Best of ’23: Did Yosemite Zas Shoot Himself In The Foot? Or Did Those Taking Aim At Him?

While I admit I’m at times a bit less reverent to corporate executives who I truly wish would somehow find a way to accept me into their inner circles as many once did, when I choose to point out what they do that grinds my gears it’s not without good reason.  Arguably, WBD chairman David Zaslav has triggered me more often than most.

Mr. Zaslav actually caught my attention prior to this year, and this mid-summer night’s scream from 2022 that tried to put into perspective his first earnings call at the helm set the stage for his doppelganger in these musings,  “Yosemite Zas”.  No, the physical resemblance isn’t there with Bugs Bunny’s nemesis, but, attitudinally, the similarities are rampant.  Both have bluster, both seem to take pride in firing back at those they resent, and yet, there are constituencies that actually love them.  In the case of the cartoon Sam, WBD has actually merchandised little Sam dolls and plush toys for decades.  In the case of Mr. Zaslav, favorable earnings results have earned him eight-figure bonuses that have allowed him to upgrade his yacht. 

While an uncomfortable number of personal friends and colleagues have lost their jobs in the process, and where countless other news and creative executives were also impacted by his uber-dedication to the bottom line and, sometimes, the leanings of the Yoda who enabled his rise through Discovery Communications, John Malone.  

And just this week, one of the few remaining quality research talents still in the WBD camp, Andrea Zapata, announced on her LinkedIn feed that she was departing the company for what are hopefully greener (well, more magenta-hued) pastures.  I’d like to believe it was amicable and her choosing, but the fact that yet another really talented person chose to end this year by leaving a company run by Yosemite Zas makes me dubious at best that such was the case.

So in what would be arguably these musings’ equivalent of “Person of the Year”, I offer up an encore the 2023 version of a mid-summer night’s scream that essentially captures the essence of why I have such mixed feelings about Mr. Zaslav–which is far more of a balanced view than many of you may otherwise have:

Lately, I seem to be confusing some people who, while well-intentioned, feel it’s absolutely necessary to express their opinion that by stating any of my own, or amplifying those who are critical of true power brokers, I am unwittingly assuring my own career demise.   As if expressing my truth, or supporting the thoughts of anyone else so inclined, was somehow the real reason why my search for more meaningful work continues now into a fourth year.

So just to clear up any possible confusion, let me for the record reinforce this:  When I reference Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav as “Yosemite Zas”, I do so far more out of respect than I do vitriol.  The cartoon character–incidentally, IP Zaslav now controls–is known for punching above his weight, reacting vehemently to challenges for his authority.   And yes, in the cartoons Sam is often the victim of his own making, often left muttering to himself “ooooh, I hate that rabbit!!”  But, almost inevitably, in ensuing works, Sam is still in charge.

As, for the moment, is Zas.  Despite the feelings and potentially the agenda of one Jason Bailey, as the WASHINGTON POST’s Will Sommer dutifully reported yesterday:

In an unusual step, GQ magazine removed an article critical of powerful media executive David Zaslav from its website just hours after it was published Monday, following a complaint from Zaslav’s camp.

The story, by freelance film critic Jason Bailey, excoriated the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery for his handling of the company’s entertainment properties — specifically perceived crimes against film, such as the layoffs at the Turner Classic Movies channel that outraged prominent directors and other superfans and his decision to not release finished movies such as “Batgirl” for tax purposes. At one point, Bailey compared Zaslav to tyrannical “Succession” patriarch Logan Roy.

“In a relatively short period of time, David Zaslav has become perhaps the most hated man in Hollywood,” Bailey wrote.

A Zaslav spokesman complained to GQ about the story soon after it was published, according to people close to the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve confidences. By early afternoon on Monday, the magazine had made extensive edits to the story.

Archived versions of the original and edited versions of the article show significant changes that had the effect of softening its tone. A line calling Zaslav “the most hated man in Hollywood” was deleted. The “Succession” comparison was removed, as was a segment where Bailey called the reality shows that Zaslav oversaw while running Discovery “reality slop.”

The final paragraphs of the original article compared Zaslav to the pitiless businessman played by Richard Gere in “Pretty Woman,” with Bailey writing that the executive is “only good at breaking things.”

The ending of the edited article was much kinder to Zaslav, removing the “Pretty Woman” reference and simply noting that film aficionados’ complaints have “gotten personal.”

Bailey told The Washington Post that, after GQ made the changes, he asked editors to remove his byline. He said an editor told him that GQ would not keep an article on its website without the author’s name. By Monday afternoon, the article was removed entirely from the site.

If this were where this story ended, it would simply be yet another creative-friendly taking out his or her consternation on someone they perceive as an insensitive lout who merely wishes he had the true talent and looks to be one of the cool kids.  And believe me, I know the type.  I once worked for someone who regaled me with stories of how Jeff Zucker was mocked as “The Human Penis” by many including him who were working at NBC for the man at the time.   I also once worked for someone who referred to his old boss as a “Napoleon” who would kowtow to writers and directors’ demands because of what he perceived as an existential need to be liked in spite of his vertically challenged stature.  These folks have often been derided as “starf*ckers” by people who share more commanding physical statures.  For the record, Zaslav and I both share the same height–5’4″ (in my case, on a good day).  So, yep, I’m a little sensitive about these sort of agendas from creatives, particularly ones that had better genes than we Ashkenazi Jews may have had.

