New toppers play to bifurcated marketplace

Universal Pictures’ new chairs Marc Shmuger and David Linde aren’t the first execs to share power atop a studio, but their divergent backgrounds may be a telling twist in the industry’s current yin and yang.

Increasingly, the studio business is a balancing act, juggling big-budget tentpoles and lower-budgeted specialty pics.

Shmuger, from U’s marketing ranks, is an expert with blockbusters like “King Kong.” Linde comes from U’s Focus Features specialty division, responsible for breakout hits like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Lost in Translation” and “Pride and Prejudice.”

Other studios have had topper teams, such as Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos at Fox and Amy Pascal and Jeff Blake at Sony. Traditional exec pairings melded international with domestic, or marketing with creative.

But the Shmuger-Linde combo is of two men with similar strengths, even if they come from different backgrounds.

Shmuger, respected not only for his marketing savvy but his penchant for intelligent conversation, has had a job pegged to gauging the zeitgeist of the mass market. Among U’s tentpoles this year are “Miami Vice” and “Fast and the Furious 3.”

Linde, regarded as the business brain behind Focus, comes from the world of film festivals and specialty pics. He has a sharp wit, good taste and is perceptive, finding ways to make crossover hits out of Jane Austen and Annie Proulx.

U’s March 16 announcement set off speculation as to what Linde’s appointment would mean for Focus: whether it risks altering the makeup of a highly successful unit, or if it signals specialty pics could gain even more sway on the studio’s agenda.

But what may be at play is not so much a choice of execs with different experiences, but the reality of what it is like to be atop a major studio today.

“There are just very few people qualified to run studios, and it is a bigger and bigger job as international continues to expand in importance,” says “Munich” producer Barry Mendel. “That is the trend, the corporatization of the job. It is a fact of life. It is a process, and the process is increasingly complex.”

This year, U was the only major studio with an Oscar best picture nom (“Munich”), and it still will release “serious” pics like the upcoming “Flight 93″ and “The Good Shepherd.” But there’s little doubt that the arranged marriage will be a melding of different experience, if not tastes.

One producer, who did not want to be identified, says that so far both men are identified as money guys. So with creative issues, “The question is, are they going to be cautious and gunshy or will they be able to understand that you have to go for it?”

Both will report to Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, but Shmuger gets title of chairman while Linde is co-chairman. The difference reflects Shmuger’s longer experience within the main U studio.

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