September/October 2010
Volume 30 No. 6

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Industry’s Toughest Bosses Are Demanding Executives

By Dom Serafini

Stories about tough, demanding, unreasonable bosses abound worldwide. There are stories of executives who threw chairs at their underlings and others about those who simply launched videocassettes. There are also those who are screamers, and others who use antics. One former studio executive recalled that, during a tense negotiation, a counterpart started to scream at him, which prompted the question, “Do you want to settle the matter or do you want to scream?” The quick reply was, “I want to scream!”

This report was in the works well before the recently announced New Line movie Horrible Bosses, starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman, even though the project was originally written in 2005. Perhaps, the forerunner of this story could be the 1980 movie, Nine to Five, with Jane Fonda. Not that the subject of “toughest bosses” is a rarity. Not too long ago the Wall Street Journal ran this headline: “New GM CEO: Brash, Blunt, Demanding,” followed by a sub-head that concluded, “Others Wonder If His Style Is Unsettling.” Between 1980 and 1993, Fortune magazine ran several features called: “Ten Toughest Bosses in America.”

After VideoAge circulated an informal survey among various international entertainment executives to identify their toughest bosses, one respondent remarked: “I am not sure I want to publicly contribute to this, but I would like to suggest maybe [VideoAge should] call it ‘most demanding,’ instead of ‘toughest,’ which carries the connotation that they are not effective or successful bosses, just hard to work for. I have worked for some of the smartest and most demanding CEO overachievers in the business. These bosses, in addition to being tough, create very exciting and challenging work environments and usually, more often than not, are very successful and demand excellence from all employees. When and if you get to celebrate in the end zone, you forget how hard you had to work to get there. On the other hand, when you are brutalized, are not successful and will never get to experience that success and celebration, then you are working for the wrong person.”

During this VideoAge survey, an executive commented, “It’s payback time!” Nonetheless, some of the tough and demanding executives still keep in touch with their former underlings. Stated another executive: “One common element (beyond the overwhelming competitive desire to succeed and to be very smart, in most cases) among them all is that, either they make you better or they get you out the door.” Some called it “tough love,” in the sense that if those tough bosses did not have respect for their subordinates, they could not survive long.

Some of the executives who participated in the survey considered it an honor and a privilege to make it onto the following list, to the point that a few volunteered (unsuccessfully) to be included, or suggested their own bosses.

For now, VideoAge managed to list 49 executives from 10 countries, many still active, others retired and some deceased. It’s likely that an equal number were left out, since, considering a worldwide industry of 4,000 companies, demanding bosses make for a hefty 2.4 percent, possibly on par with other sectors. Significantly, left out were talent agents, financers, raiders, investors (e.g., Kirk Kerkorian), and some executives from France (e.g., Jean-Marie Messier), Canada (e.g., Edgar Bronfman, Jr.), Italy (e.g., Silvio Berlusconi), Brazil (e.g., Roberto Marinho), etc. This is because there is an incredibly large volume of books written about them, which makes the entertainment industry perhaps the most inspirational source of literature than any other industry. Also left out were Japanese bosses because they’re tough only by Western standards; to the Japanese Sararīman, their bosses are normal people.

Studio people were particularly edgy about the story, while the independents, after an initial hesitation, became excited by the topic and began sputtering names left and right. Whenever possible, when anecdotes could not be verified or sounded implausible, we called the targeted person directly. A few people are listed without notes, because, after being cited multiple times as tough bosses, respondents would not offer additional input. More peculiar information about the executives on this list is naturally available on the Internet.

Sadly, we had to erase from this list the memory of a few TV executives (like Bill Feinschreiber Jr., president of Screen Gems International) because, after been indicated as demanding executives, we weren’t able to gather any additional or substantiated information.

Finally, we mixed executives from different levels, such as owners, majority stockholders, group presidents and division presidents who, in one way or another, had an impact on the industry or, for good or bad, simply left a legacy or a mark.

Ailes, Roger: (1940-) Chairman Fox Television Stations Group, Twentieth Television, MyNetwork TV and Fox Business Network. President of CNBC. Founded consulting firm Ailes Communications. Very politically active right-wing Republican.
Called “the most vindictive man in media.” He admitted, after having a tantrum, that he has been diagnosed as being paranoid.

