From Vogel and Cook to Lansing and Freston, power players learn to reinvent themselves
Is there life after Hollywood?Talk to the select few holding top power jobs at studios or networks and they’ll readily admit they’re high-paid temps. They know their tenure will be short; their “bye bye” packages, however, will be a lot more generous than those of other temps. So what happens next? I was thinking about this last week as I talked with David Vogel, who made a brave choice 10 years ago at age 51 when he was relieved of his responsibilities as the top production executive at Disney. He actually decided to quit Hollywood and do some good in the world. I encountered Vogel as he was presiding over a film festival — well, not the usual kind. Vogel, who is a city commissioner of Palm Springs, runs an innovative program in digital literacy for that area’s schools and the festival gives scores of kids a chance to run their videos. Their visual works reinforced the point that even though kids may not be talented at reading books or writing, they have a great deal to communicate via cameras and computers. Vogel’s initiative is opening up a whole new world for many troubled kids. But more about that in a moment. Running into Vogel reminded me of encounters with other power players in the entertainment business who’d suddenly confronted the necessity of reinventing themselves. There’s Tom Freston, late of Viacom, who spends most of his time secretly reconfiguring the media structure of the Middle East. There’s Joe Roth, who runs a soccer team in Seattle (he also produces a movie now and then.) Then, of course, there’s Sherry Lansing, who is a regent of the University of California, and an activist in stem-cell research and other causes but who rarely even talks about movies. There’s also Dick Cook, who’s been trying to put together funding for a new media company. And Michael Eisner, who is fascinated by the world of the new media, but whose name keeps popping up in connection with other possible acquisitions. In changing roles, a few former power players have exhibited a keen sense of timing — witness Peter Chernin, who leaped off Rupert Murdoch’s corporate pyramid just before it started quaking. Chernin seems to be relishing his new proximity to the creative process, though some friends still think he’ll ultimately be sucked back into the corporate life. Life at the top in Hollywood is deliciously seductive, and it’s tough to separate oneself without psychological damage. I remember a chance encounter with a homeless person on Ventura Boulevard named Bill Tennant, who once had been the second-ranking production executive at Columbia Pictures. Tennant was down to selling his gold inlays to stay alive. (He later pulled things together and became a manager.) I also recall running into a bitter Michael Fuchs shortly after he was unseated at HBO, who assured me that he would find ways of enjoying life without the nastiness of corporate intrigues. (He has succeeded.) Which brings me back to David Vogel, who had a good ride at Disney back in the era when it spawned production labels like Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures as well as the Disney brand. After leaving Disney, where he championed films like “The Sixth Sense,” Vogel dabbled with staying in the industry before concluding that more fulfilling work lay elsewhere. “I empathize with folks who think about leaving Hollywood — it’s hard to cut away,” he observes. With his nonprofit, called Digicom, Vogel is empowering kids to communicate — kids trapped amid the whirlwind changes in our pop culture. In the multiethnic community of Palm Springs, most kids seem locked into their digital devices, unable to share their stories or enlarge their narrow universes. So Vogel’s group teaches them the technology and incentivizes them to create their video essays and ultimately showcase their efforts to their parents and peer groups. Hence the festival, where teenagers, once on the fringes of gang life, last month stood before an audience of 500 to receive awards for their craftsmanship, For Vogel, this wasn’t exactly the sort of audience that applauded “Sixth Sense,” during his Disney era, but the response was far more personally rewarding and empowering.