The Oscar nominations this week set off a new round of speculation about corporate image: Does it matter that Netflix’s potential Oscar take had dropped to 16 from 36 in 2020?
“I don’t give a f*ck about my corporate image and companies shouldn’t waste their time worrying about their’s.” Those were the words of Martin Davis, the only press agent ever to become CEO of a major media company.
Davis’ behavior in the ‘90s reflected his views: During his decade-long tenure at Paramount, the company endured a succession of public brawls and setbacks.
The Davis Doctrine is worth pondering today given the stalwart efforts of entities like Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros Discovery on image enhancement.
Under Bob Chapek, Disney spent $8.3 million to reward its newly recruited PR chief, Geoff Morrell, for his stint on improving the company’s corporate image. Morrell’s four-month tenure culminated in his firing and, later, that of his boss prior to the re-anointment of Bob Iger.
The image of Netflix has also undergone a measure of turbulence affecting both its management and share price. After the announcement of a new co-CEO team, a new executive chairman and a new chief content officer last week, Hollywood was still uncertain who reports to whom.
Two years ago, Reed Hastings, now executive chairman, wrote a book titled No Rules Rules warning that no one at Netflix should succumb to a sense of job security; if that bothered them they should look elsewhere. Shortly after its publication, his PR guru, Richard Siklos, quit Netflix to become the PR chief (and partner) at United Artists Agency.
The PR-savvy boss of Warner Bros Discovery, David Zaslav, has survived a succession of media blitzes in recent weeks given a tough mandate of layoffs and budget cutbacks.
Zaslav’s admirers had seen him building an aura of corporate statesmanship — the sort once achieved by Jeffrey Bewkes during his 20-year run as CEO of Time Warner.
When corporate colleagues a decade ago advised Bewkes of the potential threat posed by a rising Netflix, Bewkes rebuked them. Their forecast, he said, was akin to suggesting that ”the Albanian army is taking over the world.” Bewkes’ reign ended in 2016 amid the dealmaking wreckage of AT&T.
Hollywood’s confusion toward Netflix on the PR front has been nurtured by its tendency toward secrecy, shielding top executives from contact with the media.
Hence, Netflix employees as well as readers of the New Yorker were surprised last week to read a long interview with Bela Bajaria, identified as Netflix’ global head of television.
That title, however, would instantly disappear in a paroxysm of title shifting that saw her elevated to chief content officer. It was unclear how that change would affect reporting lines with Scott Stuber, the chief of Netflix movies, now re-named chairman of Netflix Film and who retains greenlight authority.
Both positions apparently would report to Greg Peters, the newly named co-CEO, and to Ted Sarandos.
Peters had never been given the sort of star interview media treatment accorded Bajaria. But Hastings, 62, who is everyone’s boss, quickly assured employees that Peters had played a leading role in creating Netflix’s new ad-supported tier and had also been a key player in the company’s global expansion.
Global was a key word in this rhetoric, hence the surprisingly lengthy interview with Bajaria. A New Yorker writer named Rachel Syme had been trekking with Bajaria to Mexico City, Madrid, Budapest and other key markets, describing her vigorous efforts to “bolster their entertainment ecosystems.”
When she’d first signed onto Netflix, Bajaria’s assignment was to fulfill Sarandos’ directive “to become HBO faster than HBO could become us.” Sarandos then re-defined his aim to function as “equal parts HBO, FX, AMC, Lifetime, Bravo and Comedy Central, etc.,” with this important admonition: “Never get bottlenecked behind one sensibility.”
Bajaria’s personal sensibility had been shaped by a very international background: Her parents had met and married in Kenya, then moved to Los Angeles where Bajaria once won a Miss India beauty pageant. Her education was a mix of Long Beach and London.
She identifies as a person of color; her Netflix office is decorated by figurines of the Hindu god Ganesha, with several clocks set to local times in cities around the globe.
Thus if Martin Davis didn’t give “a f*ck” about the public perception of his work at Paramount, the powers at Netflix clearly now cared. There would be more frequent announcements and interviews, often at unexpected moments.
After all, subscribers and shareholders worldwide are curious about the “rules” and “no rules” that govern their voracious provider of entertainment.