Aubrey, Jim T.: (1918-1994) President of CBS TV Network and MGM. Nicknamed “the smiling cobra.” He’s described as a controlling man and workaholic with an “abrasive” personality and an “oversized” ego. Nevertheless, he did “his own dirty work,” and made both CBS and MGM successful.

Azcarraga, Emilio M.: (1930-1997) Controlling shareholder of Mexico’s Televisa, founder of Univision in the U.S. Nicknamed “El Tigre” (The Tiger), he was autocratic, aggressive and bold, but with a sense of humor. In his office he kept a chair so high that adults who sat in it could not touch the ground with their feet and so seemed childlike. Whenever he wanted to reprimand or belittle someone who worked for him, he was said to have offered a seat in the notorious chair. His philosophy was: “Television has the obligation to entertain [poor] people, to take them away from their sad reality and their difficult future. Rich people like me are not clients of television because we never go out to buy anything.” There are several stories about his demand that all Televisa’s employees wear a nametag. One of these stories recounted him promoting a gate guard to head of security because he demanded that, in order to enter the studio, Azcarraga had to show his nametag. He fired the head of security, who, when called to settle the matter, let Azcarraga enter without his nametag.

Baruch, Ralph: (1924-) Founder and CEO of Viacom. His executives would deliberately downgrade to coach if he were traveling on the same flight. He was “demanding, but never unreasonable.”

Burns, Lloyd: (1910-1970) President of Screen Gems International. Called an “innovator who yelled all the time,” he created in the late ’50s one of the largest networks of local offices, worldwide even able to do direct syndication in Brazil. Burns was also the scrooge of middle men.

Chevry, Bernard: (1922-) Founder and owner of MIP-TV and MIPCOM in Cannes, France, until he sold out both TV trade shows. A volatile man, he would challenge anyone. At the height of his power, he could be vindictive, but business came first.
He also nurtured Xavier Roy who after being fired and re-hired ultimately schemed to became Chevy’s successor, albeit linked to one mayor of Cannes who was arrested for corruption, before Roy finally retired.

Chisholm, Sam: (1939-) Chief executive and managing director of Australia’s Channel Nine Network. Left Nine in 1990 to become managing director at BSkyB. Chairman of Foxtel, director at Kerry Packer’s PBL. Appointed executive director of Nine again in 2005. His biggest fights were with program distributors. Ruthless in firing employees at BSkyB. A tough man, he survived a double lung transplant.

Cohn, Harry: (1891-1958) President, Columbia Pictures. He was said to have a foolproof device for judging whether a picture was good or bad. “[If] my fanny squirms, it’s bad. If my fanny doesn’t squirm, it’s good. It’s as simple as that.” Called “White Fang,” he was thought of as ruthless and vulgar, and he inspired fear.

Davis, Martin: (1927-1999) CEO of Paramount. Chairman of Gulf and Western. Listed by Fortune magazine as one of the Ten Toughest Bosses in America: “One of the most volatile personalities in the entertainment industry’s executive ranks.” In 1986, he told The New York Times: “If I'm considered a tough manager, I think it is accurate; I won't object. I am demanding. I want team players, I want results.”

Davis, Marvin: (1925-2004) Owner of the Pebble Beach Company, the Aspen Ski Company and the Beverly Hills Hotel. Owner of 20th Century Fox. He purchased Fox with junk bonds issued by Michael Milken. His partner at the time was Marc Rich –– the fugitive who fled the U.S. and was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton after Marc Rich’s wife made a major contribution to the Clinton Library. Marvin Davis wanted to sell the valuable land that is the Fox lot in Beverly Hills and move Fox to the Santa Monica airport. Fortunately, the economy was so bad then and interest rates were so high that the deal fell through. Fox was just another “asset” to him.

Diller, Barry: (1942-) Chairman and CEO of IAC/InterActiveCorp. Created Fox Broadcasting, chairman and CEO of USA Broadcasting, chairman of QVC. Known for “The Killer Dillers,” whom he mentored and who later became successful execs (including: Michael Eisner, Dawn Steel and Don Simpson). He didn’t only challenge his employees, but other companies’ execs as well. Once, at the Cannes Film Festival when Harvey Weinstein spotted Diller, then the chief executive of Vivendi Universal, Weinstein called out in a loud voice, “Why'd you call me a bully?” “You are a bully,” Diller replied, and the two stood toe to toe on the terrace of the Hotel du Cap, as an audience of actors, directors and fellow-executives watched, expecting a fistfight.

