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Changing of the guard: New toppers, new tactics

Imagine a conference room filled with the following cast of characters:

On one side of the table sit the fire-eating moguls of Old Hollywood: Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn. Positioned across from them are Hollywood’s new corporate Brahmins: Bob Iger, Jeffrey Bewkes, Tom Freston, Les Moonves, Peter Chernin and Howard Stringer.

Given this assemblage, consider the dialogue that would take place. My guess: There would be total silence. The two groups would be paralyzed by the generational divide.

Harry Cohn would wonder how these slicked-down, smooth-talking apparatchiks could possibly cope with the blood-and-guts demands of show business. Iger, Bewkes and their friends would be incredulous that these blunt-spoken semi-illiterates could possibly have built their companies, no less managed them.

To be sure, both sides would arguably have a case. Hollywood’s pioneers were inept managers who ruled by whim. And the new generation of leaders (in many cases they are very new) has yet to prove they can reinvent the global entertainment industry in a way that makes economic sense.

Here’s the big news: At least they’re getting their shot at it.

Indeed, a historic changing-of-the-guard has quietly taken place within the media monoliths — a mini revolution that has been virtually seamless. Rarely have such vast authoritarian corporate structures been re-molded without coups or rebellions (although Carl Icahn is still trying).

The transition is far from complete. Though Michael Eisner is in retirement, the imperial presence of Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone still looms large. Yet increasingly, those making the day-to-day operating decisions represent a new style and mindset.

The newcomers are worldly, well-educated and cool under fire. They’re armed with a quick wit (think Stringer) and patience (think Iger). They have worked in virtually every sector of the business (think Chernin) and have even invented a few new ones (think Freston). And while they understand the “business,” they still love the “show” (think Moonves).

Further, none carries the ideological baggage of a Murdoch. None is distracted by the empire-building zeal of a Redstone.

Which is just as well, because the new generation of leaders must focus instead on yet another revolution — one involving technology, not power. The founding fathers of show business knew they could control the screens; all they had to do was mobilize the content. The new leaders, however, must reconfigure the pipelines through which the content flows.

The original moguls thrived amid a nation of hardcore filmgoers. Their heirs must deal with the maze of iPods, wi-fi laptops, Xboxes and Bluetooth cell phones. The cost of creating entertainment has skyrocketed at the very time that the marketplace has become mind-bendingly fragmented.

Hollywood’s new managerial generation has lots of cool, which they’ll need. The world that Louis B. Mayer created (and Murdoch tried to co-opt) has grown more complex than any of its founding fathers could have imagined.

Indeed, had anyone seated around the conference table tried to explain the new realities to the old-timers, they would have been met with a wall of exasperation. “iPod, shmi-pod,” Goldwyn would have exclaimed. “You still need a good show and some stars.”

“More stars than there are in heaven,” Mayer would have chimed in. “Besides, only a schmuck would watch a movie on a cell phone.”

And maybe he has a point.

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