“Television and moviemaking is one of the most collaborative industries you’ve ever seen. Nobody does this stuff on their own, no one. You can’t do it on your own. It takes not just a village, it takes a state.”
Barry Meyer, founder and chairman of North Ten Mile Associates and former chairman of Warner Bros. Entertainment; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, March 3, 2017.
“Even though my grandparents were…immigrants and we weren’t wealthy, we availed ourselves of everything that New York had to offer”
I grew up in the South Bronx. I can’t tell you that was a major cultural center, but my parents and grandparents all lived in the South Bronx. I lived there until I was about 10 years old, and then we moved to the east end of Queens, which in 1953 or 1954 was considered the country. There was a chicken farm across the street. Even though we lived in the South Bronx and then Queens, we were always in New York seeing plays when I was a kid. My mother loved opera, and she would take me to see what was playing. We would sit two rows below heaven up there in the bleachers and watch La Boheme and she would weep. I was antsy and just trying to figure out what I was doing there in the middle of the summer in an un-air-conditioned theater with my mother, but we always went. We went to every museum, we went to all the shows, all the plays. So even though my grandparents were first- and second-generation immigrants and we weren’t wealthy, we availed ourselves of everything that New York had to offer. That’s a big part of my memories about early childhood in New York.
“The legal training I had was the best training for what I was doing”
I went to college in upstate New York at the University of Rochester. I earned a Regents Scholarship, and even though it was not a lot of money, it seemed like it at the time. I didn’t have the grades in school to get into the big Ivy League type law schools, and I didn’t want to go back into the maelstrom of New York for law school. I found Case Western Reserve [University] in Cleveland, a good, small law school in a big city. What I like about the law is it teaches you a way to think and solve problems. I always felt throughout my career that the legal training I had was the best training for what I was doing — in some ways even better than an MBA or formal business training. It trains you to look at factual situations, identify the problems, and then solve them.
On getting started in the entertainment industry at ABC
I was never all that interested in actually practicing law. I went back to New York after law school in Ohio. I was 27 years old and married. It was 1967; there was a war going on in Vietnam and I was eminently draftable. I had my Army physical in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, and just as I was ready to get a draft notice, we found out my wife was pregnant. At that time having a child was an automatic deferment from the draft. So all of a sudden, this big burden is lifted. So I took a breath and then I went to look for a job. I remember an employment agency on 42nd Street with a push-pin bulletin board with job listings. There was a job opening at ABC in the Sales Service Department, which means the department that dealt with all the advertising sales contracts. I started working at ABC in 1968, which at the time was a pretty new TV network. My first day in the office, they dumped some files on my desk and said, “Take a look at these.” They were form advertising contracts, which they wanted me to double-check for typos. I thought, “I went to law school to do this? What am I doing here?” Then they dumped 10 program files on my desk, and then they dumped 50 more program files at my desk, and then all of a sudden they dumped all of the Chuck Barris program files on my desk and said, “Learn this quickly, and go to California because we’ve got a problem here.” Chuck Barris was a well-known game show producer who, at the time, was producing two shows for ABC that were very profitable and very highly rated: The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. They were running the shows all the time, daytime and primetime. They were mainstays of the ABC schedule. So I got involved in that, and I started doing more work around the programming side as well. I was with ABC in New York for about a year and a half. They were doing some reorganizing, and they asked me if I wanted to move to California.
On the unique career opportunities available in a rapidly expanding industry
The advantage of being with a new company that is growing, in an industry that is exploding, is that you get thrown into things that, in the normal progression, would take you years to get to. There’s a ton of work and they don’t have enough people to do it. When a business grows very quickly there are all kinds of gaps in responsibility and authority that are created. If you fill in those gaps, all of a sudden your bosses turn around and say, “How did all of that stuff get done in the middle of this chaos?” If you’re the one who did it, all of a sudden you’re part of a bigger picture years before you should have been.
As an example, I was just starting out in L.A. when my boss, Tom Werthheimer, and I were involved with Barry Diller and Michael Eisner on the development of a new form of television called “The Movie of the Week,” movies made directly for television. This had never been done before. It was a new form that Barry Diller conceived of and a new economic model that was bizarre beyond belief. We were licensing the entire 90-minute movies for the cost today of one lead actor in one episode of a sitcom. It was a brand-new form of television, and we were trying to convince people to spend a lot of money on something untried. It was one of the great learning experiences of my career. It was a hard model, but we did it one movie at a time, one picture at a time. Eventually movie-for-television programming became a huge business for all the networks.
