Universal Boss Jeff Shell Leads Studio to Its Best Year Ever — Without Superheroes

Variety Showman of the Year Universal
Art Streiber for Variety

Jeff Shell may be one of the most powerful executives in the movie business, but in cliquish Hollywood, he remains something of an outsider. And, for the studio he heads, that’s proven to be a good thing.

Because Shell spent most of his career in television, climbing up the ranks of conglomerates like Comcast and Fox, the industry reaction in 2013 to his appointment as chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group was, “Jeff who?” “I had zero experience,” says the 50-year-old executive, in his first sit-down interview since taking the job. “I didn’t really know the movie business at all, and I have to say, it is the hardest business I’ve ever worked in.”

Art Streiber for Variety; Grooming: Juanita Lyon at Fr8me Management

But combining Shell’s business savvy and disciplined, analytic approach with two seasoned creative insiders, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley and NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer, has helped turn the studio into a more formidable competitor at a crucial time of seismic change across the entertainment industry. Universal is coming off the best year in its 103-year history. Thanks to global smashes like “Jurassic World” ($1.7 billion), “Furious 7,” ($1.5 billion ) and “Minions” ($1.2 billion), the studio didn’t just break records, it atomized them, picking up $6.65 billion at the worldwide box office, to set a new industry high.

“When things are going this well, you have to attribute it to astute management rather than luck,” says media analyst Hal Vogel.

Shell’s mandate was clear. He was Comcast’s inside guy, righting and protecting a film studio — saddled by costly misfires such as “The Green Zone” and “Battleship” and a rotating crop of corporate owners — that was more or less thrown in as part of the cable giant’s $13.8 billion purchase of NBCUniversal. It was a business that Comcast’s leadership had little passion for, compared with its primary interest in the company’s cable and broadcast assets.

Shell had the confidence of Comcast chief Brian Roberts and NBCU chief executive Steve Burke, which enabled him to be magnanimous in sharing power. Studios are notorious for infighting, but Universal, which experienced that first-hand under the prior regime, has benefitted from a tripartite leadership.

Langley guides the creative direction of the studio, getting high marks from filmmakers for her story sense and artistic fearlessness. “She has big balls,” says “Straight Outta Compton” producer Ice Cube. “She lets filmmakers do our thing until we go overboard, and then she winds us back in.”

And then there’s Meyer. The rare industry veteran who can talk about being friends with icons like Steven Spielberg and mean it, and effectively serve as conciliator, consensus builder and rainmaker.

“There’s no sign of wanting to do each other’s jobs,” says Chris Meledandri, head of Illumination Entertainment, the animation studio behind “Despicable Me” and “Minions.” “You never feel like you’re getting caught in between them.”

The movie business is undergoing sweeping changes, its primacy threatened by quality television programming, streaming services and a dizzying array of online entertainment options. Universal is an underdog in an industry dominated by a handful of superpowers boasting branded intellectual property — ruled by companies such as Disney, which owns Marvel, Pixar Animation and “Star Wars” powerhouse Lucasfilm, or Warner Bros, the keeper of DC Comics’ stable of Batman and Superman.

But necessity is the mother of re-invention. What gives Universal a distinct gloss is that it reached box office heights without a major superhero franchise. Its eclectic slate of hits ranged from sexually charged dramas like “Fifty Shades of Grey” to rap epics like “Straight Outta Compton” to low-budget horror films like “The Visit.”

The studio rolled the dice on emerging talent, making big bets that paid off. Entrusting Colin Trevorrow, an indie director with no mainstream credits, with the keys to “Jurassic World” breathed new life into a franchise that had sputtered out. Gambling on Amy Schumer, a bawdy cable comic who had never written a screenplay, reinvigorated the romantic-comedy genre with “Trainwreck.” And casting unknowns such as Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as the S&M couple in “Fifty Shades of Grey” set off palpable sparks.

“It’s become a first stop for people pitching projects,” says “Fifty Shades” producer Michael De Luca, who abandoned his senior executive role at Sony Pictures to set up a production shop at Universal. “It’s where the next James Cameron or Roland Emmerich will bring their projects.”

