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From the June 29, 1998 issue of New York Magazine.
Sun Valley Daze
Herbert Allen's annual retreat for Hollywood moguls and Wall Street tycoons once was secret, and nearly all-male. Is a p.c. wind sweeping through the Idaho hills?
By Nikki Finke
Years from now, it will be known as That Summer of Surrender, when the ultimate bastion of mogul machismo finally bowed to political correctness. For years Camp Allen was a secretive gathering of the privileged white men who sit atop America's entertainment conglomerates, a wilderness confab in Sun Valley, Idaho, replete with river-rafting, picnic-table power-lunching, and (the whole purpose of the exercise) hush-hush deal-making. But Herbert Allen's fabled summer retreat is changing in both style and substance, finally opening up to women and African-Americans on the one hand and downsizing its glitzy showbiz element on the other (unless, that is, you count Diane Sawyer and Tom Brokaw playing host and hostess, but more on that later).
"Since Allen & Co. is footing the bill, it's obviously people they want to be in business with," says a conference veteran. "Herbert isn't stupid: You can't survive in the mergers-and-acquisitions business today if you just stick to film companies."
So in place of the traditional Hollywood panel that once dominated the week, this year's conference -- July 7 through 11, and hosted as always by the enigmatic investment banker -- will feature two unprecedented discussions focusing on prominent African-Americans and women. Dick Parsons and Diane von Furstenberg will be leading things, for once, while Sun Valley regulars Terry Semel and Jeffrey Katzenberg will be rendered virtually mute.
Says Allen: "You can't keep putting on the same thing every year."
In truth, he gets a little defensive when it comes to the oft-made charge that Camp Allen has been, essentially, a white man's preserve. "There was no barrier," he claims when it's pointed out that in the sixteen-year history of his retreat, no African-American and only one woman (Jill Barad, of Mattel) has been invited to deliver one of the presentations, which are the prestige appointments at this gig. Suddenly, the typically collegial Allen begins talking in corporate-speak.
"Regarding women, what we didn't have was the knowledge of, or contact with, those who were in the types of businesses that we're dealing with," he says. "It's harder in media and technology to find women who are running these companies. It's nice to have the balance, but we didn't have the availability." In other words, It's corporate America's fault, not mine.
For the July 11 "Women and Business" discussion, Sawyer will moderate a panel comprising Barad, Von Furstenberg, the Washington Post Company's Katharine Graham, and ex-Disney executive Geraldine Laybourne. Talented players all, but where are Hollywood's three highest-ranking female executives (Paramount's Sherry Lansing and Sony's Lucy Fisher and Amy Pascal)? "I only wish," Pascal says. "They only invite women who own or run their companies -- at least from what I understand. I'd love to go. Hopefully, in time I will." (Not lost on at least one male invitee is the fact that the "Women and Business" panel is the last official order of business -- scheduled right after Bill Gates's 8:45 a.m. presentation. "Plenty of time to skip the women's nonsense and fly back to Los Angeles in time for lunch," he snorts.)
As for "Race in the Workplace: Past Practices/Future Challenges," the July 10 panel moderated by Brokaw, the assemblage will include Time Warner's Parsons, Kodak's George Fisher, Black Entertainment Television's Bob Johnson, Washington Post Company scion Donald Graham, and Leslie Jones, billed as a student at Emory University's Roberto C. Goizueta Business School.
Call it segregation, but most of Camp Allen's big-name regulars show up earlier, at the July 9 "Management and Other Ideas" panel, which in another time and place would have been known as that old standby the Entertainment Panel. (I guess the inclusion of Intel's Andy Grove threw enough of a curve to demand renaming the group.) Moderated by ex-Coca-Cola president (and Allen & Co. chairman) Don Keough, it includes USA Networks's Barry Diller, Time Warner's Gerald Levin, and News Corporation's Rupert Murdoch.
Right or wrong, there is a feeling that what used to count as high-finance fun at Camp Allen may be turning from horsey swagger into finger-wagging sanctimony. The last thing any of these guys (or gals, for that matter) wants is to be told what to do and whom to do it to. And if that change in tone weren't angst-provoking enough to the masters of moviemaking and TV, this year's retreat will feature presentations by more high-tech companies than traditional entertainment producers. Alongside Bob Wright from NBC and Michael Eisner from Disney, a new generation of infobarons will make the case for Comcast, Loral, Nokia, and America Online. (Coca-Cola and Microsoft round out the list of featured firms.) This insidious trend began last year, when the conference all but ignored entertainment and media in favor of Fortune 500 stalwarts like Gillette and Heinz.
