Peter Bart: Troubled Times Might Demand More Exotic Solutions In Dealing With Corporate Cutbacks

Cordial yet reserved, the man seated across from me seemed well cast as a CEO. We had just attended a board meeting as “outside” directors, and he was mulling the big question: “How much disruption and cost cutting can you apply to a company, yet still keep it functional?”

With a shrug of resignation, he dug an envelope from his pocket. “The chairman told me this was a great problem-solver,” he said. Opening it, the scent announced weed; robust weed.

More about him later, but his question resonates today, as virtually every Hollywood company seems intent on restructuring itself. A scorecard is needed to understand the new reporting lines at Disney. WarnerMedia has fired respected figures like Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly, along with echelons of marketing mavens. The latter is all in keeping with Jason Kilar’s determination to build a “consumer mind-set,” but a “survival mind-set” seems more in demand.

At another level, tensions between MGM chairman Kevin Ulrich and his TV president Mark Burnett keep that company in a state of agitation (sexual assault charges against Ulrich were levied in a 2019 lawsuit that was “discontinued” a month later, according to media reports). Meanwhile, MGM’s battered subsidiary, United Artists, still pops up on TV credits (even Shark Tank), listed as the UA Media Group, UA Digital Studios, UA Releasing or other legalisms. Depending on which document you access, UA might, or might not, still own libraries dating back to Orion, PolyGram or even Monogram (1931), but those fragments also might belong to MGM.

Since the present United Artists stands as a classic victim of corporate rule, it’s worth remembering that the original United Artists was the creation of a superstar rebellion against corporate rule (Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, et al). Unfortunately, their first release was directed by the dreaded D.W. Griffith, fresh from The Birth of a Nation, who managed to find yet a further way of offending audience sensibilities, casting a Caucasian as his Chinese protagonist. Chaplin didn’t help the slate, producing an art movie titled A Woman in Paris in which he barely appeared.

Regularly bought and sold over the decades by corporate dealmakers, United Artists finally was rescued in the late 1950s by a deft team headed by Arthur Krim and David Picker, who nurtured such hits as The Apartment and Tom Jones. But by 1979, with its numbers fading, UA was no longer a hot item when the insurance monolith, Transamerica, suddenly stepped forward, its management knowing little about movies. Not long thereafter, James Harvey was appointed its CEO.

At the time I was serving with Harvey on the founding board of Ventana, then an exciting new celebrity resort in Big Sur. It was after a board meeting that Harvey took me aside as his “Hollywood friend” to pose his questions about problems confronting Transamerica.

I asked what had triggered his alarm. “Yesterday I screened the newest release from United Artists,” he responded. “It was a weird Western called Heaven’s Gate. Now, I’m an insurance man, so how’s an insurance man supposed to figure out Heaven’s Gate?”

We exchanged a studied glance. “The weed?” he said simply.

Helped by his “problem-solver,” Harvey arranged for Transamerica to sell United Artists shortly thereafter and went on to have a long and successful career at Transamerica. Heaven’s Gate turned out to be a bomb, despite having a few critical defenders.

And were Harvey around, he might advise that fellow corporate functionaries would do well to study this and other related “problem-solvers.”

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