Dolgen, Jon: (1945-) Chairman of Viacom Entertainment Group, senior advisor to Viacom, principal of Wood River Ventures. Jonathan Dolgen has won a reputation in Hollywood as an executive who insists on slashing budgets and fiscal responsibility, and who can be almost ruthless in his pursuit of black ink. He reportedly always has pads of paper, cigarettes, antacids, aspirin, and a can of Diet Coke at his place setting, and during meetings usually arrives at least 30 minutes after his potential adversary has been seated –– and stewing. Dolgen also has no qualms about raising his voice.

Eisner, Michael: (1942-) Hired by Barry Diller at ABC, president and COO of Paramount Pictures, chairman and CEO of Disney. After he left Disney, Eisner founded the Tornante Company to invest in and develop companies and the entertainment/media sector. Fond of micromanagement, his business style is fully described in DisneyWar, a 2005 book by James B. Stewart on Eisner’s 20-year tenure at Disney.

Franci, Michele G.: (1904-1991) President of Milan Fair, founder of MIFED, the world’s first film-TV market. Autocratic and demanding. He did not have a driver’s license, but insisted on telling his chauffeur how to drive. For him, security guards used the military salute. Extremely honest, he remained relatively poor.

Frank, Sandy: (1929-) Owner of Sandy Frank Entertainment. Famous for –– among other antics –– jumping up and down on U.K. TV buyer Leslie Halliwell’s desk and screaming at him during one negotiation. The New York Daily News reported that he can be "incredibly intense, a fabled dealmaker and a colorful character who once forced a plane to land by feigning a heart attack to get into a meeting."

Franklin, Ralph C.: (1920-) President of MCA TV Int’l. When mentioned to Franklin that he was voted one of the toughest bosses, he replied, “Yeh, I know, but don’t forget that I was working for the toughest of them all: Lew Wasserman.”

Golan, Menahem: (1929-) Israeli producer and co-founder of Golan-Globus film distribution company and the Cannon Group. An aggressive salesman, he reportedly sold the rights to his films to different theatrical and video distributors in many territories before the film was finished, and sometimes, before it was even started.

Grade, Lew: (1906-1998) Founder of ITC in London with brother Leslie Grade, and Val Parnell and Prince Littler, deputy managing director of Associated Television.
Once, an argument over program prices led to Lew Grade writing U.S. ABC-TV executive Howard Thomas a check for a penny, which Thomas cashed. Grade never held a grudge, and the arguments he had with Thomas didn’t stop Grade from liking him.

Haimovitz, Jules: (1952-) President and CEO of Viacom, president of MGM, director of Blockbuster. He knows his business and how to get things done.

Hill, Len: (1947-) Producer, executive, 1976 VP of movies for TV at ABC. In 1980, he formed Hill/Mandelker Films with producer Phil Mandelker. Co-founded ACI.

Jobs, Steve: (1955-) In 1993 Fortune magazine called him one of “America’s roughest, toughest, most intimidating bosses.”

Kirch, Leo: (1926-) Founded Beta Film in 1959 and Kirch Gruppe in Munich, Germany. He fought bankers, suppliers, competitors, politicians and regulators.

King, Roger M.: (1944-2007) CEO of King World Productions, CEO of CBS Worldwide Sales. A master salesman, he was known for reaching out his hand to newcomers in the industry. But, as it has been reported, “He did silly, stupid stuff that was fueled by alcohol and substance abuse.” At close to two meters tall and weighing over 110 kg, he was physically imposing as well.

Lefcovich, Raul: (1922-1997) President of Viacom Int’l. Demanding and severe. He liked to “push the envelope,” and “second guess” his people.

McGregor, Charlie: (1934-2008) President, Warner Bros. Television. After he and Channel 4 buyer (and film historian) Leslie Halliwell had a real screaming match over the phone, Leslie sent Charlie the following telex: “Dear Charlie, following our conversation I consulted my doctor, and he informs me that your suggestion is a physical impossibility.” At TV trade shows, McGregor used to call sales meetings at 2:00a.m., and when all were assembled, he cancelled the meetings.

