Bewkes’ Moves at Warner Bros: Can a Troika of Princes Rule?

Analysis: The decision to keep Barry Meyer buys more time — but the pressure of change in the entertainment industry may demand decisiveness rather than accommodation

Last Updated: September 23, 2010 @ 9:58 PM

The three young princes of Warner Bros. each got an urgent email at about 3 p.m. on Tuesday: Barry (Meyer) and Alan (Horn) need to see you in a half hour.

Together.

Bruce Rosenblum, president of Warner Bros. Television, was at a conference in Beverly Hills and jumped into his car.

Jeff Robinov, president of production at the movie studio, was dealing with a family event and couldn't make it.

Kevin Tsujihara, who heads home entertainment, was on the lot.

The executives, minus Robinov, gathered to hear the news they’d all been awaiting for months:

Horn, 67, would be leaving the company in April. Meyer, 66, would be staying on for three more years before handing the company over to a triumvirate of the young princes.

The structure — which will leave three powerful talents in unusual equipoise at the top of one of Hollywood’s biggest content machines — feels either like a holding position, or a choice that may lead to inevitable jockeying for primacy among three men who currently get along.

Across chattering Hollywood, news of the succession immediately ignited a frenzy of accounts of motives, relative strengths and weakness, and corporate politics.

A veteran member of Time Warner — and a Bewkes fan — guesses “there’s a 50-50 that one of the three emerges as leader and a 50-50 that the three will run it together and each report to Jeff.”

For the moment, the move means the biggest change for Robinov, who currently reports to Horn and will see a formal promotion to heading the studio.

Rosenblum has reported to Meyer for more than a decade, and Tsujihara will continue to rule the troubled home entertainment division while seeking the new technologies that might make up for all that declining revenue.

At the studio, insiders say that the choice has been made. The three — who meet frequently as a group with Meyer, Horn and CFO Ed Romano — will run their divisions once Meyer leaves in 2013, reporting to Bewkes.

“This won’t change in 2013,” one WB executive affirmed to TheWrap.

When has a threesome at the top worked out? Notions leap to mind:The Three Little Pigs. The Three Blind Mice. The Three Tenors.

In ancient Rome, the arrangement did not work out well for Marc Antony or Lepidus, the two triumvirs left behind as the threesome devolved into conspiracy, then war and then left Augustus in charge as sole emperor.

Also: HBO, where Bewkes placed a trio of co-presidents in charge in 2007.

So far, the picture there has been mixed. A year after the move, co-president Harold Akselrad, a 25-year HBO veteran, left the job of overseeing the network’s groups that handled legal, business affairs, film acquisition and technology groups.

His departure didn’t appear on the surface to reflect any elbowing, and he explained that after a long tenure he preferred to pursue other personal and professional interests.

Even now HBO is effectively run by three executives — chairman Bill Nelson, with co-presidents Eric Kessler and Richard Plepler. While the network has lost subscribers for two straight quarters, it does not reflect any obvious infighting, as creative buzz and finances remain robust.

Among Robinov, Rosenblum and Tsujihara there actually appears to be some relief that Meyer is staying, leaving some semblance of a status quo in place for three years.

Bewkes' scrutiny, though from New York, is apt to be sharper, with Meyer now having been rendered merely a very experienced caretaker.

What’s more, by eliminating a management layer with Horn’s departure Bewkes will have a clearer opportunity to assess Robinov's talents.

Another element will be missing: Alan Horn has long been what many refer to as a "moral compass" within the studio, tempering Meyer's tough-guy lawyer-like demeanor. "Someone will have to step up and represent that" in Horn's absence, said one observer.

The new expansive structure does buy Bewkes more time. But the pressure of change in the entertainment industry may demand decisiveness rather than accommodation.

In anointing the Warner Bros. triumvirate, Bewkes is reaffirming his preference for an intriguing approach to leading two of the industry’s most historic and successful content businesses through digital transformation.

Yet the real — and largely overlooked — question raised by Bewkes’ move can be answered only in time: With shifting business models and multiplying platforms, does it require more hands at the helm to steer Hollywood’s major and evolving studios?

And even if it does, can a troika-led creative content enterprise possibly avoid devouring itself?

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