Universal Pictures has done the expected. In the corporate game of Survivor, co-chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde are out and new co-chairmen Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley are in.
Universal Studios president and COO Ron Meyer has dipped into his executive bench again, and has elevated his marketing and distribution chief and production head. But will this duo solve his problems? Are Fogelson and Langley any sharper or more experienced than their predecessors? That is the question going forward. Certainly, while Universal vice chairman and COO Rick Finkelstein will advise, Meyer will need to become more involved in key decisions.
Structurally, Meyer is dividing up the pie. As Universal Pictures chairman, Fogelson is in charge of the worldwide motion picture group, theatrical operations, home entertainment, partnerships and licensing, finance, human resources and communications. Langley reports to Fogelson and continues to run production. She is now in charge of Working Title and Focus Features.
Finkelstein will be in charge of worldwide home entertainment, television distribution, business affairs and strategic alliances.
Shmuger and Linde lasted 3 1/2 years. All was going well through 2008. It looked like the studio was firing on all cylinders, from Baby Mama and Forgetting Sarah Marshall to Wanted and Mamma Mia!. Their luck at the boxoffice ran out in the past year, with such big budget failures as Duplicity, State of Play, Bruno, Land of the Lost, Michael Mann's Public Enemies and Judd Apatow's Funny People, along with such modest disappointments as Sam Raimi's horror comedy Drag Me to Hell.
In my phone call with Meyer and his new management troika, Meyer praised Shmuger and Linde for making the best of a difficult transition after Stacey Snider left the studio. "They built a dazzling international organization," he said. But clearly, when things got tough, the close-knit Universal family started to fray. "The timing was right; the company needed a change of direction," said Meyer, who did not look outside the studio for the duo's replacements. "It wasn't about the slate. It was about looking forward to the future, and the right people to take us there." Responding to the studio's recent climate of infighting and lack of direction, Meyer admitted that his team did not respond well to the stress of a disappointing slate and that something needed to be done. "Shit happens," he said. "We needed to get back on the horse riding in the same direction."
[Photo: Rick Finkelstein, Adam Fogelson, Donna Langley]
But Shmuger and Linde's fortunes weren't helped by their upcoming slate, which boasts no tentpoles to count on. Word is good on the new Nancy Meyers comedy, It’s Complicated, starring Meryl Streep and Steve Martin, which opens Christmas Day. But 2010 could be a tough year. The studio pushed back two $100-million-plus projects, The Wolfman (which opens February 10) and the Iraq drama The Green Zone, starring Matt Damon (which opens in March). Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood with Russell Crowe comes in May, but it could go either way. Otherwise there's a raft of comedies from the likes of Ricky Gervais and Edgar Wright, with sequel Little Fockers arriving in July.
The next Bourne doesn’t come until 2011, when Wanted 2, Fast & Furious 5, Ron Howard’s The Parsifal Mosaic, Cowboys and Aliens, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax; Hasbro’s Stretch Armstrong and the remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon could pop for the studio. Meyer, Fogelson , Langley and Finkelstein all cite the need, during this economically challenging environment, with home video resources diminishing, for the studio to be more rigorous and responsible about risk and likely return. Fogelson and Langley will look for marketable pictures, they said. No spending caps are in place.
Another question, in the wake of Disney's cutting Miramax off at the knees, is what this harbors for Universal specialty division Focus Features. Linde was its champion and figured out a way to improve their numbers by folding them into the studio's larger international production operation. Focus International's sales remain strong. While Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock was a miss, Meyer will see no reason to turn on Focus as long as they continue to return checks to the studio every year. Focus has held its staff to under 100 over the past eight years. "In comparison with the other specialty divisions," says Langley, "they are profitable, and have been for eight years. James Schamus runs an excellent business, one I'm happy to be working with."