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Company Town | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

For Execs, Leaks Spring Eternal in the Press

August 13, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER

Many industry insiders, including executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment, are convinced that former HBO honcho Michael Fuchs was behind published reports last week that he was the front-runner for SPE President Alan Levine's job.

Sony management in Japan was so furious about two articles that ran concurrently in the New York Times and the New York Observer that a top executive took the highly unusual step of going on record to say the company is not hiring Fuchs, who has been out of a job since he was fired as the head of Time Warner's music division in November.

Fuchs flatly denies that he was behind any reports or any such speculation. "I've never had any conversations with Sony and I've never presented anything differently to the press," Fuchs said Monday.

Indeed, another theory making the rounds is that Fuchs was an innocent bystander to an ongoing feud between Levine and New York-based Sony executive Jeff Sagansky. Under that scenario, the source of the reports was either from the Sagansky camp or someone seeking to damage Fuchs' and Sagansky's relationships with Sony's top executives in Japan.

Whether Fuchs was or wasn't the perpetrator of his own rumor, it's not uncommon in Hollywood for executives or their handlers and buddies to orchestrate such media leaks and float their own names in order to position themselves for a particular job or a big promotion.

The curious thing is that this happens again and again even though such public lobbying often backfires.

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Last year, Fuchs found himself out of a job not long after media reports that he was dissatisfied about his prospects under the Time Warner-Turner merger. Sources said Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin was infuriated when he suspected Fuchs of planting stories in the press about a turf war with his West Coast rivals Bob Daly and Terry Semel in the weeks leading up to the formal announcement of the merger in September. (Fuchs denied he was responsible for such leaks.)

A few years back, when Disney chief Michael Eisner suspected Jeffrey Katzenberg of campaigning in the press for the late Frank Wells' former job as president of the company, he showed his longtime charge the door.

Why do tough-minded Hollywood executives take such public risks with their careers?

"Egos get in the way and completely blind them from what's going on," suggests one industry pundit.

"It's hubris," says another insider. "People must think: 'Of course they'll want me if I just put it in their heads that they do. So I'll float my name and let it be somebody else's idea.' "

Regardless of whether such reports are true, executives sometimes benefit. Terry Press, an executive with DreamWorks SKG, says, "If you wish to get a new contract, all you have to do is float you're going to DreamWorks and it's the surest way to get a raise."

The industry trade papers are continuously printing speculative stories that one executive or another is headed for one job or another at the new start-up venture of Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. The marketing head of one studio recently had his contract renewed after it was reported that he might be going to DreamWorks. In fact, he had lunch with a DreamWorks executive on an unrelated matter.

Sometimes published rumors can benefit a valued executive by suggesting that the individual is being wooed by another company. And it may well be that an executive has real job offers from competitors. But it's often the case that the executive is just playing a card in an attempt to get more money or a big promotion at the existing company.

Though he may not have been directly responsible for the reports, many industry insiders believe that Warner co-Chairman Semel renegotiated a great deal for himself last year after ongoing trade reports that he was the preferred candidate of Edgar Bronfman Jr. to head MCA Inc. The widely covered speculation, which in this case was well-founded, came at a time when Semel and Daly were angling to get the studio's music division and other responsibilities under their wing and away from Fuchs.

There are also times when an individual may intentionally float an executive's name just to get that person in trouble with management or destabilize the company where he or she works.

Speculative reporting about career moves can be treacherous. Recently, a top studio executive contacted various entertainment reporters about his "imminent" promotion to a divisional head. The trades printed the story--one report even included the executive's photo--as a practically closed deal. The appointment not only didn't happen, the executive lost the job he had and this week became a consultant to the company.

After publishing an item last week saying that Fuchs was a likely replacement for Levine, the New York Post on Monday ran a lighthearted piece handicapping the likely sources of the Fuchs speculation under the headline "Fuchs Tale Called Sony Baloney."

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