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Power struggle at Warner Bros.

A three-way race for the top job at Warner Bros. was intended to inspire greatness in the candidates. Instead, it has led to distrust and disorder.

November 10, 2012|By Ben Fritz and Meg James, Los Angeles Times
  • From left to right, Bruce Rosenblum, Jeff Robinov, and Kevin Tsujihara.
From left to right, Bruce Rosenblum, Jeff Robinov, and Kevin Tsujihara. (Warner Bros. )

Two years ago Time Warner Inc. Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes created an Office of the President to inspire three ambitious executives into collegial competition for the top job at Warner Bros., Hollywood's largest film and television studio.

"These three will work as a unit," Bewkes declared.

But the effort has inspired distrust and disharmony inside Warner Bros., the studio known for Batman, Bugs Bunny and "The Big Bang Theory" as well as for its decades of management stability.

The three competing candidates — Television Group President Bruce Rosenblum, Motion Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov and Home Entertainment Group President Kevin Tsujihara — do not work as a unit. They rarely meet as a trio or get involved in one another's businesses, according to several people associated with the studio who were not authorized to speak publicly.

And although Bewkes said anyone jockeying or politicking for the job of Warner Bros.' chairman would "eliminate themselves" as contenders, the three men have been maneuvering for position while their subordinates quietly advertise their bosses' qualities and rivals' shortcomings.

Morale is low and anxiety is high on Warner's Burbank lot. Some insiders describe an atmosphere in which executives are hesitant to extend contracts, staffers are afraid to cross department lines for fear of "taking sides" and potential partners are wary of signing long-term deals without knowing who will be in charge.

Some have also expressed frustration that the succession process has dragged on so long and that Bewkes has remained publicly silent on the matter.

"People are very preoccupied with the issue of succession, and it creates an undercurrent of tension and awkwardness," said a Warner Bros. executive, one of more than a dozen interviewed by The Times who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It's like being a kid wondering if your parents are about to break up."

The runoff officially launched in September 2010 when Warner's professorial chairman, Barry Meyer, agreed to postpone his planned retirement until the end of 2013 — after 42 years at the company and 14 in the top job.

Bewkes, who like the three candidates declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed, envisioned the Office of the President as a way to groom Robinov, Rosenblum and Tsujihara by helping them "see and think beyond their own businesses," according to a person familiar with his thinking.

Bewkes is expected to announce early next year whether he has selected one of the three men to be the new chairman or if, after the long and public bake-off, he is electing to bring in an outsider.

The historic Burbank entertainment company, founded in 1923 by brothers Jack, Harry, Sam and Albert Warner, has traditionally been Hollywood's most stable studio. Jack Warner sold it in 1967, and two years later new owner Steve Ross installed talent agent Ted Ashley, who remained in charge until 1980. Former CBS President Bob Daly and film executive Terry

Semel then sat atop Warner Bros. from 1981 to 1999, when Meyer was named chairman.

"This is a company that is 90 years old and basically has had just four management teams," Daly said. "It's the culture of the studio — its history and continuity — that makes Warner Bros. so special. There's such a family feeling there."

But the family feeling has become strained. Robinov and Rosenblum are said to be the most personally competitive, while turf wars over topics such as whose division controls Web shows have popped up between Rosenblum and Tsujihara. Robinov and Tsujihara have maintained the tightest relationship.

Rosenblum is viewed by many at the studio as the front-runner for the top job. Meyer was a longtime TV business affairs executive before ascending to the corporate suite, and television has become increasingly important to Warner's bottom line.

The affable and ambitious Rosenblum — who has worked at the studio for nearly 24 years, including seven as the top TV executive — has been accused of promoting his candidacy. Last year he was elected chairman of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which bestows the annual Emmy Awards, a move seen by detractors as a way to boost his leadership credentials.

At a 2011 farewell party for Meyer's longtime deputy, Alan Horn, a string of speakers shared fond memories of the outgoing executive. Rosenblum's remarks surprised some attendees, however, when he jokingly reminded them that most Warner leaders had come up from the TV ranks.

The reserved and rough-edged Robinov — who joined the studio 15 years ago and replaced Horn as Warner's top movie executive last year — has a lower public profile. Perhaps to combat this, he has enlisted an outside publicist to help burnish his and his group's image.

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