Exec shake-ups offer clues to studio goals

Just hours after arranging a divorce from the heads of his studio, Universal chief Ron Meyer, ironically, found himself on the way to the premiere of “Couples Retreat.”

As he walked through Westwood toward the theater, Meyer could only focus on one thing: “Now we can get back to the business of our business of making movies.”

U’s executive shuffle was announced Oct. 5, shortly before Disney confirmed its own new studio topper. The double dose of change in one day was yet another reminder of the constant corporate turnover that takes place in Hollywood. But the new choices also offer evidence of the studios’ priorities as they move ahead.

U’s decided to stick with a team to run the studio: marketing vet Adam Fogelson and production prexy Donna Langley are the new chairman and co-chairman, respectively,

That’s U’s solution as all studios face huge challenges that are tough for one exec to shoulder alone: picking projects, hammering out budgets, working with filmmakers and talent to develop and produce films and then roll them out worldwide, with new distribution methods to replace a declining DVD business — all while working with fewer resources.

Meanwhile, over at the Mouse House, company prexy-CEO Bob Iger anointed Disney Channels Worldwide chief Rich Ross to lead Walt Disney Studios, signifying just how much the studio has become less of a star at the company in recent years as it’s been overshadowed by the company’s TV networks.

While the studio hadn’t launched a franchise since “National Treasure” in 2004, the Disney Channel pumped out major franchises like “High School Musical,” “Hannah Montana,” “That’s So Raven” and “Wizards of Waverly Place,” which have launched new stars like Zac Efron, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers.

It got to the point where the film studio needed hits so badly it created bigscreen versions of “HSM,” “Hannah Montana,” and gave the Jonases their own concert pic.

Ross “has created huge value for the company running the Disney Channels,” Iger told Daily Variety last week. “He turned that channel into a real creative engine for the company, and an effective means of delivering content and supporting the brand on a global basis. The leader of the studio needs very much to be able to do that.”

At both venues, the promotions represent the style and goals of the toppers.

U’s Meyer had undergone months of questions by corporate parent General Electric and NBC Universal, as well as a very vocal media and rancorous blogosphere, over when the regime change would occur.

The pressure to perform led to a breakdown in leadership, which in turn led to increased infighting within U’s executive suites that didn’t sit well with Meyer, who is a big believer in teamwork.

Meanwhile, at Disney, long-time chairman Dick Cook abruptly left the post last month after a 38-year-tenure at the company. Cook didn’t see eye-to-eye with Iger’s plans for the studio. Iger has made no secret internally of his admiration for the success of Ross’ group and his skill as a manager, and felt he could help revive the film slate.

Iger admitted earlier in the year that Disney had problems, and it wasn’t due to the economy but to the types of films the studio was making.

And that’s unacceptable for entertainment congloms at a time when the film biz is weathering the weak economy with a stronger-than-expected box office and attendance levels during much of the year. The summer sesh was the best for Hollywood since 2007, which already was a record.

If other studios were doing well, with Warner Bros. and Paramount passing the billion-dollar milestone, shareholders wondered what was wrong at Universal and Disney.

Disney had suffered from a string of disappointments. It had lost focus on its core business of making family fare that could move a lot of DVDs, and lend themselves to TV shows, content for websites, theme park attractions, videogames and other consumer products.

And Universal was broken. After two record-breaking years for the company in 2007 and 2008, its movies weren’t working anymore. With the exception of “Fast and Furious” (the franchise’s fourth installment), its films struggled, or outright failed to find audience, dragging down NBC U’s bottomline.

After hits like “Mamma Mia!” “Knocked Up” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the studio’s success rate went downhill fast this year, with “Duplicity,” “State of Play,” “Land of the Lost,” “Public Enemies,” “Funny People” and “Love Happens.” U took a $70 million hit on “Lost” alone.

But Fogelson and Langley aren’t being left in the lurch by the departure of Marc Shmuger and David Linde.

The former studio heads had brokered deals with core producers like Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, Tom Hanks’ Playtone, Judd Apatow, Marc Platt, former production prexy Scott Stuber, Peter Guber, and Chris Meledandri (for toons), and Guillermo del Toro to remake “Frankenstein” and other monster classics.

Rogue, Working Title and specialty shingle Focus Features also provide pics to the 15- 20-title-a-year slate.

Langley had been key in attracting Apatow, Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee and other filmmakers to the studio for various projects.

To address a lack of tentpoles and new franchises, Linde and Shmuger also had brokered deals with Hasbro, Mattel, Dark Horse Comics, Electronic Arts, Atari and Take-Two to adapt popular toys, comicbooks and games into films like “Asteroids,” “Battleship,” “Candyland,” “Barbie,” “Monopoly,” “Ouija,” “Bioshock” and “Dante’s Inferno.” An overall deal with Captivate gave them rights to continue the “Bourne” franchise and a first look at Robert Ludlum’s other thrillers.

Next year is a transition year, with many of the films already in motion, such as “The Wolfman”; Ridley Scott’s new take on “Robin Hood”; the Apatow-produced laffer “Get Him to the Greek”; Iraq War drama “The Green Zone,” starring Matt Damon; “Little Fockers,” the third installment of “Meet the Parents”; and “MacGruber,” based on the “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

Fogelson said, “2011 and 2012 will be a chance to put our stamp on the slate. We’re going to pick movies that excite all of us.”

Similarly, Ross won’t have to start from scratch to try to bring some magic back to Disney.

The studio has forged strong ties with prominent producers, filmmakers and thesps, including Jerry Bruckheimer, Robert Zemeckis, Scott Rudin, Adam Shankman, David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, Tim Burton, Jon Turteltaub and Johnny Depp.

It inked a distribution pact with DreamWorks earlier this year for Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider to make movies for Touchstone. Disney’s toon arm has been rejuvenated by Pixar’s John Lasseter. Del Toro is overseeing Double Dare You as a label to produce thrillers for families. And the Mouse will soon be the master of Marvel’s comicbook universe.

Cook leaves the studio on a high note, with Disney’s upcoming slate the strongest it’s been in years. Upcoming pics include Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol,” “Tron Legacy,” Bruckheimer’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a third “National Treasure” and fourth “Pirates,” as well as “The Lone Ranger,” McG’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” new installments of “Toy Story” and “Cars,” and the introduction of a new princess in “The Princess and the Frog.”

In most studio regime changes, outgoing execs usually receive production deals. But such a deal was not mentioned as part of Shmuger’s and Linde’s departures, partly because the duo were still deciding on how to move forward, sources said. It was also unclear whether Universal bought out the pair’s new four-year pacts, signed in January.

“Shmuger and Linde were a couple of good guys in over their heads,” said one producer who declined to be identified. “It’s not a secret that Adam had creative aspirations, and maybe he and Donna will bring the leadership many of us felt was lacking at the end.”

Although Iger had intended to give Cook a more graceful send-off many months from now, which could have included a production deal or at least the chance to let him advise Ross during the transition process, Cook opted to leave on his own sudden timetable, catching many at Disney and most of Hollywood off guard.

“You don’t look at one year (of B.O.) and make conclusions,” Iger says. “In general, (this is) a business that is undergoing a fair amount of change, and the movie business needs to adapt.” But “the need to adapt to change comes secondary to the need to make films that are good.”

Cynthia Littleton and Peter Bart contributed to this report.

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