Barry Meyer

The man who helped bring Harry Potter to the multiplex will offer insights about the drama that is life when Case Western Reserve University holds commencement exercises Sunday, May 17.

Retired Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Barry Meyer (LAW ’67) will share lessons learned over 42 years at the global entertainment conglomerate—a tenure in which he regularly applied skills acquired while earning his J.D. here, even though he never held the role of attorney.

Like the choice to forgo a traditional law firm career after graduating from Case Western Reserve, Meyer’s professional story includes a number of unconventional decisions and developments. His first job after law school was at ABC Television in his native New York City; in 1971, he moved across the country to take a business affairs position at Warner Bros. Television. On the surface, the assignment was iffy; when Meyer arrived, Warner Bros. claimed just one program airing on a national network, The FBI.

By 1989, Meyer had risen high enough in the television studio’s ranks to lead a $1.2 billion acquisition of Lorimar-Telepictures, the producers of programs like Dallas and Full House. Warner Bros. not only gained a wealth of content, but also an impressive number of accomplished TV executives.

In the 1990s, Meyer helped launched the studio’s own network, The WB. The home of teen favorites such as Dawson’s Creek and Smallville, the network also featured the debuts of The Wayans Bros. and The Parent ‘Hood. In 1998, meanwhile, Meyer secured the then-landmark price of $13 million per episode for the television program ER as part of a three-year deal totaling $858 million.

Despite such successes, Meyer continued to have a reputation in the industry for a low-key, collegial management style. In 1999, when the executives running Warner Bros. decided to step down, Meyer’s name was in the mix, but, because his expertise was in television, he wasn’t considered a certainty to run what many considered primarily a film studio.

It is ironic, then, that in Meyer’s 14 years leading Warner Bros., the studio enjoyed unprecedented success in its film operations, with blockbusters such as 300, The Dark Knight trilogy and The Hangover movies, along with critically acclaimed films such as The Blind Side and Argo. He also was at the helm during all of the Harry Potter films, which, together, achieved a box office gross of more than $7.7 billion.

After ascending to the CEO post in 1999, Meyer, aided by his deputies, made conscious moves to signal new expectations from senior management. Said Meyer at the time, “… we want executives not to think about what is best for themselves, but what is best for the company. That is a changed perspective.”

As Meyer prepared to step down in the waning months of 2013, media profiles included descriptions of him as “one of showbiz’s most respected CEOs and a much-admired figure,” “very smart and very decent,” and “a source of stability in a choppy sea.”

Meyer himself, meanwhile, offered his own definition of effective leadership in an interview with Variety: “To me, the mark of a great company is that in success you don’t gloat, and in failure you don’t panic.”

Meyer’s address will take place during the university’s convocation exercises at 9:30 a.m., Sunday, May 17 in the Veale Convocation, Athletic and Recreation Center.