A few weeks ago, Michael Lynton announced he was leaving his position as CEO of Sony Pictures for an expanded role at Snapchat, a company he’s been advising for years, in order to help it get to the next level for an IPO. This move spurred plenty of discussion and speculation about who’s going to replace him. Will it be another film exec with experience running a major studio? Or perhaps someone from the television world? Potentially someone with experience in both?
One of the names apparently being bandied about is Thomas Staggs, who was COO at Disney and supposed to be the heir apparent to Bob Iger, but left the company last year when the board refused to give him assurances that he would eventually take the top spot. Another is Jim Gianapolus, who ran 20th Century Fox for years before being replaced by Stacy Snider around the same time that Staggs hit the pavement, and who is mentioned these days for every major executive opening. Yet another postulates that Jeff Robinov will walk away from Studio 8 for the gig. Even another mentions Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was pushed out of DreamWorks last year after Comcast bought the company he co-founded.
The point is, theories abound, as they always do, but what interests me far more than who will replace Lynton is what happens to those who have strode a mile in his shoes, as well as how the job itself is viewed. Indeed, the number of people who have actually run a studio in this town is a relatively small one, and it makes a person wonder what the next move is for someone who, suddenly, doesn’t get to do it anymore.
Lynton isn’t the only one who finds himself on the outside all of a sudden, as Warner Bros. head of production Greg Silverman split from his post in December, after a rough box office run. Things picked up a bit at the end, sure, but the damage was done by then, and WB top man Kevin Tsujihara pulled the trigger and brought in Toby Emmerich to replace him.
SIlverman’s still a young man. He’s only 44. The world, one would think, would be his oyster, and yet there is a dearth of like positions where he might be able to land. I don’t know what’s going on in his mind, but I would have to assume that he’s doing one of two things: either he’s planning to sit back and collect interest on his severance package while he waits for a similar job to open up, or he’s going to create his own. There is precedent to this, and one doesn’t have to go any further than Silverman’s predecessor, Robinov, to find it.
Of course, there is a third option, which is to follow in the footsteps of the countless others who have held a similar job and are now doing other things. The most popular of these alternate vocations is as a producer, like Amy Pascal, who was fired by Sony two years ago in the wake of the hacking scandal, and was awarded the reins of the company’s Spider-Man franchise as a parting gift, which is nice work if you can get it. Mary Parent, Michael De Luca and Bill Mechanic are three more who have moved into the producing realm and are almost certainly making more money in their current gigs than they were when they were overseeing a studio’s entire output.
Which is sort of an interesting point, if you think about it. The job itself is one of the least permanent in Hollywood — indeed, you could be an executive at the same place for years and years and have plenty of bosses come and go while you comfortably stay and stay — and it’s rare that someone like Adam Fogelson gets to leave Universal and end up running STX, or Tom Rothman exits Fox and gets to run Sony. This means that, unless you’re really short-sighted about things and think this is a career-defining position (and, let’s face it, rare is the person who gets one of those gigs who could be accurately called thus), it sort of has to be seen as a transitory gig, and nothing more.
And that begs the question, is it only about power? Is that why some of the same people keep turning up for different positions? Gianapolus ran — or co-ran, with Rothman — Fox for the entirety of the 21st century before he was replaced. He’s 65 years old. At what point does someone like him decide that enough is enough? Far be it from me to call into question his career decisions, but at some juncture, I would think taking a step back and enjoying life might be in the cards.
But then again, Pascal might be making more money than she did before, but she’s no longer green lighting anything, and certainly not her own movies, so there’s that.
It’s got to be tough for people like Adam Goodman, who left Paramount two years ago and has been courting Chinese money to back his own operation. He is negotiating with Le Vision Pictures, just as Robinov financed Studio 8 with Chinese funds, and we’re still waiting for the former head of Warner’s film division to release his first project. That movie, The Solutrean, a film set in the Ice Age with a cast of unknowns, should finally hit theaters this year, even if, as noted above, Robinov is not around when it happens.
And yet, while it’s hard to empathize with the plight of someone who held such an enormous power and then didn’t, there is something to the idea of having your career peak, and then have it taken away from you. Mechanic has been quoted as saying, “You’re essentially hired to be fired,” and to some extent, he’s right. No matter how successful a run you have, at some point, it has to come to an end, and then what?
Which means that, perhaps, it’s not a peak at all, and to think of it that way is wrong. Just ask Mike Medavoy. He did it for two decades, during which time he oversaw the production of 300 movies, and then left the Sony-owned TriStar Pictures in 1994 and founded Phoenix Pictures, which is behind dozens more. By pretty much any definition, he has had a fabulously successful career, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t ready to move on when the time came.
“To be clear, I was happy to get out of my contract at Sony,” he told me. He enjoyed his time in the boss’ seat, but has no interest in ever going back. “I’m always up to challenges if I thought I could do it well, but let’s face it, the business issues are completely different today. That job requires a team of people who want to compete and have the tools to do it. At the present moment, there are four studios that have all the tools, and two that are floundering, and the overhead eats these companies up quickly.”
The point being, maybe the best way to think of one of these jobs is as a way station on the road to somewhere else. It’s a really fantastic notch on your belt, a flashy item on your curriculum vitae, a membership in an exclusive Hollywood club and something they can never take away from you, until, of course, they do.
What all this means is that we shouldn’t feel too badly for Messrs. Lynton or Silverman. They’re going to be just fine. As for their respective replacements, the clock is already ticking for them, and they haven’t even started yet. How’s that for pressure?