In terms of personal philosophy, most of mine comes from “Conan the Barbarian,” especially when the big guy says the best thing in life is to “crush your enemies.” That said, I’d quibble with the part about the “riddle of steel,” which states that a weapon is only as strong as the hand that wields it.
That might have been true in mythical sword-and-sandal times, but such logic doesn’t apply within the modern kingdom of Hollywood, where strength is ultimately derived from the arsenal at one’s disposal.
In that context, it’s easier to see why a successful producer and talent manager like Brad Grey would trade those titles to alight at Paramount, assuming what will almost surely be a less lucrative position within the hierarchy of a major studio. Because whatever clout Grey enjoyed, it’s increasingly clear that true power now resides at those vertically integrated behemoths with the resources to crush enemies, or at least make them think twice about trying to do the same in kind.
Michael Ovitz glimpsed this future when he bolted the agency business a decade ago for his short-lived stint at Disney, though his crystal ball obviously went cloudy in forecasting how the move would pan out.
Nevertheless, understanding the industry’s evolving power dynamics has come slowly, as evidenced by annual “power lists” that idiotically put Britney Spears, say, ahead of David Geffen or any number of studio chiefs.
Talent will always be courted, catered to and drooled over. Yet if power is judged by an ability to get things done, the surviving handful of major players are where the action is — companies with diversified war chests that enable them to play Monopoly, in essence, with real people, networks and programs.
Nothing exemplifies this better than recent maneuvering by News Corp., whose control over DirecTV represents a formidable marriage of content, distribution and technology — which includes marketing its own digital video recorder, at the expense of market pioneer TiVo — that the company has only begun to marshal.
In the case of Paramount, Grey begins with a substantial leg up in the vital youth market thanks to Viacom’s ownership of MTV and Nickelodeon, which the studio has already exploited with sporadic success. Not only are these well-branded channels a source of material, but they also represent handy promotional sidekicks, along with the conglom’s radio arm Infinity Broadcasting and other assets.
Scanning Grey’s history as an independent producer, by contrast, reveals the turbulent tale of “Just Shoot Me,” a series that exhibited initial commercial promise but NBC didn’t own. So the network bounced the sitcom all over its lineup before unceremoniously dumping the final episodes — the TV equivalent of “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Granted, networks have always been gatekeepers, and A-list talent still possesses considerable influence. Being an independent producer, however, isn’t what it was when Aaron Spelling or Stephen J. Cannell parlayed a string of hits into mini-empires. Today, Cannell is writing novels, and Spelling’s company is a unit of Viacom.
As further evidence consider the dwindling roster of independents at NATPE, the giant TV supermarket set for later this month. Just as notable as the companies slated to exhibit their wares are those that have gone the way of the dinosaur in the not-quite geologic stretch that I’ve attended the convention, including Orion, New World, Rysher and MTM, with MGM the latest to be absorbed.
Even for a successful producer/manager like Grey, then, freedom to swing his elbows was limited compared to helping steer a multi-pronged battering ram like Paramount. And while discussions of synergy and achieving it often remain light years apart, this past rain-soaked week in L.A. is an appropriate metaphor for the solid foundation necessary to weather the storms destined to buffet the industry in the years ahead.
Before elimination of financial interest and syndication rules triggered a tide of mergers that reshaped the industry in the 1990s, I remember producer Len Hill waxing eloquent about the entrepreneurial spirit of independent production. Taking risks under your own shingle, he said, is what set that hearty breed apart from those who crave “the Soviet security of salary.”
Well, say what you want about the Soviets, but they managed to keep a lot of countries under their thumb in a grip of power — at least, until they got embroiled in an arms race, and eventually the whole system crumbled.