years, Bernard and Barker were exceptional because they also worked with a third partner, Marcie Bloom, until Bloom exited the business for medical reasons (though she still consults for the company). Her two colleagues have now functioned as partners for 23 years.

"We both had strengths and weaknesses," Bernard says. "We were very different, but you become a complete person. Michael has got an incredible film knowledge; he is much more of a detail person. I am a bigger-picture thinker.

I love being involved in the marketing side, while Michael loves a lot of cinephile stuff. But we share each other's duties: When we are making an ad campaign, Michael's point of view and mine are both brought to the table, and you end up with a good campaign."

Like any co-workers, Bernard and Barker at times disagree, but that can pay off in better joint decisions.

Bernard, a pop-culture junkie, while Barker favors more intellectual fare, "was a big fan of R. Crumb. Michael didn't know as much about him. But when we had the movie (1995's 'Crumb'), that meant we could mount an incredible campaign that appealed across the gamut, from counter-culture people to a very sophisticated audience."

Aware of their differences, Bernard and Barker have taken care to make their partnership operate smoothly. They share an assistant and have adjoining offices, and even their contracts are the same.

"We have all the same benefits, the same salary. Our contract says we both have to live in New York. It even says our offices have to be the same size. Nothing in the contract is different -- we even have the same furniture!"

Making a partnership work often is connected to such mundane details, as well as larger organizational issues. It's not surprising, then, that one of the first things Linde and Shmuger have tackled in their new joint role is the physical layout of their offices, even as they grapple with the mechanics of a reporting structure.

Construction is now underway on an "office of the chairmen" that will consist of side-by-side spaces with a common area in between, allowing ease of communication and privacy when required.

"We are going to have connected offices, with sliding doors that will be kept open, in between us," Linde says. Referring to his previous partner, Focus Features' James Schamus, he adds: "It's the same thing James and I had at Focus. It creates a very communicative environment, which is very important. The doors will slide open so you can constantly see through to the other. You're orally and visually communicating all the time."

He adds, "I believe that openness among the people you are working with closely -- whether your partner or key executives -- creates dialogue and growth within the company."

Ultimately, Linde and Shmuger also will have to decide how to organize their operation on a grander level. And this is the key to most partnerships at the very top level.

For Pascal and Lynton, it means to some degree having a division of labor based on each other's proven strengths.

"Michael and I do different jobs, but we are both involved in every big decision, no matter what it is," Pascal explains. "We have adjoining offices with a conference room in the middle, and we meet there several times a day. I totally defer to him on a lot of the business -- acquisitions and that sort of stuff -- and he defers to me on which movies we make. But we certainly talk about everything, and I don't think either of us would want to make any big moves without the other knowing it."

As for Rothman and Gianopulos, they stress that executives report to both of them and that there is no strict division of decision-making.

"The important matters are discussed in joint meetings," Gianopulos says. "lf one of us is doing something else or traveling, the other takes the lead. But on all the important decisions, it (sharing) is not a matter of necessity -- it is a matter of preference and choice."

Rothman is circumspect in discussing division of labor and reporting structures, observing that all subordinate executives report jointly to both him and Gianopulos. But that, he insists, is tangential to what makes the Fox system work.

"There are lots of things that made (the partnership) work, but they come down to three real things," he notes. "First, we were committed to making it work, completely and 100%. We were unambiguously and unambivalently committed to making it work. Two, we had complementary skill sets so that between the two of us, there basically isn't a problem that arises in the movie business that one or the other hasn't had experience with in our combined 40 years of movie experience -- and there is no substitute for long years of experience. And the third reason is that each of us thinks the other one is smarter, which is another way of saying there is great mutuality of respect."

No matter how the organizational structure breaks down, he says "We do everything tog-ether. We work together as full-on partners."