As I predicted, Ron Meyer has won the NBC Universal game of survival. The wily ex-CAA partner has successfully run Universal Pictures as president and COO through three owners over 16 years. While former NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker is gone, Meyer remains. Hollywood’s longest-running studio chief has signed a new contract to continue as President and Chief Operating Officer, Universal Studios. He will remain with the company at least through through 2015 and he will continue to report to Comcast CEO Steve Burke. He joined Universal in August 1995.
Genial with a steely interior befitting an ex-Marine, Meyer knows everyone in Hollywood, and is the ultimate fixer/negotiator/manager. But the studio has been under box office duress. The day after the studio chortled over huge record box office on Fast Five, Universal tossed out production head Debbie Liebling. And Meyer is fully capable of making more changes if Universal’s current management doesn’t turn around the ship in time. As long as Meyer’s co-chairmen since October 2009–ex-marketing chief Adam Fogelson and ex-production head (and new Academy member) Donna Langley–deliver some hits, they’ll hang onto their jobs. But now we know that Meyer isn’t going to be the fall guy.
The studio had been under pressure following such flops as Land of the Lost, State of Play, Public Enemies and Duplicity, but the new management team promoted from Meyer’s bench has not executed much better than their predecessors with a mix of inherited and new projects. Disappointments The Wolf Man, Green Zone, Robin Hood, Charlie St. Cloud, Scott Pilgrim Against the World, The Dilemma, The Adjustment Bureau and Your Highness have been balanced by inherited franchises– Fast Five, too pricey Little Fockers and Working Title’s latest Nanny McPhee— and comedies It’s Complicated and Couples Retreat as well as producer Judd Apatow’s Get Him to the Greek and Bridesmaids. But Universal has not launched fresh new franchises. While Fast Six and Despicable Me 2 (2013) are ramping up, Fockers and McPhee are probably over.
Universal replaced Liebling, who came over from Fox and was on the job a mere 18 months, with production execs Peter Cramer and Jeffrey Kirschenbaum (who supervised the Fast Five movie). Universal also made changes in its marketing and distribution ranks; August 8th Sony creative advertising vet Josh Goldstein replaces marketing chief Eddie Egan, who’s moving over to run marketing for Illumination. Paying off in spades was the studio’s move to import Fox animation czar Chris Meledandri, who followed up last year’s Despicable Me ($540 million worldwide) with this spring’s Russell Brand hit Hop. 3-D CG Dr. Seuss’s the Lorax is up next for Illumination (March 2, 2012).
The 2011/2012 slate will tell the tale. Expectations are not great for Playtone/Tom Hanks service deal, the modestly-budgeted romantic comedy Larry Crowne (July 1), which co-stars Julia Roberts and is skewing toward adults. Imagine and Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens (July 29), starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, is a costly high-concept actioner that could go either way. David Dobkin’s high-budget identity switch comedy The Change-Up, starring Ryan Reynolds, Olivia Wilde and Jason Bateman, could prove another funny winner.
Down the pike there’s another Working Title franchise, Johnny English Reborn, which tends to play better overseas, as well as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which Focus will handle for the awards season, and 2012 true story Everybody Loves Whales, starring John Krazinski and Drew Barrymore. Yet another Bridget Jones Diary is also in the works.
Universal’s slate includes a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing, starring Joel Edgerton, Imagine’s Brett Ratner/Ben Stiller comedy Tower Heist, in which working men wreak revenge on a Bernie Madoff villain (Alan Alda), Team Apatow comedy Wanderlust, Japanese Ninja tale 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, American Pie franchise installment American Reunion, and Hasbro’s franchise wannabe Battleship, among others. Putting screenwriter/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) on the next Bourne installment (August 2012) was a smart call, even without Matt Damon.
But the studio is currently dealing with a deteriorating relationship with financing partner-turned-rival distributor Relativity, which is dueling with the studio over competing Snow White projects. In order to fix the situation, Relativity’s key investor and funder Elliott Management is now running the Universal funding slate (Beverly 2) to eliminate conflicts of interest.
In the works for Universal are Tom Cruise-starrer Oblivion, a post-apocalyptic tale directed by Tron Legacy‘s Joseph Kosinski; Hasbro’s Ouija; Stretch Armstrong and Reynolds comedy RIPD. Universal has the resources to move forward–but endless remakes, prequels, retools and too-expensive Imagine tentpoles (Robin Hood, Dark Tower) are not going to prove the only answer to staying nimble in today’s quicksilver universe.