Even that benchmark of boys'-night-out bawdiness -- the annual Friday-night highlight-of-the-conference poolside dinner emceed by Allen & Co. managing director Jack Schneider -- will be considerably toned down ("If I said half the things Jack says, I'd be lynched," Allen says. "But people know there's no animus in what he does"). Gone are the whips, chains, and dildos, as well as the really mean pranks, of yore. (At Camp Allen two years ago, for example, ICM chairman Jeff Berg inherited Mike Ovitz's "biggest prick in Hollywood" award, while recently fired entertainment executives were given WILL WORK FOR FOOD sandwich boards.)
Enter a new spirit of niceness, where dressed-up G.I. Joes and G-rated remarks from the speakers are meant to amuse rather than sting. It's as if all those Wasps partying in Bohemian Grove were suddenly told to put their clothes on.
Needless to say, the nattering from Hollywood has already begun: Bring back the good old days when the ability to green-light pictures, sleep with starlets, and fly around in your own Gulfstream III was the only price of admission to preen in Sun Valley, and those computer and telecommunications geeks with their pocket protectors were still working out of garages. "It's just not as intimate as it used to be," whines one entertainment executive, adding, "All right, I'll be honest. It's also not as exclusive."
The Allen & Co. invitation used to be what separated the adolescents from the boys in Hollywood, a stamp of approval from Wall Street, confirmation that making feature films and sitcoms was an enviable enterprise. And the perks! How many makers of dishwashers or diapers attending their respective industry retreats received such celebrity treatment back in 1994 as a full-page spread complete with pedigree-enhancing headline (THE NEW ESTABLISHMENT) in Vanity Fair? Could Joe Roth on People's "Sexiest Man Alive" cover be far behind?
Indeed, where Vanity Fair trod, the rest of the press quickly followed, to the point now where USA Today annually sends one of its business reporters to spy on Sun Valley, and last year Entertainment Weekly put two reporters on the story (their scoop? Oh, wow, Barry Diller on a bicycle!). There's something sad about a no-longer-secret conference that's been turned into a weeklong photo op where the media barons look like Marlboro Men in Bermuda shorts (nowhere else are so many knobby knees exposed in one place at the same time). Gone, too, is the tradition of participants' not divulging details to the press for fear of banishment by Herb.
"In terms of whether guests speak or don't speak, I don't think we should impose our standards on them either way," Allen maintains. "That's their business." The press isn't invited, he punts, not because reporters and camera crews might badger the 140 or so corporate chiefs and their families and 40 institutional investors representing $1 trillion, but because "we just don't have room . . . we're bursting at the seams." In Allen's mind, apparently, Brokaw and Sawyer can be trusted not to do what their respective employers pay them millions to do: "Tom is a close personal friend, and Diane is not invited as a member of the media. They won't report. He's not there in a professional capacity. Neither is she."
In light of all this newfound conscience and awareness, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Camp Allen is, in the end, about making money. This is, after all, where Warren Buffett suggested that Disney's Michael Eisner and Capital Cities/ABC's Tom Murphy might get together; where Rupert Murdoch began chatting with Ron Perelman and ended up with New World; where a tennis game between Turner Broadcasting's Scott Sassa and Castle Rock's Alan Horn put them in business together. It's also where fiery feuds are put to rest, at least for a week; where else would Levin and Murdoch break bread together, or Sumner Redstone make small talk with Barry Diller? And it's where a newly minted Hollywood mogul like Edgar Bronfman Jr. can confront his critics and show he's "no third-generation bimbo," as Diller once put it.
"I just think that part of it is being able to deal with these guys in a completely different environment, where some of the character armor goes away," one Camp Allen regular says. "You get a better understanding of not only how they drive their businesses but who they are. I think that part of the conference is invaluable." Spoken like a true member of the New Establishment -- making way for the Newer Establishment.
Because they're no longer the focus of the retreat, L.A.'s in crowd is coming on Friday and leaving Saturday -- once a breach of etiquette. Herb Allen, looking forward, doesn't mind.
"I'm sure that the guys who come out from Hollywood think the most important day is whenever they get there," Allen says. "But overall, there's no difference."