By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
GAS UP THE GULFSTREAM G550, Jeeves, it’s time for your Master of the Media to attend Camp Allen, that annual summer sleep away in Sun Valley, Idaho, for entertainment, communications, high-tech, Internet and other corporate plutocrats. (These guys may be the only Americans who can afford to “fill ’er up.”) This year’s confab for moneyed moguls — think white men frolicking à la Bohemian Grove (only with families and clothing) — is from July 10 to 16. I’ve managed to get my hands on the preliminary speakers schedule, and the highlight (or is it lowlight?) has to be Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch and Sir Howard Stringer interviewed by Michael Eisner. Oh, to be a fly on the wall, if only to hear whether FrankenEisner will let someone else get a word in edgewise.
EBay and Amgen are giving presentations to answer softball questions like, “Why is your company so fabulous?” The Oracle from Omaha, Berkshire Hathaway honcho Warren Buffett, will be interviewed by Charlie Rose. And, to fuel those Trilateral Commission conspiracy theorists, Friday’s seminar on “TheImprovised Explosive Device Challenge and How We Are Countering It” will be given by General (Ret.) Montgomery C. Meigs, who was commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe and of NATO’s peacekeeping force in Bosnia. (In 2003, CIA Director George Tenet wouldn’t talk to the Senate Intelligence Committee after allowing Dubya to wrongly assert that Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium from Niger, but he did give a private intelligence briefing to Camp Allen.)
There’s a health care presentation, as if these guys dwell for even a nanosecond on the difficulty most Americans have paying their obscene medical bills or health insurance rates. But the talk I most wish were open to the public is “The 10 Commandments for Business Failure” from Don Keough, the ex-chairman of Coca-Cola and current chairman of the confab’s host, New York City investment-banking firm Allen & Co. Pathetic that the rich and powerful around that proverbial campfire get only a finger-wagging while shareholders get burned month after month for investing in failing conglomerates.
Ever since the confab began in 1982, the Allen & Co. invitation used to be what separated the adolescents from the boys in Hollywood, a stamp of approval from Wall Street that making feature films and sitcoms was an esteemed enterprise. After all, Herbert A. Allen Jr.’s family had long controlled Columbia Pictures, so Hollywood types used to be the star attractions. But then the high-tech and Internet boys became the Happy Campers. Gone were the good old days when those computer and telecommunications geeks with their pocket protectors were still working out of their garages, and the ability to green-light crap, sleep with starlets and get a table at the old Spago was the only price of admission to preen in Sun Valley. But Allen isn’t stupid: He couldn’t survive in the mergers-and-acquisitions business if he just stuck to entertainment companies.
So, the old guard got its wake-up call when Vanity Fair featured a multipage spread under the pedigree-enhancing banner “The New Establishment” to describe the nouveau campers as the so-called Leaders of the Information Age. Suddenly, this secretive gathering wasn’t so secret anymore. Pictures began to circulate showing them river rafting, picnic-table power lunching, and (the whole purpose of the exercise) hush-hush deal-making. CNBC anchors seated just outside the gates held specials about the enclave, while print media hung out at the Sun Valley Resort bar in between writing daily updates.
USA Today annually sends one of its business reporters to spy on Sun Valley, and Entertainment Weekly once put two reporters on the story. (Their scoop? Barry Diller on a bicycle!) There was something desperate about a no-longer-secret conference turned into a weeklong photo op where the media barons look like Marlboro Men in Bermuda shorts. But when the bubble burst, and the share prices of these infotainment conglomerates bottomed out, those photos became horrific mementoes of the days when Nero fiddled while Hollywood and Silicon Valley, et al., fizzled.
EVER SINCE, CAMP ALLEN has been far less interesting. Sure, the dozens of corporate jets still line the tarmac at nearby Friedman Memorial Airport. And the gathering still brings together the likes of Sumner Redstone (Viacom), John Malone (Liberty Media), Richard Parsons (AOL/Time Warner), Brian Roberts (Comcast), Barry Diller (IAC/InterActiveCorp), Les Moonves (CBS), Peter Chernin (News Corp.), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mario Gabelli (major shareholder in Cablevision), Richard Lovett (CAA), Jeff Berg (ICM), Terry Semel (Yahoo), Bob Iger (Disney), Tom Freston (Viacom), Bob Wright (NBC Universal/GE), Ron Meyer (Universal), David Geffen (DreamWorks), Jeffrey Katzenberg (DreamWorks), Edgar Bronfman Jr. (formerly Seagrams, now Warner Music) and Michael Ovitz (unemployed). But, to be honest, nobody talks about it anymore, nobody cares about it anymore and nobody wants it anymore. Attending it now is a chore.
With the emphasis off Hollywood, many industry moguls began perfecting the art of the 24-hour flyby, timing their Friday-to-Saturday stays to coincide with the power photo and awards dinner. Allen initially was not amused, then became resigned to it. Others take great pains to show the proper Camp Allen spirit. I remember when Sony COO Nobuyuki Idei arrived virtually arm-in-arm with new employee Howard Stringer at Allen’s dinner wearing ebony Men in Black Ts over their standard-issue Camp Allen polo shirts. (Nattered one attendee, “Don’t those guys realize that they’ve fired everyone involved with that movie?”)