I got an offer from Warner Bros. in 1971. I started working as an associate director of business affairs in their TV department. Warner Bros. already had a long history in television. They did a lot of those old westerns — Cheyenne and Sugarfoot and Maverick and even some George Burns sitcoms. But the TV division at WB had been dormant for many years. Being part of, and in fact, leading the building of the TV business at WB into the powerhouse it is today is one of the great achievements of my career.
Our proudest achievements
In a broad sense, I’ve been most proud of the fact that I was part of the continuum of the development of a television business at WB that started with one old shop-worn television series (The FBI) and turned into one of the largest production companies in the world.
But in terms of being proud, there is one thing that stands out. It’s not the kind of thing you would normally think of. It was probably in 1998 or 1999. I hadn’t been made CEO of WB yet. I was chief operating officer, basically running the TV division. One of our producers, Deborah Oppenheimer, came to me and told me that her mother had just passed away. Her mother, it turns out, was a German Jewish refugee during World War II who had been in the Kindertransport program in Germany, a program that sent young Jewish children from Germany to England just before the Nazis came to full power. She wanted to do a documentary about that program that saved her mother’s life and was so instrumental in her own life. She came to us because it’s hard and very time-consuming to get funding for documentaries. You have to apply for grants, go to individuals, etc. All the Kindertransport survivors who she had to interview for this documentary were old and dying. She felt that if she waited for the usual funding process, they would all be gone.
Now this wasn’t the business that I was in. As I said, I wasn’t CEO yet; I wasn’t authorizing production expenditures on anything except some television programs. But I conferred with my associate Bruce Rosenblum and we agreed, “This is going to take a couple million dollars to do this. She’s gotta start right away; let’s give her the money. We’ll figure it out later. We’ll hide it some place. We’ll put it in some busted television pilot, but we’ve got to give her the ability to do this.” So we did and she went on to make a brilliant documentary.
Here’s the proudest moment: That documentary, Into the Arms of Strangers, won the Academy Award for best documentary film in 2000. I remember sitting there about four or five rows behind Deborah and her father when she got up to receive the Academy Award for this thing that she had done based upon her mother’s experience and her mother’s life. It was incredibly moving. Into the Arms of Strangers is now in the permanent archive of the Library of Congress. It is considered an American cultural icon.
“You need something really compelling because people have so many choices”
There were only three television networks when I started in the business: ABC, NBC, and CBS. That was it! There’s an old theory of television viewing patterns called “least objectionable program.” The proposition is, you watch the program that you find least objectionable on the three networks because you basically just want to watch television.
Well that’s changed. People still want to watch, but now there are so many networks, and the technology has expanded the distribution so dramatically that the idea that you may only have a choice of three shows is almost quaint. To reach hundreds and hundreds of millions of people just takes an app. You don’t need to buy or affiliate with 100 television stations like Bill Paley had to start CBS. The barrier to entry in the distribution business is minimal today. But ironically the barrier to entry to getting actual viewers is dramatically higher. The more channels you put in front of viewers, the harder it is to get them to watch any single one. You need something really compelling because people have so many choices. The advantage is the quality of television production has gotten much better, so you’re now watching television that is light-years higher quality than it was years ago. The television model has changed radically, and it’s a function of what technology has done to distribution. This phenomenon — expanded distribution leading to more choices and higher quality — is happening all over the world.
On creating products that are contributing to American culture
English is the language of film entertainment worldwide. And the reason is, we in the U.S. created film and television as a much more vibrant export industry than any other country or culture did. We pioneered the mass audience, worldwide.
American movies and TV — and with them American culture — are viewed in more places around the world than any other content. Television and moviemaking is one of the most collaborative industries you’ve ever seen. Nobody does this stuff on their own, no one. You can’t do it on your own. It takes not just a village, it takes a state.
Take the whole idea of the superhero franchise. We didn’t invent that; it was created by people who did comic book after comic book and invented these stories and the personas and the legends. So we just took it as an industry and those superhero characters — Batman, Superman, Harry Potter — and translated it to big-screen effects.
On Sandy Koufax’s influence
When I lived in New York, I was a Giants fan, not a Dodgers fan or a Yankees fan. But when I moved to California, I became a Dodger fan immediately. Sandy Koufax is Jewish like I am, left handed like I am, and one of the greatest Dodger pitchers of all time. I remember when he refused to pitch on Yom Kippur in a World Series game. In my new office now, I have a signed picture of him throwing the last pitch of his perfect game against the Mets.