The studio is breaking barriers in other ways. At a time when the film business is taking heat for being too monochromatic and male-driven, Universal has assembled a collection of films for, by and featuring African-Americans and Hispanics. The “Fast and Furious” casts are a rainbow coalition of ethnicities, and “Compton” features African-Americans in front of the camera and behind it. In the latter case, Universal nabbed the project out of turnaround after Warner Bros. passed due to budget concerns.

BUSINESS SENSE: Under Jeff Shell, Universal’s film slate has become more diverse, but he doesn’t claim to be a crusader. “If you try to be diverse for the sake of being diverse, it’s going to fail,” he says. “The real reason to do it is that it’s good business.”.
Art Streiber for Variety

“It would have been so easy to make the smaller version of this movie,” says director F. Gary Gray. “Donna under-stood this was an important story about our culture.”

But Universal wasn’t trying to be politically correct. There’s a financial incentive. Hispanic and African-American audiences over-index in terms of their moviegoing habits. “If you try to be diverse for the sake of being diverse, it’s going to fail,” Shell says. “The real reason to do it is that it’s good business. Our audience is diverse.”

At a time when only 7% of the top films are directed by women, Universal has leaned heavily on female directors, including Angelina Jolie-Pitt (“Unbroken” and “By the Sea”), Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and Elizabeth Banks (“Pitch Perfect 2”).

“In 2015, they were the studio of women directors,” Banks says. “Nobody else is doing that, and they deserve credit.” She landed the job after Langley saw a satirical video she directed for a charity event, and urged her to move behind the camera.

Universal may be having a stellar year, but by no means have all its bets paid off.

“Steve Jobs,” a biopic about the Apple founder, proved too cerebral and chilly for mainstream audiences, while “Jem and the Holograms” suffered one of the worst openings of the year. Though Langley’s trust in Jolie-Pitt paid off with “Unbroken,” it appears to have backfired on her next directing effort, “By the Sea.” The upcoming marital drama, co-starring her husband Brad Pitt, was pilloried by critics and is tracking poorly.

There were also moments where things nearly came apart. It fell to Meyer to soothe and rally the troops when star Paul Walker died in a car accident in the middle of shooting “Furious 7.” Vin Diesel, whose kids call Meyer “Uncle Ronnie,” credits the executive with encouraging the grief-stricken actors to finish the film.

“They took such a high road, and allowed us to honor our brother in such a powerful way,” recalls Diesel, who praises the U brass for letting Walker’s character ride off into the sunset instead of dying in the film. “Another studio couldn’t have helped themselves by exploiting that in the plot,” he says.

After Walker died, Universal wasn’t sure it could salvage the production, and considered scrapping the project. That “Furious 7” went on to become the fifth highest-grossing in film in history was a testament to turning tragedy into triumph.

But then again, nothing in Universal’s year fit the mold. Nearly all of its franchise pictures worked. The big challenge will be finding new films that will spawn sequels and replace those series that have faded.

Langley’s team believes it can expand the “Fast and Furious” franchise, and create spinoffs and prequels focused on various members of the criminal team. They’ll shake things up in other ways: Instead of concocting ever more outlandish stunts, she and Diesel have turned to Gray for a new perspective.

“We have a director who is going to bring the darkness out and bring out the character,” says the actor-producer.

Along with more “Fast and Furious” films, there will be two “Fifty Shades of Grey” sequels, shot back-to-back by incoming director James Foley. After the first film sizzled at the box office, some questioned why Universal was taking so long to plan the follow-ups. Langley, who had pushed to pick up rights to the E.L. James novels, says there was reason to be cautious. Erotic pictures had crested with “Basic Instinct” and “Indecent Proposal” two decades earlier. “We were in such uncharted territory,” she explains. She believes the pictures will benefit from having a new director: “I’m excited to hand this over to a male director and to see what that looks like.”

Universal is also planning its own fanboy franchise, but one that’s distinct from costumed avengers. It is plotting out five interconnected monster movies based on characters including “The Mummy,” “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Dracula” — early movie series that helped put the studio on the map.

