"It's in turnaround!" is one of the great studio insider lines in "Argo," in which John Goodman and Alan Arkin teach Ben Affleck's neophyte "associate producer" how to produce a movie. Truth is, it seems like all of Hollywood is in turnaround right now. And leaders are in short supply.
The latest executive suite shift is at MGM. After almost two years of running the rejiggered studio after it emerged from bankruptcy, Roger Birnbaum, predictably, has changed his role. He leaves the studio in better shape, from Sony partnerships on "21 Jump Street" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and the upcoming 23rd Bond film "Skyfall" and Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit." Birnbaum is taking an exclusive producer role at the studio, while his longtime Spyglass partner Gary Barber will continue on as MGM's sole chairman and CEO.
No one is surprised; Birnbaum likes producing movies and will continue to do so on such films as the José Padilha reboot of "Robocop" (August 2012) which started filming last month. He will also produce remakes of "Deathwish," "War Games" and "Magnificent Seven." Last year, Barber and Birnbaum extended MGM’s home entertainment pact with Fox Home Entertainment through 2016.
The bigger seismic shock came when Fox announced last month that after 18 years, News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch had pushed out studio chief Tom Rothman. His long-time co-chairman Jim Gianopulos, who was the affable global businessman to Rothman's demanding creative chief, will forge ahead. (But it was Gianopulos, not Rothman, who handled the James Cameron relationship; and ex-chairman Bill Mechanic shepherded "Titanic.")
Why not bring in another sturdy soldier, say, Fox 2000's Elizabeth Gabler, whose star is on the rise with Ang Lee's lauded "Life of Pi"? She can be counted on to deliver a few quality movies a year. That's not the same as commandeering a slate of reliable tentpoles, however. Gabler is better off where she is.
Being a studio boss is a thankless job, and one that many people no longer want to do. "I don't think there's any satisfaction in running a studio today," says one ex-studio chief. "Studios don't get to make the interesting movies, with few exceptions. They are there to do James Bond and 'The Hobbit.'"
Rothman, by most accounts, lost his gig not just because of two weak years (after seven good ones) and a reputation as a penny-pinching micromanager who was tough on budgets and deals–which didn't make him popular with agents and filmmakers–but because he talked to the folks at NBCUniversal, who are looking for someone to replace longtime studio uber-boss Ron Meyer. Rothman was, in short, disloyal.
Meyer is preparing to head upstairs to a consulting role and is looking for someone experienced and talent-friendly to take over. He tried to bring back his old lieutenant, DreamWorks' Stacey Snider (he lost her when prior owner GE wouldn't step up to keep DreamWorks–a long-term minus for everyone involved). But the Gordian Knot at Disney can't be unraveled. It's not that new Disney chief Alan Horn (the ex-Warner Bros. exec took over from ousted Rich Ross) wouldn't let Snider and Steven Spielberg go–that's just a distribution deal. It's that India's Reliance has poured millons into the company and needs to get some cash back.
So Rothman is probably going to produce Spielberg's next movie at Fox, "Robapocalypse," just the kind of tentpole that the filmmaker needs right now after "Lincoln," which is heading toward becoming a success d'estime.
The executive map at Fox has moved around. Basically the Fox television production unit, which supplies shows to all the networks, will no longer report to Gianopulos, now that there is only one of him, and will instead report to News Corp's Chase Carey. Meanwhile Ex-Murdoch #2 Peter Chernin is producing TV's "New Girl" and "Planet of the Apes" movies as the Fox Network's capable Peter Rice, who like Rothman came up through Fox Searchlight, continues to prove his bonafides for eventually running the whole entertainment side. His day will come.
Fox also made a big score, bringing in Katzenberg's DreamWorks Animation, whose deal at Paramount expires at year's end. Whiile Paramount under Brad Grey and Rob Moore has had a tough year, they were prepared to lose DreamWorks Animation, and took a hard line with the deal negotiations. The question is whether they can handle losing the animation output on top of superhero movie supplier Marvel, which was bought by the Mouse House. That removed from the Paramount slate several mighty box office performers a year (in 2012 it was #1 blockbuster "The Avengers").
Katzenberg took the DreamWorks Animation distribution deal to Fox, because while Paramount wouldn't take less than an 8% distribution fee–and couldn't improve his homevideo terms either– bigger Fox Homevideo could afford to sweeten that part of the deal. That will leave Paramount on its own with its homegrown slate. (They also lost DreamWorks to Disney, although they retained many strong execs and projects that have bolstered their production coffers.) They still have in-house suppliers Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, whose "G.I. Joe: Retribution" sequel was pushed to March 2013 for fixes, and J.J. Abrams, whose long-awaited "Star Trek 2" should deliver the goods in May 2013.
Paramount had been venturing into its own animation production, but they weren't as smart as Universal, which scooped up Fox's Chris Meledandri to start Illumination Entertainment, which has yielded hits "Despicable Me," "Hop," and "The Lorax." Paramount's "Rango" may have looked good at the box office and won the animation Oscar, but it neither made tons of money (it cost $135 million, plus global marketing costs, and grossed $245 millon worldwide), nor did it establish a new animation supplier. It was a one-off. By comparison, Katzenberg's "Kung Fu Panda" grossed over $535 million worldwide.
The new Paramount Animation, which reports to production chief Adam Goodman, has several Nickelodeon titles in the works as well as a secret Abrams project. First though, producer Mary Parent is pushing forward on a sequel to "SpongeBob SquarePants" with director Paul Tibbett and "King Fu Panda 2 writers Jonathan Albel and Glenn Berger.
Next up for management changes are Warner Bros.–with longtime pater familias Barry Meyer leaving at the end of 2013 with no Alan Horn to replace him–and Sony relatively steady as they go. Until Sir Howard Stringer eventually walks the plank amid declining revenues.