She was repeatedly named the most powerful woman in entertainment, and industry observers believed she was within striking distance of the top job at the Walt Disney Co. So Anne Sweeney's decision to leave Disney early next year sent shock waves through Hollywood. But some important players in the industry understand.
Sweeney is leaving to direct television shows — saying a "nagging voice" in her head has been calling her out of her executive comfort zone toward more direct contact with the creative arena.
"She specifically said, 'Well it's either now or never.' And it's true," said Jenny Daly, the owner of T Group Productions, a creator of reality-TV shows.
Before starting her company in 2008, Daly worked as vice president of development at E! Entertainment Television. Like Sweeney, Daly turned down a contract extension. Daly speaks from experience when she said Sweeney is making a daring move.
"Clearly her passion to be that creative force behind constructing the show from literally nuts to bolts to watching it air is a driving passion for her that she took a huge step [into] the unknown and said, 'I'm gonna bank on me,'" Daly told KPCC.
Sweeney's decision came out of nowhere for Cathy Schulman, president of Mandalay Pictures. Schulman is also president of Women in Film, a nonprofit that helps women in entertainment and media careers. She's surprised Sweeney's aiming to become a director rather than an executive producer.
"There are so many out-of-work female directors in television, it's actually appalling," Schulman said, adding that getting steady work is tough for many directors, not just women. "We're still battling such a gender-impaired situation, and I think she'll be entering into the same."
Schulman said the idea of stepping off the executive path in search of more creative nourishment appeals to her, but it's still tough to lose one of the top female executives in an industry with so few.
"She had an opportunity like no one else, and she deserved and earned that opportunity," Schulman said. "Were we all rooting for her to do it forever and to do it the best? Of course. But I think she also earned the opportunity to make a personal choice."
Jenny Daly of T Group Productions knows that choice will involve some uncomfortable moments and gives Sweeney a lot of credit.
"It's not the safest road," said Daly. "Whenever I drive myself in a direction that just feels scary, or where my footing feels very unsure, it's always been the best choice for me as far as the growth of my career and my own personal progression."