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The New Hollywood Leader

HRTS Network Chiefs Luncheon – The Lessons of Bad Leadership

by David Brownstein

Just returned from the Network Chiefs Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. On the panel was Stephen McPherson of ABC, Dawn Ostroff of CW, Kevin Reilly of Fox, Ben Silverman of NBC, and Nina Tassler of CBS.

This annual event brings together the top creative executives of each of the broadcast networks and is truly has the potential to hear smart, creative, opinionated leaders discussing what’s happening in Television at this particular moment.

Unfortunately, the moderator of this event was Barry Sonnenfeld, film director and exec producer of “Pushing Daisies.” Here are my brief comments on the event.

1) Barry Sonnenfeld: Worst moderator ever. Here he was sitting in front of 1000 people moderating a discussion with among most powerful TV execs in Hollywood and he could barely get out a question. He talked primarily about himself, was not very knowledgeable about the business, and worst of all, barely gave the panel a chance to talk. Except for the occasional wisecrack or quip.

A journalist at my table said, half joking: “I love Pushing Daisies but now I almost want the show to fail.” I know what she means.

Another table-mate of mine said “Look around this room at all these people, can you imagine the waste of billable hours?”

As I drove home contemplating the leadership lessons of this experience, it reminded me that even if we assemble an incredible and talented crew of people, the project will be doomed to failure without a good leader at the helm. Or a director, if you will.)

The 5 panelists sat quietly, in amazement and some bit of amusement at Barry’s spectacular spectacle.

What I wanted was some sort of intervention to occur. I seriously thought for a moment about walking up to the stage and saying “Hey Barry, would you be willing to let some of the panelists talk for a little while?”

2) The Strike and Residuals: Barry was somewhat obsessed with his own simplistic solution to residual problem which amounted to this: Why not just have a set rate and residual across the board for all media outlets: Broadcast, DVD, internet etc. and leave it at that. I must confess that the filmmaker in me agreed with his interpretation, but again, he seemed to be there more to hear himself talk than to actually hear what the panelists said.

Kevin Reilly was actually able to respond about this and his thoughts were interesting. I’m paraphrasing here but he said essentially “I don’t understand how we’re so far apart on this.  Maybe it’s our responsibility because we haven’t articulated the situation well or maybe the writers haven’t explained theirs to us but I don’t understand why we don’t understand each other. We (on the network side) sit and scratch our heads and look at the numbers and try to come up with solutions in a way that will have us be responsible to the studios, to our companies, our advertisers and our shareholders and haven’t figured it out yet.”

3) This just in: Why people work long hours in Hollywood.

Barry asked them all how much they work on the weekends. Ben Silverman’s reply (again vaguely paraphrased) was that “We all read scripts, review rough cuts, campaigns etc. on the weekends and there’s of course never enough time to do everything and we essentially feel that if we do more work on our product that it will get better. So the problem is that we want our product to get better and there’s never enough time, so it’s frustrating, so we do quite a bit of work on the weekend.”

This sounds so obvious but I think it speaks to an essential truth in Hollywood. Sometimes, ok, usually, the more we work on something the better it gets. The better it gets the higher the likelihood of it’s success. If the product succeeds, then we succeed, get more money, power, creative control etc.

4) The Best Moderator I Ever Saw: (Back in the Day.)

I once saw Producer Sandra Schulberg moderate a panel in NY at the IFFM many years ago. She came prepared, asked pointed questions to each member, let them talk, and then challenged them if they didn’t answer the question. She focused the conversation, kept it moving and interesting, and allowed the audience to learn what they came for and got the best out of her panelists/esteemed colleagues. It wasn’t about her, but she kept herself very engaged in the process and was committed to getting the best out of everyone on the panel, for the sake of everyone in the audience.

After today’s show, Barry will probably never be asked to moderate a panel again (at least hopefully.)

It all just goes to underscore that we can assemble the greatest team, in the greatest venue, with a curious and clever audience, but with a weak link in a key position, the whole show can go down in flames.

Ok. I feel better now.

Who’ve been the best or worst moderators you’ve ever seen?

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