Jeff Bewkes and Joe Roth Talk Business with Charlie Rose
On Wednesday afternoon, with humidity pushing 90%, men in damp blazers and women with wilted blowouts lined up outside of the SVA theater in Chelsea for “The Business of Entertainment,” one of the panels in the Tribeca Talks Industry series at the Tribeca Film fest. There were fewer tote bags and more briefcases. Blackberries — not iPhones — buzzed. The auditorium filled up quickly with buttoned-up professionals taking the afternoon off to hear interviews with Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of Time Warner and Joe Roth, the legendary Hollywood producer, director, and studio head. I sat next to a JFK, Jr. look-alike, who would have impressed me more if it weren’t for the eclipsing charisma of the afternoon’s moderator, an especially twinkly Charlie Rose.
Rose and Bewkes had an easy rapport, which the two jokingly chalked up to their shared but brief history on Wall Street. “I’m sixty. I’m actually sixty-one, but I spent a year in banking,” Bewkes cracked, quoting Tennessee Williams. As CEO of Time Warner, Bewkes is also in charge of Warner Bros., Turner Broadcasting, HBO, and Time Inc. Fellow luminary Brian Grazer has referred him as “the last mogul.” But each of these industries — film production, television programming, print journalism — as Bewkes explained, is linked now by questions about (and hopefully answers to) digital distribution. Their conversation was predicable, but vibrant. It was obvious that Rose was consciously protracting certain parts of the discussion for the sake of the audience; clearly he already knew the answers to most of his questions — as he should, considering how intertwined their lines of work are. They talked about how hard it is to support niche content with advertising, how piracy could be prevented if only there wasn’t a four-month interim between the theater release of a movie and its in-store and online distribution, and the wise decision to produce exclusive content for Netflix, a company whose surprising success Bewkes compared to a small Albanian army. Later, he would describe the internet as “a bunch of hamsters wearing ties.”
After a few swigs from a sweaty bottle of Smartwater, Rose introduced Joe Roth, whose credits include Home Alone, The Sixth Sense, and Alice in Wonderland. Roth smiled, sat down, slumped a little, and almost immediately kicked off his right shoe. He explained what, as a producer, he looks for in a script (a blend of uniqueness and familiarity) and gave a quick recap of his own personal history in the business, which really took off when Rupert Murdoch anointed him chairman of Fox at 38-years-old, after only one short meeting. “I could have been an axe murderer,” he laughed and recalled how Murdoch’s house had a fireplace bigger than any apartment Roth had ever been in.
Alluding to Bewkes’ optimism, Roth confirmed that as a director, “you can ask for almost anything right now.” The winners, he continued, talking now about producers, “are the guys who [can] see it.” According to both panelists, the future of film and television is bright. Roth’s quips were pegged to his own experiences: the flimsiness of most sequels, the sick dread he feels while driving to the first screening of a movie about which he knows he’s made too many compromises. Roth’s real bone to pick with the industry though was with the concept of “middlemen,” which apparently take all shapes and prevent production studios from profiting as much as they otherwise would. “Producers should buy theaters,” Roth said in voice a bit louder than before. “95% of a movie’s gross is achieved in the first 30 days.” Exasperated, he listed a few suggestions: that theaters could be dressed up, that ticket prices could fluctuate depending upon the success of the movie, and that merchandise could be sold right in front of the box office.
In what was likely an effort to mitigate some of Bewkes’ zealotry, Rose began ribbing the CEO gently, encouraging Bewkes to facetiously confirm that he also wrote all the movies he produced. We all giggled. But I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the audience caught on Roth’s other ‘zany’ idea: imagining those 7-Elevens turned into Kwik-E-Marts for the release of The Simpsons Movie. And then the New York equivalent: The Lower East Side dressed up as its circa-1988 self for the inevitable Grand Theft Auto-Liberty City movie.