As the longest-serving studio head in Hollywood, Ron Meyer knows how to keep his company’s owners happy.
The roster of past masters includes beverage giant Seagram, French conglom Vivendi and power player General Electric. Now, the Universal Studios chief is figuring out what cable giant Comcast wants.
The answer is loud and clear: “We need to make better films,” newly minted NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said in an earnings call earlier this month, making clear that the former Comcast chief operating officer has his eye on the film division’s performance.
U’s expensive failures of the past few years include “The Green Zone,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “The Wolfman” and “MacGruber” in 2010 and “Duplicity,” “State of Play,” “Land of the Lost,” “Funny People” and “Public Enemies” in 2009. “Bruno,” “Little Fockers” and Illumination Entertainment’s “Despicable Me” were among the studio’s few hits. But U has been showing signs of a turnaround in recent months.
The studio leads the majors so far this year with a $494 million domestic B.O. haul through May 13 (Fox is ahead overseas, recently topping $1 billion for the year to date; Paramount is second domestically with $485 million). That’s thanks to U hits like Easter toon “Hop,” “Fast Five” and this past weekend’s Judd Apatow-produced wedding laffer “Bridesmaids,” which exceeded industry expectations in nabbing $24.4 million to nudge “Fast Five” out of the No. 2 slot for the weekend. “Fast Five” brought in the studio’s biggest domestic opening ever at $83.6 million.
And the rest of U’s summer slate looks promising, with Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys and Aliens” actioner expected to play well in July and Jason Bateman-Ryan Reynolds laffer “The Change-Up” bowing in August.
Yet there was still enough blood left in the water to warrant layoffs, and earlier this month Debbie Liebling was replaced by Peter Cramer and Jeffrey Kirschenbaum as the studio’s co-presidents of production.
With the move — coming amid a slew of changes set to take place as Comcast puts its stamp on NBCUniversal — Meyer, studio chairman Adam Fogelson, co-chair Donna Langley and vice chairman-COO Rick Finkelstein turned to a proven pair of studio execs who can juggle corporate politics while building tentpoles. Kirschenbaum has been with U since 2001, Cramer since 2005.
“Over the past 18 months, as we refined our process, it became clear that a different structure would better suit our needs going forward,” Fogelson and Langley said.
Liebling’s departure signals that the U film team is aware of its issues and is making the tough decisions to change course for more profitable waters. And that means revisiting the types of projects it wants to make.
After “Fast Five” scored a big win at the B.O., U quickly made moves to greenlight a sixth pic and lock down deals with the cast for future installments. It’s also moved forward with the Kristen Stewart fairy tale “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Oliver Stone’s pot pic “Savages,” the Seth MacFarlane comedy “Ted” and the samurai epic “47 Ronin.”
It has scrapped risky projects like Guillermo del Toro’s R-rated horror pic “At the Mountains of Madness,” an adaptation of the Broadway musical “In the Heights,” and the Martin Luther King biopic “Memphis” that Paul Greengrass was attached to direct. It’s also trimming the budget of Imagine Entertainment’s expensive large-scale adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower,” which aimed to encompass three films and two TV shows. Production was set to start on the pic in September but is now targeted for February.
Studio brass have also worked to cement relationships with hit filmmakers like “Fast Five” director Justin Lin; Apatow, who has a long history at U; Favreau, who has made his last two pics with Marvel; Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri, who’s already delivered “Despicable Me” and “Hop”; and Imagine — provided they can work things out on “The Dark Tower.”
U landed Jeremy Renner as the male lead in “The Bourne Legacy,” drawing raves from the blogosphere, and the studio had the foresight to begin talks with Chris Hemsworth for the male lead in “Snow White and the Huntsman” before his star-making turn in Paramount and Marvel’s “Thor.”
Comcast — a la Disney — is especially looking for projects it can exploit and promote across NBCU’s properties, including its TV channels and theme parks.
Although first-quarter earnings at the studio were dented by heavy marketing costs, Burke praised NBCU and Comcast’s cross-promotional efforts around “Hop” — which has grossed $165 million at the worldwide B.O. It’s a model he and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts aim to make a pillar of the company’s post-merger strategy.
Since coming on as Universal Pictures chiefs in October 2009, Fogelson and Langley have preached a strategy of making good, sellable films that fit the financial model. Fundamentally, they want to make sure the upside potential outweighs the downsize risk.
“At the Mountains of Madness” didn’t fit that ethos given that sci-fi horror often doesn’t play well overseas. And at a budget of around $150 million, the project was considered too expensive relative to its potential returns.
The film division is looking to build a roster of safe bets. Among the prospects, given their brand recognition and potential wide appeal, are “Battleship,” the actioner U has pegged at a $200 million budget and planned for summer 2012 , and other Hasbro-based toy movies like “Stretch Armstrong,” “Candyland,” “Monopoly” and “Ouija.”
Absent those types of pics, U has been forced to look off the studio lot for projects it can turn into theme-park rides. Its consumer products arm has also had to dig deep into its library for titles (“Jurassic Park,” “Curious George,” “Scarface” and “The Big Lebowski”) to adapt as games and licensed merchandise.
The creatures from “Despicable Me” and “Hop” were the first costumed characters U could integrate into its parks in years.
As long as those decisions keep Comcast’s Burke, known for his hands-on leadership style, at bay, Meyer, who prefers his execs not be distracted by parental politics, will keep getting to run Universal his way.
In the four months since taking the reins of NBCU, Burke seems to be backing Meyer’s strategy and the current film regime.
As employees received individual copies of a blank journal titled “The Big Idea Book,” Burke said, “We’re a company founded on and driven by big ideas, and this gives you a place to record your own.”
Now Burke needs the studio to see more of its big ideas record big numbers at the box office.