A heyday for headhunters

There’s considerable speculation about what Michael Eisner will do in the next stage of his career, but his Disney adventure has also clarified what I would like to do with mine. Clearly, the best gig in town is headhunting.

Consider the role of Heidrick and Struggles, the executive search firm hired by the Disney board to find Eisner’s successor. The typical payday for a job like this is 33% of the executive’s first-year pay.

The Disney board, which sets new records for non-transparency, won’t disclose the details of Bob Iger’s new deal, but, last year, as president, his total take was $8 million in salary and bonus. This means that the Heidrick and Struggles’ struggle to “find” Iger might have netted the firm about $2.8 million. Some headhunters suspect, however, that a two-tier deal was made with Disney, meaning that if an inside candidate like Iger won the job, the payday would be between $1 million and $2 million.

This is good pay considering the fact that there’s no evidence the firm interviewed anyone except Iger. They may or may not have talked with Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Ebay, who surely regretted the encounter — her company’s stock took an instant hit in response to news of her possible interest in the Disney job. Other apparent candidates such as Peter Chernin or Jeffrey Bewkes seem to have anticipated this problem and quickly faded into the night.

That means that the headhunters had a very lonely task, and their loneliness was well rewarded. As an act of empathy, I plan to send them an e-mail announcing my availability. No, not for a Disney job — working on executive searches would be a lot more rewarding and a lot less stressful.

* * *

If my future career as a headhunter fails to materialize, by the way, I have devised a backup.

Since every media merger is now followed up by a de-merger, Viacom-style, I feel there’s a future in package deals.

Why pay an investment banker twice? I’d propose a single fee for both transactions — when you put two companies together, the price of untying the knot will be built in.

After all, for every single advantage elicited through the process of conglomeration (clout in the marketplace), there’s at least another disadvantage (limp stock price). And that’s excluding the dirty little secret we’ve learned to be the biggest negative — that massive multinationals tend to be creatively inert and incapable of responding to changes in pop culture.

So there we have it — the de-merger package deal. And toss in a few executive searches for incidentals.

* * *

Surely, Bruce Willis did everything he could. He worked every talkshow. He answered every dumb-ass question about Demi Moore, his ex-wife, and Ashton Kutcher. His pinched face managed a smile in response to Ellen DeGeneres’ lame jokes about dating. He clearly hated the entire exercise.

What’s worse, it’s not clear that it did any good. His new film, “Hostage,” opened to a torpid $10.2 million, finishing fourth behind “Robots” and such second-week non-blockbusters as “Be Cool” and “The Pacifier.”

A bright, acerbic man, Willis told associates going in that he felt the traditional “press tour” seemed like a creaky anachronism. The only reason a star hits the talkshow circuit is to pitch his movie and show a clip. Understandably, however, talkshow hosts want to discuss more pressing issues of the day, like Ashton and Demi, and viewers seem to tune out the film clip as yet another commercial.

Now I realize I’m speaking against my own self-interest here, because I co-run a talkshow — Willis was even a guest. (No one ever mentioned Ashton, who was a guest on a subsequent show, where he mentioned Bruce.)

Nonetheless, I wonder whether a case could be made that the pre-opening hustle is downright counterproductive, and that over-exposure is as dire a problem as lack of exposure. I cannot imagine Cary Grant or Clark Gable maneuvering their way from Leno to Letterman, answering questions about their love life. The studios in their heyday liked to weave a web of mystery around their stars. The only personal information released was the product of studio spinmeisters.

Thus, I empathized with Willis last week as he became hostage to the talkshow circuit (even my tiny corner of it). Being a hostage didn’t help “Hostage” anyway. Willis believes the whole pre-opening ritual needs re-thinking and I suspect he’s right.

* * *

Bert Fields always struck me as a man of parts, and I’ve recently sensed I was getting only part of his attention when I raised a question about a legal issue. His responses were always civil, but his mind seemed to reside on some loftier plain.

Well, at last I’ve learned what’s been preoccupying him. He’s been trying to figure out the answer to this urgent question: Who the hell was William Shakespeare?

No, really. That’s what Bertram Fields has been obsessing about. He’s not been involved in his own identity crisis, but rather that of the Bard of Avon. And the product of his inquiry will shortly be on public view in a book called “Players,” published by the Regan imprint of HarperCollins.

With lawyerly deliberation, Fields explores clues that lie within Shakespeare’s 36 plays and 154 sonnets, raising questions on how an itinerant actor (whose real name was Shaksper) could have displayed such a breadth of knowledge on Greek classics, military history and English nobility.

Fields clearly distrusts existing academic research and also disdains the original Shaksper for, among other things, losing a string of petty lawsuits (that would annoy someone like Fields, who doesn’t like to lose).

I’m not going to give away Fields’ ending (I declined to give away Clint Eastwood’s) but suffice it to say that he argues a persuasive case. Indeed, the guys he claims did Shakespeare’s writing should be happy — or, at least, their heirs.

And if any copyright problems emerge from his contentions, I know who will be first in line to adjudicate them.

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