Apparently, if you’re an executive, guiding your studio through one of its most profitable stretches is a feat that no longer guarantees job security. At least that’s how it must’ve felt to Adam Fogelson, former chairman of Universal Pictures, who found himself suddenly replaced despite his division’s enormous success over the past 15 months. Hollywood was stunned, but maybe it shouldn’t have been, considering the way business has been going.
By naming Jeff Shell as Fogelson’s replacement, Universal’s parent company Comcast, and its CEO Steve Burke, made clear that corporate synergy is more important than finding the next franchise. After all, Shell, former head of Comcast’s international operations, had no movie-making experience before beginning at NBC Universal. Knowledge of the film business—or at least some experience working in it—isn’t nearly as crucial to running a studio these days as knowing how to develop international markets and maximize revenue windows; talents that happen to be in Shell’s wheelhouse.
Comcast, on the eve of a massive campaign to attract a customer base who rely increasingly on digital devices for entertainment, is counting on Shell’s particular skills to help integrate the film division with the myriad others under their umbrella. That Donna Langley, previously Fogelson’s co-chair, was promoted to Universal Pictures chair and will now report to Shell, has far less impact on the industry as the reason why Fogelson was replaced.
Since taking over the studio in 2009, Fogelson worked closely with Langley to turn a flagging operation into one of the hottest in town. Succeeding with flying colors, he appeared to have the studio pointed in the right direction with a strong 2014 schedule and plenty of promising fare for 2015. But in this new age, box office receipts are less important than diversified profit avenues and the integration of a company’s various divisions to the overall margins.
This new reality goes a long way in helping explain how Kevin Tsujihara got the top job at Warner Bros. over Bruce Rosenblum and Jeff Robinov. After Alan Horn announced he would be leaving his post as president, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes put the heads of his entertainment divisions; Tsujihara of digital and home entertainment, Rosenblum of TV, and Robinov of film; into competition to see who would come out as the best man to run it all (For the record, Horn did not leave on his own accord; but more on that shortly).
After three years, Tusjihara won the top prize, much to the dismay of both Rosenblum and Robinov; the latter reportedly hanging up on his boss when the call came in. Though devastated, Robinov assumed his solid relationship with Tsujihara meant he’d continue running the film division. But this was not the case, and six months after Tsujihara’s promotion, Robinov was gutted; forced to leave what was, by all accounts, his dream job. In all, he stayed five months longer than Rosenblum, who was quickly replaced by Tsujihara’s new team.
Some say Robinov never had a shot, and taking the situtation at Universal into account, it’s safe to assume that the job was always Tsujihara’s to lose. Now that a studio head must worry about more than just a healthy film slate, an expert in digital and home entertainment, arguably the most important divisions of any 21st century entertainment corporation, would seem like the best choice for the job. At least, that’s what Jeff Bewkes thinks.
Horn, it should be said, had an outstanding 12-year run at Warner’s before leaving in 2011. While Tsujihara and the others were busy vying for his job, Horn was quickly hired by Disney when Bob Iger unceremoniously dumped Rich Ross after just two-and-a-half years as studio chief. In this case, its clear that not every conglomerate thinks multimedia experience is integral to the running of their studio.
This is especially true when Ross’s exceptional ability to synergize Disney’s separate divisions is taken into account. But Ross, not the most political animal in town, had just about everyone rooting against him, upset as they were after Iger fired Dick Cook in 2009. Cook, CEO of Disney Studios since 2002, had the unenviable task of managing a number of powerful and disparate personalities. When Marvel topper Ike Perlmutter, Pixar/Disney animation master John Lasseter, super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and DreamWorks honchos Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider are all under one roof, things are bound to get difficult; yet Cook was somehow able to keep everyone happy.
Cook’s solid run as CEO was not good enough for Iger, who fired him before the release of Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story 3, and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie; all monster hits that would have been great feathers in Cook’s cap. His replacement Ross, patently unable to keep everyone happy, was fired before his slate even hit theaters; though in retrospect, that might have been a good call. The Odd Life of Timothy Green; Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie; Oz, The Great and Powerful; and The Lone Ranger have all seen theaters, and of all of them, only Oz was a hit. The Lone Ranger, on the other hand, has the distinction of being one of the year’s biggest flops.
Clearly, there’s a pattern in place, and it would be wise of Alan Horn to not get too comfortable. His epic, dozen-year run at Warner’s is undoubtedly what got him hired; but with Bob Iger, it might not matter. Either way, while the business continues to evolve, it’s not doing so in a uniform manner. Where one studio focuses on integrating its different divisions with executives who have no film experience, another focuses on making movies with executives who have oodles of it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t make a difference.
Take, for instance, what happened last year at Fox. Tom Rothman, the co-chair and CEO who successfully ran Fox Filmed Entertainment for a dozen years under boss Rupert Murdoch, ended his tenure on December 31, 2012. The shakeup came as a surprise to most in the industry, given that Murdoch in the past had seemed to appreciate the way Rothman ran such a tight ship. Rothman’s run was a profitable one, but as with Fogelson and Horn, that doesn’t always mean enough to the guy with the most stripes. While there was no argument over Rothman’s skills as an executive, he was not considered the cuddliest man in town; a turnoff to some working with him and for him. When the film division hit several speed bumps in 2011 and 2012, it was enough of an excuse for Murdoch to make a change.
Rothman landed on his feet as head of Sony’s brand-new shingle TriStar Productions, and the only noticeable change at Fox is that it’s now a friendlier place to do business. While Rothman’s FFE co-chair Jim Gianopulos is running things on his own, and Emma Watts who is president of production, given more free reign, Rothman’s fingerprints will be all over Fox’s slate for the foreseeable future; making immediate comparison between Fox’s performance before and after his departure impossible.
To bring this full circle, it’s important to look at what happened before Adam Fogelson took the reigns at Universal in 2009. He replaced Marc Shmuger and co-chair David Linde, who were replaced because at the time the studio ranked sixth at the domestic box office, with only about $673 million in ticket sales. In the wake of Shmuger’s departure, Fogelson and Langley guided the floundering studio into a most impressive turnaround, a move that ultimately failed to give Fogelson the job security he deserved.
Eventually, the attitude of Universal and Warner Bros. will most likely be prevalent throughout the industry, but it won’t happen all at once. Fox is having a solid year doing what it’s always done; and while Disney has only released five movies thus far, three of them (Iron Man 3; Monsters University; and Oz, The Great and Powerful) have collectively made a over a billion dollars at the domestic box office.
If Fogelson’s exit reinforces anything, it’s that no studio head is ever completely safe, regardless of financial success or likability. While the shake up in leadership among the top six positions hasn’t exactly been a revolving door, there’s been enough movement to make industry insiders sit up and take notice—not just in who occupies the top spots, but what those jobs now entail. That’s going to keep changing, like it or not.
But then, one can say that about pretty much everything in this business, couldn’t one?