It’s somehow fitting that “Gravity” is the final film to be released by Warner Bros. during Barry Meyer’s 42-year tenure at the studio.
As he prepares to move out of the chairman’s office this month, Meyer, 69, admits to feeling a bit uneasy about his next step, much like the stranded astronaut played by Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuaron’s space odyssey.
“It’s a very, very strange feeling,” Meyer says. “It starts off with a kind of untethered feeling — a loosening of a tether to something that has been part of your life for so long. So much of your career you spend strengthening the ties you have to the people you work with. Now it’s a very different feeling. There’s a certain apprehension in leaving, but a certain excitement about it as well.”
Meyer has been characteristically thoughtful and candid about his retirement, demonstrating the qualities that have made him one of showbiz’s most respected CEOs and a much-admired figure among the studio’s 8,000 employees worldwide.
“He has the great combination of being very smart and very decent. You can trust him,” says John Wells, who has been aligned with WB as a producer since 1986. “You may disagree with him or feel that he’s not making the decision you’d like him to make, but he’s always straightforward.”
Meyer came to Warner Bros. as a television business affairs exec in 1971, when production activity on the Burbank lot was at the lowest ebb in the studio’s 90-year history. He is stepping down on Oct. 18, after 14 years as chairman and CEO. Of course, business has picked up considerably since the early 1970s.
WB is on track to produce nearly 3,000 episodes of television programming next year, and a slate of 16 feature films. And that scratches only the surface of what Meyer sees as limitless potential for a content behemoth like Warner Bros. in the era of exploding digital choices for auds around the globe.
“Distribution has expanded much more dramatically and quickly than the amount of high-end, professionally made content needed to fill those channels,” Meyer says. “The growth of (digital) distribution is creating much greater demand than the content marketplace can fill. It’s really a phenomenally fascinating time for this business.”
And in Meyer’s view, that’s why it was the right time for a generational change in leadership at the studio.
The CEO half of his job passed in March to Kevin Tsujihara, the former head of WB’s homevid and digital operations. But Meyer feels it was important to remain active as chairman during the past nine months to help his successor through an inevitably rocky realignment phase. He will retain his chairman title until January 2014, at which time Tsujihara will add it to his duties. Before Tsujihara’s appointment was announced in late January, the studio endured a nearly three-year executive bake-off, engineered by Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, that pitted Tsujihara against TV chief Bruce Rosenblum and, to a lesser degree, film boss Jeff Robinov. Rosenblum and Robinov have since left the studio, as expected once they were passed over for the top job. (Rosenblum is now head of TV for Legendary Entertainment; Robinov finalized the terms of his exit agreement in September.) That required a rethinking of the management plan for WB’s biggest divisions.
“Once we announced the transition here, it was a pretty cathartic moment,” Meyer explains. “There were a few months where there was an awful lot of sorting out. Kevin and I were really into that hand and glove. It was not easy for me because all of these guys are my proteges. But I didn’t want to run away from it. I felt that I had a responsibility to try to get it settled in the right way. It was a hard process, but the net results were good.”
Messy as it was, it was also important to Meyer that his successor come from within the walls of Warner Bros. At one point, there was much talk that Bewkes planned to tap HBO chief Chris Albrecht as Meyer’s replacement, but that was before Albrecht’s run at HBO came to a screeching halt in 2007 after a violent incident with his then-girlfriend and the revelation of an earlier incident with a female employee.
“I thought it would be a failure on my part if the company felt they had to go outside to replace me,” Meyer maintains. “If they felt that was their only option, I would have felt that I hadn’t done my job.”
Meyer has always placed a premium on grooming executive leaders, spurred by the guidance he received in his early years at the studio from two industry legends: the late Frank Wells; and Meyer’s predecessor as chairman-CEO, Bob Daly.
Those two, he says, set the tone for the management style that has fueled Warner Bros.’ rise. Execs have autonomy to run their units and even make their own mistakes, but with accountability in the long run. And the stability of management — with this year’s major shakeup an aberration — that WB has enjoyed over the decades is an intangible but invaluable contributor to the studio’s industry-leading stature.
