Film chief's role under scrutiny as CEO will soon turn his attention to movie side
Now that Warner Bros.’ television and home entertainment divisions have been re-aligned, all eyes are focused on whether newly installed CEO Kevin Tsujihara will implement a similar management shakeup at the studio’s motion picture operation.
The fate of the movie group’s top executive, Jeff Robinov, is on the minds of those both inside and outside the Burbank lot. Despite his skills as a seasoned creative executive and a summer lineup of potential blockbusters that’s the envy of his rivals, Robinov, 54, has made some major missteps that raise questions about his leadership.
When he learned in late January that he hadn’t landed the CEO job at Warner Bros., the executive did something unthinkable: He yelled at and hung up the phone on his boss, Barry Meyer, after the WB honcho delivered the bad news to him the night before the announcement of Tsujihara’s promotion was made public.
Robinov’s allies suggest that his impolitic behavior resulted from his being in shock. Most in the industry saw it as a two-way race between Tsujihara and longtime TV chief Bruce Rosenblum, but Robinov had “deluded himself” into believing he could prevail in the nearly three-year bake-off to replace Meyer as chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment.
Meyer relayed the details of his disturbing phone calls with Robinov to Tsujihara and his New York-based boss, Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes. The next day, Robinov apologized to Meyer, who will leave the studio by year end after four decades with the entertainment company.
But people at the studio say Robinov went on to badmouth his higher-ups — which also quickly traveled back East to corporate headquarters. The buttoned-down Bewkes was apparently not amused, according to people familiar with the situation, but chalked it up to his disappointment. Bewkes is far more concerned with the performance of the movie division than he is with isolated incidents of questionable conduct, according to a Time Warner spokesman.
“Bewkes thinks Robinov has run the studio superbly, is impressed with the results he’s delivered and the slate he’s assembled,” said the spokesman. “Bewkes is very bottom-line oriented and is focused on Robinov’s performance.”
Warner Bros. is coming off a dismal first quarter of the year, with a number of box-office disappointments including “Gangster Squad,” its New Line unit’s “Jack the Giant Slayer” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”
The studio has high hopes for its summer lineup — which includes “Man of Steel” (June 14), the raunchy R-rated sequel “The Hangover Part III” (May 23) and Legendary Pictures’ 3-D giant robots July 12 release “Pacific Rim,” directed by Guillermo del Toro. It is highly unlikely that Tsujihara would do anything to shake up the motion picture unit before these big movies are released. Sources say that Tsujihara, who is known for being methodical and pragmatic, has not yet made any decision on Robinov’s future.
While Robinov wasn’t shy about his dislike for Rosenblum, who left the studio today after being passed over for the CEO job, he had enjoyed a good relationship with Tsujihara, but executives at the studio say that began to fray as they competed for Meyer’s job. Robinov has told associates that he felt Tsujihara had turned his back on him.
If Robinov remains in his job, he faces the possibility of even more tension with Tsujihara, who has made it known that he plans to be much more involved in all of WB’s businesses, including the movie operation. Tsujihara already reads scripts and sits on the studio’s greenlight committee with Robinov, worldwide marketing chief Sue Kroll, international distribution president Veronika Kwan Vanderberg and domestic distribution president Dan Fellman.
Robinov has grown accustomed to having a lot of autonomy under Meyer, who empowered him to run the movie studio as he saw fit. He’s been the top boss at the movie division since former WB president Alan Horn (now at Disney) was forced out of the studio in 2011.
Robinov has always been somewhat of an anomaly among his peers at Warner Bros. and other studios, lacking the kind of social graces and strong communication skills that these senior jobs ordinarily demand. The former agent, who joined WB in 1997, tries to avoid the spotlight, is allergic to schmoozing, is an unpolished public speaker and is viewed as a mercurial individual who can be insensitively blunt and doesn’t smile much. Robinov has always remained unapologetic about who he is and readily admits to being “complicated” and “misunderstood.”
All this behind-the-scenes tumult has resulted in unseating Warner Bros. ‘ reputation as Hollywood’s most stable studio. Adding to the instability and anxiety among his production team is that Robinov has vacillated between wanting to stay and leave the studio . He has made inquiries into other job opportunities, sources say, but so far he is not pursuing any specific move. Numerous friends and colleagues have advised him to appreciate the fact that he has the best studio job in Hollywood.
Whether he has heeded that counsel or arrived at it himself, Robinov has lately been on his best behavior, being visibly more positive and collaborative, people around him say. He recently held a “State of the Slate” presentation for about 500 employees at the studio’s Steven J. Ross Theater, boasting about all the upcoming releases and boldly proclaiming that “Man Of Steel” is going to be Warner Bros.’ biggest film ever.
Robinov is known for championing big-budget event movies and edgy fare and backing creatively risky directors like Christopher Nolan, whose blockbusters “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” both became global juggernauts. Even though Zack Snyder made three consecutive box office bombs following his 2006 hit “300,” Robinov handed the director the reins of his most coveted movie project, “Man of Steel.”
While such loyalty may be one of Robinov’s biggest strengths, his quirky personality can also rub certain filmmakers and business associates the wrong way. He is known to have mishandled the relationship with Thomas Tull, head of Warner’s most important financing partner Legendary. During its eight-year partnership with WB, Legendary has co-financed 32 films including “Inception,” “300” and “The Dark Knight” and the upcoming “Man of Steel” and “Hangover III.”
As reported this month by Variety, Tull is presently inclined to leave Warner Bros. by year’s end and set up shop at a rival studio — be it Universal, Sony or Fox — as his production company becomes more independent and makes more of its own movies.
Who knows what would happen at WB if Robinov leaves? That’s the lingering question on Hollywood’s collective mind.