Why films don’t fit into Rupert’s role

Murdoch relies on Chernin for movie matters

When the congloms first seized control of the major movie studios some years ago, the financial gurus told us how beneficial this would be. The new “parents” would exercise discipline over their unruly children, while also bringing infusions of capital.

All this sounded fine, but survey the landscape today: Despite the miserable economic climate, the performance of the studios is a lot stronger than that of their corporate parents. While News Corp. has had a bumpy ride in 2008, Fox movies have turned up steadier profits than other units of the company. Similarly, giant GE has been a drag on Universal. Time Warner’s movie company had given the bean counters a lot more juice than, say, AOL or the Time magazine group.

True, there’s been a slow, longterm sag in theater attendance, and the DVD business, too, is flattening, but the overall picture is pretty damn good.

In view of all this, you’d think corporate hierarchy would harbor kind thoughts about the movie industry, but the contrary is true. If anything, they distrust, indeed disdain, the movie business more than ever.

I was reminded of this reading Michael Wolff’s snarky new book about Rupert Murdoch, titled “The Man Who Owns the News.” For reasons no one can explain, Rupert gave remarkable access to Wolff over the course of a year and was rewarded with a book that presents a singularly unflattering view of its subject.

Wolff makes it quite clear that Murdoch dislikes movies and the movie business. His interests lean toward newspapers and TV — especially the TV sports business.

Given this predisposition, Wolff tells us, Rupert relies on Peter Chernin to provide overall guidance on movie matters, but “he actually doesn’t especially like him (Chernin) either.”

Chernin is many things that Rupert is not, Wolff explains. He’s smoothly diplomatic while Murdoch is rarely subtle. “Chernin is the hatchet man, but the secret of the good hatchet man is not at all to appear like the hatchet man — not to suggest that you’ve been doing the hard, thankless, dirty work,” he writes.

According to Wolff, Chernin copes with those issues “that are most demanding and compelling and difficult and distracting and intractable in Hollywood — namely talent and the whole crap-shoot nature of the business.” That leaves Rupert free to focus on “big picture” issues, like acquiring the Wall Street Journal and then figuring out what to do with it.

I don’t necessarily buy Wolff’s analysis of the Murdoch empire or his description of Chernin, but his “take” on Rupert rings true in many ways. Certainly Rupert was never a “movie man,” even though he found himself in control of a movie empire.

But then neither are the heads of the other congloms. GE’s Jeffrey Immelt may own NBC Universal, but he’d sooner open a nuclear reactor than a movie. Disney’s Bob Iger likes to see a movie now and then, but he wants to make as few of them as possible. Jeffrey Bewkes of Time Warner came from the realm of HBO, and TV remains his showbiz focus. Sumner Redstone once was a distributor, but lately he’s found videogames to be a more interesting (and risky) adventure and his focus is firmly on the big corporate plays. Sir Howard Stringer is surely the most dedicated filmgoer among the hierarchy (he’s even chairman of the AFI) but he’s always at 35,000 feet in the Sony jet trying to figure out how to escape the global recession.

Hence the ultimate irony: The studios probably would be better off without their corporate parents. They could count their box office blessings, deal less prejudicially with their talent guilds and cast off the constraints of the corporate bean counters.

Who said bigger is always better?

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