“I marvel at just how brutally honest he is. … I’m walking on eggshells, and he’s taught me you can be blunt.”
Donna Langley on Jeff Shell

Alex Kurtzman (“Star Trek”) and Chris Morgan (“Furious 7”) will oversee the projects. Working from an office with a lobby designed to mimic Frankenstein’s laboratory, complete with beakers, electric circuits and secret library walls, they’ve spent a year with a team of 10 writers hammering out a mythology for the
monsters, and crafting storylines set in modern times.

“We want to have a sense of empathy for these characters, which will set them apart,” Morgan says. “I love superhero movies, but I’ll never know what it feels like to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But we all know what it feels like to be flawed.”

As part of bolstering the slate, Universal is negotiating a deal to become the distribution partner for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks when the company’s pact with Disney ends next year. They believe the production outfit, which has been struggling creatively, can provide prestige titles that will appeal to older audiences.

“We never wanted to lose Steven,” Meyer says. “We would all like (Universal) to be his home, and we never wanted it not to be. We have an ongoing relationship with him, and we’ll find a way to make this work.”

It’s easy to see how Shell’s tenure could have been a disaster. Hollywood can be cruel to interlopers. Take Disney’s failed experiment with elevating television impresario Rich Ross to the company’s top film job. In the space of three years, Ross was out, brought down by back-biting and costly mega-bombs like “John Carter.”

Shell took a subtler approach. He avoided the press and embarked on an extended listening tour, during which he peppered staffers with questions. Lots
of questions.

“He keeps you on your toes,” says Josh Goldstine, Universal’s head of worldwide marketing. “A lot of our business is people looking backward and saying, ‘That worked yesterday.’ His questions have been about understanding how to do it a little better tomorrow.”

In a town famous for insincerity, where euphoric and empty compliments are the norm, Shell’s candor is bracing.

“I really do marvel at just how brutally honest he is,” Langley says. “He’ll come in and just say ‘You look really tired today.’ … I’m always sort of walking on eggshells, and he’s taught me you can be blunt.”

His major focus was in extending Universal’s global reach. The studio’s international and domestic divisions were run in separate silos, so Shell broke down those walls and combined operations. He stressed putting boots on the ground in several key territories, with China a particular priority.

In the process, Shell believes Comcast gained confidence in the film division. That could be critical as fears mount about the health of the television business. Ad revenues are dropping, cable subscribers are cutting the cord in favor of digital forms of entertainment, and media stocks are being battered amid fears that a critical revenue stream is drying up.

TALENT MAGNET: Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley gets high marks from filmmakers for her artistic fearlessness.
Art Streiber for Variety

“When we bought NBCUniversal, it was for the cable networks,” Shell says. “But the world has changed. It’s been six years, and the media business is starting to fragment. And in a fragmented media world, content matters more than networks and platforms. And movies are the Rolls Royce of content.”

Some of the ways a conglomerate like Comcast, with its tendrils in digital, cable and streaming platforms, hopes to exploit the content Universal makes is bound to run afoul of theater owners. But U has avoided conflict with the exhibition community ever since its 2011 failed attempt to debut “Tower Heist” on video-on-demand ended in threats of a theatrical boycott.

“Windows are going to change,” Shell predicts. “It’s inevitable. Consumer tastes are changing, and people are watching things in different places and in different ways.”

But he’s also conciliatory, adding that he wants all of the different parties to work together. “The experiments of the past haven’t been particularly fruitful, and everybody has different business models that are built on everybody else’s business models,” says Shell. “We’re not interested in disrupting things for the sake of disruption.”

There are other challenges. Universal and Legendary Pictures signed a five-year production and financing deal that started in 2014. The results, as the Universal team admits, have been erratic. Legendary has profited from co-financing pictures like “Jurassic World,” but productions it has developed and funded, such as hacker thriller “Blackhat” and fantasy adventure “Seventh Son,” flopped.

“We’ve been fortunate to deliver movies that have made them a lot of money, and they’ve lessened the volatility in our business, so that part, with them serving as a financier, has worked out great,” says Shell. “The second part of the deal was they were going to bring us movies that we want to have on our slate and in our distribution network. We probably wish we were off to a little bit better start than we are.”

