Stuber and Parent
The two executives charged with enacting the rules were Stuber and Parent, and U’s production chiefs often found themselves putting out fires.
“Meet the Fockers,” placed on the 2004 schedule even before its script was finished, proved to be such a race to the finish that Parent stayed up around the clock, huddling in a trailer with the writers, to come up with a third act. The experience, Parent says, “just about killed me.” The film grossed $279 million at the domestic box office.
“The only way I sleep better at night is knowing that we are trying to anticipate and protect against problems,” she says.
So closely have Parent and Stuber worked together that, for a time, they lived together, even though their relationship is platonic. They are complementary in style: Stuber is calm, well-spoken and, according to producer Wick, “has the confidence of a really fine athlete.” Parent, with her constant companion, a 12-month Filofax grid of all studio releases for the coming years, is a bundle of energy who always seems like she’s thinking and responding two steps ahead, especially when dealing with egos.
“The talent needs to trust that you have their best interest in mind when you make decisions,” Parent says. “They don’t need to be your best friends, and they don’t mind being told the truth if it protects them.”
In making this fall’s sci-fi actioner “Serenity,” for example, director Joss Whedon says that dealing with Parent proved to be a little humbling. “I learned from her as I have from very few people in this business about things that I am supposed to be (the expert on), like narrative, pacing, music and reaching out to the audience.”
Many times, giving such advice is easier said than done. With so many filmmakers commanding final cut, there is presumably only so much input studio execs can offer before their hands are tied.
“A lot of times these struggles get into ego and people establishing territory,” Wick says. “Scott begins with enough sense of self that it becomes only about the work, which is relatively rare.”
But to their friends, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that they were anxious to hang a production shingle. Time and again, Parent and Stuber assigned movies to producers who enjoyed perks, overhead and gross-profit incentives. When “The Fast and the Furious” was in development, for example, they assigned it to producer Neil Moritz, who went on to make millions in gross profits. That’s a tough thing to sit by and watch.
Producers express some confusion of who to go to as Langley and Gordon assume their jobs, and the question is whether the new duo will develop the tight bond Stuber and Parent had. Langley comes from the U ranks; Gordon was most recently a Miramax executive.
Although it’s an arranged marriage of sorts, Snider tries to be philosophical about it. “People need to grow and they need to evolve, and the company needs to move forward,” she says, “or you see what you see at other studios, which is calcification.”
“Welcome to our world,” sighs Adam Fogelson, who along with Eddie Egan is co-president of marketing under Shmuger.
Fogelson sits next to Egan on a couch in his office, which features an entire wall of cardboard-backed one-sheets about “Jarhead,” a gritty, irreverent tale set in the first Gulf War that is based on the book by Anthony Swofford.
After Sony passed, Wick pitched the book to Stuber in May 2003 as “a bit like ‘American Beauty’ goes to war.” Not only was it based on a bestseller and becoming ever more timely with the lingering insurgency in Iraq, but Wick had enlisted William Broyles Jr., a Vietnam combat veteran who also co-wrote “Apollo 13,” to pen the screenplay.
Stuber immediately agreed to commit more than $2 million for the rights to the book and the script. Just four days after receiving the book from Wick in a Marine rucksack, Oscar-winner Mendes signed on to direct the film. With those elements, U has high hopes that the $75 million movie will be an awards contender and a crowdpleaser.
“It’s such a delicate thing because you’ve got to wait long enough to see what the movie is, but you’ve got to jump early enough to make the key decisions based on what you think it might be,” Mendes says.
After Shmuger read the script, he had a staff member select dramatic passages that could be used to sell the movie. The problem was that “the best moments are really hardcore, R-rated moments,” Shmuger says, adding that he considered them “unadvertisable.”
“Our challenge is to capture the … dramatic intensity of the picture and not sacrifice it to the challenge of marketing restrictions,” he explains.
They eventually decided on the tagline: “Welcome to the suck.” While a little ambiguous, it’s perhaps the farthest U can go without being obscene.
“When you talk about a studio that gets it, they get it,” says Jamie Foxx, one of the film’s stars. “There is so much creativity there.”
“We had ‘Riddick.’ We had ‘Hulk.’ We had ‘Van Helsing,’ which we overhyped,” says Nikki Rocco, who has headed U’s distribution since the days of Wasserman.
Rocco is notoriously frank and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “We need to have exhibition believe that all of our films will be tentpole blockbusters, so there are times when they get burned, as they did on a few of our films.”
Rocco and company decided to close the credibility gap on “King Kong” by getting the exhibitors involved earlier in the marketing. In late February, Universal held an uber-junket dubbed the “King Kong” Partner Summit. The studio flew executives from the top 25 circuits to New Zealand, where they were wined and dined and given a tour of the sets by director Jackson himself.
It was a stark turnaround from 1997, when the studio first signed Jackson to do the “Kong” project for a reported $6.5 million, in what was to be his next film after U’s “The Frighteners.” The 1933 “King Kong” had left such an indelible impression on Jackson as a boy that he credits it for motivating him to become a filmmaker, and he was looking to bankroll his Weta Visual Effects studio with the production. But before the film even got a start date, then-chairman Casey Silver pulled the plug. Needless to say, Jackson wasn’t happy.