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Eisner With Charm?

Insiders see News Corp.'s Peter Chernin as an improved version of the man he could replace

October 25, 2004|Sallie Hofmeister | Times Staff Writer

He's the rare Hollywood executive who's as comfortable with a balance sheet as giving notes on a script. Private, even shy, he confides mainly in one person -- his wife. He can appear ruthless, showing little emotion when firing a friend.

If you guessed Michael Eisner, guess again. But you wouldn't be the first to spot a resemblance between Walt Disney Co.'s top executive and Peter Chernin, the president of News Corp.

"Peter has that rare quality of having both left-brain and right-brain strength," said Jeff Shell, who has worked at both Disney and News Corp. and is now chief executive of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. "One of the only other people I've met like that is Michael Eisner."

As the Disney board searches for a new CEO -- a process it plans to complete by June -- Chernin's name is high on the short list of contenders. Though the 53-year-old executive embodies some of Eisner's best qualities, he is free of other traits that have made the Disney chief vulnerable to criticism.

Eisner can be cold, thin-skinned and autocratic. He's been accused of chasing off some of Disney's best executives.

Chernin, on the other hand, is so disarmingly charming that even some people he's ousted don't hold a grudge. Not for nothing have some within News Corp. called him the "smiling cobra."

In July, when Chernin signed up for five more years at News Corp., Wall Street analysts predicted he was staying put. With an annual compensation package of at least $20 million, Chernin could pull down more than his strong-willed boss, News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch. Eisner made only $7.25 million last year.

Still, people close to Chernin say he'd jump at the chance to step out of Murdoch's shadow and into Eisner's shoes, even if it meant a pay cut.

At News Corp., Chernin has hit a ceiling. The 73-year-old Murdoch is grooming his children, now in their 30s, to take the helm of the family-controlled company. Knowing this, Chernin made sure he could accept a better offer if it came along: His employment contract lacks the standard non-compete clause that would prevent him from jumping to a rival.

Both Chernin and Murdoch declined to comment for this article.

Many Hollywood insiders say Chernin is just what Disney needs: creative, cool in a crisis and inspirational. After 15 years at the fastest-growing and most daring of the major media conglomerates, he also has the know-how to invigorate Disney.

"Peter is a great listener; he gives guidance, but he lets people do their job," said Tom Sherak, who worked under Chernin at News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox Film Corp. before becoming a partner at Revolution Studios.

Though News Corp. owns major media properties around the world, Chernin's primary role is to oversee Fox Entertainment Group, the publicly traded U.S. subsidiary of Murdoch's Australian-born company. It includes 20th Century Fox, the Fox broadcast network, a leading TV station group, a TV production arm and cable channels such as FX, Fox Sports Networks and Fox News Channel.

Since Chernin became News Corp.'s president and chief operating officer in 1996, his group's revenue has doubled. Its profit has soared. Chernin has helped Fox become a major producer of prime-time television, a consistent winner at the box office and a big beneficiary of the DVD boom.

But some question whether, based on his track record at News Corp., he has the vision to lead Disney in two of its cornerstone operations: theme parks and animation.

News Corp. made an ill-fated venture into theme parks, opening Backlot in 1999 at its Fox Studios in Australia. The park, designed to showcase the company's movie-making prowess, closed in 2001 because of poor attendance.

As for animation, film industry sources say Chernin was so nervous about the company's continuing financial losses that he considered getting out of the business altogether. In fact, he tried to find a studio partner to shoulder the risk for the 2002 computer-animated comedy "Ice Age," which cost an estimated $60 million. Fortunately, he couldn't find one. The film was such a huge hit that Chernin reversed course and bought Blue Sky, the movie's animation production house. Blue Sky's next offering is "Robots," due out in March.

Throughout his career, Chernin has kept his own counsel, with few close friends in the industry. His confidante is his wife, Megan, who once worked as a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney's office; they have three children.

His professional loyalty is similarly focused. As he likes to tell subordinates, "I have a constituency of one" -- referring to Murdoch, whose distaste for the rituals of Hollywood is legendary.

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