It’s getting kind of quiet here in Hollywood. As one merger follows another, each one bringing with it a reorg, a restructure and lots of layoffs that help pay for it all, it is hard not to notice how empty the executive suites in the entertainment business have become.
The firing of Peter Rice last week at Disney was shocking on its own, a power play by CEO Bob Chapek who gave no reason for removing a veteran executive widely regarded as good at his job and succeeding at a difficult period for Disney. Rice was, notably, Chapek’s most potent internal competitor for the CEO job, but it leaves him jobless at what ought to be the peak of his career.
Rice is only the most prominent and unexpected exit in an Hollywood executive exodus that has included WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, Warner Bro.s movie chief Toby Emmerich and his COO Carolyn Blackwood, Sony TV chief Jeff Frost, Fandango president Paul Yanover, CNN chief Jeff Zucker and even MGM studio chiefs Mike De Luca and Pam Abdy – though the latter pair just got hired at Warner Bros. Discovery.
The exits were driven by various reasons – from mergers to COVID career fatigue and, in some cases, #MeToo – but the reality is, in most cases, there are no evident landing spots for most of these people.
“We are in a vertically integrating, consolidating industry that is going through the spin cycle. There’s a lot of fallout from that,” said one former studio chief, on condition of anonymity. “A lot of people just don’t make it through.”
A veteran studio executive who is no longer at a studio lamented the change. “Erasing that much historic memory is very, very dangerous for legacy companies,” this person warned. “It’s not about how they do their deals. It’s how they think about what they’re bringing to market.”
For the companies jettisoning executives, each person represents decades of deep experience in creating entertainment for mass audiences, shifting with the fickle winds of taste, supersizing or downsizing budgets for different kinds of platforms while building culture internally and talent relationships externally.
“The business is changing radically,” investor and analyst Rich Greenfield said when asked about the shrinking number of roles at the top. “Consolidation is not helping.”
As if to make that point, one top studio leader turned producer said that after interviewing at Amazon Studios, it became clear that “we weren’t speaking the same language.” This executive instead raised funding and is producing projects for streaming and theatrical.
The number of jobs at the top of Hollywood has always been limited. And traditionally, when one top executive loses out on a job competition or has a couple of years with low ratings or bad box office, they are fired or transitioned into producer deals.
This was not the case with Emmerich, who had already survived multiple regime changes during his three decades at Warner Bros. He had come off of nimbly leading the studio through two brutal years of COVID closures, lockdowns, production nightmares and distribution challenges. But according to an individual with knowledge, that period took its toll, and with yet another new boss in Discovery Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav, he wondered if the role was still right for him. Emmerich chose to take a generous five-year producing deal on the Warner lot.
That was not the case with Kilar, who helped launch Hulu before getting the plum role leading WarnerMedia — and then lasted all of two years when Discovery completed its takeover earlier this year. He has yet to land a new role. And that’s also not the case with Rice, who is known to have been “blindsided” by the firing, as we reported last week. Rice was demonstrably devastated to lose a role he loved, a sentiment that came through in an emotional goodbye note to his staff.
Rice spent most of his career at Fox before Disney acquired most of its film and TV assets three years ago. While the slimmed-down Fox Corp. might seem a natural landing place, an individual with knowledge of his thinking said Rice is not eager to return to a smaller company now dominated by the partisan Fox News.
But the choices are diminished if he eventually looks for another executive gig. After all, most industry observers believe that Paramount, Sony and Lionsgate will be consolidated — meaning, sold — in the next few years. Which will, in turn, mean more reduction of top roles.
“The guys at Paramount know they are living on borrowed time,” the former studio chief said. As for the streamers, this person added, “There would be roles for these executives, but I’m not sure the streaming companies have the humility to know what those individuals can teach them.”
Among a half-dozen industry insiders to whom I spoke, most agree that talented individuals like Rice will find an interesting path, even if there doesn’t seem to be a studio job that fits his experience and ambition. But that also means Rice has to create that path for himself. The same, potentially, is true for Kilar.
Meanwhile, the full-sweep housecleaning at the top of Warner Bros. Discovery has raised questions among some longtime experts, with one executive describing the wholesale change as “alarming.” Still, it is the shareholders who will ultimately judge the results of Zaslav’s decision-making.
“I don’t think the sweeping move of Zaslav replacing everyone with his people serves anyone well – including the new people,” one observer said. “In his shoes, I’d have kept some top people who were successful.”
That’s not how it’s going in the new Hollywood.