It would seem a fitting cinematic ploy to color Dana Walden’s rise to chairman/CEO of 20th Century Fox Television as a rags-to-riches story. While “middle-class to riches” is more accurate, Walden’s ascendancy to one of Hollywood’s most powerful players in the entertainment industry is nonetheless compelling.
With longtime business partner Gary Newman, the duo was responsible for 43 original series on 16 different networks during the 2013-14 season. She oversees a handful of television studios under the umbrella of 20th Century Fox Television and dozens of executives, many of whom have President or Executive VP in their titles. Under her leadership, 20th Century Fox Television has more than 50 current and library series licensed to Netflix and Amazon.
Walden’s “Valley girl” roots have an idiomatic pedigree worth mentioning. The Studio City native and her sister palled around with Frank Zappa’s daughter, Moon, who popularized in song the geographically specific phenomenon that crept into youth culture (including Dana’s) in the late ’70s.
Examining her dynamic background, Walden’s journey resembles a contemporary Horatio Alger tale. A prolific author of more than 100 novels in the late 19th century, Alger incorporated three essential ingredients into his stories: luck, pluck, and a daring, honest deed. In Dana’s story, she pulled herself up by her own bootstraps – though today those straps might be attached to Jimmy Choo footwear.
Walden spent her formative years alongside the entertainment giants of a different era: Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, and so many others. Her father was a member of the legendary Friars Club of Beverly Hills, and young Dana logged many hours absorbing the environment. Sometimes she even assisted the receptionist working the PBX switchboard operations and recalls paging Club Founder and President Milton Berle to receive a call on more than one occasion.
A Hop, Skip, Jump – and a Leap
Electing to stay put in Los Angeles for her college years, Walden attended USC, graduating with a degree in communications. Then it simply became a hop, skip, jump – and a leap – to where she is today.
The “hop” was her first gig – an assistant at the PR firm of Bender, Goldman & Helper. It was quickly clear she was not assistant material. “I was just terrible,” she confesses. “When my poor boss would ask me to [call to schedule] a reservation for him, I’d ask him if there wasn’t something wrong with his fingers.”
Despite her penchant for challenging established hierarchy, Walden stayed on a few years because the firm recognized her strong knack for public relations and her charm, which made her popular with clients.
The “skip” was a stint with Arsenio Hall’s company at Paramount Studios. While there, Walden met Paramount exec Lucie Salhany, the woman she calls her role model and mentor. Salhany would soon leave Paramount for the Fox Broadcasting Company, where she rose to chairman of the fledgling network. “I talked to her before she came over to Fox about whether there would be a place for me here and ultimately about wanting to move into programming,” recalls Walden. “She was very thoughtful. She said, ‘[You’re] a great publicist and the way to get into the door is through publicity.’”
So when Salhany called asking her to come to Fox, Walden made her “jump.”
Toiling patiently, Walden waited for her moment. It wasn’t a long wait. At a Fox retreat, she, like all the other studio execs, would be giving a “state of the studio” address – filling in everyone on how each division was doing. Just before going onstage, Dana ran into the head of the company, Fox Television’s honcho, Peter Chernin.
Chernin, despite having met Walden more than half a dozen times, cordially put out his hand and introduced himself to her as if it was their first meeting. The writing was on the wall. Dana had yet to make any lasting impression on her higher-ups. This, in her mind, required proactivity, or she’d be lost for eternity in the sea of ever-changing executives.
Now for the “leap.” Presented with an opportunity, she took a bold, do-or-die course of action. It’s what Horatio Alger stories call a heroic deed. Others might say it’s her carpe diem. She calls it her “Jerry Maguire moment.”
Walden, as the head of television corporate communications and publicity, stepped up to make her presentation. She cast off her cloak of invisibility and unleashed a torrent of hard truths. She told the assembled that the state of their beloved company was not in great shape. They claimed to be bold about deal-making, yet they merely dipped a toe in the water when meaningful talent and creators became available. Instead of diving in headfirst and closing the important deals, this company, despite being run by such aggressive and formidable leaders, had failed to lock them in.
Walden surely thought her passionate honesty, no matter how accurate, had sealed her fate and her exodus was imminent. The blonde, opinionated exec was inconspicuous no longer. Tongues wagged. The name Dana Walden was no longer met with “Who?” but rather with “You mean the woman who . . . ?” It was the last time Peter Chernin introduced himself to Walden. From then on, he knew her very well.
