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Disney-Fox deal might cause high-level Fox execs to jump ship

Disney-Fox deal might cause high-level Fox execs to jump ship
20th Century Fox Chairman Stacey Snider is one of two powerful and successful female studio chiefs in Hollywood. (Brian Bowen Smith / DreamWorks)

Walt Disney Co.’s planned acquisition of much of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox media company — a deal that is expected to be completed as early as this week — could prompt a brain drain of high-level Fox executives in the coming months.

Among the prominent executives who eventually could exit Fox is 20th Century Fox Chairman Stacey Snider as well as Fox Television Group Chairman Dana Walden.

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Amazon.com has had individual discussions with the two executives to gauge their interest in becoming chief executive of Amazon Studios in Santa Monica, according to four knowledgeable people who were not authorized to discuss the situation.

Snider and Walden are two of Hollywood’s most high-powered and successful female studio chiefs, which makes them highly marketable at a time when more than a dozen men in Hollywood have fallen following sexual harassment allegations.

The talks with Amazon, which occurred during the last month, are said to be preliminary. Both women remain under contract at Fox.

Amid worries of an executive exodus, Fox Chief Executive James Murdoch last week began reaching out to several key business leaders in an effort to extend their employment at Fox so they would serve through any transition to Disney’s ownership, according to two people familiar with the situation.

One of Amazon’s top executives is leading the search and has talked to several veteran Hollywood executives as the company begins the process of finding a new creative chief to replace Roy Price, who left Amazon in October following a sexual harassment allegation.

Amazon, according to one of the sources, is not in any hurry to fill the position, in part because several of the top prospects are under contract at other companies.

In addition, Amazon Studios has leadership in place. Albert Cheng, a prominent media executive who previously oversaw many of ABC’s digital efforts, has been interim chief since Price’s departure.

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment. Fox representatives declined to comment.

Disney and Fox appear to be putting the finishing touches on their proposed merger, according to two knowledgeable insiders who were not authorized to discuss the situation. Philadelphia cable company Comcast Corp. said Monday that it was no longer pursuing a deal with Murdoch.

Speculation over the future of Snider, who took charge of the 20th Century Fox film studio last year, has intensified because some people think it’s unlikely that she would move over to Disney. The Burbank studio has its own film team in place, including the highly respected chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Alan Horn.

Snider has been credited with reinvigorating Fox’s studio but she had a mixed track record when she worked as co-chief executive of Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Studios, which had a distribution deal with Disney.

Before her association with DreamWorks, Snider helped manage Universal Pictures during a period that produced several blockbusters for that studio, now owned by Comcast Corp.

Several Fox insiders speculated that Disney might be more interested in bringing over Emma Watts, Fox’s president of production. Earlier this year, Watts was elevated to vice chairman of Fox’s film studio.

The Amazon Studios position might not be the only coveted Hollywood position up for grabs. AT&T is trying to buy Time Warner Inc., which could lead to open positions at the Warner Bros. studio if the telecommunications giant decides to install its own leadership. Apple also is in the market for a top film executive as the technology giant expands its foray into Hollywood.

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Fox Television Group Chair Dana Walden, who has worked at the company more than 20 years.
Fox Television Group Chair Dana Walden, who has worked at the company more than 20 years. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Walden is one of the most successful executives in Hollywood. She has worked at Fox more than two decades and has strong relationships with key television producers, including Ryan Murphy. She and fellow Fox Television Group Chair Gary Newman are credited with building 20th Century Fox Television into a powerhouse, churning out such hits as “This is Us,” “Empire,” “Modern Family,” “Homeland” and “Family Guy.”

Disney is highly interested in Fox’s television studio, which a recent report by Bernstein & Co. analyst Todd Juenger called “the crown jewel" of 21st Century Fox.

For the last three years, Walden and Newman also have been running the Fox broadcast network, which will likely remain within the Murdoch family’s portfolio following the proposed merger.

Anxiety has spread beyond the executive ranks. Producers who make shows for the broadcast network are uncertain how their businesses will be affected. “No one really knows what’s going to happen,” one producer said Monday.

Brain drains are common in high-level mergers.

“Anytime a merger like this happens, people start dusting off their resumes,” said James R. Bailey, a professor of leadership development at George Washington University School of Business. “You are going to see a talent drain at Fox,” he predicted. This is exactly the time for top talent to move on.”

Murdoch — and his sons Lachlan and James Murdoch — sent a note to employees late last week, acknowledging the angst caused by a potential sale to Disney.

“While we can’t comment on market speculation, we do want to address the impact we know this is having on all of you,” the Murdochs said in an email late Thursday. “Uncertainty always breeds unease. In every way, our focus is on our businesses and on the welfare of all our colleagues.”

James Murdoch has been trying to reassure executives, people familiar with the matter said.

“All of you have worked hard to build and nurture a remarkable company through your hard work, loyalty and creativity,” the Murdochs said. “For this we are truly grateful.”

Times staff writer Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.

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