New heads to focus on 'responsible risks'

After watching a succession of films stumble at the box office this year, Universal Pictures chief Ron Meyer was under pressure to pick a new team that decides which movies the studio makes.

In tapping Adam Fogelson as chairman and Donna Langley as co-chair, Meyer has made a familiar move in turning to a marketing maven to shepherd the studio’s slate.

The decision to stick with a team to run the studio comes at a time of huge challenges for all studios: picking projects, hammering out budgets, developing and producing films and then rolling them out worldwide with new distribution methods to replace a declining DVD business.

According to Fogelson, his and Langley’s mandate “will be a more extreme commitment to the old mandate” of picking projects that aren’t limited by a certain pricetag but are ultimately profitable for the studio.

“We will redouble our efforts and redouble them again to make sure our risks are responsible risks,” Fogelson told Daily Variety on Monday.

Some of the studio’s recent pics, such as “State of Play,” “Duplicity” and “Public Enemies,” were admired by critics but their high costs hit the studio’s bottom line.

The fiscal considerations weren’t helped by an increasing level of infighting within the studio’s executive suites that didn’t sit well with Meyer, who is high on teamwork.

The change in U’s leadership should be easy for filmmakers on the lot, since they have worked closely with Fogelson and Langley in the past.

Universal still plans to distribute 15-20 movies per year.

In picking projects, Fogelson and Langley will be able to turn to new deals with partners like Rogue and speciality shingle Focus Features, as well as first-look deals with prolific producers such as Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine, Judd Apatow, former production prexy Scott Stuber, Working Title, Chris Meledandri’s Illumination, Peter Guber’s Mandalay, Strike Entertainment and Marc Platt to fill out future slates.

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

Langley will also help develop U’s business and production strategies, including digital distribution methods, the studio’s DVD business, as well as international deals. She continues to oversee all production and will assume responsibility for Focus and Working Title. She reports to Fogelson.

“I’m not giving up my day job,” Langley told Daily Variety. She has served as the studio’s prexy of production since 2005 and has been responsible for 14 films that have crossed the $100 million mark in domestic grosses.

She plans eventually to hire a new production prexy to replace her.

Helping Fogelson and Langley in the transition process is Rick Finkelstein, who will continue to have executive oversight of worldwide home entertainment, television distribution, business affairs and strategic alliances as vice chairman and chief operating officer, a post he’s held since 2006.

He will serve as a key strategic adviser to Fogelson and Langley. Together, the trio will choose which films to greenlight moving forward.

Eddie Egan is also president of marketing with Fogelson, so he will run the department.

Outgoing toppers Marc Shmuger and David Linde aren’t leaving Fogelson and Langley in the lurch.

As a way to address a lack of tentpoles and new franchises, the two had brokered deals with Hasbro, Mattel, Dark Horse Comics, Electronic Arts and Take-Two Interactive to adapt successful toys, comicbooks and videogame properties into movies.

Those include “Battleship,” “Monopoly,” “Candyland,” “Ouija,” “Barbie,” “Stretch Armstrong,” “Umbrella Academy,” “Army of Two,” “Dante’s Inferno” and “BioShock.”

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; the third installment of “Meet the Parents,” called “Little Fockers”; and comedy “MacGruber,” based on the “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

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

Fogelson reports to Meyer as he oversees U’s worldwide motion picture group, heading up all aspects of the company’s operations from home entertainment and partnerships and licensing to finance and human resources.

Other studios, like Fox, have had off years. But with a weak economy, and shareholders to answer to, the congloms that own studios have less patience when losing money these days.

That’s especially true at Universal now that its bottom line is being scrutinized as parent NBC U is in play as a possible acquisition for Comcast or other potential suitors.

The announcement of Shmuger’s and Linde’s replacement occurred just hours before Disney announced that Disney Channel topper Rich Ross would replace Dick Cook as the head of its studio.

Shmuger’s and Linde’s futures had been the source of rumors since at least June, when predictions were made that their ousters would come over the Fourth of July holiday.

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.

The studio declined to comment on the matters.

In a statement, Meyer said, “Together Adam, Donna and Rick are proven leaders with the right combination of strong talent relationships and business acumen, as well as creative and commercial instincts. The depth of experience of these three executives gives me tremendous confidence in the future success of our business, and I trust them to lead this organization in today’s ever-changing media environment.”

Langley joined the studio in 2001, as senior VP of production, after having served as senior VP of production at New Line Cinema, where she worked on the “Austin Powers” franchise.

Fogelson had served as the studio’s president of marketing and distribution since late 2007, when he took on the studio’s domestic marketing and distribution for the studio and films released by Rogue Pictures.

In addition to marketing U’s movies, he also helped create the campaign for the studio’s Tony-winning Broadway musical “Wicked,” which has become the studio’s biggest moneymaker.

He joined U in 1998 as VP, creative advertising and became president of marketing in 2002. Before Universal, Fogelson was senior VP, worldwide marketing, for Trimark Pictures.

“Adam is a natural leader with a unique ability to anticipate our audience, understand our business and collaborate with our filmmakers to give us a competitive advantage,” Meyer said.

In March 2006, Meyer upped Shmuger, who headed worldwide marketing and distribution, to the chairman post, while Linde, co-president of Focus Features and prexy of Rogue Pictures, was named co-chairman. (He was upped to share the chairman role with Shmuger in January of this year.)

Before 2006, Shmuger had been well respected for launching creative campaigns that helped turn many of the studio’s pics into hits, while Linde was key in turning U’s international distribution biz into a profitable operation after it shifted away from its deal with Paramount on United Intl. Pictures in 2006 and 2007.

The choice to tap Shmuger was considered innovative because few marketers (outside of Disney’s Oren Aviv) had ever moved up the ranks to head a studio.

After Stacey Snider left her chair role to join DreamWorks, Meyer’s decision made sense, with the marketing post becoming more important at studios over the years as the majors increasingly look to reduce their risks and identify pics that are considered easier sells.

Yet after Universal experienced its two most profitable years in 2007 and 2008 (which included “Mamma Mia!” “Knocked Up” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”), the studio’s success rate went downhill fast this year, with “Frost/Nixon,” “Duplicity,” “State of Play,” “Land of the Lost,” “Public Enemies,” “Funny People” and “Love Happens” proving costly underperformers. U took a $70 million hit on “Land of the Lost” alone.

“Marc and David have made an extraordinary contribution to Universal Pictures for which we are all very grateful,” Meyer said in the statement. “We had our two most profitable years ever under their stewardship, and they have been extremely successful expanding key partnerships and building our global business.”

In a statement, Shmuger and Linde simply said: “We’re extremely proud to have had the opportunity to lead such an amazing team at Universal, and we’re proud of the work we accomplished together. While we will miss serving with our colleagues in these positions, we look forward to future endeavors with Universal.”

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