Peter Bart: Streamer And Agency Layoffs Leave Hollywood Feeling Extra Ruthless

“It was like a palace of pitching. There’s never been any place like it.”

An agent friend was describing the sprawling and frenetic Netflix reception lobby, which was an almost weekly destination for him and clients. It was so packed with dealmakers that projects were often re-shaped and re-packaged even before the Netflix pitch took place.

Given news of 450 layoffs at the streamer, the pitching palace has become a cathedral of calm. With Netflix likely to lose 2 million global subscribers this quarter, its present priority is to trim costs while building an ad-supported tier to generate fresh revenue.

The behavior of Netflix employees has reflected this change. “I’m taking pitches for shows all morning, then checking out job possibilities in the afternoon,” reports one Netflix executive I’ve known for years. “If I hear one more person lecturing me about ‘resilience,’ I’ll deck him.”

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Inevitably, turbulence in the job market has stirred speculation about the Hollywood version of “the circle of life.” “Who knows who you’ll be hitting on tomorrow,” reflects one female executive at Warner Bros Discovery, who like many is reviewing her own recent history of business manners. Were calls returned promptly? Were the rejections delivered with empathy? Or is that even possible?

Even CEO behavior is being critiqued more scrupulously at present. When Disney CEO Bob Chapek abruptly fired Peter Rice two weeks ago, some wondered publicly about decorum; why did he fail to offer cause to his once chief lieutenant?

Having observed Rice’s meticulously good manners over the years (he was even polite during arguments, and he and I have had a few), I, too, was personally puzzled by Chapek’s display.

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Rice belongs to a small cadre of senior executives (Disney’s Alan Horn and Paramount’s Jim Gianopulos among them) who have earned renown and respect for good manners and generous dispositions. All are presently unemployed. Chapek’s deal got renewed, his pay increased.

Institutional rudeness is hardly a new phenomenon. Viacom’s former czar, Sumner Redstone, orchestrated famously tempestuous firings, as with his president, Tom Freston. The legendary agent Sue Mengers was aggressively confrontational. “Your last movie sucked, but I have a job for you if you just shut up and do the work,” she told Peter Bogdanovich, a director client (who then told me).

Rude behavior was so flagrant during an earlier regime at UTA that the agency hired a staff psychiatrist to work things out. One agent, Gavin Polone, warned the shrink that “Hollywood is the Wild West for Jews” — an admonition that he later withdrew (Polone is mild mannered in his present life).

The volatility of the present job market, combined with tensions of inclusiveness, have intensified the strain on collegial behavior. “Every meeting feels like a writers room with tempers about to flare,” a producer told me. New rounds of layoffs are affecting not only studios and networks but also the agency business. Casualties of the CAA-ICM deal alone may initially total 105.

All this seems magnified at Netflix. According to the Wall Street Journal, an Evercore study revealed a significant drop in user satisfaction, while another traced growing cancellations to consumer alarm about costs. Surveys still confirm Netflix’s domination of streaming, yet point to limits of future growth.

All this shifts pressure to Netflix’s future partner charged with the task of fostering its new advertising tier — units of Google and Comcast are candidates. Whichever entity lands the job has a keen understanding of the Netflix operating philosophy: weak performance prompts quick termination.

And terminations, given present practices, are less than cordial. There’s no hug or farewell luncheon, no Rolex to reward loyal service.

When I personally quit my job at Paramount some years ago, I decided to keep it quiet and cordial. I did my rounds of parting politeness, even including the studio’s unofficial consiglieri, Sidney Korshak, who seemed pleased. “Quiet departures are always best, and you are doing it right,” he assured me with a rare smile and handshake. “The safest exit is a silent exit,” he said. I felt that was re-assuring council from Al Capone’s favorite lawyer.

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