Hip ’n’ Hemp
Ben Silverman has passed his GE-mandated drug test and is officially an NBC employee. So no big deal, right? Well, actually, it is. No other network programmer in the history of television, and, if my memory is correct, few Hollywood executives, has ever openly discussed drug taking. Because, unlike presidential candidates, they work for corporate parents. And GE is one of the most uptight places on the planet: It makes every employee sign off on its infamous integrity policy. But soon after I broke the news on May 25 that Silverman would be the new co-chair of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, I began receiving many e-mails and calls wondering if boss Jeff Zucker knew about Silverman’s candor concerning marijuana use. When there was a delay in Silverman’s taking the drug test, some NBC types speculated that the new exec was receiving special treatment and/or extra time to detox.
NBC Universal claimed his deal wasn’t finalized so he wasn’t officially an employee and so didn’t yet have to pee into a cup. Of course, Silverman certainly hit the ground running in his new job and acted like a full-fledged executive. (His first major programming move was to develop a successful Colombian telenovela about a young woman determined to get bigger breasts in order to escape poverty.)
I’m told Zucker heard the rumors of Ben’s pot use only after hiring him. The boss warned: “Once you start being paid, you can’t do that, Ben. It’s illegal.” Silverman pointed out that he lives in Santa Monica, where marijuana smoking was moved to the bottom of the police priority list, essentially decriminalizing it. Ben often explains away his marijuana use by noting he “wears hemp sneakers and pot leaf designers, and my parents were hippies, and loves Cheech and Chong.” At the same time, Silverman has said he “wouldn’t care if my employees smoked dope on the weekend instead of drinking a highball.”
He also readily acknowledges that he’s “totally liberal” and “fed up” with the Dubya administration. Usually, ideological frankness is applauded in Hollywood. But not inside TV network parent companies, since it opens them up to criticism that show biz injects political messages into programming. It’ll be fascinating to see GE react to Silverman’s promise to put more progressive politics into NBC programming. (“I’m sure it makes me a target,” he has said.) He also hero worships All in the Family creator Norman Lear, the outspoken supporter of First Amendment and progressive causes.
Silverman has told the network he doesn’t see his politics conflicting with his role at NBC Universal. He is even openly talking about a future run for public office. I’m told that when his bosses heard about his plan, they tried to pin him down about how long he would stay at the network. His reply: “I’m only 35 years old. I’m young.” (Actually, Silverman will be 37 years old on August 15; even for youth-obsessed Hollywood, this is kinda soon for an executive to fib about his age.)
For these reasons, Silverman is the most off-the-hook network executive that Hollywood has seen in a long time. On the other hand, bringing the network from fourth place up to first place may well mean hiring someone who breaks all the rules. Right now, I’m told by an insider that, “Ben has the complete backing and confidence of this company, both NBC and GE.” But Silverman was not included among the GE/NBC Universal executives who spoke before Wall Street analysts for four hours on June 14. And he’s receiving masses of PR prep before he meets the Television Critics Association next month. Whether GE and NBC can tolerate his unorthodoxy will depend on how successful he proves to be. In the TV business, money talks, or Ben walks.
Some people post on MySpace looking for love. I’m told that the MySpace founders are looking for loot. Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson have made a very aggressive (some would call it rather fanciful) compensation proposal to owner News Corp. for when their contract is up in October. They’re asking president/COO Peter Chernin and chairman Rupert Murdoch for a two-year deal worth $50 million total. That works out to $25 million each, or $12.5 million a year. Plus, the pair want a development fund of $15 million to invest in Internet companies. Even though MySpace is integral to News Corp.’s Internet strategy (and Murdoch’s company recently discussed swapping the social-networking site in exchange for a 25 percent to 30 percent stake in Yahoo!), no one has apparently told DeWolfe or Anderson that News Corp. is also one of the cheapest companies on Earth when it comes to executive compensation. I understand News Corp. has countered with an offer of $15 million each for the two years — still more than every suit at News Corp. earns except Roger Ailes. I also hear News Corp. has given the duo equity in MySpace China, so they already have a deal unlike anyone else there.
News Corp. insiders tell me the chances of DeWolfe and Anderson getting what they want paywise is “slim to none” — even though MySpace is dominant in the social-networking sphere, attracting almost 80 percent of all U.S. visits. Then again, Friendster was huge until next-generation MySpace came along. I think the duo had better nail down their deal now because, every day, MySpace faces more pressure from the smaller but increasingly popular Facebook.
True, DeWolfe and Anderson keep talking about the “great relationship” they have with the News Corp. bosses. (Some say it’s way better with Murdoch than with Chernin.) But there’s always the chance that News Corp. could decide to jettison the pair and replace them with a CEO suit. But the duo keep warning that putting a bigtime media executive atop the hip young business would kill MySpace.
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I’m told Tom Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner are about to announce they’ve finally clinched that $500 million in production financing arranged by Merrill Lynch for their reborn studio, United Artists. Already, UA is showing its first trailer for a movie, choosing to showcase before Fox’s Live Free or Die Hard a teaser for the November political drama Lions for Lambs, which puts Cruise together with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who also directed. The pic looks at how the war in Afghanistan sets off a sequence of events involving a congressman, a journalist and a college professor. (We’re supposed to believe Tom Terrific as a U.S. Rep.) This is the start of a campaign to raise the profile of UA, which is basically Tom’s giant fuck you to Sumner Redstone, who ousted the actor from his cushy Paramount home.
Both Cruise and Wagner are UA directors and shareholders after arranging with parent company MGM last November to run and revive the dormant studio. At the time I applauded this out-of-the-box thinking: It was a way to grab positive headlines for the tarnished star and provide him with as many film roles as he could handle. A lot of what Cruise and Wagner are doing, like reworking the UA logo or showing journalists a clip reel of classic scenes from UA’s best-known films, still smacks of just PR.
But the pair didn’t count on Germany this past week dumping on Tom by deciding to bar UA’s next pic from filming at Berlin military sites beginning July 19 so long as its star is a Scientologist. The German government has long claimed Scientology is a cult out to make money. Cruise, John Travolta and other celeb members have lobbied the W administration, including Scooter Libby, to pressure Germany to stop its anti-Scientology campaign. The film is Valkyrie, a World War II drama that stars Cruise and is based on the true story of the “July plot” to assassinate Hitler. It also reunites the Usual Suspects team of director Bryan Singer with writers Chris McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander.
But the Germans didn’t care about its bona fides and barred it even though the Defense Ministry had not yet even received official filming requests from UA. It does seem like a crude move by the country, freedom of religion and all that, no matter what you may think of Scientology. Immediately, Paula Wagner responded: “Mr. Cruise’s personal beliefs have absolutely no bearing on the movie’s plot, themes or content.”