Hollywood CEOs Tighten PR Rules for Even Less Transparency

A new generation of company CEOs pushes the myth of Corporate Calm

Tightened PR

A new generation of leaders high on discipline and low on transparency has quietly assumed the power positions in Corporate Hollywood. And the transition has taken place so seamlessly that we’ve barely noticed.

Figures like Jeff Shell at NBCU, Kevin Tsujihara at Warner Bros. and, inevitably, the two Murdoch sons at News Corp. are now among the key players calling the shots in Hollywood. Leading this revised list, of course, is Comcast’s Brian Roberts, who has set about engineering his acquisition of Time Warner Cable — a buyout that could change the face of distribution.

Among the unwritten rules for this new leadership: Maintain an aura of Corporate Calm whatever the circumstances, avoid all public appearances unless they’re carefully scripted and stay aloof from the press.

Journalists, to be sure, are struggling to adjust to these new rules being rigorously enforced by corporate PR functionaries. (Mr. Tsujihara, meet Dee Dee Myers, the former Clinton White House press
secretary hired as Warners’ PR topper April 16.) Interviews, while few and far between, must stay on message, of course. Recent profiles in the New York Times and Wall St. Journal dutifully emphasize that Roberts’ real mission is to build bridges between technology and content. Shell wants to implement a global vision of distribution. And Tsujihara, while a techie, really admires filmmakers and wants to foster more movies.

In each case, the subjects were described as “affable” and “low key,” reflecting the aim of PR gurus to steer interviews to those writers who exhibit the same attributes — in short, to their friends. Indeed, in the present environment, PR people and newsmen both need friends, which is downright copacetic, provided that it also works for the readers.

In a perceptive piece a week ago, Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, warned journalists that cordiality can become too cozy. She cited instances where a financial writer had arguably become too much of an insider, and a fashion critic too involved in a designer’s business dealings. Her admonition to journalists was that they maintain a certain distance from sources.

This precept is also relevant to critics, often courted by zealous filmmakers who do not share the inhibitions of their corporate hierarchs. Robert Altman famously screened his cuts for critics, supposedly soliciting their advice. Warren Beatty went so far as to arrange for Pauline Kael to be put on studio salary. Current filmmakers such as Darren Aronofsky and Alexander Payne often socialize with key crix.

A couple of pundits I know steadfastly decline to review projects if they feel they’ve become too cordial with the filmmakers. This, of course, proves an inconvenience for both sides.

Overall, the zeal to maintain the illusion of Corporate Calm may appeal to bankers, but it creates a distorted view of Corporate Reality. The multinational entertainment companies seethe with ferocious rivalries that can erupt at any moment. Policy changes are being debated that affect artists as well as audiences.

Hollywood veterans remember the moment 20 years ago when Michael Ovitz suddenly announced to his CAA agents that he no longer intended merely to package projects for the majors; he now wanted to run one of the majors. The result was CEO chaos; one company after another — Sony, Universal and Disney — promptly started negotiating for his services and even those of his colleagues, like Ron Meyer. Top executives around town ran for cover.

It turned out that Ovitz’s talents lay in agenting, not managing. He lasted little more than a year at Disney. Ron Meyer, however, is still at Universal, ably dispensing lessons in Corporate Calm. To his credit, however, he has never attempted to disguise the turmoil that lay below.