But as the intrepid Rick Ellis penned on his insightful TOO MUCH TV newsletter last night, perhaps the real starf*cker in this case may not be Zaslav, or even his press representative.  Rather, it could be someone who capitulated to the demands of Zaslav’s team.  As it turns out, this person apparently has a agenda of their own, with Ellis giving appropriate credit to the reporter, VARIETY’s Tatiana Siegel, who uncovered this coincidence:

GQ editor-in-chief Will Welch is producing a movie at Warner Bros. titled “The Great Chinese Art Heist,” which is based on a 2018 GQ article by Alex W. Palmer. Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) is attached to direct and produce the film, which chronicles an audacious European museum crime wave that targeted Chinese antiquities. The project already has a script in place by Ken Cheng, Jessica Gao and Jimmy O. Yang. Sources say Welch was involved in the discussions surrounding the removal of Bailey’s initial story and made the call to pull the revamped story, which ran some 500 words shorter than the published version. Those same sources say Warner Bros. Discovery complained about the initial story to two GQ editors, one of whom was Welch. 

And as Sommer added in his piece, it’s clear how Bailey felt about all that, as well as perhaps what side of the story Sommer comes out on when one additional factoid was revealed:

Bailey confirmed that he did not ask Warner Bros. Discovery for comment for the article, but he disputed the idea that the piece contained “numerous inaccuracies.” Bailey said his editors at GQ never told him the piece was inaccurate, and the edited version of the article did not contain a correction.

“I think a side-by-side comparison of the piece before and after GQ’s internal edits reveals exactly what WBD wanted changed, and that GQ was happy to do so,” Bailey wrote in an email to The Post.  GQ has a corporate connection to Warner Bros. Discovery. The magazine’s parent company, Condé Nast, is owned by Advance Publications, a major shareholder in Warner Bros. Discovery. Advance Publications did not respond to a request for comment.

Seems like there may be some dot-connecting going on here that kind of parallels some of the accusations fired off in past years about another CEO type who would make calls to the publisher of the National Enquirer to kill unflattering stories.  Heaven forbid that might be going on here.  And I’m certainly not making that kind of assumption.

But perhaps that’s something that might be expressed by someone like SFGATE’s Drew Magary, who felt compelled to offer this sort of narrative to his readers yesterday evening after his own recapping of what you’ve hopefully read above:

Not only is this man a terrible CEO, but he’s also an imperious coward who’s more than willing to swat down anyone who dares question his authority. Our worst kind of rich person.

Maybe Zaslav was able to get Welch to back down from public criticism, but my bosses here at SFGATE won’t be similarly cowed. So, for the permanent record, let me state all of this again flatly: David Zaslav is an eel who sucks at his job. He’s destroying HBO. He’s destroyed what bare credibility the DC Universe had left with moviegoers. He’s forced GQ to willingly debase itself. He’s destroyed TCM. And while he couldn’t get Licht to destroy CNN, he’ll find some other pair of docksiders to finish the job. 

It’s a fact that, in an age of mass consolidation, no one person could possibly run all of a billion-dollar entertainment conglomerate effectively. But David Zaslav has distinguished himself not only by being unable to run ANY part of one but also by being such a brazen coward about that fact. I shouldn’t know who this man is. But here he is, and now he should deal, in full, with what he’s wrought. He’s a parasite: a terrible CEO, an enemy to artists, and a lousy, horrible graduation speaker to boot. I hope he’s strapped to a chair and forced to watch “The Flash” on repeat for the rest of his pathetic little existence. And no, I’m not deleting this.

Whoa, young man.  Cool your jets.

Here’s one fact you somehow missed out on, which Ellis did include in his recap.  A story from the braintrust of SEEKING ALPHA.com, a website dedicated to news and recommendations for investors:

  • While WBD’s prospects remain mixed due to the intense streaming war, immense debts, and uncertain macroeconomic outlook, David Zaslav’s execution proves to be stellar over the past three quarters.
  • Its D2C segment finally achieves profitability as well, thanks to the raised subscription fees, expanding its overall gross margins.
  • The management also controlled costs aggressively, expanding its overall adj EBITDA margins, well above its streaming peers.
  • There may be massive tailwinds for the stock indeed, given the projected moderation in interest expenses from 2023 and FY2025 debt to EBITDA ratio of ~4x.
  • As a result, we are finally rating the WBD stock as a Buy, with a long-term price target of $37.

Were I in any position to advise Zaslav, or any top executive who would allow me to be once again in a position similar to those I have been in past years, I would have advised him to draw his six-shooter out from his holster, stare down the likes of the creatives and creative-friendly journos and wannabe screenwriters who have piled on in a matter of hours, and simply use this–which directly impacts the people that Zaslav reports to–the shareholders–as his counter.

And I’d like to hope that Zaslav is standing tall privately, rather than give AF about what those who actually feel it’s their birthright to use such insulting language and make accusations that make any reference I may make to Yosemite Zas a virtual lovefest, simply say “How much did your genius contribute to your company’s bottom line this week?”

And let the likes of Will Welch–who apparently is not held in quite the same high regard by Zaslav as those he expressed about his mentor, former GE chairman Jack Welch, while he was being mercilessly booed by Boston University students in sympatico with striking writers–deal with the fallout from the decisions he chose to make that apparently has inflamed so many egos that are, at best, no less thick-skinned than those they accuse Zaslav of having.

But remember this, Will.  All you’ve got is a development deal.  Projects far further along in Zaslav’s world have been scrapped.  Your SFGate buddy rattled off just a few.  For reasons you may not like, but the people that folks in Zaslav’s echelon do.  As someone who is currently employed as an executive of a supposedly unbiased publication as their full-time job, you should at least have had the guts to say that as a response, rather than allow a contributing writer to dictate the discourse that has ensued.

So for anyone who is calling for Zaslav’s resignation–or worse–in light of his track record, or the way he is being perceived by people who dismiss his style as oafish or tone-deaf, please–show some respect.  Or at least as much as I feel he merits.

Anyone want to debate how capable I am to defend people who will hire me now?

Until next time…

 

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