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For Hollywood Execs, Getting Fired Is Easy as Reading the Paper

July 16, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER

Bad manners are prevalent in Hollywood, particularly when it comes to dealing with executive changes. A recent example, of which there are many, is what's going on at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Marc Platt, the president of TriStar Pictures, had heard rumors for nearly a year that he was on the ropes. Time and again, he'd read in the Hollywood trade papers about who might be coming in to replace him. For months, sources at the studio said Platt's bosses would basically just string the executive along. Last Friday, Daily Variety ran a banner-headline story saying that serious negotiations were underway with HBO Pictures President Robert Cooper. Cooper went on record denying the move: "I am extremely happy with my work. I love my job and plan to stay" at HBO.

The same morning the story appeared, sources said Platt received a call from upper management confirming what he had read in the papers. Monday afternoon, Sony put out an official news release announcing Cooper's appointment.


It had also been long rumored that Disney's former marketing head, Robert Levin, was going to replace Sony's marketing chief, Sid Ganis. For months, Sony executives and Ganis fielded phone calls from the media about such speculation and denied that the executive was going anywhere. As it turns out, those rumors were also true.

They often are. In Hollywood, a safe rule of thumb is if someone claims in print that they love their work and are staying put, you can bet it's a code for "I'm outta here."

In his 1992 movie "The Player," director Robert Altman even parodied the nonconfrontational nature of many in top management in the entertainment business. The fictitious studio executive Griffin Mill, played by Tim Robbins, is dogged by rumors that a rival studio executive, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), is being recruited to the lot. After continual denials from his boss, Mill finds himself in a meeting with Levy.

The mishandling of executive changes is in no way unique to Hollywood.

It's never easy to fire anyone. And in many businesses, these kinds of delicate executive matters are treated awkwardly and badly bungled.

The difference between Hollywood and most other businesses is that no other industry is so closely scrutinized on a daily basis. In the world of entertainment, rumors, gossip and speculation about impending executive changes are played out publicly in Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and the many other publications, including The Times, that provide intensive coverage of the business. For people in the industry, following those daily reports is akin to watching the daily soaps. And keeping a secret in the entertainment business is virtually impossible--Hollywood thrives on the constant exchange of information among insiders.


Stephen Unger, partner and managing director of the worldwide entertainment and communications practice of the headhunting firm Spencer Stuart, observed: "Every industry has its war stories related to high-visibility firings. The entertainment business, because of elevated salaries and the seemingly absolute power of its senior executives, has more than its share."

Monday morning, after reading yet more stories in the trades about key executive changes and a major restructuring about to take place at his own studio, a senior executive at Sony remarked: "It's sick. I had to read about this in the trades. I knew none of this." The executive wondered aloud, "How does [management] not just sit down and talk to their own people?"

Even if there's no decent way to fire anybody, maybe having a direct conversation with an individual would be a good start. But many executives find it easier not to confront someone with bad news.

"People in this industry don't like to deal with confrontation," said one victim of a recent firing.

While those from Sony's top management are certainly guilty of this, they are by no means alone. Two years ago, Jeffrey Katzenberg was handed a news release announcing his resignation as the chairman of Disney Studios and announcing his successor, Joe Roth. Though Katzenberg and CEO Michael Eisner were at odds over Katzenberg's future role at the studio, the first Katzenberg learned of his demise was as the news release was being disseminated to Hollywood journalists.

More recently, after hearing persistent rumors about their own futures at Disney, former TV chief Dennis Hightower and Hollywood Pictures President Michael Lynton read about the timing of their impending oustings in the entertainment press.

Perhaps the most brutal firing recently was that of Doug Morris, the former domestic head of Warner Music Group. In June 1995, Morris walked into a meeting with then-Warner Music Chairman Michael Fuchs prepared to flush out details of his promotion and was handed a news release announcing his termination. Security guards waited outside his door to escort him out of the building.


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