The departure of Jeff Robinov as Warner Bros. film chief on Monday is the conclusion of a public and contentious corporate bake-off for the top job at the studio, one that left nearly everyone close to the competition burned.
When Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes picked Kevin Tsujihara to run Warner Bros. in January, it should have ended any questions about who was in charge. Instead, it led to months of instability at a studio known for steady transfers of power.
And in the end, it hasn’t made Bewkes look particularly deft.
The two executives who didn’t get the job – Robinov and TV chief Bruce Rosenblum – both left within months of the decision after making their displeasure apparent.
"It was distracting," Michael Yoshikami, founder and CEO of Destination Wealth Management, told TheWrap. "I was surprised [Bewkes] used this strategy. I can’t think of a situation where this approach has led to a positive outcome. It creates a situation where it’s difficult for people to work together."
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Yet the question moving forward is whether that instability will have ripple effects at the studio, which should be celebrating the remarkable success of “Man of Steel.”
Multiple individuals close to the studio argued that Robinov’s departure was widely expected, which engendered unease for several months.
“It seemed highly dysfunctional for a long time,” one executive who works with Warner Bros. said.
Yet as public as Robinov’s fight with upper management became, some expect it to now quiet down and return to normal. “Everyone was anticipating large fallout with a greater staffing shuffle,” the executive said.
Other said that Tsujihara is merely recreating the structure that led to the dysfunction at his level of the company, a triumvirate of veteran, talented veteran executives to take the reins from Robinov.
But since no one is taking Robinov’s position as studio chief, that may well create its own competitive dynamic among a trio of ambitious executives. All three will report to Tsujihara.
One industry executive said this would not necessarily lead to dissension.
“They aren’t really threats to one another,” said the executive who works closely with the studio. “Sue Kroll and Greg and Toby all want to rule the world or they wouldn’t be in those jobs, but they also all know they can have power in their respective lanes. Both Toby and Greg need Sue Kroll to market their movies.”
Tsujihara has created the same structure – and potentially the same internal tensions – on the television side. A trio of longstanding executives have replaced Rosenblum: Peter Roth serves as president and chief content officer; Craig Hunegs is president of business and strategy; and Jeffrey Schlesinger is now president of television distribution.
Hal Vogel, CEO of Vogel Capital Management, told TheWrap that the current structure could work if all of the executives are given narrowly defined portfolios and stick to them, but said that he did not believe having three or more people in control of an institution works smoothly over the long run.
"Corporate politics, and especially the version of corporate politics in Hollywood, evolves in the same way as in the animal kingdom," Vogel said. "More power will eventually accrue more to one person than the others."
Tsujihara has told executives at Warner Bros. that he truly wants the television and movie arms to be governed by a collection of equals, according to an individual familiar with his thinking. He believes that the current constellation of leaders will foster collaboration and will help breakdown a silo structure that is becoming outdated as digital distribution blurs the boundaries between the big screen, the small screen and the internet.
"The idea is to break down all these fiefdoms and get people to work with each other," the individual said. "It's hard enough to compete with all the changed going on in the industry; we don't need to be working against each other."
The other clouds hovering over the studio are the future of its relationships with Legendary Entertainment, the co-financier and producer of hits like Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films and “The Hangover” franchise, and its relationship with talent like Nolan and director Ben Affleck, who are known to be close to Robinov.
As TheWrap reported this weekend, the Legendary relationship looks to be on the verge of leaving to go to Universal – yet another challenge for a studio having a tough week.