01/22/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

In a World Where One is One of the Most

Is it safe?

That question, and its variations, is probably the questions most on the minds of senior studio executives of late. Is it safe to stick your head out of the office? Is it safe to get on the jet? Or rather, is it safe to get off the jet once you get on? And more importantly, is it safe to just do your job, greenlight movies and erect the next tent poles?

Over the past few years the studio business has seen a wave of firings and resignations (really just dismissals by another name) at the senior level. Heads of marketing have been falling out of the sky (Oren Aviv and Tony Sella at Fox, Marc Weinstock at Sony, Terry Curtin at Relativity) and only the chair people at Paramount and Sony are still standing, with those at Disney (Rich Ross), Warner Bros. (Jeff Robinov), Universal (Adam Fogelson) and half of the chairmen at Fox (Tom Rothman) all being given the opportunity to pursue other opportunities. Cast adrift, those fallen executives might advise the executives left behind to look to one of the Oscar front-runners: "don't let go" (to whatever it is they're holding on to). It's sort of funny, isn't it, that for senior executives Paramount seems an oasis in the executive storm in the business that they've chosen.

While studio jobs have always been hard to get and the top ones hard to hold on to, why is it raining executives like it's a Paul Thomas Anderson movie? The cause at each studio is different in each case, rather than being just a general open season on senior executives. For the marketing executives it's the usual, the pictures that they didn't greenlight are not working, or it's a matter of personality meeting shelf life. For the chairmen, it's a movie club thing, as in "that's just not how it's done here," or the corporate denouement that everyone knew was pre-ordained why didn't they just cut to the chase in the first place, or finally just being the odd man out when the new man came in.

In this business where nobody knows, that's just how it goes. Every executive knows.

Save for Disney, it's like the old days in the business when the moneymen from New York, and now Philadelphia, called the shots. The curious thing about all the firings is that at one time, in a press release not so far away, each of the deposed executives was, in no particular order, about no particular executive:

"One of the most talented";

'One of the most respected';

"The right [person] to lead this studio";

"A natural leader with a unique ability to anticipate our audience"; and,

"Among the most accomplished and experienced".

How is it then that those who are so highly accomplished, highly directed, highly compensated (and unlike the old days, not highly high) go from being one of the most, to on the most wanted list, and the companies that were once "fortunate to have [their] exceptional mind onboard" can't wait to have both their mind and body disappear? And disappear they do. But the days of parting gifts are over. Sure, there's the remainder of their lucrative contracts. But no more producer deal protection program, sent to a bungalow on the backlot like a Pope emeritus. No Mariano Rivera retirement tour. You're just Gone Boy or Girl.

Perhaps it's the fortunes of the movies and the general malaise in the business which makes the corporate bosses on the Hudson and the Schuylkill feel that it's just time for a change. At one time, though, they wanted the executives so much that they gave them things -- greenlight authority, levels of salary and bonus and reporting structure -- that then provide the source of their undoing, even if the movies happen to be working. Then came the day that the skill that made them one of the most somehow evaporated and they couldn't even be repurposed to somewhere else in the corporation, working on "special projects". They just had to go. Wouldn't it be better if a studio would donate an executive to a less privileged corporation for each one they fire?

So, what does it take then to survive for the long haul if you're a senior studio executive these days? Are there specific skills, personality traits? Is it the ability to manage both up and down while at the same time keeping all the plates spinning? It's probably as one former chairman used to say, that "you just have to make hay while the sun shines" and enjoy it while you can. For senior studio executives, picking movies that will be successful in the marketplace 18 months later, based upon 100 or so pages of descriptions and dialogue, cast and other talent, is a tough job. Doing it 12 to 15 times a year is a combination of degenerate gambling, wish fulfillment and magical thinking. You could do it less, but then each picture bears more risk (and overhead) and the output deals that provide a studio's safety net evaporate. Or, you could just do as the Matsushita executives once told Universal management in the early days of their ownership of the studio, and just not make the pictures that lose money.

While much has been written about the hopelessness of studio product, and that studios are merely, according to Manola Dargis in the New York Times, "largely in the recycling business", the three top Oscar nominated pictures, "Gravity", "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" were financed and/or distributed by major studios. In the continuum that is represented by the studio production process, most of the recently deposed senior executives from the pictures' distributors, Warner Bros., Sony and Fox, had a hand in the eventual success of those pictures. And since it's now awards season, there's likely a cessation of hostilities, at least as far as terminating senior studio executives is concerned.

With the international box office gross of studio motion pictures approaching 80 percent, what sort of executives do the studios need most? Is it enough for the tentpoles to be multi-national in cast and location, or must the executives be too? Most studio pictures, like studio executives, really aren't that diverse, with a recent study from the USC Annenberg School on race and ethnicity in 500 popular films revealing that 75 percent of all speaking characters were white. And when you look behind the camera, the percentage of white is higher. Interesting when you consider the growing ethnic make-up of the U.S. population, the over-indexing of Hispanic frequent moviegoers according to the MPAA and the oft-demonstrated strength of African American centered films, most recently this past weekend with Universal's "Ride Along."

As with automobiles, American studios did not invent motion pictures, or for that matter the concept of cinema, but they did perfect the mass production and distribution of popular motion picture entertainment. And yes, occasionally great movies of artistic merit make it through just as a car person can tell you the truly great cars that came out of Detroit over the years. In its down decades, issues of quality and design plagued Detroit and along with economic downturns lessened the advantage of a strong home market. This was exacerbated by competition from rising international competitors who produced a better, more affordable or more desirable product. Cultural and language barriers have protected the primacy of American studio films in the world market, as well as the lesser effect that challenges in a country's economy have on the consumption of movies. Will it always be thus? In the auto industry, "hubris, mismanagement [and] more nimble competitors" (NY Times) undid the Big Three automakers in the past. And while those characteristics have weighed on the motion picture industry before, and perhaps provided the undoing of at least one studio, the major studios are not only still around, but better situated than international competitors to retain and expand their dominant position in the world market for entertainment.

Whether studios need a new type of executive, one that is more international, green lighting their movies remains to be seen. In all likelihood, in the short term, they won't because the tentpole motion pictures that work around the world don't seem to require that perspective. But maybe one day, in the not too distant future, we may read that a new studio executive es una de las más...