Body count rises at U

Ad exex Shutt, Jones ankle as studio shakeup continues

In another seismic corporate shift at Universal Pictures, marketing chiefs Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones are stepping down from the studio, which may now try to turn its advertising over to a New York-based Seagram’s outfit.

Shutt and Jones will ankle their marketing duties to move into a production deal based at Universal, the studio announced Thursday night. Though a Shutt-Jones departure as U’s marketing toppers had been rumored for several weeks, the final decision was made late Thursday in the office of U Pictures chairman Casey Silver.

“Buffy and Kathy will remain here until their replacement is selected,” Silver said. “There will be no disruptions during this transition as they will continue to lead the marketing efforts for our upcoming films and to assist their replacement for as long as needed.”

The move is another high-level executive shuffle for the struggling studio. Both U Studios exec VP Howard Weitzman and U Pictures prexy of production Marc Platt have ankled within the last 10 days.

But the string of departures, with no overall explanation from studio toppers, leaves open the question of whether more executives are likely to exit, and the industry is buzzing about more radical upper-level changes.

A scheme gaining currency has Imagine Entertainment co-chairman Brian Grazer taking a high-level executive post. Grazer, who was interviewed for a similar slot at Sony Pictures Entertainment in 1996, has been Universal’s most dependable hit-producer since the exit of Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment production company.

Grazer, whose Imagine is responsible for nine of Universal’s upcoming pics, could not be reached for comment on the job.

Other, more far-fetched, scenarios have included more participation from USA Networks chairman Barry Diller and/or the absorption of DreamWorks into Universal under Jeffrey Katzenberg’s direction.

In either case, the decisions by Universal’s upper management of late have suggested knee-jerk reactions to internal problems as opposed to a well-structured long-term plan. It’s unusual to see three senior studio slots vacated without any explanation from the upper tier.

Regarding Shutt’s and Jones’ departure, U senior corporate executives have blamed part of the studio’s lukewarm performance at the box office on the marketing division. Though U hasn’t had a major hit in nearly a year, Shutt and Jones orchestrated U’s opening weekends for the Mike Nichols-helmed “Primary Colors” ($15.2 million) and the Bruce Willis starrer “Mercury Rising” ($10.1 million).

Others have indicated that Seagram prexy and CEO Edgar Bronfman, who is taking a more active role in studio affairs, was frustrated by the poor performance of the studio pics and felt that marketing could be improved.

Shutt and Jones, veterans in the marketing world for nearly 20 years, are held in high regard by many producers on the lot. But U’s struggle to open and sustain any major pics over the last 10 months has been a sore point for U and Seagram toppers.

“They’re in a tough spot,” said one producer about Shutt and Jones, shortly before their departure was announced. “They know that they’re not really wanted by Universal.”

Sources said that Seagram execs overseeing the studio — especially Bronfman — are eager to shift U’s marketing and advertising to Seagram’s marketing division, a decision that will not sit well with some U producers.

“It’s a different culture,” said one producer. “Selling Seagram’s product, as good as they are, it’s still a different product.”

TBWA/Chiat Day, which handles Absolut for Seagram, is one ad house that Bronfman favors.

Even advertising insiders said such a plan is unlikely to work. “There’s so much hand-holding in that business that it wouldn’t be feasible,” said a source.

The departure marks the second major marketing shakeup at a studio in recent months. In late 1997, former marketing president Chris Pula left Warner Bros. after taking blame for some of Warner’s chaotic year.

Shutt and Jones joined Universal in 1994, coming from a five-year stint with TriStar Pictures where they ran the marketing division.

At U, they oversaw campaigns for such hits as “Lost World: Jurassic Park,” “Apollo 13,” “Babe,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “Casper,” “Liar, Liar” and “The Nutty Professor.”

“It is with regret that I have accepted the resignation of Buffy Shutt, president, and Kathy Jones, executive vice president, of marketing for Universal Pictures,” Silver said. “We are honoring their request to move into their production deal, which was part of their arrangement when they joined Universal.”

Shutt and Jones said simply that they were “pleased” to move into a new creative adventure with the production deal.

(Richard Morgan in New York contributed to this story.)