Universal’s leadership denies reports that the relationship with Legendary chief Thomas Tull is strained; such rumors bubbled over after the companies parted ways on a planned “King Kong” trilogy. That project is now at Warner Bros., Tull’s former home, and a mash-up with Godzilla is planned. “There were too many cooks in the kitchen for that to work with us,” Shell explains.

Greatest Hits of 2015
Universal’s top films, to date
$1.7b Jurassic World: Indie director Colin Trevorrow reinvigorates the franchise
$1.5b Furious 7: Cast and crew rededicate themselves after the death of star Paul Walker
$1.2b Minions: “Despicable Me” spinoff becomes Illumination Entertainment’s top global grosser
$570m Fifty Shades of Grey: A new franchise is born

A spokesperson for Legendary also downplays reports of a rift: “The relationship is on track, and we feel confident about the pipeline,” the spokesperson says.

Shell adds that upcoming films from the studio, such as “The Great Wall” and “Warcraft,” could pay off well for both partners.

Then there’s Focus Features, the indie label that underwent a major shakeup in 2013. James Schamus, the CEO who had overseen “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk,” was ousted in favor of Peter Schlessel, the head of FilmDistrict, who was tasked with mixing more commercial titles in with the Oscar bait. The results, however, have been mixed, and the label seems to be having an identity crisis. Prestige fare such as “The Theory of Everything” has done well, but pictures like “That Awkward Moment” and “Self/Less,” which were intended to be crowdpleasers, sputtered.

“We’re seeing where the sweet spot of the specialty business really sits,” says Langley. “We haven’t quite found the right product mix.”

One area that Universal won’t explore is comic book movies. Langley believes it would be “duplicative,” noting, “There are other people who are doing it brilliantly.”

With Disney and Warner Bros. planning Marvel and DC Comics projects for much of the next decade, and other studios like Sony and Fox licensing various masked heroes, superhero pictures could reach saturation levels.

“Studios are struggling with what to do against all these superhero films,” Vogel says. “A case could be made that there shouldn’t be so many of them.”

After all, Universal is proving you don’t need Spider-Man to scale the heights.

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  1. 777 says:

    I love Universal!! And Donna!! You Go Girl! xxxx

  2. harry georgatos says:

    Spin-offs to the most forgettable franchise in cinema history that is THE FAST AND FURIOUS films is going to put a lot of film lovers into a permanent state of depression. JURASSIC WORLD was always going to make money and was a no-brainer with Spielberg overseeing the production. FIFTY SHADES would rank as one of the worse erotica films ever made. People watch trash and obviously Universal knows this. These big note studio heads should not get an inflated sense of ego as no one stays at the top forever. A monster franchise might work but when I’ve read Alex Kurtzman is engineering the franchise I’ve lost all hope of success. One of the worse scriptwriters working in the Hollywood studio system. This monster franchise should be given to Alex Proyas for the proper mythology then the amusement park bland Horror ride Kurtzman is going to turn it into.

  3. What Trash says:

    Fast and Furious 7 is the WORST film ever made… a total piece of trash, just a SUPER-BAD-DUMB movie…. horrible movie experience. I remember I asked this young dude I know: ‘How did you like the movie?’ And he said he liked it… and I asked him what was it he liked… he couldn’t remember the plot; and I filled it in a little bit (whatever it was), and we both agreed it was trash. It’s a terrible, terrible movie. And these guys are proud of themselves (OK… sure guys). They look like they hate one another and that Shell guy looks really uncomfortable and out of place. Total Wall Street guy… but Furious 7 is GARBAGE… no story whatsoever. I guess you don’t need one, but man is it TRASH!

  4. Brad says:

    as great a success story as this is, it is sad at the same time, because this enormous success was built entirely off derivative and non-original material, all of it sequels and re-boots. This means all the more that Universal, and every other studio will ratchet up the non-original agenda even further than it already was. That is sad.

  5. Far says:

    Great article

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