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It’s been a rough month for Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav.
Getting booed at a university commencement was one thing, but having to fire a news network chief, seeing a major superhero film tank and getting skewered for everything from throwing a party in Cannes during a labor stoppage to slashing costs at the beloved TCM classic movie channel has been nothing short of brutal.
Zaslav has made misstep after misstep, said one veteran Hollywood executive, pointing especially to that celebration of Warner’s 100 year anniversary party at the Hotel Du Cap in Cannes with Air Mail’s Graydon Carter as a tone-deaf move during a strike. “It’s the most transparent drug-like addiction [to celebrity] that I’ve even seen,” the executive said.
Added the executive: “All the guys were rooting for him. Now the whisper around town is ‘What a buffoon.'”
It started with what should have been a fun, ego-boosting exercise, giving the commencement speech at Boston University on May 21. But instead he was loudly booed by the student body for his role in the Hollywood writer’s strike.
Chants of “pay your writers!” during David Zaslav’s BU commencement speech: pic.twitter.com/x65XwmIxgD
— Tyler Ruggeri (@t_ruggeri) May 21, 2023
Then on May 23, a long-planned streaming strategy set sail with the launch of Max, a bold branding change that rolled three Warner Bros. Discovery brands — HBO, HBO Max and Discovery Plus — into one streaming platform. The jury is still out on whether Zaslav’s bid to draw in middle America for the price of HBO will work. But right out of the gate, he managed to piss off the Hollywood creative community with his team’s ham-handed move of grouping credits on the new platform together under the catch-all “creators.”
The Hollywood guilds were furious, with the DGA President Leslie Linka Glatter calling it “a grave insult to our members and our union.”(One social media user found the change on “Raging Bull,” which listed director Martin Scorsese, writers Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff all under the singular “creators” category.)
Bad luck. Two days later Zaslav flew to the Cannes Film Festival to give the star-studded party at the swanky Hotel du Cap. It was meant to be Zaslav’s coming out party at the fanciest film festival of the year, covered gamely in the New York Times. And while movie stars like Leonardo di Caprio and directors like Martin Scorsese showed up, there was not-so-quiet grumbling that the party was in bad taste as the industry was put on hold by a strike. Wrote Shawn McCreesh in New York magazine: “Thousands of miles away from the writers’ strike that has paralyzed and polarized a post-pandemic Hollywood, Warner Bros. celebrated its centennial… from the rarefied clifftop confines of the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc outside Cannes.”
Maybe a bad call there. Could happen to anyone. But things have only gotten much, much worse as the month has worn on.
* On June 7, Zaslav had to fire his hand-picked CEO of CNN, Chris Licht, after a humiliating takedown of the executive for a failure to lead the news network in The Atlantic magazine and a staff revolt in which it was clear that Licht had “lost the room” — the newsroom. The PR debacle took over the news cycle for days.
* On the weekend of June 16, the DC superhero movie “The Flash” — a movie on which Zaslav had personally put his stamp of approval – bombed at the box office, taking in just $55 million, below even the most measured expectations. “Whither DC?” came the analysis from box office experts.
* Then on June 20, a new round of layoffs began, including widespread cuts at TCM, the classic movie channel tied to the Warner archive that is beloved by filmmakers, cineastes and classic movie buffs alike. The reaction was all the more severe because Zaslav made the unusual move of showing up at a recent TCM festival to talk about his love for film with Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson. A damage control call with Spielberg, Scorsese and PTA followed on June 21 after the layoffs continued to spark online venom.
* On top of all that, the news leaked that HBO was in talks to license its content to Netflix, heretofore a serious rival, starting with Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” and to sell parts of the music and movie library for cold cash.
It’s getting very uncomfortable for David Zaslav, who finally has in hand the prize he has coveted for so long, a legacy Hollywood studio.
“David Zaslav had a chance to come into the business and take the chair of Lew Wasserman,” said the veteran Hollywood executive, referring to the former MCA-Universal mogul’s respected position in resolving labor disputes. “He could have gone in the room with creatives and studio heads — say ‘I’m a fan of the creative community’ — and gotten it resolved.”
But it’s been a rough ride ever since Zaslav managed to convince AT&T to merge the cable empire of Discovery with the legendary Warner Bros. brand, spun off from the telecom giant. From the start, he needed to cut thousands of jobs to meet the $5 billion in cost savings required to meet a crushing debt load that financed the deal.
And despite his most full-throated support for a Warner theatrical strategy, for supporting filmmaking in general, and for traditional Hollywood, Zaslav has managed to rub the creative community the wrong way, repeatedly. From “Batgirl” star Leslie Grace to CNN star Christiane Amanpour to national treasure Martin Scorsese, the famously charming Zaslav keeps stepping in the soup.
Why — you may ask?
“The real story here is why does Zaslav behave the way he behaves,” said one knowledgeable, longtime observer of the mogul. “All he wanted was to get the Warner deal. He’s sitting on this perch. In his psyche he has proved himself by breaking something. In his mind he is a breaker of norms. That’s how he thinks.”
Perhaps. But he still has to operate this legendary prize that he has won. Zaslav continues to be caught between the demands of Wall Street — where the WBD stock continues to suffer from the pressures of a $49.5 billion debt load — and his desire to be a lovable, old-style Hollywood mogul, friend to the stars, habitue of the Polo Lounge.
“He really believes that for this company to succeed, you’ve got to be a friend to the creative community, to greenlight more films, to be a loud champion of theatrical,” said an individual with knowledge of his thinking. But this person agreed that Zaslav has had a serial run of bad news of late.
“Coming one after another, the timing makes it easy to string [bad news] together,” adding: “It’s a complicated time around the writers’ strike.”
A Warner insider pointed out that even as the Chris Licht debacle was going down, the company announced it would be achieving cost-saving targets faster than expected, which drove the stock up 20%. (The stock has since drifted back down.)
But the optics are brutal. People are talking. One thing is for certain: Zaslav is in a position of his own doing, and his own choosing. And he will not find a path to success through more cuts. He’s going to need a couple of breaks and to see some strategies work out.
For the moment, though, he might just want to hide out in the Hamptons and wait for this month to be behind him.