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The Unbearable Lightness of Warren

3 Jan, 2003 By: Thomas K. Arnold

I think we're all still reeling a bit over Warren Lieberfarb's abrupt dismissal from his longtime post as president of Warner Home Video. I know I am. Of all the executives in home video, he always seemed to be Warren the Invincible, Warren the Indispensable, Warren the Untouchable. In his long tenure at the helm, he certainly angered many people. He could be gruff, he could be obstinate, he could be condescending. It was his way or the highway and, were it not for the fact that Warren was almost always right, he likely would have been shown the door a long time ago.

But that's just it — Warren was right, about so many things, in so many ways, on so many occasions. And because of his inherent rightness, Warren's peccadilloes would be overlooked, as they were for so long. He ruled Warner with the might of a Middle East dictator. He had a lot of clout, and he made sure everyone knew it. I still remember when the forces behind Divx, the failed pay-per-play DVD variant, confronted the Japanese consumer electronics companies about their initial failure to support their technology. Their hesitation, they stated, owed to a dire warning from “the most powerful man in Hollywood” that the studios would never back Divx. And who, pray tell, was this “most powerful man in Hollywood?” “Warren Lieberfarb,” came the response. When asked who had branded him so, the response was the same: “Warren Lieberfarb.”

This story is bound to elicit a chuckle from those who know him. It's so Warren. We're talking about a man who, when he went to Las Vegas for the annual Video Software Dealers Association convention, would not only stay at the ritziest hotel in town (the Bellagio), but also bring his own limousine — and driver — from Los Angeles because he didn't care for the Vegas cars and drivers.

Now the unthinkable, the inconceivable, has happened. Warren has been toppled, apparently done in by the Hollywood politics he so detested — and so frequently railed against. I have no doubt that Warner Home Video will continue to perform ably and adeptly under Lieberfarb's second-in-command, Jim Cardwell, heir apparent to the top spot.

But the home entertainment industry has suffered a tremendous loss, because Lieberfarb is one of the few true visionaries our industry has known. In a world of packaged-goods salesmen and marketers, he was a leader, a dynamo, a seer. He was a master strategist, but he was a lot more than that — a whole lot more. I would go so far as to say that it was Lieberfarb's zeal and perseverance in pushing DVD that singledhandedly saved home video from certain death, because if all we had in this high-tech digital era was the blasted videocassette, we'd be in deep doo-doo. Video retailers would be hawking stereos or hardware; studio salesmen would be selling refrigerators or cars, and our marketing gurus would be concocting grand plans to build awareness for Chia Pets or Nestle's Quik.

As for me, I'd be writing about pay-per-view, because if it wasn't for DVD, that's what home entertainment would be.

I know this sounds like a eulogy, and Lieberfarb is certainly not dead. But our industry has just as certainly suffered a little death. The father of DVD has been deposed; the captain of our industry is gone. I can only pray that Warren will either surface somewhere else in a position where he may continue to guide us, or that some other leader with similar qualities and vision will arise to take his place.

I hold out little hope for the latter, so Warren, if you're reading this -- please come back!
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