Milius, John F.: (1944-) Movie director. He’s quoted as saying “A lot of people thought of me as a threat to Western civilization,” and “I've always had trouble with authority.”

Morin, Bobby: (1926-2010) President 20th Century Fox Worldwide Syndication. President, Lorimar Productions. Described as having a Napoleonic attitude.

Murdoch, Rupert: (1931-) Founder and CEO of News Corporation. Nicknamed “The Shark,” he’s considered an “equal opportunity fear,” for unions, politicians (of all sides), regulators, employees and competitors.

Nardino, Gary: (1935-1998) Headed TV division of Paramount Studios. CEO and chairman of Orion Television Entertainment. Co-president of North Hall Productions.
Reportedly, some of the horror stories about him were outlined in his eulogy.

Packer, Kerry: (1937-2005) Major shareholder of Publishing and Broadcasting Limited, which owns Channel Nine TV network and pay-TV channels, and the Australian Consolidated Press. Tough and demanding. Once, during an interview with VideoAge’s Dom Serafini, his timorous executives were afraid he’d chew the journalist up.
Surprisingly, his “10-minutes allowed interview” lasted for two full hours.

Parretti, Giancarlo: (1942-) In 1989, the Italian financier took over Cannon Film Group. His plans to take over the French studio, Pathé, were blocked by the French government. Parretti bought MGM in 1990, using money borrowed from a Dutch subsidiary of France’s Crédit Lyonnais and financing the acquisition from Kirk Kerkorian. Published reports in Business Week and Newsweek suggest that he had ties to organized crime, which he denied. He fired most of MGM’s accounting staff and appointed his 21-year-old daughter to a senior financial post. He used company money to buy presents for several girlfriends. His reign at MGM became the basis for the film Get Shorty, which was produced by MGM. In 1991 his ownership dissolved in a flurry of lawsuits and a default by Crédit Lyonnais. Parretti faced securities fraud charges in the U.S. and Europe. In March 1999, he was found guilty of misuse of corporate funds and fraud and was sentenced in absentia to four years in prison.

Perenchio, Jerrold A.: (1930-) Chairman, Univision. He shuns press attention, famously generous, but can be tough-minded, even ruthless. He’s an excellent negotiator (he trained under Lew Wasserman), is described as intense and persistent, (and according to the L.A. Times, “mercurial”) understands and likes numbers, and is detail-oriented. He is renowned for relying on his gut instinct. After selling Univision, he became the world’s 400th richest man.

Puttnam, David: (1941-) Chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures. Criticized for having a condescending attitude toward the Hollywood film industry. Didn’t become vice-chairman of BBC because at a conference of the Royal Television Society, he criticized BBC for reducing its support for the National Film and Television School courses.

Redstone, Sumner: (1923-) Chairman and CEO, Viacom. Redstone laid it all out in a 2001 book he co-wrote with Peter Knobler, A Passion To Win, where he said he took “punishing criticism for my executive management decisions.” He also wrote that he takes “what is said about me and the company personally.”

Saban, Haim: (1944-) Israeli and American (dual) citizen. Founder of Saban Entertainment, chairman and part owner of Univision. He’s described as a “force of nature.” On the strength of his six spoken languages, he’s said to take no for an answer.

Sheinberg, Sid: (1935-) President and COO at MCA under Lew Wasserman. Museum of Television and Radio vice chairman, runs Bubble Factory Studios (an independent production company). Called “an iron-fisted czar.”

Simpson, Don: (1943-1996) Film producer, screenwriter, actor, executive at Paramount-and Warner Bros. Called “abrasive.” A chapter in the book You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again discusses his preferences for S&M and videotaping sessions. Simpson was found dead in his home in Los Angeles due to cardiac arrest from combined drug intoxication. According to High Concept, a Simpson biography by reporter Charles Fleming, Simpson’s prescription drug expenses were over $60,000 a month at the time of his death. His job as an executive at Paramount Pictures came to an end when he allegedly passed out in the middle of a meeting. Simpson’s temper was as notorious as his vanity (he was constantly tempted to act in his own films).

