Summer 2011

The Man in Charge

As head of CBS in the '70s and CEO of Warner Bros. for almost 20 years, Robert A. Daly oversaw an industry in transition. He looks back at the business as he knew it.

DGA Quarterly 10 Questions with Robert Daly 1. One of the things you were known for in your years at Warner Bros. was building relationships with directors. How did you work with them to cultivate their talent?

The process at Warner Bros. was very good. Once you give a greenlight to a movie, the director is the guy who's really in charge. I wasn't somebody who was on the set or anything. But once the director showed us the picture and we went to the first preview, then I was really hands-on. The day after the preview we would have a meeting with the producer, the director, sometimes the writer, and key executives to go over the results and to see where we could make changes to improve it. We looked at the movie as 'ours,' meaning the producer, the director, the writer, and our executives. I had a plaque in my office that said, 'Shorter is Better.' And I did it on purpose because I didn't want any director to think I was picking on his movie. But in most cases I thought the movies could be improved with a little less. And in general that's the message I tried to communicate.

2. What did the directors think about the testing process?

A lot of directors hate the preview process because it makes them very nervous and they're always questioning whether we have the right audience for their movie, and whether they'll be affected by reviews. And in some cases they were affected by reviews. Goodfellas, for instance, had terrible previews. But once it got good reviews, it became a different movie. You can't look at the results of these previews as being gospel. I remember after the Goodfellas preview, we all were so depressed, including Marty [Scorsese] because the audience just reacted negatively to some of the violence. But once the reviews came out, it was amazing. It totally turned around.

3. At Warner Bros. you had long-term relationships with a number of directors including Clint Eastwood. How did that work?

Clint never had a multiyear deal with Warner Bros.; it was one picture at a time, but he very rarely ever did a movie outside of Warner Bros. He was very loyal. In my time we did about 15 movies with him. We could have done more except he was mayor [of Carmel] for a while. Clint's a very efficient shooter. He knows what he wants before he gets on the set, he gets good performances out of his actors, and he doesn't do a lot of takes. The process with Clint was different than with any other filmmaker we've had. We'd read the script, say 'go,' cast it with him, and he would shoot it. The whole time I was there, he never went over budget. Then we would see the movie, and in most cases that would be the picture. He doesn't believe in the preview process, so there were no previews with Clint. There wasn't a lot of talking about it or anything else, because he just was so good at it.

4. You were responsible for launching a number of tentpole franchises at Warner Bros.—Batman, Lethal Weapon—how did the directors' vision contribute to them?

Well, the person who made his mark on Batman was Tim Burton. We developed Batman for 10 years and could never ever come up with it and he cracked it. When Tim became involved he said he wanted to cast Michael Keaton as Batman, and I said, 'Over my dead body.' But in the meeting he convinced me that Keaton was the right guy. He said the most important thing for Batman is his eyes and he was right. And Keaton has those eyes that can be very penetrating. So Tim Burton was the guy who really made Batman happen for us in those days.

5. When you were at CBS in the '70s, it was pretty rare for directors to move back and forth between film and TV the way they do today. What do you think caused that shift?

Well, in those days there was a snobbery that existed. Either you were a movie person or a TV person. Remember, a lot of the major film directors came out of television. The Dick Donners of the world were all doing Playhouse 90s in the early days of TV. So a lot of them started in television and moved on to movies, and once they got there they very rarely came back to television. Now, I think cable TV, especially HBO, changed a lot of that. Some of the miniseries or TV movies are as good as any feature you can find. In the '70s and early '80s, there were two classes [of directors]. Nowadays there isn't the snobbery effect. Mike Nichols did Angels in America on HBO; Steven Spielberg produces a lot of stuff for television.

6. Movies for television was an important part of your programming at CBS. Why did that genre decline?

At CBS we were the first network to really go heavy into movies. We had two nights of movies, and then we bought a lot of made-for-television movies because we couldn't get enough theatricals that would work for us. So there was a period of time when all three major networks were doing 50 a year. There were so many independent producers doing made- for-television movies. It was a very big business. Then the theatricals phased out, in my opinion, because the government made us give up exclusivity and allow the movies to go to Showtime, The Movie Channel, and HBO before they come to the network. So then our movie nights started to fail. And once they started to fail, the made-for-television movies couldn't hold it all up on their own. Then the old standard series came back. So there were a lot of different reasons why they phased out.

7. Do you see the model for broadcast television continuing as it is today?

Yes, I think for the foreseeable future. Everybody always talks about the demise of network television, but of course they used to talk about the demise of radio. Network television is still the most efficient way for an advertiser to get his product looked at by a lot of people.

8. The advent of home entertainment and videocassettes happened during your tenure at Warner Bros. How was that a game changer?

When a new technology comes along, the ancillary rights play a huge part in the success of an industry because you get a chance to use the library. You get a chance to sell your old product. So the videocassette gave us a chance to not only put out the new movies on video but put out all the Dirty Harrys and all the older movies that we had. And then of course the same thing happened when the DVD came in. Now, as you know, the DVD business is not as good as it used to be. But there will be new revenue streams that are coming in relating to things such as Netflix and downloading movies. As long as you can do it and protect the copyright.

9. You also oversaw the music division at Warner Bros. What did you learn from that experience about combating piracy and protecting copyrighted content?

The music business got destroyed by Napster, and nobody made any money out of it, it was only a destruction. It wasn't like somebody created a business and made money out of Napster. The music companies—and I was running one of them—didn't move fast enough. A lot of times the industry fights technology, and you really can't fight technology. You've got to embrace it; you've got to figure out a way to make it into something that everybody benefits by.

10. Over the years you must have negotiated with the DGA on a number of occasions. What was that like?

When I started at Warner Bros., Lew Was­serman was in charge of all the negotiations. And in my last eight or 10 years there, I was the lead person. I never really was a big fan of strikes because I thought if you looked at the history of the strikes that took place, nobody won. The issues that people went on strike for usually didn't materialize as much as everybody thought they would—on both sides. The creative rights negotiation was always a very difficult meeting because the feelings between the directors and the writers were like open wounds. The writers felt they were being cut out, especially on the theatrical side. So that was always the most sensitive area. We were trying to make peace, to settle things down. I think the DGA is much more interested in getting what they want and moving on and not having a strike. They have people who have been around awhile. So I've always liked dealing with the directors, to be honest with you. They were difficult, they were hard, but they were sane.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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