After the many months of dating – meals spent flirting with every agent that matters and every executive with even a vague hope of running part of the Warner Bros. movie studio. – the rubber and the road begin to meet for the boss of bosses David Zaslav.
Relieved that everyone was rid of AT&T management, the evaluation of the new regime’s choices began. There have already been grumblings about the CNN chief Chris Licht cable network insiders, many of whom are still sitting shiva for the ousted jeff zucker. A story from June 5 in The New York Times said that a month into Licht’s tenure, “some CNN reporters” wonder if he “can navigate a sprawling, weighty global news network after what has been a not good, very bad year.”
Michael DeLuca and Pam Abdy, on the other hand, are likely to be welcomed into the film community with open arms. Between them, they have decades of experience in the industry, and De Luca’s relationship with talent in particular was a selling point with Zaslav. (He’s surely watched what Hollywood does to strangers who start making statements without a goodwill ambassador to guide and protect them.) De Luca’s affability helped him compete for talent and material when it was located at MGM, a studio that wouldn’t have been top of the list for anyone with something good to sell. But the most powerful lure is always money, and De Luca has been known to spend it. This would seem completely against Zaslav’s natural inclinations and, given the debt, it is imperative to control costs.
Even some of De Luca’s friends are worried about how it will turn out. “He likes talent, he is a strong advocate for certain types of projects,” says a manager who knows him well. “Is that going to cut it in a large corporate environment?”
A veteran top player chuckles when asked to predict. “I love Mike. But Mike’s been totally consistent in making flashy, big-money losing movies,” he says (with some hyperbole). “Zas says, ‘We’re gonna make hits for less money. “and then you hire a guy who does the exact opposite.” Says another longtime insider: “The idea of fiscal responsibility and creative freedom? Someone’s head is going to explode.
Granted, De Luca and Abdy spent the money at MGM, though one source says they stayed within the development and production budgets they were given. Their tenure as president and president, respectively, was to make it look like the drifting studio was in on the game to help close a sale. (The logic of this is unclear as the Bond franchise and the library were the block’s real assets.)
Insiders saw De Luca’s hiring there then — and at Warners now — as evidence of CAA’s great powers of persuasion. Bryan Heavy. And certainly many CAA customers have benefited from the transactions that followed. Paul Thomas Anderson made Licorice Pizza, Lady Gaga play in Gucci House, Joe Wright and Pierre Dinklage made Cyranoetc
MGM was in the awards conversation and Licorice Pizza was the studio’s first Best Picture nominee since rain man in 1988. But sources say executives at Amazon, which acquired MGM for $8.5 billion in March, were astonished at the tens of millions in losses on the slate. In all honesty, the movies have been released theatrically during the pandemic. But Licorice Pizza cost around $50 million and grossed a meager $32 million. Cyrano was dead when he arrived. And Amazon still has a few in the pipeline that should malfunction.
Looking at this story, there are plenty of reasons to see De Luca and Zaslav as a very odd match. “People admire Mike’s taste and love doing business with him,” says a De Luca associate. “But people, I know, had been urging them to give him something smaller, not as big. It’s a big thing.
Still undefined, however, how big is it? How many films and what budgets Zaslav will apparently approve is TBD. Wherever the studio lands, it’s a strange new world for Zaslav, who even on television is used to dealing with shows whose cost per episode is a fraction of a series on one of Turner’s channels.
Over the years, De Luca has zagged and zagged from executive to producer and back again. Having joined New Line at 19 as an intern, he rose to the helm of the label and oversaw films that defined him as a man of strong and eclectic tastes: Seven, boogie nights, Austin Powers, Friday. In 2001, he was ousted amid a series of flops. (He still loves the Adam Sandler debacle Little Nicky.) He earned a reputation as a Hollywood bad boy – public intoxication, fights, sexcapades. The truth — and he’s transparent about it — is that he’s struggled on and off with addiction. He has now been sober for four years.
After New Line, he had a stint as president of production at DreamWorks, but it turned out to be a bad match. In 2004, he set up a production contract with Sony Pictures. What followed, eventually, produced credits on top nominees The social network in 2010, silver ball in 2011 and Captain Phillips in 2013. (Scott Roudin was producer on two of them and executive producer on the third.)
De Luca returned to a senior role at Sony in 2013, where he served as co-president of production with Hannah Minghella. With studio management under pressure to limit spending, Doug Belgradethen president of the studio, wrote in a November 2014 email to his boss Amy Pascal“I don’t think Mike even remembers between every moment I tell him how much they’re over budget, how much they’re over budget.” Pascal – ironically known as a particularly spendthrift executive herself – replied: “I want them to understand how to do the job like an adult with plans, goals and responsibilities. I keep writing the same note over and over like crazy.
(When asked to comment, Pascal now says, “I have spent over 30 years working with Mike and can say categorically, and without hesitation, that he is one of the most talented executives, intelligent, creative and most financially responsible people I have ever collaborated with. To quote a few sentences that have been taken completely out of context from a private email conversation is irresponsible, misleading and unfair.”
A few months after the 2014 email, Pascal was ousted in favor of budgetary prudence Tom Rothman and De Luca left Sony. He made a deal with Universal, where he was a producer on the Fifty shades of Grey trilogy which grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide. In January 2020, he was named Chairman of MGM’s Film Group.
Looking at this story, some who have known De Luca over the years wonder what will happen next. Is Zaslav really ready to bet on expensive films with the necessary marketing expenses? This is brand new territory for him. “He probably feels like he can control it, and he’s going to get all the positives from what Bryan [Lourd] will provide and he will be able to manage the expenses, ”explains a former colleague of De Luca.
Some wonder if De Luca and Abdy are doing a job they were seen to be hired for at MGM again: keeping Warners in the game for a sale. “How long do you think this is going to be a standalone business?” said a veteran executive. “I say two, three years. This company is going to be bought out. …if they can make good movies and announce non-existent movies Harry Potter stuff, it’s a win.
This story first appeared in the June 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.