Yesmen Are In Trouble

Last week yet another favorably reviewed limited series debuted on FX and Hulu.  FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE, which has already earned plaudits both for the talents of its leads, especially Jesse Eisenberg as the eponymous newly divorced Manhattan doctor navigating dating opportunities while grappling with the disturbing disappearance of his ex-wife.  It is yet another creative accomplishment for John Landgraf and team, which already saw wins in 2022 with the likes of THE OLD MAN, THE BEAR, and WELCOME TO WREXHAM.   FLEISHMAN’s story was told in a well-received first novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, but the translation to TV, which included the casting of Claire Danes and Lizzy Caplan (always two strong reasons to look at a screen), are a tribute to the prolific and enduring FX team I still cherish once being a part of.

The fact that this show was greenlit during the tenure of Kareem Daniel may have been the most difficult hurdle this show had to overcome.

I’ve been accused of being particularly harsh on Mr. Daniel, whose tenure as head of Disney Media Entertainment and Distribution came to an abrupt end yesterday less than 24 hours after his champion, Bob Chapek, was shown the door by the Walt Disney board.   I’ve been accused of dog whistling in jealousy while someone with Mr. Daniel’s resume briefly basked in a position of power where he would lead a series of meetings that would evaluate and prioritize ideas from the likes of Landgraf, Dana Walden, as well as virtually every other desired expenditure.  Funny how when I actually did connect with people who were directly impacted by Mr. Daniel, not a single one of them attempted to correct anything I concluded from watching this play out.

Mr. Daniel was the classic example of a yes man.  Someone championed by a CEO who has some decent business skills, additional talents typically not related to the creative process (in Daniel’s case, he had an engineering background), had experience working with things (in his case, consumer produts) and figures as opposed to people and ideas.  His Wikipedia entry asserts that he enjoys going to the Sundance Film Festival (who wouldn’t), but considering the pressure he was under in recent years, he was likely multitasking when he did go.

Disney lost more than a billion dollars in 3Q22 as their streaming strategy has hemorrhaged massive losses.  Not that anyone else is necessarily winning.  But in objetively looking ar what strategies they have utilized under Chapek’s command, they arguably have become overreliant on brand extensions of even their strongest pillars.  Drew Taylor of THE WRAP sums it succinctly in a column giving Iger his marching orders for his comeback tour:

There needs to be a reason for people to return to Disney+ (and Hulu and ESPN+) and it can’t be because there’s a new “Star Wars” or Marvel show every six weeks. Iger will need to find a strategy that works, combining the need for fresh, groundbreaking series with a greater emphasis on the company’s deep (and largely ignored) catalog. There are many library titles that still need to go on Disney+. There’s no other streaming platform with the variety and depth of Disney’s.  Time to open up the vault.

Respectfully, when people like Mr. Daniel hear the word “vault”, they typically think of ingots more than IP.

Plenty of companies have people like Mr. Daniel in place.  Their bosses call them “right hands”, “sounding boards”, and “loyalists”.  You may have worked for one at some point.  They supposedly provide resources, but ultimately provide roadblocks to the kinds of gambles that, if one truly analyzes breakthroughs, never would occur in organizations layered with yes men.  And, frankly, the entertainment business is in need of breakthrough ideas.

There have been an overreliance on data to drive decisions.  As someone who built whatever strength I’ve had on the concept of knowledge being power, I’m anything but against the use of data as part of a process.  But data can be both quantitative and qualitative, and my experience has been you get more quality out of healthy debate than paralysis by analysis marathon sessions run by yes men.

In worlds beyond entertainment , yes men (and, yes, yes women as well) can not only be disruptive, but also dangerous.  Stephen Miller is a yes man.  Those who shared SBF’s polycule were yes men and women (and, if you believe online discussion groups, those yesses were usually expressed in the throes of passion),  The few remaining goons at Twitter have been Elon Musk’s yes men at his other companies.  Fortunately, Disney was a mature enough company and non-agitator for Mr Daniel to be merely disruptive.

So it’s telling that Daniel’s departure was not only so swift, but also so widely cheered by the same people who quietly confessed to me months ago their frustration was centered more around him than even Chapek.  In the first memo to the Disney team that Iger sent out yesterday, he seemed to confirm his desire to course-correct:

Over the coming weeks, we will begin implementing organizational and operating changes within the company. It is my intention to restructure things in a way that honors and respects creativity as the heart and soul of who we are. As you know, this is a time of enormous change and challenges in our industry, and our work will also focus on creating a more efficient and cost-effective structure.

I’ve asked Dana Walden, Alan Bergman, Jimmy Pitaro, and Christine McCarthy to work together on the design of a new structure that puts more decision-making back in the hands of our creative teams and rationalizes costs, and this will necessitate a reorganization of Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution. As a result, Kareem Daniel will be leaving the company, and I hope you will all join me in thanking him for his many years of service to Disney. 

For anyone who had hailed the return of Iger as reassuring enough to regain trust and stock value, keep in mind that this was the first public action he chose to take.

And let this be a message to any seven-figured toady whose chief contribution to the creative process is reiterating what their underqualified boss dictates.
We don’t need more people to simply say yes.  We need way more people who can convince consumers to say it.  Invest in talent.  Invest in creatives.  Invest in novelty.  Invest in intelligence.  Invest in people with vision and backbones.  Invest in people who occasionally say “no”.
Since Mr. Daniel will now have some more time on his hands, perhaps he’ll make a film festival or two now.  Maybe a writer’s workshop, where the next Taffy Brodesser-Anker might be in attendance.  Those rights will probably be available, and you could probably cut a sweet deal.   And perhaps do some listening when they present their works.
And when they ask if you liked their creative effort, don’t just say “yes”,  Say WHY.
Toby Fleishman would.
Until next time…


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