In H' wood, unemployrment can lead to self-improvement

Here are three words you rarely hear anyone utter: I’m between jobs.

Yet I keep running into people, including CEO types, who tell me “I’m consulting” or “I’ve raised almost all the funding for my new company,” only to add, “… But if you hear of anything.”

Joining the extensive ranks of the unemployed is not a happy experience, but some folks profess that it can actually be downright liberating. (Leaving the corporate cocoon with a big payout brightens their mood.)

This is especially true of CEOs and other corporate hierarchs who have used their liberation as a reason to delve into completely new arenas. Whenever I run into Tom Freston he’s starting a new orphanage or building a media company in a country I’ve never heard of. He seems to be having much more fun than his former bosses at Viacom, who fired him.

“I felt like I had a delightful postgraduate education in the year between being president of MGM and becoming president of Overture,” observes Chris McGurk, who used the time to join several boards and assimilate the digital universe. Now McGurk, who’d earlier been a top executive at Disney and Universal, is departing Overture with a chance to reinvent himself yet again.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a record number of former CEOs are now looking for work because of the wobbly economy and the rash of mergers, and in many cases their old jobs are being filled by insiders. “There just aren’t a lot of CEO searches out there,” Anne Stevens, an ex-CEO of a technology company, told the Journal.

Hollywood’s former CEOs are following a wide range of paths.

Peter Chernin, who left Fox with one of history’s great goodbye packages, is making movies and TV shows, looking for companies to buy and, now and then, chatting up companies, like Comcast, that seek out his counsel. Bob Shaye, by contrast, seems to be having difficulty levitating his new production entity. Jim Wiatt, who once headed William Morris, is shifting his focus to New York as a financial consultant.

Some former toppers seem to prefer to go silent. It’s hard to find someone who’s heard from Disney’s Dick Cook or even Oren Aviv. I haven’t been able to find MGM’s maven, Harry Sloan.

Then there’s the case of that other former studio boss, Tom Cruise. He and his producing partner Paula Wagner spent two non-productive years running production at United Artists. When I saw him recently he seemed far more comfortable back in his former career: movie star.

Some of the displaced Hollywood bosses are still angry about corporate politics, but some, too, have come to the conclusion that their jobs were basically untenable. “The basic reality is that the big studio model is broken,” observes Dennis Rice, a former top level marketing and distribution executive at Disney. Rice, a highly respected practitioner of his craft, is busily reinventing what he considers to be a more tenable business model.

“The basic structure of Hollywood is hopelessly out of whack,” says another out-of-work executive, “It’s all self-defeating — the salaries, the overhead, the spending on marketing.”

Despite these views, a good number of former senior execs are making good money as consultants both to studios and to producers.

And, while doing so, they’re out there looking for new jobs.

“Trouble is, there just aren’t enough big jobs around,” notes one executive recruiter. The ones out there, he says, tend to have big problems: sharply diminished authority, quarrelsome boards, etc.

Then there’s the case of Nokia, which is interviewing prospective CEOs. The only catch: You have to move to Finland.

Still, it might be a lot more peaceful than Beverly Hills.

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