Suits finding themselves squeezed

If Hollywood’s twisted minions love to see their leaders fall flat on their perfectly chiseled faces, then this year probably made the town downright giddy.

After all, this is an industry that eagerly devoured Michael Ovitz’s Disney downfall. It couldn’t get enough of Jamie Tarses’ messy last days at ABC. And it chuckled when the dot-com bubble burst and TV types who had bet on the new media came crawling back.

While none of these suits will be signing up for free government cheese anytime soon, this year’s big TV headlines — the collapse of ATG, downsizing at Columbia TriStar Television and consolidation at shops like CBS and UPN — means there is a sizeable number of bigtime execs already (or soon to be) collecting unemployment checks.

And in what some may consider the ultimate in irony, consolidation and vertical integration has cut the need for top-tier execs.

In other words, many of the same execs who lobbied hard to deregulate the business now find that there are only so many highly visible, powerful gigs to go around. And most of them are already taken.

Headhunter Brad Marks, who specializes in the entertainment biz, says he’s seen a huge increase in jobless execs looking for work ever since the end of the financial interest/syndication rules.

“A lot of people are getting squeezed because of the lack of competition,” Marks says. “There are a lot of people out of work, looking for opportunities right now. I spend a great deal of my time counseling people like that.”

Unless they’re already cooking up some diabolical plan to force out an unsuspecting network or studio suit, it may take more time than usual for this new crop of homeless ex-execs to find a new business address.

“It’s forcing a lot of people to reinvent themselves,” says one high-level exec who recently found his job downsized out of existence. (None of these execs is eager to see his name in print right now.)

The list of execs looking for that next big thing recently grew to include ex-Paramount TV Group chairman Kerry McCluggage.

Others waiting for the right opportunity include a host of past and present Col TriStar TV execs: Tom Mazza, Len Grossi, Andy Kaplan, Steve Stark, Helene Michaels and Eric Tannenbaum (who still technically serves as ATG president, although not for much longer).

Ex-Disney TV exec David Neuman, last seen at Digital Entertainment Network, wound up a dot-com casualty, as did former Warner Bros. syndie exec Scott Carlin (whose Digital Convergence didn’t make it).

Former Fox and HBO exec John Matoian is also available, while ICM’s Bob Sanitsky recently threw himself back into the mix.

And of course, if you believe the rumor mill, many more are on the way out.

Then there are the big-time execs who have pulled out of the Hollywood scene for now, but could always pop up again.

Don Ohlmeyer, Lucie Salhan ABC has told WMA it will pay the agency a 3% packaging commission on all future projecty, Rich Frank, Barry Thurston and Tony Thomopolous probably don’t have to work again, given their personal wealth. But never say never.

“It’s an interesting challenge. The game is about networking and being out there so that people remember that you’re around,” says another major exec who finds himself between gigs. “People are forced to do other things, wait it out and see if it’s cyclical or take lesser jobs.”

That out-of-work exec says he’s found there are two kinds of jobs out there right now: The big company, big studio positions that pay a lot of money (but are in short supply) or the smaller, startup ventures that pay around $500,000 for a CEO but promise a real upside in success.

Even if that startup fails, however, you can go home again.

Just ask execs like Sandy Grushow, David Grant and Howard Stringer. After leaving the network biz, all three moved to Tele-TV, the promising mid-1990s telco video venture. When Tele-TV collapsed, all three execs headed back to the old media — and eventually wound up in better jobs than they had before.

Then there’s always the production company route. One-time net and studio toppers like Warren Littlefield, Tony Jonas and Susanne Daniels have all made the jump.

Marks believes there will be more opportunities for execs in growing fields such as digital cable channels and video-on-demand. Former Studios USA TV prexy Ken Solomon is heading Hearst’s digital outlet Fine Living, for example.

“The digital world will ultimately prevail, and new opportunities will become available to talented folks,” Marks says.

“The cream always rises to the top. Ultimately, opportunities will seek them out.”

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