Anne Sweeney: Did the Spin on Her Disney Exit Backfire?

Anne Sweeney: Did the Spin on
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It remains to be seen whether Anne Sweeney will ever direct an episode of television. But the skepticism that greeted the announcement that she intended to pursue that new career says quite a lot about the town’s addiction to spin – and an executive known to be particularly adept at crafting and cultivating her image.

Sweeney’s carefully orchestrated break of her decision to leave her post as co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC TV Group appeared to elicit more groans than the usual executive departure story, in which industry titans say they have decided to “pursue independent production” or “spend more time with my family.”

That’s in part because Sweeney’s decision to become a TV director doesn’t have much in the way of precedent. While many corporate execs have found second lives as producers – Fred Silverman and Richard Frank come to mind – directing is generally a more specialized and distinct skill set.

In addition, Sweeney’s assertion that she harbored no aspirations for a promotion – despite Disney CEO Robert Iger’s pending matriculation to chair the board – sounded unconvincing. Historically, executives don’t rise to that level of success without casting a covetous eye at the next rung of the ladder, whatever that might be. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of the company.)

Those factors help explain why Sweeney’s announcement, even with Iger echoing her version of events, struck many industry insiders as odd, prompting head-scratching at the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame event Tuesday, which happened to fall on the day the news broke.

In a sense, Hollywood executives have become victimized by their own public-relations apparatus, which is so adept at insisting everything was amicable, even when it wasn’t; and every changing of the guard was an idea that originated with the person who’s leaving, even when it didn’t.

Cry wolf enough times, and nobody tends to believe it when one actually shows up.

The town will eventually know whether Anne Sweeney’s version of that ritual plays out as the parties have described, or represented just another exercise in saving face.

For now, though, the Sweeney story has merely offered a new permutation of an old Hollywood line: “What I really want to do is direct.”

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  1. Ted Faraone says:

    Oh, Brian! Everyone wants to direct. :)

  2. Kirk Mason says:

    why not? directors have the most fun and get the most credit…..

  3. Andrew says:

    Tread Lightly, Bubba.

  4. Arthur Greenwald says:

    I get how this is a legitimate topic for general speculation, but I don’t see how Ms. Sweeney’s words or actions constitute “spin.” The implication is that she’s being denied the Disney CEO slot or being forced out. If that were true, why would they keep her around running things until 2015 — and why would she agree? It’s true that Sweeney is “particularly adept at crafting and cultivating her image” — chiefly through genuine leadership, an open mind to new technologies, and a famously generous nature when it comes to supporting and mentoring her team.

    • phil says:

      “and a famously generous nature when it comes to supporting and mentoring her team.” Uh, this too is spin — she is neither generous, nor supporting and does not mentor anyone on her team.

  5. Deborah Brozina says:

    If she had used the ancient chestnut of, ‘I want to spend more time with my family,’ then I would smell fire. But this smoke may actually be a female powerful enough, with enough powerful connections in town, to get a project made. Yes, there are some very specific skills that NO ONE knows whether they have them or not until they step into the director’s chair. But there are enough overlapping skills that she could make a go of it. I would happily pitch in on that effort in any way I could. We have to get more women working behind the lens, so why not Anne?

  6. mykem91324 says:

    Why can’t we simply celebrate the career of someone who was spectacular at her profession for almost 3 decades and kept her humanity and class in a cut throat industry? The world could use more people like Ms. Sweeney.

  7. juliealter says:

    This article is vicious. Hollywood as High School: this town’s most common and insidious permutation.
    Brian Lowry is a good writer, and I trust he can find a less lowlier subject on which to report. Let her be.
    Mr. Lowry should consider spending more time with his family, or learn to direct.

  8. Brad says:

    This column says quite a lot about the entertainment industry media’s addiction to reporting on unsubstantiated rumor and being so cynical that it’s embarrassing to all in the industry. You do realize that “reporting” on rumor is known as “hear se” in court, which is not admissible, right? Why is it so hard to believe that executives can actually have solid working relationships with one another AND make decisions to alter the course of their own career? Why is the assumption that this is untrue or spin? For the record, Anne owes an explanation to no one…she is and always has been a standup citizen, in and out of the executive suites. Let’s look at her decision (I know it’s hard for you to imagine it was her decision, but it was) as leading by example, something she has made a career of. Whether she ever directs a minute of television doesn’t matter, she has left an incredible mark on this industry and even more importantly on this world through her service.

  9. bsbarnes says:

    “Odd” does not equal “deceptive”, necessarily. Anne Sweeney citing Kathryn BIgelow winning her 2008 Oscar for directing is specific enough to be an intriguing reason to fundamentally change the course of her career path. Hollywood used to have far more women behind the lens back in the Golden Era. United Artists was co-founded by Mary Pickford. All that I’m saying? Is give Anne Sweeney a chance!

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