Will the new Warners triumvirate bring studio stability or backbiting discord?
It's not exactly a shocker to hear that Time Warner czar Jeff Bewkes has announced that Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer is staying (till 2013) and studio President Alan Horn is going (next April), since that decision seems to have been in the works for some time. What has people in Hollywood buzzing is the news that instead of designating a successor for Meyer, Bewkes has created an Office of the President, which will be manned by a trio of in-house candidates for Meyer's job: Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group President Jeff Robinov, Warner Bros.Television Group President Bruce Rosenblum and Home Entertainment Group President Kevin Tsujihara.
The three men, all reporting to Meyer, will jointly oversee studio operations until Meyer departs. In other words, as a clearly amused agent told me this afternoon: "It's a bake-off!" It clearly is something of a shotgun marriage, since the three talented and seriously ambitious executives will spend the next two years vying with one another for Meyer's job. It's not exactly the ideal setup, since in Hollywood, when three guys are competing for the same job, it usually means that the brass knuckles have been polished and the knives have been sharpened to the kind of sharp edge that would impress even a finicky chef on the Food Network.
Old Warners hands know the downside of this kind of competition all too well, recalling the tumultuous time when Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Billy Gerber were made co-presidents of the film studio, each believing they would someday succeed Bob Daly and Terry Semel. It wasn't a pretty picture, with lots of skirmishes and back-stabbings until Gerber was out and Di Bonaventura was in, at least for a while. The awkwardness of the new triumvirate was best described by one studio veteran, who said: "They've created an office of the president, but when Alan Horn leaves, who's the president? Who's gonna get his office?"
This wasn't how it was supposed to play out. More than a year ago, Meyer and Horn told Warners staffers that they would be going out together in 2011, even though it was Bewkes' idea for them to leave. (After all, Meyer and Horn were overseeing a smoothly running machine making record profits.) But Meyer always had a closer relationship with Bewkes than Horn did. And more important, Meyer never had a clear successor, while Horn had carefully, and quite selflessly, groomed Robinov to eventually take the film studio reins. Horn slowly but surely had given Robinov more power and influence over creative (and more recently) marketing and distribution decisions.
Bewkes clearly didn't want to have to pick a Meyer successor right away, since by choosing one of the three candidates, he would probably lose the other two to an industry rival. So he's delayed the inevitable. He has his reasons. First off, the entire entertainment universe is changing before our very eyes. TV needs a new business model. Insiders say that the film studio is going to change its production strategy, with Warners -- which until now has been sharing production costs with outside investors on most of its movies -- deciding to own 100% of more of its films as a way to increase studio revenue. The studio is also in the midst of figuring out new ways to deal with piracy as well reshape its relationships with an array of new media partners, from Netflix to Apple.
So Bewkes is taking a cautious but canny approach to the studio succession conundrum. It's a management strategy that could be right out of an episode of "The Sopranos," which became a huge hit when Bewkes was still running HBO. If you have a trio of ambitious gunslingers, let 'em have some rope, take their shots and see, in a very Darwinian way, who ends up accumulating the most power and influence. Bewkes figures that when he looks at how the three executives have handled their newfound authority over the next 18 months, his decision will be made for him. No one expects Bewkes will wait until mid-2013 to figure out what to do. The results of the bake-off will be evident a whole lot sooner.
Photo: Alan Horn at the premiere of the film "The Town" at Fenway Park in Boston. Credit: Michael Dwyer / Associated Press