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Universal Preps for Change, from Meyer's Upstairs Move to Courting DreamWorks' Snider and Spielberg

Features
by Anne Thompson
August 9, 2012 3:53 PM
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Changes are under way at Universal Studios. And the LAT's revelation that studio president Ron Meyer will be heading into an advisory role at NBCUniversal prior to his retirement paves the way for new leadership.

The longest- running studio chief in Hollywood has arranged his own graceful exit. The wily CAA co-founder, 67, has run Universal Pictures as president and COO through three owners over 17 years. While former NBCUniversal president and CEO Jeff Zucker is gone, Meyer signed a new contract last year to continue with the company at least through through 2015. He joined Universal in August 1995.

It turns out that Meyer has a provision in his June 2011 contract that provides for him to be able to move, at some point in the next few years, into being an advisor to NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke.

Genial with a steely interior befitting an ex-Marine, Meyer has long been known as the ultimate fixer/negotiator/manager. But the studio has been under box office duress since Stacey Snider left the studio in 2006 to join Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks. For every "Mamma Mia!", "Fast Five," "Bridesmaids" and "Ted" there has been a "Robin Hood," "The Wolf Man," "The Green Zone," or "Battleship," which contributed to an $83 million loss in 2012's second quarter. And now Universal is working to get them both back. Snider left Universal when Meyer was unable to convince Jeffrey Immelt at General Electric to do what was necessary to keep DreamWorks and Spielberg. Paramount landed the studio instead. Losing Snider was ultimately a bigger blow to Universal than losing Spielberg.

Ron Meyer and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Snider thought she was joining the mighty DreamWorks. But the company has slimmed down with the shrinking economy. Having left a rocky Paramount marriage for Disney and with indie funding from Indian backer Reliance, DreamWorks is now putting out a fraction of its former annual slate, just three to five films a year. And making the kinds of movies that Tiffany label DreamWorks takes pride in has become tougher than ever, even when a film like "The Help" actually comes out ahead.

As DreamWorks Studios streamlined, it let go of deals with Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and gave senior exec Mark Sourian a first-look production deal. So it would make sense for Snider and Spielberg, whose old Amblin digs are still on the Universal lot, to literally come home. Universal would score a coup by nabbing Snider, who is the industry's most competent and experienced motion picture executive--she knows studio management, administration, talent, development, production and distribution and marketing, the works. She can do it all. If she were to take the Meyer position--even if Burke takes away theme parks--then she would become the first woman studio head.

Yes, Sherry Lansing and Amy Pascal have run studio motion picture divisions--but with a male business partner behind them, Sony's Michael Lynton and Paramount's Jonathan Dolgen, respectively. For her part, Lansing ably commandeered marketing and distribution, an area in which Pascal certainly has input, but prefers to leave to Jeff Blake.

Weisz and Renner in 'Bourne Legacy'

There are miles to go before the Gordian knot with Reliance and Disney and Universal will be unraveled, if ever. Universal's "Cowboys & Aliens" and Disney's "Fright Night" were costly flops for DreamWorks, which has Spielberg's "Lincoln" still to come in November through Disney, which grabs 8% of their revenues. Fox is partnered with DreamWorks on Spielberg's next, "Robopocalypse"(2013). Recent DreamWorks acquisition “Starbuck" is set to start filming with Vince Vaughn as well as a 2014 video game movie "Need for Speed," while a script is in the works for NYT bestseller “A Dog’s Purpose.”

At Universal, Meyer continues to run the show with his co-chairmen since October 2009--ex-marketing chief Adam Fogelson and ex-production head Donna Langley--both recently renewed. Paying off in spades was the studio's move to import Fox animation czar Chris Meledandri, who followed up "Despicable Me" ($540 million worldwide) with Russell Brand hit "Hop" and "The Lorax." 

This Friday we'll see how the latest "Bourne" installment, "Legacy," rebooted with Jeremy Renner, pans out with audiences. Focus Features has booked Working Title Tolstoy drama "Anna Karenina" for fall festivals and Tom Hooper will deliver musical "Les Miserables" in December. Comedy powerhouse Judd Apatow's return to the director's chair with "This is 40" (December), which stars "Knocked Up" couple Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, played well in April in Las Vegas during Universal's presentation at CinemaCon.

Universal pushed back to 2013 Japanese Ninja tale "47 Ronin," starring Keanu Reeves (February 17) as well as Tom Cruise-starrer "Oblivion," a post-apocalyptic tale directed by "Tron Legacy"'s Joseph Kosinski (April).  Also coming up is action comedy "RIPD," which stars Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds as a team of dead cops seeking to return errant stragglers to their rightful place in the afterlife (June 2013). In the pipeline are Ron Howard's racing drama "Rush" (September) as well as inevitable new iterations of the "Fast & Furious" (director Justin Lin returns) and "Despicable Me" franchises and a retooled lower-budget version of Hasbro board game "Ouija." And Langley landed hot erotic title "Fifty Shades of Grey," which is in development with "A Social Network" producers Michael DeLuca and Dana Brunetti.

Putting Snider back in charge at Universal would be a smart move for Burke, if he can pull it off.

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