The Slate

Universal's dynamic slate includes films from five Oscar-winning directors. But do a lackluster summer, a change in its exec ranks and GE's proposal to acquire DreamWorks mean that the peace at Black Tower is over? [This article ran in V Life Oct '05.]

Stacy Snider arrived in New York for the April 19 premiere of “The Interpreter” in a funk.

The chairman of Universal Pictures, normally not one to betray unwanted emotions, couldn’t hide her displeasure. She had held her team together through four different owners and seven different corporate overlords, including the recent purchase by General Electric, surviving the likes of Barry Diller, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Jean-Marie Messier. But the secret had leaked that her two lieutenants, Scott Stuber and Mary Parent, who had overseen all of the studio’s films for the past five years, would be leaving to take a production deal. It was just the type of instability that made producers and talent nervous, and it was up to Snider to reassure them.

“It is a hard concept for producers to grasp,” Snider sighed over lunch at the Fifty Seven Fifty Seven restaurant. “They just fear that Mary and Scott won’t work as hard on their movies.”

After years of corporate uncertainties and a so-so box-office showing in 2004, this was to be Universal’s year with a dynamic, ambitious $800-million lineup of blockbusters and Oscar contenders. Instead, uncertainty lingered.

In addition to the departure of top-notch execs, there is the possibility that GE’s NBC Universal will acquire DreamWorks, negotiations that have, in turn, led to rumors that Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment would leave the lot for Paramount when their contract is completed in 2008.

Even Snider has not re-upped … yet.

Meanwhile, the studio’s 2005 slate, which seemed like a sure thing, has so far mostly disappointed. Not only was there thin domestic box office for “The Interpreter” ($72.6 million) and Will Ferrell laffer “Kicking and Screaming” ($52.7 million), but “Cinderella Man” delivered a blow. Its failure to perform even with stellar reviews was perplexing to executives and producer Grazer, who admitted to The New York Times, “I feel like crying.”

What’s at stake as the rest of the lineup unfolds — an impressive list of films including “Munich” from Steven Spielberg, “Jarhead” from Sam Mendes and “King Kong” from Peter Jackson — is whether the studio can continue its five-year streak of best picture nominations and its eight-year record of profitability. Not meeting the latter could put U under the microscope like other GE divisions, which are undergoing a series of wrenching cost cuts that have so far been spared the movie studio.

All of this underscores the risks and perils of assembling a lineup of movies — an exercise that Snider calls “our best efforts to feel the culture” — often two or three years in advance.

“You know, there’s no guidebook,” she discloses, wryly.

In fact, each of the remaining major releases — “Jarhead,” “King Kong” and “Munich” — carry their own set of challenges. To make them work will require a combination of persistence, chutzpah and not a little bit of luck.

The slate’s origins — and the “Cinderella Man”crisis

In April 2003, as speculation brewed about then-parent Vivendi’s impending sale of Universal, Snider and all of the key department heads gathered at the bluff-top Montage Resort in Laguna Beach for a retreat.

The purpose was to concentrate on the lineup of films for 2005. It was no secret that execs were less than thrilled with some of what was coming out of the studio at the time, including Ang Lee’s then-forthcoming box-office disappointment, “Hulk.” “The bombast of some of those bigger event films was just numbing,” Snider says.

So she invited a business futurist, a bearded, slightly eccentric man named Watts Wacker, who told them that in the post-9/11 era, what people wanted was “meaning.” He repeated the word several times, then elaborated by telling them that society’s latest obsessions were scrapbooking (i.e., chronicling personal stories), fried Twinkies (i.e., nostalgia for things like state fairs) and reality shows (i.e., the lives of everyday people).

Nothing exemplified these threads better than “Cinderella Man,” which combined nostalgia impulse and a personal story set in the world of common men during the Depression. It’d been languishing in development since 1997, when Penny Marshall was attached to direct, but found new life when Russell Crowe got wind of the tale of boxing champ James J. Braddock. Crowe suggested to Snider that they reassemble the Oscar-winning team behind “A Beautiful Mind”: Howard, Grazer and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. Renee Zellweger was signed with a unique $21-million deal to star in that project and a sequel to “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

“Before 9/11, the movie seemed to many of us less timely, less relevant,” Snider says. “It seemed more timely and more relevant after 9/11 because it is a story about America getting up off its feet after being knocked out.”

As much as executives thought the movie would resonate, they still debated when it should be released. The original December 2004 opening was scrapped when Crowe injured his shoulder during pre-production, delaying the start of shooting. The next date, March 17, was dropped when it appeared that the actor would be unavailable for publicity. Some executives looked to late July, when the studio had released box office winner “Seabiscuit” in 2003. Grazer preferred the fall, but Marc Shmuger, the studio vice chairman who oversees marketing, said it was too far off. So the film was placed on June 3.

Shmuger, who Snider calls the studio’s resident “big thinker,” has a gift for discourse and a propensity to toss out elaborate phrases. (For example, he refers to Jackson’s New Zealand production facility as a “creative ecosystem.”)

In a conversation in April, just as summer campaigns got into full swing, he was all but certain that “Cinderella Man” (“irresistible populism”) would stand for its “meaning” in a sea of summer film irrelevance.

With a pricey marketing campaign of more than $40 million and marketing research scores in the high 90s, Shmuger confidently predicted “great playability out of the picture.”

But the summer adult alternative instead ended up as an exercise in damage control. Making matters worse, three days after the film opened to a middling $18 million, Crowe was arrested for allegedly throwing a telephone at a hotel desk clerk while in New York promoting the movie. He was escorted from the swank Mercer hotel in handcuffs, wearing his cast-and-crew jacket, no less.

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