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Universal Shakeup: Why Jeff Shell Is Grabbing the Movie Spotlight

Observers thought Langley, not Fogelson, would be bounced

Adam Fogelson’s forced departure as chairman of Universal Pictures and Jeff Shell’s arrival as its new movie chief sends a strong signal that media congloms today are just as concerned with the “big picture” of where Hollywood is headed as they are with the individual pictures that populate their annual slates.

Since Fogelson was promoted from his former post as marketing head to movie chairman in October 2009, he was focused on helping turn around the studio, which was limping behind its rivals following a string of flops that included “Duplicity,” “State of Play,” “Land of the Lost,” “Public Enemies” and “Funny People.” His predecessors, Marc Shmuger and David Linde lost their jobs as a consequence, and were replaced by Fogelson and Donna Langley, who had been the studio’s production prexy. Langley, as it turns out, was promoted Monday to Fogelson’s job.

Fogelson and Langley (pictured) began preaching that they wanted to pursue projects that were responsible risks. In 2011, that strategy started paying dividends with hits like “Fast Five” and “Bridesmaids.” Fogelson’s bosses at Comcast also seemed on board with the direction, re-upping both Fogelson and Langley in the fall of 2011 with contract extensions that would keep them in their jobs until the end of next year.

Since the re-up, the pair has had a relatively strong track record with hits like “Les Miserables,” “Ted,” “Fast and Furious 6” and most recently “Despicable Me 2.” They also encountered some treacherous bumps in the road with the costly flops “Battleship” and “R.I.P.D.”

Even prior to the release of those underperformers, Fogelson began showing  a cautiousness about which movies he would greenlight and those he wasn’t willing to back because their upside potential did not outweigh the financial risks.

For example, the studio put the brakes on Guillermo del Toro’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” a $125 million horror film that the director insisted be released with an R rating.

Even with James Cameron also on board to produce and Tom Cruise attached to star, Uni did not believe the picture would make enough money, especially overseas, and shut the project down in pre-production.

Fogelson was also involved in the decision to pass on Ron Howard’s expensive epic adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” book series into three films and a limited TV series for NBC over a six-year period. Javier Bardem was in talks with the studio to star with the planned film-to-TV crossover. Uni put the project into turnaround, and Warner Bros. has also since passed on the adaptation.

As for Langley, It had long been rumored that when the day came for Comcast to shuffle Universal’s film deck, it would be her, not Fogelson, who would be dealt out of the game.

As several insiders tell Variety, Langley’s longstanding relationships with agents and producers and her experience in developing movies may ultimately have given her the upper hand.

Langley is credited with aggressively pursuing and eventually landing the movie rights to E.L. James’ bestselling trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which every major studio (except Disney) was hot to buy in the spring of 2012. Uni and its specialty film unit Focus Features will market and distribute the projected three pictures, the first of which is scheduled to hit theaters on Aug. 1, 2014.

In her elevated position, Langley will continue to serve up potential movie ideas, but now to a different boss: Shell, who will focus on big picture matters dictated by an ever shifting landscape in which old business models are being unseated by new technologies and changing consumer demands.

NBCU will now have to work out an exit package for Fogelson, whose contract still had more than a year to run. As for where he goes from here, some are speculating that he may return to the marketing world he knows well. Fogelson did not return Variety‘s calls.

Uni, which as of Monday had not offered Fogelson the usual production deal, simply bid the just-removed studio chief a brief farewell in the 10th paragraph of its release announcing the management reorg.

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