Richard Zanuck, the former second-generation production chief of Twentieth Century-Fox, once explained to me his survival strategy for his later years as an independent producer. “When a studio development executive calls me in to give me his notes, I make it a point to listen without hearing a thing,” said the zen Zanuck. “When they’re done I go out and make my movie.”
I thought of Zanuck this week as I’ve been encountering the several former TV and film executives who, having relished the perks and privileges of corporate life, are re-inventing themselves in new roles. Anne Sweeney, long the uberboss at Disney TV, says she intends to become a television director. Ex-Warner Bros. film prexy Jeff Robinov, by contrast, is assembling funding for a production company, likely to be based at Sony, where Tom Rothman, a former Fox exec, landed.
Sweeney’s switch is especially intriguing because, as one former network executive put it, “Anne will inevitably plunge into the same development maze that she, and executives like her, helped invent.”
“Creating shows on broadcast television today is like jumping onto a moving train and holding on for dear life with both hands,” is the way Robert Greenblatt, NBC’s astute entertainment chief, described the business last week.
Given the creative tension between broadcast and cable, development notes have become increasingly opaque, observes one TV executive, who had been assembling his black list of d-notes. Among the favorites he’s collected (and yes, they’re real network notes): “The characters need more top spin.” … “The show seems too network.” … “The suicide scene is too dark.” … “The script needs to be over the top but must feel real.” … “The script is too reality show.” … “The episodes need 30% more ‘moments.’ ” …
While the old pros of television know how to navigate this sea of creative ambiguity, can ex-executives like Sweeney do so as they nurture their favored projects?
The adjustments go beyond the development process, to be sure. Network and studio power players live in a corporate cocoon. Some have trouble remembering how to plan their own travel or make their own dinner reservations.
I once came upon a bewildered Terry Semel wandering around Heathrow Airport shortly after he’d stepped down as Warner Bros. co-CEO and chairman — air travel without a corporate jet was downright confounding, he’d learned.
When top executives find themselves in exile, they’ve historically responded in vastly different ways. Seeing Disney’s door slam on him, the famously assertive Jeffrey Katzenberg promptly filed suit — and won. Alan Horn, indignant over his forced exit from Warner Bros., stewed for a while about possible retirement, then accepted an equally important post at Disney.
By contrast, Tom Freston, dismissed by Viacom, decided to wander the world happily as an entrepreneur and hippie adventurer, not missing the corporate cocoon at all. Then there’s the case of brilliant, fast-rising Columbia executive Bill Tennant, who was so shocked by his reversals that he became a homeless person for several years (he later revived his career as a manager).
So how will the newest group of ex-executives respond to their challenges? Will Sweeney agree to give her TV characters more top spin? Will Robinov lend his plots more moments?
It will take us many more moments to find out.