Now that you’re out of a job, Jeff, you’re probably getting lots of advice about your next career move, so here’s mine: If a company offers you a position similar to the one you held at Warner Bros., turn it down.
The title of “studio chief” may be a power trip, and in past generations it was the best job in town. Now it’s an invitation to failure. In appointing a three-person committee to assume your former responsibilities at Warner Bros., Kevin Tsujihara is at least dividing up the blame.
In your years on the job, Jeff, I found your behavior to be increasingly grumpy and irascible, underscoring the fact that executives inevitably do a bad job in a non-job. Here’s why:
The major studios today have been remodeled into global marketing machines that have basically surrendered control over content and even cost. The aim is to perpetuate an assembly line of franchises with mega-budgets and complex financing structures — projects that seem to dictate their own destinies.
Hence today’s production heads never get to make movies that they themselves would like to see. Back in the era of John Calley, Robert Evans or Richard Zanuck, the studio chiefs actually picked scripts and guided the production process. In Irving Thalberg’s bygone era, they were as much myth-makers as filmmakers.
Those times are long past, Jeff. That’s why I think your best bet is to cash your severance check and find a seat on the sidelines. The committee that takes control under Tsujihara must figure out how to coax blockbusters out of DC Comics characters and videogames. The studio’s existing franchises like “Harry Potter” and “The Hangover” trilogy have faded into the night. “Man of Steel” is doing business, but the overall market is exhibiting signs of superhero fatigue.
For a glimpse of the problems at hand, Jeff, look at the issues facing your ex-boss, Alan Horn, who became movie chief at Disney. The good news is that Horn oversees entities like Pixar, Marvel and the “Star Wars” sequels to supply product — and they represent someone else’s production headache. The bad news is that he inherited “The Lone Ranger,” a brilliant, bizarre runaway train of a movie that would seem inimical to Disney’s corporate model.
No studio head in today’s market would want to commit to a Western — no less a comedy Western (usually box office poison) — especially a $250-million live-action movie that plays somewhat like “Lone Ranger” helmer Gore Verbinski attempted a remake of his satiric animated Western, “Rango ” — or tried to mix “Rambo” with “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Has the young audience worldwide ever heard of “Hi-yo Silver?” Or care whether Tonto’s people were cheated out of their land by money-grubbing railroad men? (Johnny Depp worked that theme to no avail in “The Brave,” the disastrous 1997 fi lm he directed, co-wrote and starred in.)
Horn struggled to lower the budget of “The Lone Ranger,” which edged up anyway, and to cut its 2 hour 25 minute running time, which also edged up. Would you have coveted that mission, Jeff? Then comes the task of selling the mythic masked man overseas.
The key responsibility of today’s studio boss is to keep up the tentpole batting average, but this has been a tough summer to accomplish that. Even the canny veteran Amy Pascal has run into tentpole turbulence with “After Earth” and “White House Down,” both problem projects coming at a time when marauders from Wall Street are prodding Sony Corp. to make drastic structural changes.
That’s why it’s a good time to sit things out, Jeff. Go to the beach and take some summer reading — screenplays not included.