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Not only was it a PR crisis, but it destroyed studio marketing plans. Through a series of appearances after opening weekend, when many campaigns are usually over, Crowe was to have helped build an audience for the picture. Instead, the actor spent most of his time on “Late Show With David Letterman” offering an explanation and apology.

An emergency meeting was called to see how “Cinderella Man” could be saved. Options included re-releasing the movie in October to at least get it into the Oscar derby. AMC Theaters even offered a money-back guarantee to audience members who didn’t like the movie, but it didn’t work. The domestic box office topped at $61 million. The film cost $88 million.

Months later, U execs are still puzzled, although in hindsight the release date looks like a misfire. “We definitely feel that we might have released it too early,” Snider says.

But no one person will take the blame. “It was certainly disappointing, but it is something that we’re all in together,” Parent notes.

Snider and her team

In contrast to the days when decisions came down from Lew Wasserman and Sidney Sheinberg in the Black Tower, Universal’s opaque office building, responsibility is now diffused among a so-called “greenlight committee” that includes Snider; Snider’s boss, Universal Studios president and chief operating officer Ron Meyer; and the heads of production, marketing, finance, distribution, homevideo and international.

“Stacey or I could certainly dictate a go on a movie, but neither of us would ever do that,” Meyer says. “The majority really rules. Otherwise, what’s the purpose of having a committee?”

While Meyer and Snider go to great lengths to point out how informal their workplace is — Meyer shows up to work sans tie, quite a contrast to his Armani-clad days at CAA — it is clear that he has invested a great deal of autonomy in her.

But even as Snider frets about the transition from Stuber and Parent to Donna Langley and Jon Gordon, her future at U is uncertain. While Meyer recently signed a contract to remain in his job until 2010, GE has struck no such deal with Snider. Asked about her contract, which expires in less than 18 months, Snider would only say, “There’s been no change since GE came in.”

Since word of Stuber’s and Parent’s departures leaked, talks have been stepped up between Snider’s reps and the GE-NBC Universal brass. “The red flag would be if we heard they weren’t talking,” one Universal producer says.

Noting the changes at the studio, an informed source says, “GE is in a position where they really can’t afford to lose her.”

There’s no disputing that the studio’s fortunes improved dramatically when Snider assumed her post in 1999. With the surprise success of “The Mummy,” which grossed $155 million at the domestic box office, and then “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which grossed $260 million, the studio’s fortunes turned around. In 2000, it not only reached No. 2 at the box office among all the majors, it crossed the billion-dollar box office mark for the first time.

But with misfires in “The Chronicles of Riddick,” “Thunderbirds” and even the “Bridget Jones” sequel, U’s box office returns slowed last year to about $893 million — and it slipped to No. 6 in the studio rankings.

Working from Building 2160, a square, cement edifice with winding corridors and sweeping views of Universal City’s undeveloped real estate, the 44-year-old Snider is, more than anyone else, the face of the movie studio. Petite with timid eyes, Snider speaks with the savvy of a politician; she is by turns articulate, even eloquent, but simultaneously remains elusive. (On rumors that Imagine will move to Paramount, she says, “Brian (Grazer) just went on the record to the New York Times saying that he is committed to Universal and has a contract through 2008. Draw your own conclusions.”)

Nevertheless, filmmakers who’ve worked with her appreciate her bluntness. Mendes says that in offering criticism while he helmed “Jarhead,” Snider was “very specific, very unemotive and straightforward.”

Her refrain during filming was a constant, “Who’s our central character and can we please always remain in touch with him?”

“For a skilled corporate executive,” says “Jarhead” producer Douglas Wick, “she still works from her gut.”

While the greenlight committee approves films for production, Snider alone makes the decision to scuttle a project. And she has.

Like “Cinderella Man,” “American Gangster” was to have been a high-profile reunion, that of “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua and Oscar winner Denzel Washington. When the story of a reformed Harlem heroin kingpin in the 1970s went into pre-production, costs immediately escalated. Among other things, according to producer Nick Pileggi, the pic was to feature a battle scene in Thailand “with period helicopters flying around.”

So in October 2004, as the estimated budget passed $100 million, Snider pulled the plug. It was undoubtedly a headache for U execs. Without a single frame of film shot, it cost U some $30 million, much of it for Washington’s pay-or-play deal, and to pay off talent like the production designer and director of photography.

Snider is quick to defend the decision.

“We were going to have to answer for it in a much more significant way a year later,” Snider says. The project now is being reconfigured — at about half the cost — with “Hotel Rwanda” director Terry George reuniting with Don Cheadle.

“We have very clear business and financial parameters for each movie, but once those are satisfied, there is a genuine appreciation for filmmakers and a real creative approach,” Snider insists. “We don’t think that being overt about the financial parameters is in contradiction with a good creative relationship. In fact, it probably makes for a better relationship because people know what the rules are.” Washington has already undertaken another project for the studio.

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