Tough task ahead for Universal chiefs

Langley, Fogelson have work cut out for them

These are not exactly dream jobs.

Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley are taking over a studio whose film slate has been battered at the box office and whose corporate parents appear headed for divorce.

Their efforts to energize the film studio could be affected by the complex corporate negotiations involving Comcast, General Electric and Vivendi.

“But this is a move Ron Meyer had to make,” said a senior Universal executive. “He had to demonstrate a sharp change in direction.”

The difficult timing for any studio head is reflected in the fact that Fogelson and Langley’s announcement coincides with the appointment of a new topper at Disney, Rich Ross. Thus the new Universal co-chairmen don’t even have a day in the spotlight to themselves.

An executive at a rival studio noted that, in naming Fogelson as studio chairman, Universal is again choosing a marketing executive for the top production post. Marc Shmuger’s background was marketing and David Linde was a specialist in international distribution who built several indie film companies.

Langley, who has just returned from maternity leave, was instrumental, with the Shmuger-Linde team, in selecting much of the slate of the past few years.

“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,” said one producer who declined to be identified.

Still, with the ownership question still up in the air, one talent agent observed that the new U duo will have to cope with the fact that top talent is often reluctant to commit to a company in flux.

Shmuger and Linde succeeded Stacey Snider when she left to partner with Steven Spielberg in DreamWorks. They did a lot of things quickly, making new deals with core producers Imagine, Working Title, Marc Platt, Playtone and others. They supervised an overhaul of the international distribution operation and put an emphasis on empowering hitmaking directors to make modestly priced films for their home countries, like “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov, who’s making films in Russia.

The regime also put in place franchise building blocks that should pay off down the line.

They wooed Fox Animation topper Chris Meledandri to launch Illumination to put the studio firmly in the family-film game. Meledandri generates his first film next summer with the 3D animated Steve Carell starrer “Despicable Me,” and is working on such promising follow-ups as “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” and “Where’s Waldo?”

An overall deal with Captivate gave them rights to continue the “Bourne” franchise and a first look at other thriller novels generated by Robert Ludlum, which led to the Ron Howard-directed “The Parsifal Mosaic.”

But the exec team didn’t have much luck. They made a deal to turn Guillermo del Toro into a star director, and then watched him sign on for a five-year commitment of directing two installments of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”

They won a fevered auction for the British miniseries “State of Play” only to have Brad Pitt reject the script at the last moment. Faced with eating upward of $15 million and possibly suing Pitt, the execs instead paid Russell Crowe $20 million and made a film that left other studios shy about making adult dramas.

The Universal slate has no sure things on track, but has numerous projects that carry large pricetags including “Wolfman,” “Robin Hood,” “Cirque du Freak” and “The Green Zone,” the latter a Paul Greengrass-Matt Damon collaboration that focuses on the battleground of Iraq, a genre that so far hasn’t had a lot of luck with audiences.

It was not immediately clear where Shmuger and Linde go from here. Each signed a four-year extension not long ago, so they have plenty of time to absorb the blow.

Execs exiting at such high levels routinely pull back parachutes that make them producers on the lot, but several insiders cautioned that is no sure thing.

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