The first official day of Allen & Company’s Sun Valley media conference kicked off Wednesday with a warmly received appearance by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a discussion by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on the issues facing American cities.
Conference-goers gave Trudeau high marks, describing him as “hyper-articulate” and “visionary.” One member of the audience for Trudeau’s appearance said the crowd was charmed by the Canadian prime minister. “He looks about 25 years old and he was a delightful speaker,” said the participant.
The conversation, which was moderated by former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, also focused on ways to improve trade between the U.S. and Canada, but Trudeau made no major news.
“He kept it pretty light,” said the conference-goer. Trudeau, the eldest son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, gave a sense of the expectations he faced over getting into the family business. He recalled how his father predicted when he was a 5-year-old that he would one day lead the Canadian government. He also discussed his love of boxing, and how his appreciation for the sport helped him during his campaign. It helped teach him how to “take a punch.”
The action at the annual billionaire confab usually unfolds outside of the starry talks and interviews. When these one-percenters meet, sparks tend to fly. Sun Valley has become synonymous with some of the biggest media hook-ups in history — from Disney’s purchase of Capital Cities to Jeff Bezos’ decision to jump into newspaper publishing and buy the Washington Post.
IAC/InterActiveCorp Chairman Barry Diller said he expects there will be a lot more media marriages taking place going forward.
“There’s still some dances that could be held,” said Diller, who predicted that the number of major film studios could shrink, through mergers.
There’s a downside to the consolidation, he argued. Namely that it can stifle creativity.
“You’ve got, essentially, more buyers than you’ve ever had, but you also have so much more consolidation and so few actual decision makers, so I think that’s not so good for people,” he said.
Diller has played the role of a media disruptor through IAC’s investments in the video-sharing site Vimeo and Aereo, an internet television service that was killed by legal challenges. He thinks that cord-cutting, the buzzword for the migration of cable customers to cheaper, digital streaming services, will have a profound impact on the way entertainment conglomerates make money and artists get their voices heard.
“It’s more than a real threat,” Diller said. “It’s creative destruction.”
This year, Comcast reached a deal to buy DreamWorks Animation and Lionsgate formalized plans to merge with Starz, putting the pressure on other companies to get bigger. Other moguls seemed less certain that the wave of splashy purchases will continue.
“There’s nothing left to consolidate,” said investor Haim Saban.
Take away the small army of security personnel and the Sun Valley resort where the conference takes place presents an unparalleled venue for people gazing. Among those glimpsed around the hotel’s grounds were Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, who strolled into the morning panels together, fanning rumors that they are a couple. CBS chief Leslie Moonves could be glimpsed chatting up Disney Media Networks co-chair Ben Sherwood. Twenty-First Century Fox CEO James Murdoch dodged media requests for an interview, joking that he was more concerned with breakfast than Brexit. Other guests include Apple CEO Tim Cook, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, investor Marc Andreessen and Disney CEO Bob Iger.
Perhaps no one is being more closely watched at this year’s gathering than Shari Redstone, who is engaged in a legal battle with Viacom chief Philippe Dauman, for control of her family’s media empire. She ducked out early from the morning’s talks to grab a coffee at the resort’s cafe. Her adversary, Dauman, remains conspicuously absent, though he is expected to attend.
For regulars, Sun Valley is a combination of summer camp and college seminar. Mornings are spent hashing out global politics, while afternoons include hiking and whitewater rafting excursions.
Producer Brian Grazer enthused that Herbert Allen, head of the investment bank that picks up the tab for the four-day gathering, routinely assembles a collection of the brightest minds in business and the arts.
“There’s tremendous energy in that room,” he told Variety.
A veteran of nearly 20 conferences, Grazer said the event is an amazing educational experience.
“The people are so interesting,” he said. “You think you’ve learned a lot about [artificial intelligence] and then all of a sudden there’s a guy that is doing a version of AI that is actually integrated into this algorithm. It’s dealing with human dimensions, human emotion. That wouldn’t have been contemplated a year ago.”
James Rainey contributed to this report.