Solomon, Michael J.: (1938-) President of Telepictures, Lorimar, Warner Bros., TV Int’l. A very demanding boss and a good promoter. He’d surely be offended if he weren’t on this list. According to legend, while selling programs for United Artists (and, later for MCA) he used to travel to Central America with a Colt-45. Even the press was afraid of him. During the early days of Telepictures (which he co-founded) he used to host press luncheons at MIP-TV in conflict with the market’s major event, and he used to take note of who did not attend (or sent a junior person), so that the publication would be cut from his large ad budget.

Steel, Dawn: (1946-1997) Paramount VP of Production, later became production chief. President of Columbia Pictures. At Paramount she was nicknamed “Hell on heels,” and “Queen of Mean.” She changed secretaries on a monthly basis. Worked for Disney as well.

Stenbeck, Jan: (1942-2002) Chairman of Sweden’s Modern Times Group. He was known to fire managers if their ideas did not make money. “When things go well, he’s very inspiring. But when they don’t, it’s not so entertaining,” is how he was described.

Stone, Robert L.: (1922 - 2009) COO Columbia Pictures. In 1980, Fortune magazine named him “one of the 10 toughest bosses to work for.”

Turner, Ted: (1938-) His full name is Robert Edward Turner III. Sufficient to mention his top posts at CNN, TBS, MGM and Time Warner. In 1986, Fortune magazine wrote that he’s, “so wildly unorthodox that even some admirers regard him as slightly crazy,” and that, “he has a terrible temper.” But, he’s also described as a “visionary” and an “adventurer.” Turner described himself best in his 2008 book, Call me Ted. His leadership style didn’t suit Time Warner’s huge bureaucracy, and after the merger with AOL, he was famously fired from his post. Turner wrote about his bipolar depression; his violent, alcoholic father (who killed himself); his multiple failed marriages; and the need to be away from his family.

Wasserman, Lew: (1913-2002) MCA chairman. Wasserman was unkind to both stars and executives when he no longer needed their services. As Frank Rose put it in a 1995 Los Angeles Times profile, “The legendary rages would begin with an ominous tapping of the letter opener and proceed to a fury so total that it could leave a grown man in a $1,500 suit hugging the toilet in fear.” Supposedly, some executives vomited or fainted during Wasserman’s tantrums. Wasserman did not like when people were late for appointments. Once, he and his wife waited for future U.S. president Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy to join them at a restaurant for dinner, and he was visibly angry.

Weinstein, Harvey (1952-) and Bob (1954-): Founders of Miramax. According to Fortune magazine, brothers “Bob and Harvey can trigger fear and anxiety in their people.”

Welch, John (Jack) Jr.: (1935-) Chairman and CEO of GE. Nicknamed “Neutron Jack.” Stephen Tormey, who negotiates the United Electrical Workers contract for GE employees said, “[To him] the workers are considered lemons, and they are squeezed really dry.” During his tenure, GE’s market value grew from $13 billion to $500 billion.

Yablans, Frank: (1935-) President of Paramount, MGM/UA. In a 1974 profile, Time magazine called him an “autocratic studio boss” who “enjoys his reputation for toughness.” He’s quoted as saying: “It's easy to be humble if you were born a prince. I came from a ghetto.”

Zavoli, Sergio: (1923-) Chairman of Italy’s RAI. The most arrogant RAI chairman in state broadcaster history. A radical-chic leftist.

Moses Znaimer
Moses Znaimer, Canada’s most amusing tough TV boss created City-TV

Znaimer, Moses: (1942-) One of Canada’s most demanding bosses. Co-founded and headed City-TV. Outspoken, a showman and a businessman who was impatient with his staff. He has been described thus: “Hefneresque quest for eternal mojo — the magical, sexy power he’s famous for: media visionary, wheeler-dealer.” He said to the Globe and Mail: “I take a little offence when people call me a businessman. I’m rather an artiste of media.”

Zucker, Jeff: (1965-) President and CEO of NBC Universal, president of the NBC Universal TV Group, president of the Entertainment, News & Cable Group and president of NBC Entertainment. Executive producer of Today and NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. He has been with NBC his entire career.