A Tale of Two Partnerships
Chernin, perhaps surprisingly, was struck in a positive sense by Walden’s candor. Not too many other people would have had the guts to put it all out there at such a crucial time. She damned the torpedoes and went full speed ahead and so did Chernin.
He moved Walden into the area she really wanted more than any other – programming. She was relocated into the development world that she coveted. Around this time, Matt Walden asked Dana to marry him. A record executive and the love of her life, she accepted his offer and the betrothed couple became one. Or at least Matt became partner number one. In the entertainment industry, fierce dedication to one’s work often takes on the complexion of a marriage. Fortunately for Dana, her work partnership, soon to be revealed, would be equally fruitful.
However, there would be a few slings and arrows to dodge on the way to prosperity. What should have been the happiest time of Walden’s career turned out to be among the darkest. While adjusting to married life, she soon realized that when she shook things up at the Fox retreat, she went from invisible to notorious. Skipped over was the “up-and-coming new development executive” stage. While she had no dearth of supporters, her move into programming wasn’t uniformly met with great fervor by her new co-workers. There were smatterings of jealousy and retribution, even by those to whom she herself reported.
Fortunately there was a friendly voice close by. It belonged to Ken Horton, who headed up 20th Century Fox Television’s development. Assuming the mantle of Walden’s mentor, Horton took her under his wing, teaching her about scripts, writers, development, analysis, and most of all, reiterating that she should trust her instincts.
This chance-taking by Chernin, the trust and faith by Horton, and some of Walden’s very fine development deals led to successful hits such as Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Practice.
When former studio President Sandy Grushow was promoted, there were two viable choices to replace him. First was Gary Newman, who worked his way up as a lawyer through business affairs to become the studio’s head dealmaker. Dealmaking isn’t easy, and Gary became known for being able to wrestle with difficult egos, clients, agents, managers, fitness trainers, you name it. The result of his skills was mutually beneficial deals for both the studio and the creative people. Important talents were being locked in and Fox was reaping the benefits.
Also going for Newman was his shoulder-to-shoulder experience as second in command to Peter Roth, who was in charge of the company’s strategic agenda.
So, guru of getting the deal done and experience knowing how to set the company’s hook to land the next catch-of-the-day resulted in Newman being an extremely capable candidate.
Then there was Walden, whose instantaneous ability to know every writer and producer in town, what they had done, what they were currently working on, and her enviable discovery and launch of numerous hits, made her undeniably qualified. No talent or project flew under her radar.
The company’s wisdom was, as she recalls, “They felt that the company would benefit from both sides of this equation. Since there wasn’t one executive who had done both things, they thought, you know, an idea that would be interesting and potentially successful was to partner us.”
To this point, no studio had presidents. It was a “one leader, one voice” business until tradition was broken in 1999 with an arranged marriage. Dana Walden and Gary Newman were now partners. In this industry, when you’re partners, you’re as good as married.
1 + 1 = . . . 4?
It didn’t take long before Chernin realized sometimes two halves don’t make a whole nor does the sum total become greater than its individual parts. As Walden describes it, “One plus one equaled one and a half.”
During a sit-down with Chernin, both Walden and Newman realized they each could do all of the tasks required of the CEO position. But doing them at the same time was counterproductive.
Born out of this meeting was a management style in which trust supplanted overlap—constant and complete communication, nothing held back, and total trust in one another. That rather simple recipe meant they no longer needed to sit in on every meeting nor make every decision together. They could be two places at once. Now 1+1 equaled 4.
“It’s trust that’s the key,” Walden assesses. She and Newman discuss everything they do individually so neither is unaware of what each other is doing. Occasionally, there are differences of opinion. So how do those get resolved?
Walden explains that the ultimate decisions become passion. “Who believes more strongly in their position is whose choice or decision we ultimately go with.” The results? Like Sinatra sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.”
That’s good because today these two execs, since promoted to Chairmen and CEOs, oversee a number of units for 20th Century Fox Television. A partial list includes: Fox 21 and Fox Television Studios, for cable productions; 20th Century Fox TV Studios, for network television productions; Fox Consumer Products, for merchandising; and 20th TV Syndication, for off-network and cable runs. This doesn’t even touch upon the Internet/digital footprints that each of their shows generates.
Walden points out the importance of strong relationships with new media including DVD and streaming companies such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. So much dramatic programming now has a serialized element or theme to it. If viewers miss an episode or learn late about a show that everyone else is talking about, they are no longer left out. They can catch up on what they’ve missed through these outlets. That leads to increased ratings, which allow for creative ideas with continuing themes to flourish.
