Universal Troubles Started With DreamWorks Exit

by Anne Thompson
August 2, 2009 7:25 AM
9 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
Universal execs are heaving a huge sigh of relief with the $23.5 million estimated opening weekend for Judd Apatow's edgy comedy Funny People, starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann. The movie scored mixed reviews and played best for men. Women hated it . It's a pity that the studio wasn't able to help Apatow whip his sprawling two and half hour comedy into submission. The movie was ambitious, brilliant, dark and out of control, and I suspect the box office will fall steeply on word-of-mouth.

Universal is not out of the woods yet. There is still trouble in Universal City.

When a studio pushes back two big titles to 2010, they're playing with numbers: either numbers they're afraid will be bad, or numbers that they need to show in another quarter. Paul Greengrass's Iraq drama Green Zone is a payback project for a filmmaker the studio relies on for its lucrative Bourne franchise. But there are no guarantees with this material. And Kathryn Bigelow's similar-looking The Hurt Locker is heading for year-end awards contention. So the studio pushed the Matt Damon war movie back to 2010, as well as the period remake The Wolf Man, starring Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt. Del Toro seemed strangely miscast and out of his element in the footage screened at Comic-Con last year. (After Working Title's Richard Curtis music comedy Pirate Radio failed at the UK boxoffice, Universal gave it to its specialty distributor Focus Features, which pushed it back from summer to November.)

What happened? 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! The studio's troubles in 2009 go back to one key moment in 2005, when General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt refused to meet David Geffen's demands for keeping DreamWorks at the studio. Universal studio head Ron Meyer did everything he could to keep Spielberg & Co. in the fold. But when he lost that deal, it started an inevitable ripple effect.

First, Geffen took the deal to Viacom/Paramount. With Spielberg on his way out, Universal Pictures chairman Stacy Snider faced what running the studio without DreamWorks would be like. She decided to join Spielberg instead.

Thompson on Hollywood

It was a blow to Meyer, who relied on Snider to run things. She was tough, knew the town players and when to say yes or no. Meyer was a powerful figure behind her, with deep relationships and diplomatic skills. But Snider had taste, management acumen, development, production and marketing chops. Her departure was a serious loss.

So Meyer made the best of his deep executive bench and promoted two able lieutenants with strong track records. Marc Shmuger had risen through marketing and had learned a lot from Snider. David Linde, with global business smarts and talent relationships, moved west from Focus Features' New York office.

But the duo was not as powerful as Snider. They took creative risks, the way she had, but didn't have the clout to wrangle filmmakers into submission when they needed to. Michael Mann's Public Enemies played long and flat. So did Apatow's Funny People. They greenlit smart adult movies like Duplicity and State of Play, whose costly stars failed to captivate moviegoers. They deployed their marketing prowess to push tough sells like the hard-R Sacha Baron Cohen comedy Bruno, which also needed more shaping and guidance, and sank like a stone after a strong opening. The summer's biggest stumble was the Will Ferrell remake Land of the Lost. Sam Raimi's genre hybrid Drag Me to Hell, too smart, PG and funny to score in the horror niche, also failed to catch fire at a time when the studio badly needed something to work.

So what could save the Universal regime? Without a few serious hits, Meyer will be forced to demand some changes. Word is good on the new Nancy Meyers comedy, It's Complicated, starring Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn should never be counted out with Couples Retreat. Ridley Scott's Robin Hood should deliver in May, 2010 with a trimmed-down Russell Crowe in the title role opposite Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian. Otherwise I see a lot of small-scale comedies from the likes of Ricky Gervais and Edgar Wright, with the possibility of a Little Fockers delivery. 2010 could be a tough year. 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. And Apatow has just signed a three-picture deal. We'll see how patient the notoriously demanding GE will be.


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9 Comments

  • LJ | August 5, 2009 2:10 AMReply

    This article reads a bit too much like Thompson has drunk the Wall Street Kool-Aid that promotes short-term profits over any sort of long term vision of good steady growth. It's precisely that focus on the short-term from Wall Street and other heads of Fortune 500 companies (including GE's Immelt) that has placed the US economy on the verge of financial collapse. To pin the downfall on the loss of Snider (and thereby implicating Shmuger and Linde) denies the reality. Less than a year ago, in Dec. 2008, Universal was awarded best studio bragging rights. Now their co-leaders are suddenly without "taste, management acumen, development, production, and marketing chops." - PLEASE!! Shmuger and Linde have long histories with the company, having contributed to its success well before their Co-Chairmanships and then leading it to huge success after taking over. Look at their track records. The year after Snider left, Universal surpassed it's all time best ever domestic, international, and worldwide box office receipts. The following year, in 2008, Shmuger and Linde broke their own record again. (http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS64259+01-Jan-2009+PRN20090101)

