Help for Moguls Who Lost Their Gifts
By Ronald Grover
Ah, the holidays. That special time when media moguls and stars head off to Hawaii, Deer Valley, and points unknown for fun, sun, and skiing -- and the chance to put the year behind them and look forward to the new one.
Who can blame them for wanting to forget 2005? Box-office attendance is down. DVDs are no longer the money minter they once were. There have been big-budget bombs. (You knew DreamWorks wasn't long for this world after it spent $126 million for this summer's mindless stinker, The Island, only to watch it sink into the sunset.)
HOLLYWOOD'S MIGHTY MEN.
Heck, moguls can't even count on boffo results from loading up films with big stars and ordering sequels and remakes. Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in another Zorro flick? Time for a siesta. How about Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell in a big-screen version of the '60s sitcom Bewitched? Twitch, twitch, make it go away (see BW, 8/8/05, "Bothered and Bewildered at Sony").
So Power Lunch decided to host a preholiday bash and hand out some carefully chosen gifts that may help the moguls in the upcoming year. Mind you, it wasn't easy to get all the biggies into one room at the same time. There's some simmering animosity between Universal (GE ) and Paramount (VIA ), thanks to Paramount's last-minute winning bid for DreamWorks' live-action studio (see BW Online, 12/12/05, "Memo to GE: Don't Cross David Geffen"). And no one seems to want to be in the same room as the combative Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, former co-chairmen of Miramax.
Still, Power Lunch, which carries a great deal of weight in this town, was able to assemble many of Hollywood's high and mighty for some good (false) cheer and insincere happy talk, punctuated with a minimum of backstabbing. Sadly, Pixar (PIXR ) owner Steve Jobs e-mailed his regrets, saying he was working on yet another version of the Apple (AAPL ) iPod. Sony (SNE ) Chief Executive Howard Stringer came instead of his studio brass. But, all in all, it was a decent turnout. Harvey and Bob even promised not to pick a fight.
As the eggnog bowl was drained and the mistletoe ignored, Power Lunch dug into its bottomless (and mythical) gift bag to offer some holiday cheer. Here, in no particular order, is a partial list of some of the Christmas and Hanukkah presents that were dispensed.
Warner Bros.' (TWX ) Barry Meyer and Alan Horn had ambled in with the swagger of execs whose studio had the biggest box-office share and three of the top six flicks of the year. Boy, they had a super 2005. So Power Lunch decided to give them each a Superman cape. Not as an homage to their performance this year, but just in case their $250 million Superman Returns bombs next year. If that happens, they may want to disappear faster than a speeding bullet. Even a biggie -- a real biggie – can come up short (witness Universal's King Kong). Man of Steel? Meyer and Horn best hope so.
Disney (DIS ) studio chief Dick Cook got a life-size model of Mr. Incredible, star of 2004's The Incredibles, the $261 million blockbuster that Pixar made for the Mouse House. Alas, that could be as close as Cook gets to hanging onto Pixar in 2006, when Jobs has the right to take his computer-generated menagerie to another studio (see BW Online, 11/8/05, "Chicken Little's News for Pixar").
Not that Cook, Hollywood's nicest mogul, hasn't tried. He brought down the house at one Disney press junket by acting out the part of Pixar creative genius John Lassiter, portraying him as a big fan of the House of Mouse. Jobs, however, is nothing if not mercurial, so Cook may not get an incredible deal out of him.
Not surprisingly, Sony studio chiefs Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton decided to stay at home, leaving it to Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer to represent their troubled studio. Power Lunch gave him a moth-eaten stuffed lion and a martini -- shaken, not stirred, natch.
With Spider-Man 3 more than a year away, the studio's best hope for a roaring success in 2006 could be the raft of upcoming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films Sony will distribute.
You may recall that Sony, along with a consortium of private-equity firms, bought Kirk Kerkorian's former studio this year. If Steve Martin as the Pink Panther, Sylvester Stallone as an over-the-hill Rocky Balboa, and Daniel Craig as James Bond can't keep Sony in the swing of things until Spidey arrives, Sir Howard may need that martini.
Universal's Ron Meyer -– normally one of Hollywood's most laid-back guys -- got a week at a spa to restore his peace of mind. Losing DreamWorks live-action studio to Paramount at the last minute would challenge any Zen master, and chances are Meyer's nerves were already a little frayed over King Kong.
Director Peter Jackson spent months in his New Zealand special-effects studio, keeping studio brass largely in the dark about its big-budget holiday movie. And then the Big Ape -- which ultimately cost an estimated $207 million -- grossed only $66.2 million in its opening five-day weekend, about $40 million less than Hollywood expected. That was just a week after the DreamWorks debacle. Power Lunch may need to give Meyer another few days at the spa.
Brad Grey, Paramount's new chairman, was the toughest mogul to shop for. What do you get for the guy who needs everything -– yet seems more than happy to shop for himself? The Viacom-owned studio's biggest hit this year was War of the Worlds, co-produced with DreamWorks. So, Grey convinced Viacom CEO Tom Freston to buy DreamWorks.
Paramount's big hope for 2006 rests largely on Tom Cruise's toothy grin in Mission: Impossible III, which will hit the screens in May. Power Lunch settled on giving Grey a power lunch with MI producer J.J. Abrams, who also brought Lost to ABC. Grey is eager to have Abrams work his TV magic for Paramount. Since Abrams is under contract to Disney, Grey will just have to satisfy himself with lunch for now.
It looked like the Weinstein brothers were itching to leave the party (aren't they always?), so Power Lunch hustled a giant Mickey Mouse punching bag for Harvey and Bob. A lot of their executives will no doubt be happy to have them take out their frustrations on the Disney surrogate, considering the brothers battled the company for months before leaving in mid-2005. Had they stayed a little longer, we might have found a more fitting gift for the duo: a cut-rate deal for the Miramax name that Disney kept after the Weinsteins left to start a new production company. Maybe next year.
Peter Chernin, News Corp.'s (NWS ) president and Rupert Murdoch's guy on the West Coast, came in place of Fox studio chiefs Tom Rothman and Jim Giannopoulos. Chernin had Power Lunch really stumped. What do you give the guy who has everything? Fox had a strong 2005, thanks to such films as Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the latest Star Wars installment, Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. In 2006, it will have sequels to blockbusters X-Men and X2, Ice Age, and Grandma's House. Hey, Peter, how about giving Power Lunch something?
With the eggnog gone and the mistletoe dangling, the moguls all trotted off with their carefully selected gifts, leaving Power Lunch to settle down for a quiet evening with a Diet Pepsi and some dreidel action. What does Power Lunch want for next year? Something it seems the studios can't deliver: a solid lineup of good movies. That isn't asking for too much, is it?
Grover is BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau chief
Edited by Patricia O'Connell