At a Movie Theater Near You: A C-Suite Sequel

Blockbusters are off to a slow start this year, and Korn Ferry’s Michael Distefano wonders if Hollywood is recycling too many leaders.

In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, president of the Korn Ferry Institute and chief operating officer, Asia Pacific, explores the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

Aliens have already arrived at the box office this summer, soon to be followed by pirates, superheroes, mummies, talking cars, minions, and transformers. The only thing missing so far are audiences.

The summer movie season—which starts earlier and earlier each year—is in full swing, and Hollywood’s propensity towards sequels has not served it well. Two big ones, Alien: Covenant and King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, have struggled and summer box office revenues are off 10 percent from last year.

But if you are looking for a reason for the slump, it may not be just the movies themselves. Turns out, sequel fatigue isn’t just in movies—it has invaded the Hollywood corporate suite as well. “Of Hollywood’s eight biggest film suppliers, five are managed by someone who has held the same job at another one of those companies,” wrote The New York Times in an article headlined, “Hollywood Loves Sequels, Even in the Executive Suite.”

The reasons for movie-studio CEO recycling are numerous and varied, from lack of deep bench of experienced executive talent to a desire to preserve increasingly corporate financial performance metrics to new talent seeing a better future in TV, tech, or streaming companies.

But, at a time when digital distribution and emerging technology are fundamentally transforming both the way audiences consume entertainment as well as the business model of those who make and distribute that content, the safe or familiar choice often isn’t the most learning agile one. Toy tie-ins, theme-park rides, financing partnerships, and social-media marketing aren’t exactly cutting edge ways to make and market movies anymore.

While the old guard continues to approach moviemaking the old way, Amazon, Netflix, and others have been able to take both market share and mind share from traditional movie studios. At the same time, these legacy executives, along with theater owners, are clinging to preserving the anachronistic “theatrical window,” the period when a film is only available on the big screen, which is at odds with the preference of the vast majority of the global audience to have content they want to watch available when, where, and how they want. Indeed, some consumers view the notion of release windows of any kind (Video on Demand, DVD, cable, broadcast) as anathema.

 Hollywood’s C-suite needs a reinvention, not a sequel. A headline in a research report by entertainment analyst Michael Nathanson said it best: “Film Industry: Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something!” The implication being that in clinging to the old guard, studios are not developing the agility needed to succeed and grow in today’s social and mobile new entertainment world order. These executives clearly aren’t developing learning agility, or the ability to continually acquire new skills, learn from experience, face new challenges, and perform well under changing conditions. Profits may indeed be higher, but that is largely the result of cutting and managing costs as opposed to transforming the business model to keep pace with digital disruption.

Ford made news recently when it decided to move faster into autonomous cars and other on-demand services by naming a new CEO, Jim Hackett, who has been running its Smart Mobility Group—essentially the unit responsible for on-demand services, tech advances, and other new businesses. It is, in effect, betting its future on the future—perhaps something Hollywood could learn from. With sequels, you know what you’re getting. The question is whether comfortable and familiar is what the industry needs right now—from its movies or its executives.