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?”)
Sometimes the veneer of überpoliteness breaks down. I recall when Geffen participated in a digital-barbarians-at-the-gate discussion that was slickly moderated by then–Intel Corp. chairman Andy Grove. “What am I doing on this panel? I don’t know anything about technology,” Geffen griped, seated alongside Idei, Murdoch, Diller, Bronfman and departed FCC chairman Reed Hundt. Or the time Diller began a sentence with “My intuition .?.?.” and Grove sputtered, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of your grand intuition, Barry.” This stuff might sound polite, but in that rarefied air it’s the equivalent of farting in public.
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I called 1999’s gathering That Summer of Surrender, when the ultimate bastion of mogul machismo finally bowed to political correctness by opening up to women and African-Americans for two unprecedented discussions, led by Dick Parsons and Diane Von Furstenberg (Diller’s wife). Though Allen defensively claimed there was no barrier, the fact is that, prior to this, no African-American and only one woman (Jill Barad, of Mattel) had been invited to deliver one of the presentations. (Though Furstenberg’s “Women and Business” panel was scheduled as the confab’s last official business, leaving plenty of time to skip out and make it back to L.A. for lunch.) There were also a few years when Fortune 500 stalwarts like Gillette and Heinz were welcomed. Entertainment execs whined how Camp Allen wasn’t even exclusive to media moguls anymore.
Camp Allen is, in the end, about making money. Not to get too historical, but this is, after all, where Warren Buffett suggested that Disney’s Michael Eisner and Capital Cities/ABC’s Tom Murphy might get together, where Rupert Murdoch began chatting with Ron Perelman and ended up with New World, where a tennis game between Turner Broadcasting’s Scott Sassa and Castle Rock’s Alan Horn put them in business together. But while the top execs of these companies stuffed their pockets, their shareholders got screwed. So many of these infotainment mergers looked good on paper but turned ugly within years.
At Friday night’s roast, the favorite camp event, Allen & Co.’s head institutional salesman Jack Schneider hands out Camp Allen’s equivalent of the Dubious Achievements awards. One year, ICM’s Jeff Berg inherited Mike Ovitz’s “biggest prick in Hollywood” award (they gave him a dildo) while recently fired entertainment executives were given “Will Work for Food” sandwich boards. Another time, Bill Gates was given his very own look-alike Ken doll, complete with eyeglasses and clutching a roll of real $100 bills. Buffett serenaded Allen on his banjo. And a huge Pepsi bottle with a big, fat rubber rodent inside was awarded to Coke chairman Roberto Goizueta.
As for this year’s Camp Allen, the real rats are telling their staffs to file flight plans to their own not-so-private Idaho.