L-R: Scott Stuber, Peter Rice, Emma Watts, David Zaslav, Donna Langley
Courtesy of Variety
It’s a pretty sweet time to be a top executive in Hollywood.
A series of high-profile mergers and acquisitions, and the arrival of some tech giants looking to break into the entertainment business, has put a premium on corporate talent.
All industry eyes have turned to Discovery chief David Zaslav to see what he has planned once his company’s merger with WarnerMedia is consummated, and speculation is running rampant about who deep-pocketed streamers Apple and Netflix may be planning to hire.
All of this jockeying is coming as the industry is experiencing a “once-in-a-generation seismic shift in the power structure of the business,” according to one former studio chief.
As major media companies have launched in-house streaming services, their hunger for buzzy shows and movies has become insatiable. At the same time, the traditional ways of gauging success, such as ratings and box office, are fading in importance as Wall Street looks to subscriber growth as the ultimate barometer of a media giant’s relevance.
“The stakes are high, the investment is huge, and the cultures are much different,” the former studio chief notes. “The tech people, they look like us and talk like us, but the gods to which they pray are different than the gods to which we pray.”
And yet even as the metrics shift and the players change, the ways to build an audience still require many of the same skills that were honed in legacy studios and television companies. Newcomers need veterans with connections in order to lure top talent to their service and they need executives well versed in the language of the greenlight committees of yore to find the right movies and series to make. In short, today’s successful job applicant brings many of yesterday’s most desirable qualifications.
Right now, the big question is who Zaslav will tap to replace Jason Kilar as his top Hollywood executive when the merger with WarnerMedia closes. It’s an open secret that for months Zaslav has been meeting with multiple candidates. Among the people who could be on his dance card are Disney General Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice, Netflix film chief Scott Stuber and Legendary Entertainment’s Mary Parent. It is unclear if any of them could be convinced to take the leap, and in the case of Stuber and Parent, a lack of experience in television may be too great a hurdle to overcome.
There’s also been some speculation that Zaslav might make a play for someone from the agency world, such as CAA’s Bryan Lourd, but most people in the industry believe that he wouldn’t want to forfeit being master of his own universe to be somebody’s No. 2. It didn’t work so well for Mike Ovitz at Disney, after all.
There is also strong speculation that Zaslav will not replace Kilar but rather serve as top creative leader at the combined Warner Bros. Discovery himself, with all his department heads from the various movie and TV arms reporting directly to him.
The pool from which to draw executives is deep, and the list of names and positions that are being discussed is dizzying. It’s possible if one position gets filled, it will have a cascade effect, inspiring executives who may have missed out on an open job to accept a gig at a different company that may have been their second choice.
Apple is still believed to be interested in luring someone to help bolster its film operations and might see the likes of Universal Filmed Entertainment chief Donna Langley or former Paramount motion picture president Emma Watts as appealing options. Both have shown a talent for creating and nurturing valuable franchises — the “Fast & Furious” movies reached new heights under Langley, while Watts helped launch “The Kingsman” during a previous stint at Fox.
Meanwhile, Netflix’s pledge to essentially release a new movie every week has left the streaming giant starved for production experience. That might be good news for Michael De Luca, the current head of MGM/United Artists, whose fate remains uncertain after Amazon finalizes its purchase of the studio. De Luca is a favorite with auteurs like Ridley Scott (“House of Gucci”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”), which could be invaluable as Netflix looks to continue its awards dominance.
Then there is a question of whether some former studio chiefs such as Jim Gianopulos, with stints at Fox and Paramount on his CV, and Stacey Snider, the former head of 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks, may have the kind of talent and deep experience that could be catnip to a production company looking to make a splash.
All these scenarios are being feverishly discussed around Hollywood, leading to a rumor mill that won’t stop churning.
Variety's Brett Lang and Matt Donnelly contributed to this post.