How David Zaslav Blew Up Hollywood

As the buzz around “Barbie” started to build, so did Zaslav’s enthusiasm. If there was one thing he could do, it was market a product. At Discovery, he transformed “Shark Week” into a cultural phenomenon with promotional stunts like staging a race between the Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and a shark. (Phelps was in fact swimming alone in a time trial, and the shark that he was supposed to be racing against was just a computer-generated image, but it still pulled big ratings.) Now Zaslav had a whole media conglomerate at his disposal. He told his marketing team to engage every division of W.B.D. to help turn the summer of 2023 into “the summer of Barbie,” and they did. There was a four-part Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge series on the home-improvement channel HGTV, with teams competing to turn an actual home into a Barbie Dreamhouse, and a Barbie-themed episode of “Summer Baking Championship” on the Food Network, in which all of the desserts had to be pink. Warner Brothers even partnered with Airbnb to renovate a rentable, real-life Barbie Dreamhouse in Malibu. Zaslav liked to send out gift boxes to his hundreds of friends and acquaintances; before the premiere, he assembled a Barbie-themed one, with dolls, toy Malibu Barbie beach cruisers and pink T-shirts and hats.

It was, of course, a huge hit — a true blockbuster, bringing in a whopping $162 million in its first weekend while reminding America why it loved going to the movies. It was a moment of triumph for Hollywood, a validation of its enduring cultural relevance. Even now, amid the fragmentation of the media, it had not lost its democratic power to attract and transport mass audiences all over the world. No less important, the movie’s success was a rebuke of the streaming-age conviction that you could use data to engineer a hit or, for that matter, predict one. Even in the era of algorithms, it seemed, nobody knows anything. “It’s the kind of good news you get in the movie business but don’t deserve,” Diller says of “Barbie.”

It was a moment of triumph for Mattel too. The company’s chief executive, Ynon Kreiz, was a former media-and-entertainment executive himself, and “Barbie” was part of his much larger strategy to turn Mattel into an intellectual-property company, with a deep pipeline of movies based on its toys. (Coming soon: a Hot Wheels movie, a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots movie and a horror-comedy film based on the Magic 8 Ball.) He hailed the movie as a “milestone moment” for his plan and was celebrated as a genius. Mattel’s shares had been surging for months as enthusiasm about the movie, and Kreiz’s larger, Hollywood-centric strategy, built.

Shares of W.B.D., by contrast, stayed flat. One movie was not enough to change Wall Street’s perception of the company, which was that it was overburdened with debt and not primed for growth. Zaslav’s stock wasn’t up, either, at least among those who saw him as a symbol of corporate greed. On the Monday after “Barbie” weekend, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined a crowd of protesters in a W.G.A. and SAG-AFTRA rally outside W.B.D.’s global headquarters in Manhattan. “This is a fight against the endless pursuit of more wealth,” she said. “How many private jets does David Zaslav need?”

There was still one source of solace for Zaslav: cash flow. When W.B.D. reported its earnings to Wall Street in early August, the big news was that it had generated $1.7 billion in cash flow in the most recent quarter, enabling the company to pay down more of its debt. Most of this was because of Zaslav’s strict cost-cutting regime, but the writers’ strike had been a boon, too, enabling W.B.D. to save “in the low $100 million range” during the quarter. Of course there were challenges, Zaslav told analysts. The studio and DC had “underearned their potential” — “Barbie” was not part of that quarter — and this was, moreover, a tough time for the business. Wiedenfels, Zaslav’s longtime chief financial officer, said that he was “incredibly proud” of that $1.7 billion, but there was a lot more where it came from; his “transformation team” was looking for more savings.

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