An ever-changing U in ’96

HIGH POINTS: Grosses from Imagine Entertainment’s $128.8 million box office hit “The Nutty Professor” and from the $492 million worldwide hit “Twister” (which was a 50-50 split with Warner Bros.) propelled Universal forward in an otherwise dismal year at the box office.

The year also saw former Viacom honcho Frank Biondi arrive at MCA as chairman, a move embraced by employees on the Universal lot as well as by Wall Street analysts. The Seagram-owned company seemed to find its footing by solidifying its management team. The leadership of Biondi, the orchestration of executive hirings by president and chief operating officer Ron Meyer and the restructuring of the feature film arm with motion picture chairman Casey Silver all came together last year. The hiring of former Disney exec Chris McGurk as chief operating officer by Silver was seen as a major coup for the studio as he is one of the most well-regarded and competent executives in Hollywood.

And the studio’s revamping continued in 1996. Silver elevated exec Nikki Rocco to distribution president, the first woman distribution prexy in Hollywood’s history. The feature film arm continued a restructuring as well, starting the year by selling back its 50% stake in Gramercy to Polygram, and subsequently bringing in a number of new deals with producers to the point where the studio is now bursting at the seams. In the process, it released filmmaker Martin Scorsese to Disney.

The company also replaced president of production Hal Lieberman with Marc Platt in August; the old guard of TriStar Pictures was effectively relocated to Universal City with the inking of a plethora of producers to deals – many of which had been on the Sony lot – and the hiring of former TriStar prexy Stacey Snider.

The year ended with U inking a deal with Platt’s friend Jonathan Demme, who was also based at TriStar.

The studio greenlit the “Jurassic Park” sequel “The Lost World” and is happy as a pig in mud to start rolling on “Babe 2,” which George Miller will direct. “Babe” chased in $140 million overseas for the studio in ’96. In fact, the studio raked in about 150% more money overseas than it did on the domestic front and ranks second in market share abroad. Noted Silver: “We’ve been very profitable this year.”

LOW POINTS: The studio has (almost) nowhere to go but up. Universal’s market share in 1996 was its worst in five years. From a year earlier, U dropped out of its third-place slot to sixth among the majors with a mere 8.8% share. The studio suffered through such disappointments as “Daylight,” “The Chamber,” “Flipper” and “The Frighteners.”

There was nothing in U’s lineup even remotely close to “The Nutty Professor’s” box office gross. “12 Monkeys,” which was released on Dec. 27, 1995, was its second-highest grosser; however, it made less than half of “Nutty,” with a $56.9 million domestic take. The studio released 14 films in 1996 (which includes the re-release of “Vertigo”), down from 18 in 1995.

“Too many overall deals” is still the biggest criticism from employees on the lot. The studio has shouldered several first-look deals and has increased its overhead substantially in the process. As contracts expire, however, producers are expected to leave the U lot.

The studio’s 1996 slate as well as its personnel were still smarting from the turmoil caused by the changeover in management. More changes in the production ranks at U are expected, and rumors continue about what will happen with Silver. The coming year will be the first of the Meyer-Silver slate, which includes the $100 million disaster pic “Dante’s Peak.” After two years of constant movement, all employees want for the new year is a calm and stable management.

Inside the Black Tower, there is still some executive two-stepping taking place, and sources note that the results are that mixed messages sometimes filter down to division heads. In the upper offices at MCA, exec VP (and Meyer friend) Howard Weitzman has emerged with increasing influence over all divisions. MCA ousted its theme park head Ron Bension at a time when the company has geared up for a major expansion. The early retirement of 58-year-old MCA veteran Dan Slusser, who for 23 years was the exec with oversight and knowledge of the intricate working of all studio operations, was seen as a loss for the studio.

THINGS TO WATCH:

* More deals to bring in outside financing to the company for its feature film arm and what the effect is on United Intl. Pictures, the international distribution venture of Paramount, Universal and MGM. The company has already held talks with South Korean conglomerate Daewoo.

* How productive overall deals will be and how quickly talent will get going on projects for the studio that has opened its doors and its pocketbook.

* The future projects from Sylvester Stallone’s deal for three pics with paydays of $20 million apiece. After the underachieving performance of “Daylight” domestically, nothing solid has been set for the star, but several projects are in development.

* Corporate marketing efforts under a newly established strategic marketing group, which has bowed under the eye of former advertising executive Dick Costello, who has worked on part of Seagram’s liquor account.

* The revitalization of the studio’s consumer products division which has the potential of providing a solid stream of revenue through its merchandising and licensing efforts. To put things in perspective, Disney’s consumer products division pulls in $2 billion in revenue a year.

* Universal’s major risk is the $116 million “Dante’s Peak,” the volcano disaster project set for Feb. 7. That figure doesn’t even include p&a. It won the race against Fox 2000 to be the first volcano pic out of the block (Fox has “Volcano”), but time will tell if U’s strategy is a winner.

OUTLOOK FOR ’97: Universal is kicking the dust of 1996 off its feet and parading into the new year with a fresh corporate name – Universal Studios Inc. – and a first half feature film slate that looks fairly strong. “It’s been a transitional year for us,” Silver said of 1996. “We’re looking forward to 1997. We have great pictures scheduled for the year.”

The year’s heavyweight is the highly anticipated Steven Spielberg directed special-effects thriller “The Lost World,” the sequel to “Jurassic Park,” which bows Memorial Day weekend.

U also has some big-budget, big-name comedies and dramas. Following a troubled history, “Fierce Creatures,” which reunites the “Fish Called Wanda” crew, opens the year for U. “Dante’s Peak” follows and then the Jim Carrey starrer “Liar Liar,” from Imagine Entertainment, rolls out. Bette Midler, who is riding high with a new tour and the box office hit “First Wives Club,” will star in the Bubble Factory’s romantic comedy “That Old Feeling.”

Looking ahead, U has the “Day of the Jackal” remake, for which there is no title set, starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, ready for 1997. It also recently put together deals with Robin Williams and Tom Shadyac for the comedy “Patch Adams”; with Brad Pitt on Martin Brest’s drama “Meet Joe Black”; with the “In the Name of the Father” team of Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis on the drama “The Boxer”; with the Coen brothers on “To the White Sea”; and, in the future, with Kevin Costner on “For the Love of the Game.” Robert Zemeckis is expected to next direct “Bad Trout” while David and Jerry Zucker are lining up their next project.

Still tentative is Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors.” The studio is in the process of nailing down its holiday 1997 schedule.

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