Bowie native and SU grad Barry Ziehl sees his name in lights as a Hollywood studio exec
When Barry Ziehl was growing up in Bowie, Md., he looked forward to one day having a great wife, wonderful kids and nice middle-class life in mid-Atlantic America. He got the wife and the kids, but his vocational calling was to the opposite of side the country, to the bright lights of LA and the glitter of Tinseltown, where he currently resides as the senior vice president, Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives, for Warner Bros. Entertainment. CSM caught up with Ziehl recently, following a speech he gave to the students and selected guests at SU’s Perdue School of Business, to congratulate him on his high-profile job and find out just what makes this local boy from Bowie tick.
Coastal Style Magazine: You went to college at Salisbury University, correct?
Barry Ziehl: That’s correct. I got a BA in communications. When I addressed the students at the Perdue School of Business in March, I’d joked that the business school wouldn’t let me in, and I didn’t really know what else I wanted to do, so I did what any clever young student does who doesn’t know what he wants to do: I majored in communications.
CSM: What year did you graduate?
BZ: 1991… it feels so long ago.
CSM: Do you ever get back home for visits?
BZ: I get home at least once a year. It starts with a drive from the DC area, through Bowie and ending up in the Outer Banks, in North Carolina. It’s a family tradition that we’ve kept for 17 of the last 18 years. It was a promise I’d made to my mother after she’d learned that I’d be whisking her young grandchildren off to Los Angeles. Until recently, I hadn’t a chance to get back to Salisbury. One of my passions was, and is, surfing, so I’d always go through Salisbury and wind up in Ocean City, though I haven’t been back to Ocean City since ’99, when we moved
CSM: Do you still surf?
BZ: I do.
CSM: When was the last time you surfed?
BZ: Yesterday. I surf regularly. It’s much cheaper than therapy.
CSM: When you do swing through the area, is there anybody you see or rituals you have?
BZ: Well, when I was back recently, I drove down Route 50, where I’d gotten so many speeding tickets in years past, on the way to go surfing, took the 90 bridge and met one of my dearest friends, Danny Windon, who owns a bunch of Fractured Prunes. Then I went to one of my favorite places, on 48th Street, and walked up the little access road, over what’s not really much of a dune anymore, to look at the Atlantic. It brought back all those fond memories of surfing 48th Street and Eighth Street, Indian River Inlet and Assateague. We also stopped by K-Coast and had lunch on the bay at Fager’s, overlooking Assawoman Bay, which was amazing.
CSM: Do you feel your upbringing in this part of the country has instilled traits or characteristics in you that influence the way you live your life and do your job in California?
BZ: Absolutely, but not just for the movie industry. It served me well when I worked in DC, for the U.S. Postal Service. I had a wonderful middle-class upbringing – appreciating hard work and everyone, whether they were blue-collar or white-collar. My dad was more of a blue-collar guy, whereas my mom was more white-collar, and that taught me to not make distinctions among people. It taught me to be appreciative and to not take anything for granted. I learned that even if you’re maybe not the smartest person in the room, you could be the hardest-working person in the room. My upbringing also taught me to never get too big for my britches and never to look down on anybody.
CSM: What position had you held when you left?
BZ: I was a manager of marketing communications for the stamp program. Among other things, I launched portions of the U.S. Stamp Program — the legendary coaches, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Alfred Hitchcock, the Bugs Bunny stamp, which ultimately created my connection with Warner Bros. I realize the U.S. Postal Service is much maligned, but the truth is, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my entire career. I use skills I acquired at the U.S. Postal Service every single day.
CSM: How did you make the leap to Hollywood?
BZ: It was literally being in the right place at the right time doing the right job in front of an executive at the studio who needed someone to do that job for them on their team. She was working with me on the Bugs Bunny stamp on the Warner Bros.’ side, and I was on the Postal Service side. She saw the work and invited me to entertain an opportunity as director of International Public Relations for Warner Bros. Consumer Products.
CSM: Was the transition difficult?
BZ: Well, it’s not the cheapest place in the world to live. But we made a decision to get a place in the suburbs of Los Angeles, in Simi Valley, because it was the suburbs that had formed us as kids, so we wanted to have that kind of life again while we were raising our kids.
CSM: Sounds like it worked out well for everyone.
BZ: Oh, you just can’t beat this place – I don’t care where in the world you are. Sure, there is a price to pay: It’s expensive, and the traffic is crazy, but it’s really worth it.
CSM: Other than Finnegan’s Wake, your job description may just be the most difficult thing I’ve ever read. Would you like to try to take a stab at explaining it to us Earthlings?
BZ: [Laughs] The current job is definitely multifaceted. On the public-affairs side, it’s government relations; it’s philanthropy — how we as a company contribute to causes and support social issues and nonprofits; it’s sustainability — how we as a company are impacting the environment, whether it’s how our productions are produced, how our lot is run, how our employees recycle. It’s community relations — how we as a company treat your community when we are filming in your community. My team makes sure that when we are in your community that we are contributing in a meaningful way.
On the strategic initiatives side, it’s a number of things, including corporate marketing and cross-divisional activities. It’s a bit of a utility position.
CSM: Where do you see the American movie industry in five or ten years, and do you think technology is going to be driving that evolution?
BZ: Oh, without question. Direct-to-consumer distribution of content is huge; the way consumers are consuming content these days is changing faster than ever. You have to be on all platforms all the time. At the end of the day, though, content is the root of entertainment; that has not changed. It’s just a matter of figuring out the distribution models and how they’re changing based on consumers. All of the entertainment companies are focused on delivering the entertainment that people want, when they want it and where they want it.
CSM: Your boss is very famous [Dee Dee Myers was the press secretary during the first two years of Clinton administration and was first female and second-youngest person to hold that position. She was also the inspiration of The West Wing character C.J. Cregg, played by Allison Janney].
BZ: She is just an amazing executive. It’s a privilege to work alongside Dee Dee. You don’t get a chance in your career very often to work for someone who is aspirational, and she certainly is that.
CSM: What’s coming down the pike for Warner Bros. that you’re excited about?
BZ: All of the TV shows based on the DC characters are amazing — Arrow, The Flash among them — and Wonder Woman is coming out in June, which we’re all excited about, and Justice League later in the year. So it’s gonna be a big year!
CSM: Is there a crowning achievement of your career?
BZ: Over 26 years, it’s hard to pick one thing. But something recent that stands out is that I had the opportunity to be part of launching a brand-new franchise for the company called DC Superhero Girls, and it’s the first property or franchise of its kind created specifically for girls. As a father to a daughter, it’s wonderful to create something specifically for girls, especially in this age of female empowerment.
CSM: What’s your favorite thing about your job?
BZ: It’s the diversity of the things I work on. I do a little bit of everything. I feel very lucky to be in a job like this for a company like this. I pinch myself every day. I bleed Warner Bros. blue, and I’ll stay as long as they’ll have me.
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