HOLLYWOOD — Sitting in a corner office on the 14th floor of the Lew Wasserman Building — the legendary “black tower” on the Universal lot — studio president and chief operating officer Ron Meyer and Universal Pictures chairman Stacey Snider seem justifiably at ease.
A year after French media and utility giant Vivendi took over the studio, and five years after Snider joined Meyer as a top executive, the team is riding high.
Last year, they came close to pulling off a spectacular coup and ousting the Walt Disney Co. from its No. 1 perch at the box office. This year, with hits ranging from “The Mummy Returns” (its most profitable pic this year, grossing about $415 million worldwide) to “American Pie 2” to “Jurassic Park III,” they look set to surpass 2000’s mark.
These results have not only justified the considerable faith that Vivendi/U chairman Jean-Marie Messier and COO Pierre Lescure placed in the two, but have put the lie to skeptics who once doubted that Meyer (a longtime agent known as being one of Michael Ovitz’s partners at Creative Artists Agency) and Snider (the one-time protege of producer Peter Guber who came to Universal with ex-movie division president Marc Platt) had the political and creative skills to run a studio.
Indeed, Meyer and Snider have emerged with one of the best track records in recent Hollywood history, and the understandable praise of some of their colleagues in the trenches.
“What makes good movie executives is clarity and decisiveness — that is the hallmark of Ron and Stacey’s style,” comments Jersey Films principal Michael Shamberg. “When
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others felt that ‘Erin Brockovich’ was a risky movie — because (the similarly themed) ‘A Civil Action’ was already in production — Stacey and Ron always said, ‘That is not this movie’ — and pressed ahead.”
“Erin Brockovich” won an actress Oscar for Julia Roberts and was a serious contender for best picture. It lost to “Gladiator” — which was music nonetheless to Universal’s ears, given that it had a 50% stake in the film, which it released and co-financed with DreamWorks.
Those two films represent precisely what Meyer and Snider have aimed to achieve: quality crowdpleasers that do not patronize the audience.
But they have also succeeded in instilling a collaborative culture at the studio, an exchanging of ideas and information, all while making a wide range of films.
These include the original “American Pie” and its sequel, the third “Jurassic Park” and the box office sleeper “The Fast and the Furious,” a well-crafted, modestly budgeted actioner that stunned even veteran industry insiders when it earned $40 million on its opening weekend and $139 million domestically.
“Ron has created a supportive culture and distributed the total control that once rested in the black tower to the individual business units. He has made them grow up and be responsible,” says Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of U Pictures.
“Stacey is an extraordinary leader who never stops asking questions. She has a great creative mind and legalistic mind and she has challenged everyone in the organization to be responsible all the time — have they thought of everything, followed through on everything, have they been flawless in their undertaking on all of their projects all of the time.”
What has allowed Meyer and Snider to put together these films is a unique combination of talents and taste.
Ever since his days as an agent at the William Morris Agency, before he became an industry pioneer with the creation of Creative Artists Agency, Meyer has been known for his ability to nurture relationships with some of the town’s top talent. That knack has continued to serve Universal spectacularly well, even as Meyer has taken on an extensive series of administrative duties that go way beyond his operational chores running the 400-strong CAA as prexy.
“Ron and I have known each other since the early days of CAA and have always been really close,” notes actor-director-producer Danny DeVito. “He has always been a really stand-up guy.”
“Ron Meyer is a person I go to for judgment calls on all levels — creative, business and human. He has amazing amount of human insight and because our business is half artform and half business — that insight translates to practical judgement which translates to the success I’ve had with movies starting with Apollo 13.,” says Brian Grazer, co-chairman, Imagine Entertainment.
Meyer also is responsible for studio operations including theme parks, and is quick to share credit with U recreation group head Tom Williams.
“Recreation is a very important part of our business. We opened our newest park in Japan recently and in its first month we attracted 1 million visitors, which no other tehme park has ever done before,” says Meyer.
Snider brings a very different background to her job and is known for being one of the few genuinely literate Hollywood execs.
“I always loved books and that was my escape. I wasn’t a kid who spent hours in front of a movie screen or hidden in a movie theater. My nose has been in a book pretty much my whole life and I’ve always held the storytelling process in the highest regard,” she says.
Snider and Meyer have together assembled a talented executive team, with her former Sony Pictures colleague Shmuger — whom she praises for his sheer intelligence, tenacity and work ethic; president and chief operating officer Rick Finkelstein; Scott Stuber and Mary Parent, presidents of production; distribution prexy Nikki Rocco; and marketing president Peter Adee.
