Is there a respectful way to terminate an employee?

Hollywood has some of the goriest and most eccentric corporate beheadings

There were rants in the media last week that Bob Iger, the Disney CEO, had not been sufficiently respectful in terminating his venerable studio chairman, Dick Cook.

I can understand this position, except for one issue: Is there really such a thing as a “respectful termination”?

No matter how you look at it, firing someone, or getting fired, is a hideous experience, and record numbers of people are getting whacked these days. The terminators from HR are the busiest people at most corporations.

Hollywood historically has witnessed some of the goriest and most eccentric corporate beheadings. The onetime chief of MGM, Giancarlo Parretti, was not only fired but was ordered promptly to leave the country — a truly disrespectful termination. When David Begelman was fired as Columbia’s studio chief, his board of directors tried to send him to jail.

Michael Ovitz was essentially fired by the media even before he took office as president of Disney. Miraculously, he survived several months in the job before receiving the official termination notice.

In the studios’ halcyon days, the firings were more colorful than the movies. Frank Orsatti was fired by Louis B. Mayer for running the official studio brothel. The termination was not on moral grounds — Orsatti was siphoning off too much money.

At the entry levels of the movie business, firings are accepted as the norm. Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein each have their own devoted fraternities of alumni who reminisce about their operatic terminations.

All of which brings us back to the basic question: Is there a compassionate way of firing someone?

The favorite HR ploy, “your job has been eliminated,” doesn’t make anyone feel better.

At Paramount in the past year, several key executives, like John Lesher, basically learned of their termination by reading the blogs. That may not be great for your self-esteem, but at least you don’t have to confront your executioner.

And at least they hadn’t found their office furniture piled outside their door, as had onetime studio president David Kirkpatrick.

The bottom line: There’s really no way of dealing with the process of termination without bruising someone or being bruised. That’s why I never liked Variety’s euphemistic use of the word “ankled” — no one is ever fired in Variety’s slanguage, he’s ankled.

The trouble is, he hasn’t been ankled, he’s been kicked in the ass.

New day for ‘Dawn’

Record numbers of remakes are being churned out these days, and I understand the perverse logic. If a film like, say, “Alice in Wonderland,” worked in the past, why shouldn’t it work again. (Disney thinks it will.)

Here’s the rub: The best films aren’t the ones getting a second chance — often it’s the most mediocre.

MGM, for example, is recrafting a curious ’80s movie called “Red Dawn,” and I can’t quite figure out why. I’m embarrassed to admit I was involved in putting together the first “Red Dawn” in 1984. Indeed, the original movie was a classic example of a good idea gone bad.

When I first pounced on the project (I was MGM’s senior VP for production at the time), it was a sharply written anti-war movie called “Ten Soldiers” written by a bright young filmmaker named Kevin Reynolds, then a Spielberg protege. The movie was set in the near future as a combined force of Russians and Cubans launched a surreptitious invasion of the Southwestern U.S. Ten kids take to the hills when their small town is captured and they turn into a skilled and lethal guerrilla band.

In due course, the movie started as a sort of “Lord of the Flies,” but then the chieftains at MGM got a better idea. Instead of making a poignant little antiwar movie, why not make a teen “Rambo” and turn the project over to John Milius, a genial and rotund filmmaker who loved war movies and also loved war? The idea was especially popular with a member of the MGM board of directors, General Alexander Haig, the former Nixon chief of staff, who yearned to supervise the film personally and develop a movie career.

Even Milius was taken aback by Haig’s approach to the project. “This is going to end up as a jingoistic, flag-waving movie,” Milius fretted. Meanwhile, despite Haig’s enthusiasm (or perhaps because of it) the Department of Defense flatly refused to extend any cooperation whatsoever. As a result, the budget of this once $6 million movie almost tripled.

The movie did OK at the box office, but I didn’t much care for it. Neither did most of the critics.

And now it’s going back before the cameras yet again. Naturally, it’s not the Kevin Reynolds version. But at least Alexander Haig isn’t around any more to wave the flag and Rambo-ize it.

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