    When Shaq left the Lakers, it took 7 more years for the Lakers to get back on top. Universal did it two years in a row after Snider left. The facts are clear. The reality is that no studio and no team is going to win it every year. Heck, Michael Jordan only won the title 6 times in 15 years of playing. He missed more than half his shots, too, including some last second ones (49.7% lifetime), but he's still the best ever. So it's an off year. That's the nature of the business. Public Enemies, Bruno, Drag Me to Hell - all will still be profitable ultimately. And Universal will return to the top no doubt with Shmuger and Linde at the helm . This sort of revisionist history is ridiculous. Does Thompson really think she can play Tolstoy and explain an off year in a horrible economy by some distant deal-gone-bad ripple effect from the past? Please let's stick to the facts.

  • Brian | August 4, 2009 2:58 AMReply

    The last people I'd want to see playing Robin Hood and Maid Marian are Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. Crowe should play Little John or Friar Tuck and Cate should play the Sheriff of Nottingham. Or Prince John. She's already shown what a great villain she can be with her Natasha role in the last Indiana Jones movie. And she's already tackled flawed English royalty, too. Maid Marian is not a Cate Blanchett-type role. Let's see...Jason Statham as Robin and Keira Knightley as Maid Marian. No, wait...Megan Fox would be even better. This is the Jason Statham/Megan Fox vehicle I've been waiting for! :DDDDD

    Anyway, great new site, Anne. Good pieces, too. This is what you do best.

  • ThePlaylist | August 4, 2009 1:55 AMReply

    Congrats on the new site Anne. I'm very happy to see you'll still be doing stories like this. You always deliver some great big picture context people are missing.

  • Mimi | August 4, 2009 1:48 AMReply

    I think Robin Hood could be a huge hit for Universal. While it had some trouble getting started, all reports say filming has gone very well, without any major glitches. I believe there is a hungry audience for period epics if they're exciting, well promoted and deliver the goods.

    Other Universal films have misfired though, and I'd certainly include Funny People, a film that doesn't cater to a core audience and doesn't seem to know what it is. Seth Rogan is a turn off for female audiences, and Adam Sandler is losing the boys.

  • Amy D. | August 3, 2009 7:36 AMReply

    Fascinating big-picture analysis. Shows how tough it can be to succeed at a game of relationships when someone outside the business -- like the CEO of General Electric - ultimately calls the shots. Way to come out swinging, Anne!

  • Ryan Sartor | August 3, 2009 6:53 AMReply

    Who needs another James L. Brooks? I like the old Apatow just fine.

    Although my favorite of his films is "Knocked Up," I hope he collaborates with Steve Carell again. Carell in "Dan Life Real Life"-mode would be a nice fit with Apatow's new aesthetic. The problem with "Funny People" is that it's all about rich, spoiled brats while "Knocked Up" was about regular people. Just call his next movie "Regular People," that would be nice.

  • Ryan Sartor | August 3, 2009 6:47 AMReply

    I thought after last summer's big successes, Universal would push on into $300 million blockbuster territory. Still "Wanted" and "Bourne" are no "Pirates" or "Harry Potter." They need to risk a lot on a huge franchise and hope it doesn't turn out like a "Golden Compass" (which I actually liked a lot more than "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" films).

    Also, (even though it cleaned up) maybe they should have waited until summer to spool "Fast & Furious," if only to save a bit of face.

    Great to see you at IndieWIRE, Anne! Best blog in the business.

  • David C | August 3, 2009 5:44 AMReply

    One secret weapon in "Funny People," for me and all the other men with whom I've discussed the film, is the wonderful Leslie Mann. I'd like to see her in Carole Lombard-type roles, glamorous and funny, with an Old School leading man like George Clooney.

  • mary | August 3, 2009 2:18 AMReply

    Universal will still make profit on "Bruno" and "Drag Me to Hell". "Public Enemies" is also going to gross more than $200 million worldwide. (Among Michael Mann's films, only "Collateral" had grossed more than $200 million worldwide)
    In recent months, the only big moneyloser for Universal is "Land of the Lost". I suspect that the very expensive trouble project "Robin Hood" is also going to be a big moneyloser, though.

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