“To me, the mark of a great company is that in success you don’t gloat, and in failure you don’t panic,” Meyer says. “That’s what it means to be a leader, especially in a business that is roiling with change right now. The rougher the seas, the greater the premium there is on staying steady at the helm.”
Meyer’s five-decade run at Warners is a testament to that philosophy. After rising in the TV division, Meyer was recruited into the upper management ranks by Daly in 1983 after Wells left for a job helping Michael Eisner revitalize the Walt Disney Co. He was the “junior partner” to Daly and co-chairman Terry Semel for years, rising from exec VP to chief operating officer.
In the summer of 1999, Meyer faced his own CEO succession drama after Daly and Semel announced plans to step down, and then-Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin took a few months to make up his mind on who should replace them.
Eventually, the pairing of Meyer with Castle Rock alum Alan Horn as Warner Bros. prexy-COO made for a formidable team, launching the “Harry Potter” film franchise among other initiatives. And Meyer, like Daly, has played an industry statesman role in public policy matters and labor relations with Hollywood unions. “Barry is a good listener. You can trust that he’s going to hear what you have to say,” says Wells, who also had dealings with Meyer during Wells’ past stints as prexy of the Writers Guild of America West.
After so many years of living by the studio’s clock — meetings at all hours, scrutinizing early-morning box office and overnight ratings reports, attending premieres and parties and other events — Meyer is looking forward to having time to “take a breath” with his wife, Wendy Smith Meyer, and family.
By the end of October, he’ll move into a suite of offices in Burbank, not too far from the Warner Bros. lot. He’ll remain a consultant to the studio and Time Warner for a few years. His new company, North Ten Mile Associates, is named for a hiking trail in Keystone, Colo., where he has a house. “It’s a head-clearing place,” Meyer says of the Colorado retreat.
Naturally, Meyer has spent a lot of time in the past few months thinking about what he wants to do next — and what he doesn’t want to do. His phone has been ringing with business pitches and proposals, but he’s in no rush. He’s active in his role as a board member of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, and he’d like to find other ways to give back through public service.
“What I’m not looking for is a full-time job,” Meyer says. “I don’t want to get into a paranoid state where I feel like, ‘Oh my god, what happens if I don’t have a meeting on Wednesday.’ ”
Before he drives off the lot for the last time as a full-time WB employee, Meyer has one final task to complete. When he took the reins from Daly and Semel in 1999, Meyer found a handwritten note from Daly on his desk.
“Short and emotional” is all Meyer will divulge about the content of that note. He intends to do the same for Tsujihara.
“It’s not that hard to let go of this job,” Meyer observes. “It is hard to say goodbye to all the people here.”
1989: WB’s acquisition of Lorimar turbocharged its TV biz
Barry Meyer has made a lot of deals during his 42 years at Warner Bros. But the pact that stands out in his mind as the single most signiicant transaction for the studio was the 1989 acquisition of Lorimar Telepictures for $1.2 billion.
Even more than the Time Inc. merger that followed soon after, Lorimar vaulted Warner Bros. to new heights in the TV production arena that is such a profit-driver today.
“It transformed our television business,” Meyer says.
Lorimar was the scrappy indie powerhouse behind hits ranging from “Dallas” and “Knots Landing” to “Full House” and “Family Matters.” In the late 1980s, Lorimar bested the majors as the largest supplier of primetime skeins to the Big Three networks.
But more than the volume of business, the Lorimar deal brought WB a wealth of executive talent. The impressive team that came with the acquisition included Leslie Moonves, Bruce Rosenblum, Jeffrey Schlesinger (who still runs international TV for WB), Nancy Tellem, David Stapf, Jim Paratore, Dick Robertson and Michael Jay Solomon.
“It was a risky deal and a lot of money for the time,” Meyer recalls. “Sometimes with these deals you put one and one together and come up with one and a half. With Warners and Lorimar, we took one and one and came up with 10.”