Media moguls descend on Sun Valley, Idaho, this week to whitewater raft, bike, listen to experts rap about ISIS and Brexit, and, most important, to play “let’s make a deal.”
The annual conference at the tiny ski resort is hosted by Allen & Co., and has inspired a steady stream of mergers and acquisitions over the years. The alpine confab set in motion Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal, Disney’s successful play for Capital Cities, and AOL’s sale to Verizon, among many other deals.
Scoring an invite to the Masters of the Universe event signals that aspiring business titans have arrived and usually comes with an overt signal to CEO-wrangler Herb Allen that the person in question will tap his investment bank for future business, insiders say.
Those who arrive are told to leave their power suits at home. Brooks Brothers casual and bike shorts are very much the vibe, and the sight of Disney’s Bob Iger or IAC’s Barry Diller cycling through the resort is a familiar one. Entourages are also discouraged, though some moguls are said to stash their teams in condos away from the hotel grounds.
Unless you’re Thomas Friedman or Graydon Carter, press is kept at arms length during the event with reporters cordoned off by security guards. But it’s possible to get a sense of what deals may be cooking based on who is acting chummy near the duck pond.
Here are five movers and shakers to keep an eye on at this year’s conference.
John Malone, Liberty Media
The cable consolidator extraordinaire will be doing a victory lap, having successfully orchestrated the marriage of Lionsgate and Starz last week.
Their $4.4 billion nuptials represent the culmination of a year-long courtship overseen by Malone. It’s not clear that Malone will stop matchmaking now that he’s joined the film and television studio with the cable company. He’s made no secret that he believes smaller media companies need to hook up and get bigger to survive the digital disruptions roiling the business. If he’s right that media consolidation is the way of the future, than Lionsgate’s merger with Starz is just the first of many unions.
There may be other companies out there on Malone’s shopping list and Sun Valley is a good place to start browsing.
Bob Iger, Walt Disney Company
The man who orchestrated the deals to bring Pixar, Marvel, and LucasFilm into the Disney fold insists that he will step down when his contract expires in 2018. However, many Wall Street players remain skeptical that the dynamic executive will step away Cincinnatus-like after his run is slated to be over. Plus, the ouster of Disney COO and heir apparent Tom Staggs last spring has thrown succession plans into turmoil.
It’s also set the stage for Disney, which usually promotes from within, to turn outside the company to find its next leader for the first time since the 1980s. Perhaps a successor will be found at this year’s conference. Among those attending: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has said she doesn’t want the job, but guests like Peter Chernin, Chase Carey, and Jeffrey Katzenberg have the experience to take the helm. Adding to the awkwardness: Staggs is on the guest list and may be kicking around the compound.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter
Nearly a year ago, Twitter’s board turned to the digital wunderkind and the company’s co-founder to help right the social media service. But a turnaround has yet to take place and Dorsey hasn’t been quite the savior the company needed.
Twitter’s stock continues to slide, hitting all-time lows last spring, and Dorsey-backed innovations, such as the news curation feature Moments, haven’t led to a surge in new users. The company’s struggles have raised troubling questions about its longtime viability and, in the process, Twitter has lost its cool factor as the heat shifts to services such as Snapchat. Relevance is a difficult thing to get back. Just ask Yahoo or MySpace. Maybe Dorsey will have a eureka moment at Sun Valley or stumble across the kind of transformative deal needed to give Twitter its mojo back.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation
The animation guru has a deal in place to sell his studio to Comcast for $4.1 billion and is flush with some $400 million in cash from the pact. As part of the sale, he’s supposed to play an advisory role at NBCUniversal and to act as chairman of DreamWorks New Media, which includes Awesomeness TV and NOVA.
That doesn’t seem like enough to occupy a hard-charging executive who hydrates with Diet Coke and seems temperamentally ill-suited to an early retirement. So what will the future hold for Katzenberg? Will one of the Democratic Party’s most successful fundraisers make his own run for office? Will he tap his contacts list and treasury and get behind a new start-up? Or will he try to take the reins at a struggling film company, such as Paramount? Sun Valley, with its crew of investors and moguls, may be the perfect place for Katzenberg to figure out his next steps.
Shari Redstone, National Amusements and Philippe Dauman, Viacom
It’s doubtful the two adversaries will be seated next to each other at dinner. Redstone and Dauman are engaged in a fierce legal battle for control of Viacom as the company’s founder, Sumner Redstone, struggles with poor health and, depending on who is doing the suing, failing faculties.
It’s unlikely that these two will do much talking. They’ll leave the thrust and parrying to the lawyers and spin masters. But even at opposite sides of any room, all eyes will be on Dauman and Redstone.