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.
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.