Forget karma. Forget justice. Revenge is sweet for those who’ve lost their jobs.
In April 1991, at the peak of his power as one of Hollywood’s top executives, Sony Pictures chairman Jon Peters left Los Angeles on a corporate jet bound for New York, where he had been summoned to meet with his boss, Mickey Schulhof, then-head of the company’s U.S. operations.
The dashing and even daredevil executive was anxious. A vague sense of dread had come over him, and it only grew greater when he learned that his longtime partner, best friend and fellow Sony chairman Peter Guber, would not be flying with him. Hadn’t the two men been this close for decades, chatting many times a day, seeing each other multiple times a week, building their own mini-empire by producing such blockbusters as Batman and The Witches of Eastwick, before being wooed from Warner Bros. to Sony in a deal that cost their Japanese bosses a staggering $700 million?
It seemed odd that Guber wasn’t on the plane now, and even odder that lately he had failed to return Peters’ calls, prompting the latter to drive to his friend’s house in search of an explanation — only for Guber to dodge and weave and leave Peters with the assumption that he was safe, while another executive was in trouble.
In fact, for weeks now, the one-time hairdresser had blinded himself to reality, swatting away rumors that there were strains between him and his brother in blood. After all, he noted, they’d just been to see their joint therapist, the author of Healing Your Aloneness: Finding Love & Wholeness Through Your Inner Child. There, according to Nancy Griffin and my colleague Kim Masters’ Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood, Guber had assured his buddy: “I love you. No, I don’t love you — I feel like I’m in love with you.”
Love fades. Passion fizzles. Even the tightest of bonds ultimately frays in the mosh pit of Hollywood. And so Peters discovered when he stepped off the plane in New York and made his way to Schulhof’s office, where he learned he was out of a job.
“I was numb,” he told Griffin and Masters. “I was catatonic…. It was like a part of me died.”
Death comes easily in Hollywood. Each little nick saps some of our blood, each cut drains us of our vital force, and the unkindest cut of all is being fired.
It happened to me once, many years ago — curiously, at around the same time Peters lost his job. A man I respected told me it “wasn’t working out” without explaining why. I packed up my boxes, picked up my final paycheck, and left; though I should note my severance package was somewhat smaller than Peters’.
People react to being fired in one of two ways: Either they’re shattered, as Peters was, especially when their firing comes out of the blue (or at least appears to, though in fact it rarely does). Or else they’re relieved that the ax has fallen, after weeks and months of uncertainty, freeing them from the psychic prison of doubt — until that sense of relief melts away when they realize they still have to pay the bills.
My own firing was followed by my boss’, just a few months later. He was older than me, toward the end of his career when I was at the beginning of mine. I should have felt bad. But here’s the terrible thing: I was almost glad he’d been fired. I’m not proud of it, but that’s how I felt.
There’s no joy quite equal to watching your oppressor be oppressed. We can elevate that into a sense of justice, a grim satisfaction at seeing karma in action, but revenge lies at its heart, and even our best efforts hardly ever eliminate that basest of emotions from our makeup.
What goes around comes around, we like to say, waxing philosophical; those who live by the sword die by the sword. But such proclamations have nothing to do with the visceral thrill we feel.
Such was the case last week, judging by some of the people I spoke to about Michal Lynton, when news broke that the Sony Corp. of America chairman would be leaving his post. Those who’d lost their jobs along the way weren’t stoic; they were happy.
Did he “resign” or was he “fired”? Who knows. Possibly weeks of debate and discussion were followed by the inevitable mutual assurances that this was in everyone’s interest. But in the end, Lynton knew his time was up, as every studio chief knows at some point along the way. In Hollywood as in every epicenter of power, as the British politician Enoch Powell once observed, “All political careers end in failure.”
I’ve always rather liked Lynton, who seems less driven by ego and sheer narcissism than some of his peers, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t follow their strategy. When he felt under siege, he did what Guber had done — he got rid of those beneath him. One by one, lower-level executives were forced to walk the plank, just as they had forced others to do the walking when they sniffed danger.
You always know trouble’s brewing at the top when you see movement at the bottom. Like a perpetual motion machine, you tap the ball at one end and a different ball moves at the other.
Thus it was at Sony. First, a mid-level corporate publicist, Steve Elzer, was eased out in 2013. Then he was followed by the man who did the easing, Charlie Sipkins. Other heads quickly rolled: marketing head Marc Weinstock was followed by Sony Pictures vice chairman Jeff Blake, who was followed by Sony Pictures chair Amy Pascal, who was followed by — you guessed — Lynton himself.
It’s a game of dominoes, where one domino inevitably tumbles after another. Only, real lives are at stake here.
Which explains why there’s so much rancor between those who’ve been fired and those who’ve done the firing.
Last week, a Sony exec could barely contain his glee at the news about Lynton, and one can only imagine what Steve Mosko is thinking now: the fabulously successful head of Sony’s television operations left in June, when he and Lynton could no longer get along.
Not that Lynton has to worry. He’d been looking to get out for a long time, as the leaked Sony emails revealed. And he has a new job at Snapchat, the Internet company in which he was an early investor.
But the pain will linger. Relationships have been damaged, friendships severed, and not all can be restored.
In the case of Peters and Guber, they never healed their wounds. “[Guber] was a bad boy at the end,” Peters told Tatiana Siegel in her fascinating THR profile earlier this month. “He cheated me out of a lot of money and turned into someone different than I knew for 15 years.” (Guber didn’t respond when Siegel asked for comment.)
Forgive and forget is all well and good in theory. But in Hollywood, a different maxim applies: Kill or be killed.
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