Hollywood on Double Strike: Where’s Our Lew Wasserman When We Need One?

With all the anger, mistrust and frustration in the air it’s hard to see who commands enough respect to do more than gaze from the sidelines

Lew Wasserman Hollywood strike
Lew Wasserman (Chris Smith/TheWrap)

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

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With the entire entertainment industry on shutdown, many in Hollywood are looking around and asking: Where is our Lew Wasserman? The legendary Hollywood mogul — president of talent agency MCA Inc. and later Universal Pictures — had the respect of labor and management during disputes in 1960 and 1981 when he helped to make deals that put people back to work. 

Right now, it’s what the industry desperately needs. Two guilds on strike and no relief in sight poses an existential threat to the entire entertainment business.

But with all the anger, mistrust and frustration in the air, it’s hard to see who has the respect and, critically, trust of either side to do more than gaze from the sidelines. 

Back in the day, what Lew said, went. “When Lew said it was time to go back to work it was like the ending of the film ‘On the Waterfront,’” said Howard Suber, professor emeritus for the UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television. “Mr. Big in his fancy suit shows up at the docks and says, ‘All right, go back to work’ and everybody goes back to work. There’s no such person [now].”

My first bet would have been Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger, a well-respected veteran who has handled many tricky situations with talent. Suber agreed, for what it’s worth: “Iger… has that moral authority. He’s the voice of the industry but one of the ways in which he got that, the same thing was true of Lew Wasserman. One of the ways he got his power was he didn’t use it that often.”

But that’s clearly not going to be the case here. Iger, whose return to the CEO throne was extended last week by two years, earned the fury of rank and file guild members by calling their demands “not realistic” last week while sitting in the verdant mountains of mogul camp at Sun Valley, private jet at the ready.

This response is somewhat off-brand for Iger, who has considered himself an ally of the creative community and has shown great skill at navigating tricky talent situations (which his predecessor Bob Chapek notably couldn’t do, calling Scarlett Johansson.)

Disney CEO Bob Iger at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

It’s also unlikely to be Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who despite a warm affect, has won the ire of talent for massive layoffs since taking over the company a year ago, killing movies like “Batgirl” and yanking lots of shows from HBO Max (now Max). He too was among those sunning themselves in Sun Valley last week; he blithely went skeet-shooting as thousands voted to take to the picket lines.  

OPTICS, people. 

My next guess would have been Jeffrey Katzenberg, retired from the industry and with a taste for civic duty (he also used to provide free lunches to all employees at DreamWorks). But — no. Katzenberg has stepped heavily into national and local politics, leading President Biden’s reelection efforts as a campaign co-chair and boosting L.A. Mayor Karen Bass as she attempts to conquer entrenched homelessness and other quality-of-life issues in our hometown. I don’t think he’s interested in getting involved. 

Also, it’s not going to be that anonymous guy who told Deadline that writers and actors should be starved out of their rent and mortgage payments until they cave. (I say it’s a guy because you know it’s definitely a guy, and anyway I only 25% believe that this person exists.) 

It’s some kind of sad statement about Hollywood that there isn’t a “Godfather”-style leader who’s willing to step into the ring and draw fire. I ran into Paramount Global owner Shari Redstone at the Four Seasons on Friday and she was in fine, friendly form — even when I showed her that Wrap headline about the moguls basking in Sun Valley.  

barry diller
(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

I wondered on Sunday about Barry Diller, who spoke to Face the Nation and warned of catastrophic disaster for the entertainment business if the strike isn’t resolved. 

“Actually, everybody’s probably overpaid at the top end,” he told host Margaret Brennan, which is the closest thing to a concession by a business leader we have heard throughout this process. 

“The one idea I had is to say, as a good faith measure, both the executives and the most paid actors should take a 25% pay cut, to try and narrow-narrow the difference between those who get highly paid and those that don’t,” Diller added.

Diller is one of the prickliest men I know of — hardly the bedside manner of a negotiator. He’s also one of the savviest business people of our generation, who helped build both Paramount and Fox and then went on to build his own mega-media corporations, IAC and Expedia Group. 

We’ll take him if he’s willing. 

Update: In the wake of this publication, a great suggestion came from an insider: “Jeff Sagansky, Bob Daley and Ken Ziffren as a team… their only agenda would be the health of the business.”

I like it. Sagansky once ran Sony and previously CBS Television but now is an entrepreneur and investor in media; Daley, of course, successfully ran Warner Bros with Terry Semel in the 1990s; and Ziffren is a top entertainment lawyer, founder of Ziffren Brittenham.

Our other obvious option is a trusted person in politics, if one exists. I’d vote for California Governor Gavin Newsom — who has a massive interest in ending this work stoppage — to raise his hand and volunteer to moderate this mess. (One of his top aides is Dee Dee Meyers, former head of comms for Warner Bros. and before that the Clinton White House press secretary. The phone lines are open folks.) 

Or, in a pinch, Joe himself. Why wouldn’t Biden pick up the phone to his biggest donors and tell them to give up some of their… Oh, maybe that’s why. Listen (or as Biden likes to say: “Listen folks”), Biden or someone close to him, or some big politico with Democratic chops and union history needs to step in and do something. Last week a federal mediator stepped in at the last minute and failed to bring the parties — SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP — to agreement. Biden himself is a union kinda guy, and already expressed support for the actors.

We need somebody.

Otherwise, as Diller pointed out starkly on Sunday, “These conditions will potentially produce an absolute collapse of an entire industry.”

Additional reporting by Kristen Lopez.