Wave of change may hit U

Universal Pictures has been put in flux by the possibility that its top exec, chairman Stacey Snider, may be headed for the exits — to Dreamworks, specifically.

Snider, under the leadership Universal Studios prexy Ron Meyer, has been a symbol of studio stability during her nine-year tenure — a stretch in which U has gone through four different corporate owners.

But just two years after General Electric merged the studio with NBC, the calm waters are being disturbed as Snider, whose current contract expires at the end of the year, has told Meyer she would like to pursue employment opportunities at other studios. Meyer has granted her request and said now that speculation over Snider’s future is a leading topic of conversation in the film business, he prefers a speedy resolution.

Before Par bought DreamWorks for $1.6 billion, it was thought that partners Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen would sell their studio to U.

But the partners surprised everyone — including Meyer and Snider — by accepting Par’s offer.

Though Snider has not entered formal contract talks with GE, it’s believed she was unhappy with preliminary talks.

Meyer would not directly negotiate that deal, but he is said to be encouraging Snider to reup.

Last July, a little over a year after GE acquired U, Meyer signed a five-year renewal of his own contract.

If GE is unable to keep Snider in place — especially so soon after it failed to seal the deal for DreamWorks — it would raise questions about its ability to do high-level (and high-ego) deals in Hollywood.

While GE has long been in the entertainment biz with its ownership of NBC, other power centers at the conglom are said to resent the special handling — and higher compensation — to which Hollywood execs are accustomed.

Some at U say painting GE as clumsy would be unfair — compared to being controlled by Seagram’s, Vivendi (in both its incarnations) or Barry Diller, GE is seen by U execs as a relatively benign owner.

Indeed, Snider has told people close to her that personal reasons, not corporate considerations, are the prime factor in her renewal plans. She is the mother of two daughters, ages 7 and 9, and has said she’s considering a slower professional pace.

Instead of building an 18-pic slate for U, heading production at DreamWorks — which Par has said is expected to be responsible for four to six pics per year — would satisfy that requirement.

A DreamWorks job also could be much more lucrative than her current chair at U if Snider — like former DreamWorks heads Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald — also received gross points as producer on some DreamWorks titles.

U had been counting on DreamWorks product to supplement its own productions in its distribution channels. This is especially important as it builds its independent distrib arm while winding down joint venture UIP, which it operates with Par.

Snider’s departure would not have a major impact on U’s 2006 slate, which is largely complete with 17 pics, including upcoming summer titles “The Break-Up,” a laffer starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson comedy “You, Me & Dupree,” franchise sequel “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” and holiday tentpole sequel “Evan Almighty,” starring Steve Carell.

Next year’s slate, however, is still coming together under the relatively new leadership of production presidents Donna Langley and Jon Gordon.

U is expected to get the third installment in its spy franchise, “The Bourne Ultimatum,” into production later this year for release next year. Also being eyed for a 2007 bow are vidgame adaptation “Halo,” being co-produced with 20th Century Fox, Tom Hanks starrer “Charlie Wilson’s War” and Imagine Entertainment’s “American Gangster,” which is being revamped, potentially with Ridley Scott at the helm and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

Many who do business at U are already pondering who might replace Snider at the top.

Although not technically U execs anymore, some have speculated that former vice chairs Mary Parent and Scott Stuber, who transitioned to a production deal last year, could be lured back to the studio.

Meyer hasn’t begun a search process as he waits for Snider to firm up her plans, but also among the leading internal candidates is Marc Shmuger, who as vice chair oversees the studio’s worldwide marketing and distribution efforts.

Shmuger has been making an effort to be a “good corporate citizen,” as one industry observer noted, since GE acquired U, working on an NBC U committee to cross-promote properties across platforms as well as attending GE’s management classes.

Shmuger also has been involved in the content side of the biz of late. He led the studio’s acquisition of North American rights to Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia,” starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank, visiting the production in Bulgaria on his way to last May’s Cannes Film Festival.

There are other candidates within the NBC fold, with execs like Bonnie Hammer, prexy of cablers USA and Sci Fi, and Focus co-prexy David Linde, who has led the launch of U genre division Rogue Pictures, also being mentioned.

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