Hollywood, Land of Creative Pink Slips

Times Staff Writers

Hollywood loves uplifting tales of romance, redemption and courage. But when it comes to axing its own people, the industry serves up horror stories.

This week Disney production chief Nina Jacobson found out she was losing her job while her partner was in labor with the couple’s third child. Jacobson wasn’t even the first studio executive to get fired in a maternity ward -- the late studio executive Dawn Steel was about to give birth in 1987 when she learned that Paramount Pictures was booting her out.

In show business, an industry that’s all about relationships, the ways people get tossed can resonate louder than box-office grosses. Keeping score of who’s up and who’s down dominates workplace conversations because the latest pecking order determines the fate of projects.


Still, Hollywood seems to have a knack for the memorable pink slip. Directors are canned weeks into filming, executives find their office furniture in hallways and on lawns, fathers sack their sons and studio chiefs hear of their demise from journalists.

“It’s one of the primary ways of exercising power in Hollywood,” says industry author Peter Biskind. “And it’s often done by people who relish ruling by fear.”

But even the most intimidating can be humbled themselves.

Michael Ovitz, once the most feared figure in Hollywood when he was an agent, was dispatched as Walt Disney Co.’s president in 1996 by then-Chief Executive Michael Eisner when the Disney chief invited him one night to his mother’s apartment in New York.

Eisner was waiting with a news release that said Ovitz was leaving “by mutual consent.” Two years earlier, Eisner got rid of studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg in a similar manner.

Testifying at a trial related to his dismissal, Ovitz said, “I was cut out like cancer. I guess you could say I got pushed out the sixth-floor window.”

Even blood can’t save a job. Mogul Ted Turner told son Robert, “You’re toast,” when breaking the news to him that he was out. The legendary Darryl F. Zanuck fired his son, producer Richard Zanuck, in 1970 as president of 20th Century Fox. The son’s undoing? He had fired his father’s girlfriend.


So traumatic was her own firing that actress Annabelle Gurwitch collected dozens of similar tales from friends and turned them into a book, “Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized and Dismissed.” Gurwitch says she was dumped from her dream job in a play directed by Woody Allen, who, she said, told her she “looked retarded.”

“People in Hollywood are experts in rejection,” says Gurwitch, who co-hosted the TV series “Dinner & a Movie.” “Everyone could learn from people in show business, because people in this industry have been fired so many times.”

Rather than getting the traditional visit from the boss, many Hollywood executives discover only after picking up a newspaper that they need to polish up their resumes.

Mike De Luca learned that he was on his way out as New Line Cinema’s production chief when he read about it three months before it actually happened. Donald DeLine was on a London trip as Paramount’s production chief last year when a reporter called to ask how it felt to be replaced by veteran television executive Gail Berman. DeLine told the reporter the information was wrong, but he soon discovered it wasn’t.

When his job status was up in the air in 1998, Universal Studios CEO Frank Biondi assured a reporter that he was a victim of “rumormongering,” adding, “No one has said anything to me, and I’m not leaving.” Four days later, Biondi was out. Frank Mancuso learned he was history as the head of Paramount in 1991 when his lawyers received a fax saying so.

Others have pieced together their fate on their own. Actor and comedian Bob Saget had a job as a co-anchor on a CBS morning show in 1987. Each day he sat in a chair marked “Bob.” When he showed up one morning, though, the chair had vanished.


“Where’s my chair?” he recalled asking. He said his boss looked him in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, we’re trying to get your chair back.” Saget was fired a few days later, going on to star in “Full House.”

“It was all I had,” Saget says of the chair. “It was my little piece of furniture.”

Jordan Levin, who served as CEO of the WB television network in 2004, was already wondering about his fate when he got an e-mail from ABC late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel, saying, “Just remember, no matter what happens you will always be one of the best guys who ever wore a suit in this town.”

A few days later, Levin tried calling his office while coaching his son’s Little League game, only to be told that everyone was “in meetings.”

He was fired shortly after that.

“The person who is the victim is always the last to know,” says Levin, who has since launched Generate, a production company for new media. “People in this business are horribly passive-aggressive, and no one wants to confront anybody.”

Writer-director Ted Griffin had just completed his 12th day of filming on his untitled first feature last year when producer Steven Soderbergh summoned him to his office. Without looking at the footage Griffin brought with him, Soderbergh sacked the filmmaker. Griffin’s film was given to Rob Reiner, who turned it into “Rumor Has It,” a critical and commercial flop.

Just like impending motherhood, holidays offer no safe harbor. Paramount fired Wayne Lewellen, the studio’s president of distribution, two days before Christmas last year. He had worked for the company for 33 years.


For many in the industry, firings come with the territory. Talent agents, who serve at the whim of their clients, often find their efforts aren’t appreciated. Tim Robbins fired veteran agent Toni Howard after he won his first Academy Award in 2004, for “Mystic River.” That same year, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones left her agent, George Freeman, after winning an Oscar for “Chicago” -- then later rehired him. Tobey Maguire dumped his longtime agent Leslie Siebert just after his film “Spider-Man” became a global hit.

The silver lining for many fired executives is that their rich contracts often morph into lucrative production pacts, allowing them to start a new career. Now a prolific producer at Sony Pictures, De Luca says he can’t blame New Line for firing him in 2001, even though his termination was first leaked to the press.

“I had two bad years,” De Luca says. “Everyone knew it was going to happen.”

For all the pink slips it has so unmercifully handed out, Hollywood fosters a culture of resilience -- and gallows humor about terminations.

International Creative Management agent John Burnham was told by a client that he was being fired as he was driving his three daughters to school.

The client had just had a child himself. When Burnham’s daughters heard the news, they asked in unison, “Can we get the baby gifts back, Dad?”

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.