Preaching Teamwork in Hollywood, Praying It Works

Louis Mayer and Irving Thalberg

Variety Showmen of the Year: Dynamic duos rare in industry history

Showbiz has a long history of onscreen teamwork, from Laurel & Hardy to Brad & Angelina. But in the executive suites, it’s been more erratic.

The 14-year (and counting) partnership of Gary Newman and Dana Walden at 20th Century Fox TV is all the more impressive because it’s rare.

Walden and Newman were brought together as Fox’s TV studio toppers by Peter Chernin, former News Corp. prexy. On the film side, Chernin also paired Jim Gianopulos with Tom Rothman, underlining that he expected cooperation, not competition. It worked. From 2000-12, the chief exec officers of Fox Filmed Entertainment oversaw the two highest-grossing films of all time, “Titanic” and “Avatar,” though the duo always stressed successful profit margins over grosses.

Everybody talks about the collaborative nature of show business, but genuine teamwork is hard to come by.

At HBO, CEO Richard Plepler (N.Y.-based) and president of programming Michael Lombardo (L.A.) were teamed in 2007. They had a huge challenge, since the cabler’s established hits were ending. But they bounced back by delivering “True Blood,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Game of Thrones” and “Girls,” among others, and have taken HBO to new heights.

Other matchups have gone from good to bad and ugly. Kevin Tsujihara, Bruce Rosenblum and Jeff Robinov were all promoted at Time Warner with great fanfare, but the subtext was a de facto competition, an exec version of “Survivor.” Tsujihara emerged the winner.

WB boasts one of Hollywood’s most famous duos in Bob Daly and Terry Semel. Daly was tapped chairman of the board-CEO in 1981, naming Semel as prexy-COO. In 1994, the two got equal titles, as they oversaw film, TV, music … the whole magilla. That lasted until 1999.

Then come examples of TV execs who were not exactly equals but widely considered partners. That list includes Grant Tinker (chairman) and Brandon Tartikoff (entertainment prez) at NBC. The Peacock’s subsequent entertainment prez Warren Littlefield reported to (and clashed with) Don Ohlmeyer. ABC engineered a shotgun marriage of Ted Harbert with Jamie Tarses (1996-99), followed in the early 2000s by Stuart Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun.

Other TV team-ups include Peter Liguori and Kevin Reilly (first at FX, then at Fox), Tom Murphy and Dan Burke at ABC/Capital Cities, and Sandy Grushow and Gail Berman at Fox TV Entertainment Group.

In the old days, Jack Warner, Walt Disney, Harry Cohn and Darryl F. Zanuck relied on key execs — but everyone knew there was only one real topper. The closest thing to a team were Louis B. Mayer and his head of production, Irving Thalberg, at MGM in the 1930s. But their titles and roles were distinct.

Separate-but-not-always-equal pairings began to blossom in the 1970s and 1980s. As the congloms took over, honchos realized it was too much for a head of production to also deal with ancillary markets, developing technology and corporate synergy.

Then studios evolved into pieces of corporations. Among the successful pairings were Arthur B. Krim and Eric Pleskow at United Artists from 1951-78, Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg at MCA/Universal (1973-95) and Paramount Pictures chairman Barry Diller and president-CEO Michael Eisner (1976-84).

When Eisner moved to Disney in ’84, he was paired with Frank Wells until the latter’s death in 1994. During that decade, Disney revitalized everything, including its theme parks, live-action and animation. The last group had such mega-hits as “The Lion King” under Jeffrey Katzenberg, so does the Eisner-Wells double act really count as a triple act?

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