In the specific case of Netflix, it’s even extended the life of a few series, namely, Arrested Development and The Killing. Both series, though cancelled, are continuing production of new episodes for Netflix to distribute, prolonging their lifespans beyond traditional broadcast runs. Taking it a step farther, these increased orders mean a larger syndication package with more revenue, and that doesn’t even address the added merchandising sales that will follow.
Believing in Zeitgeist
When Gary Newman was asked about his partner’s style he offered, “People want to work with her, they want to hang out with her, and they want to have her in their corner.” Smiling in acknowledgment, Walden reflects on Newman’s words for a moment. “When I get behind a project or a creator or an actor, I think I’m a powerful advocate,” she says. “I believe deeply in the work of the people we’re in business with.” It’s evident from her success ratio that if she’s got your “six,” you’re in great hands.
Today Dana and Gary are responsible for one of the most creative and diverse programming slates on television and cable. Their current bevy of shows includes Glee, Modern Family, Homeland, American Horror Story, The Simpsons, 24: Live Another Day, Burn Notice, New Girl, Sons of Anarchy, and Family Guy.
With their huge successes, the partners face the need to keep ahead of the curve. Trends, cultural change, ever-evolving audiences, and increasing competition from other sources could keep them up nights trying to find their next hit.
Asked if she spots future successes through a crystal ball, Walden muses, “If it was from a crystal ball, I’d have one and I’d have less acid reflux.” She then adds, “Less than believing in trends, I believe in people and I bet on people I feel are connected to zeitgeist. They’re connected to what’s in the culture, what’s in the air, what resonates . . . there is a pulse of the viewing public and these people [David E. Kelley, Chris Carter, Seth MacFarlane, Steve Levitan, Howard Gordon, Ryan Murphy] are tapping into it.”
High on Walden’s list of important traits, along with honesty and trust, is faith in her coterie of creative talents. When asked why she grants so much trust in her contract players she confides they bring her new visions and innovative ideas. “I embrace the stories that scare me the greatest.”
Walden’s close relationships within the creative world can be a double-edged sword. She has to do her best to exercise authority while still encouraging creativity. She takes in stride her tough position balancing business responsibilities and dealing with the hugely creative crowd and their accompanying egos.
“I’m dealing with adults. They’re all hugely successful. And they can deal with my honesty. It’s hard. It’s one of the most challenging parts of my job. My fundamental job is to support them. But they all know that I am balancing that passion and commitment to run this company in a successful way.”
Showrunner Howard Gordon has said Walden was “always the person who both held my hand the tightest and slapped me on the back of the head the hardest.” Dana nods and confides, “When he says that I consider it a great compliment because there have been times when I felt he was just making a bad call and we’d fight about it and come to the right answer. Sometimes conflict is necessary. It is an expression of passion and we’re not in the widget business, we’re making stories that impact people around the world. There should be a level of passion about it.”
In May at the network upfronts, during which shows for the new season are announced, she was pleased with the results. There will be eight new series from Fox Television next season along with 11 returning series that Walden and Newman will be overseeing. She’s had another strong season. She’s well-liked. Both of her “marriages” are working. Her two daughters, Aliza and Casey, are doing quite well. So maybe all that’s left to say in the Dana Walden saga is good night and drive home safely.
But in a Hollywood blockbuster, there’s always just a little more. That memorable final moment. That part where the hero realizes her responsibility to the greater cause.
If she were to send one message out today to minorities of all types – African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and those with disabilities – what would she tell them?
Without pause or hesitation, Walden answers from her heart. “I would apologize first for being part of an industry that I don’t think has been inclusive enough. And I would say, ‘Look at Glee, look at Modern Family, look at our new slate of shows.’ While I do feel apologetic for not being as inclusive in the past, that’s all changing now. I would say, ‘Come see our shows.’ I think that any group will be thrilled at the representation in our series, and that’s what we’re striving for.”
She talks the talk. She walks the walk. Horatio Alger would be proud. And anyone connected with Dana Walden should be, as well. She’s increasing awareness and inclusion by moving with Gary Newman into repressed areas and focusing on people who had little or no voice, but deserved one. Her goal is to bring them into the mainstream.
“If I have a ‘super skill,’ it’s a rare amount of focus on an individual and how to help an individual get from one point to another,” offers Walden. “That’s what I try to do with our creative partners and the people we’re in business with.” Whether internally through the channels of influence in the entertainment industry or externally through channels from which her myriad projects are broadcast, Walden’s precise focus casts a wide sphere of influence.
By any measure, that’s true star power.