Inside Jeff Shell’s First Year at Universal

Jeff Shell One Year in
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

When Jeff Shell was announced as the new boss of Universal one year ago, skeptics predicted a stressful transition, given the executive’s inexperience on the Hollywood firing line.

They were right and they were wrong. In year one, Shell has navigated his new job cautiously and has kept his head down. While giving great latitude to his production team, he has made some key changes on the studio’s business side, ruffling feathers in the process.

Shell’s background and management style is strictly corporate and solidly Comcast. He was president of the cable giant’s programming group before a shift three years ago to London, where he presided over TV distribution, among other duties. Before Comcast, he worked at Fox cable and in other positions in TV.

Like his Comcast bosses, NBCUniversal chief executive Steve Burke and Comcast Corp. chief Brian Roberts, Shell eschews press interviews and has little interest in crafting a media profile. Case in point: He declined multiple requests to participate in this story. The many people Variety interviewed both inside and outside Universal were just as reluctant to speak about him publicly — even those who had flattering words. Opinions expressed privately about Shell and his first 12 months on the job are decidedly mixed among fans and detractors.

“Shell fits the Comcast mold,” says a rival production executive. “Comcast people are all from Philadelphia, and they carry a different discipline.” One producer who has done business with the U chief suggests, “Shell is not one of us. He doesn’t understand the big dreams or the big risks.”

Shell’s cautious nature may fit the corporate mood. Universal is having a good year at the box office, though its marketshare is down slightly. After a series of convulsions when U’s former chairman, Adam Fogelson, was among those fired a year ago, the studio’s management team seems to be functioning relatively well. Indeed, the Comcast calm has been welcomed by many, given Universal’s succession of disruptive owners, from Matsushita to Seagram to Vivendi to General Electric.

Jeff Shell Universal
 Illustration by Joe Morse

In reinventing himself as a Hollywood player, Shell has surprised and impressed colleagues, who describe him as an intense, extroverted man with a jumpy attention span. He fires off an unrelenting stream of questions during meetings, and annoys colleagues by constantly working his smartphone. “Jeff does a good job of masking his hyper personality,” says one Universal colleague. “He’s a driven, focused energetic leader,” says another. “He’s a smart agitator who asks a lot of questions,” cites a third.

As a Harvard MBA, Shell slices and dices everything by the numbers, and approaches the business analytically. “Are we making a dollar or aren’t we?” is the mantra guiding his decisions. He is earnestly studying the idea of significantly collapsing release windows to satisfy consumer demands to get entertainment offerings as soon as possible. “He’s technologically savvy and sees the world in a different way,” says a colleague. Shell has told associates that it makes perfect sense to take advantage of Comcast’s direct pipeline to customers when it comes to delivering movies faster into the home.

Of course, as Universal’s former studio chief discovered with the failed release experiment of Eddie Murphy’s “Tower Heist,” a further shrinkage of release windows would inevitably trigger repercussions with exhibitors.

Some believe Comcast’s delicate merger negotiations with Time Warner Cable may inhibit some of Shell’s pet initiatives. To be sure, Comcast walks a tightrope politically in view of its prospective merger — a deal many insist is inevitable, and a move toward oligopoly.

While Shell didn’t come up through the film business, he’s attempting to immerse himself in movies. One colleague says he goes to the cinema every weekend with his family, and frequents NBCU vice chairman Ron Meyer’s celebrity movie nights at his Malibu compound on Sundays.

Talk to production executives at Universal, and they’ll testify that Shell has been supportive and constructive. He has given movie chairman Donna Langley a wide berth on creative matters. However, sometimes he lends a hand. When Langley extended the studio’s existing production deal two months ago with horror maven Jason Blum to an unprecented 10 years, Shell helped extend the pact across NBCU’s cable and TV divisions.

Shell is heavily focused on expanding U’s international business, clearly an arena he knows well from his years abroad. In April, he shook up the foreign division by announcing plans to relocate the head of theatrical operations from London to L.A., prompting well-regarded international chief David Kosse to quit. This week, Shell reversed himself, promoting London-based Duncan Clark to the role.

On the film budget front, Shell is very cautious. Studio insiders say he has, curiously, devised four approved categories of movies: comedy, animation, classic monster films and action-thrillers like the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

Comcast turned over Universal’s Focus Features, long a top supplier of specialty films, to the bottom-line-oriented Peter Schlessel, replacing James Schamus, an icon in the indie community. Schlessel is pursuing an expanded schedule that leans on more commercial, co-financed projects rather than taking risks with arthouse ventures, like his predecessor.

“His decision making has been safe,” says one producer. “He isn’t taking big chances on any tentpoles.” Midbudget-range films on commercial subjects intrigue him. “Shell likes Universal releases like ‘The Purge,’ ‘Neighbors’ or ‘Lucy,’ ” notes one executive. “Pricey films like ‘Dracula Untold’ (greenlit before his arrival) would not be on his list.”

Some say they are put off in meetings when Shell cites the opinions of his wife and 11-year-old daughter on matters of media taste. And Shell has rattled some nerves internally with some new executive hires, particularly those positioned above Universal vets.

He recently hired former Disney toy executive Vince Klaseus as president of a newly created brand development unit after being impressed with the key role the executive had played in that area at his former studio. Department heads Stephanie Sperber, president of Universal Partnerships and Licensing, and Glenn Ross, who oversees original family and kids programming, now report to Klaseus.

Shell realized that U sorely needs to increase its earnings from licensing and consumer products, and grow its family and kids business, especially given plans to revive “Jurassic World” and expand the “Despicable Me” franchise with a “Minions” spinoff. In 2013, its licensing and merchandising revenue totaled a paltry $1.75 billion vs. Disney’s $40.9 billion.

“He doesn’t want to be disruptive, but he’s growth oriented,” says a producer who does business with U.

“I don’t think he’ll be at Universal for the long haul,” observes another associate. “He’s likely being groomed for a future role at Comcast.”