Under Snider’s guidance, the studio’s production team puts together an annual slate of 16 or 17 features a year, a combination of titles generated inhouse and from Universal’s heavy-hitting producer pacts — with Imagine Entertainment, Jersey Films, Working Title Films, Tribeca Entertainment and Beacon Communications, among others. Also paying off big is the ongoing foreign distribution deal with DreamWorks (which releases its titles through UIP).
“Stacey is extremely creative and was very helpful in creating the success of “The Grinch” and “Nutty Professor 2” as well as in putting together “A Beautiful Mind.” Her creative input is helpful and useful every time. She is a complete work machine and does all of her homework all of the time. The creative bridge I need is always there with her because she has always read every draft of the script, sometimes even before I’ve read the most recent draft myself, and I don’t have to remind her or tell her what happened 2 or 3 drafts ago because she always read them,” says Grazer.
And yet, in some ways, Snider was an unusual candidate for studio chief.
“I had more romantic ideas at the beginning,” she explains. “I dreamed of being like a Max Perkins figure (the celebrated editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe), guiding the career of an important author. But I ended up starting off in the mailroom of a talent agency, just like Ron.”
After graduating from law school at UCLA, Snider began her entertainment career in the mailroom of talent agency Triad Artists before getting a job as a secretary with producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.
A year later, she went to work for Guber at Guber-Peters Ent. as a D-girl. When Sony named Guber and Peters to run the studio, she went with them and by 1992 was made president of production at Sony’s TriStar Pictures — where she oversaw such features as “Jerry Maguire,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Philadelphia,” “Jumanji,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”
With a new regime in place at Sony, and as a first-time mother (Snider has two daughters), she made a major leap when she left the Culver City lot for Universal in 1996, following her former TriStar colleague Platt.
Snider joined Universal as co-president of production in 1996. It was the beginning of a spectacular rise that saw her named sole prexy of production in 1998, then co-chairman of the movie division in 1999, then sole chair a six months later when her then-colleague Brian Mulligan moved into a corporate job with the Seagram Co.
She is one of only three women running major studios, alongside Columbia Pictures’ Amy Pascal and Paramount Pictures’ Sherry Lansing.
Meyer could not have followed a more different path.
“I grew up in L.A., and then — straight out of the United States Marine Corps — I decided I wanted to be in show business,” he says. “So I applied to anywhere and everywhere and the only available job was as a messenger in a talent agency.”
Meyer rose through the ranks as an agent, before joining with Ovitz, Bill Haber and three others to form CAA, initially working on folding chairs and with their wives as secretaries.
Less than two decades later, CAA was the preeminent agency in the business, and Meyer — whose clients included Sylvester Stallone– was in many ways the glue that held it together.
When talks between Ovitz and Edgar Bronfman Jr. — the Seagram scion who had just bought Universal — fell through, Bronfman turned to Meyer, who joined the company in 1995 and has remained even though the Seagram ownership has passed to Vivendi.
“I think I have the perfect combination in Ron and Stacey,” says Pierre Lescure, president and CEO of Vivendi Universal. “On the one hand, Ron brings incredible experience and relationships to the studio; and on the other, Stacey is a young talented moviemaker who is 101% engaged and involved.”
Snider and Meyer speak every day and meet three times a week.
Snider praises Meyer for “his contacts and experience, which are an invaluable resource” while Meyer refers to himself as Snider’s coach.
“She is the star of the team and completely responsible for the motion picture group.”
Their partnership has worked wonders for Universal’s corporate parents, as well as for morale internally — helped by generous bonuses and the occasional day off that they have given employees when pictures do well.
Last year, the studio for the first time generated $1 billion at the box office on the strength of hits that included “Meet the Parents,” “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Brockovich” and ” Gladiator.”
This year, it has earned $680 million and currently ranks number one in the studio box office race.
But despite U’s salad days, Meyer and Snider admit to early failures, such as “Rocky and Bullwinkle and “Snow Falling on Cedars.” More recently,
“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” proved a disappointment for the studio.
“We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning and have learned from them,” says Meyer. “We’re not perfect every time, but we’ve been given the opportunity to learn and put a new team together that now works like a Swiss clock.”
“The disappointment of a few years back prompted some sober soul-searching and adopting an attitude to figure out how to do it better,” adds Snider. “We are not a cynical group, and one of the things we try to avoid is thinking we know the right formula.”