On August 18, Ron Meyer was forced to resign his chairmanship at Universal Studios in the face of a sexual liaison come to light. As a longtime executive admitting that he paid off a mistress in order to prevent his company from facing embarrassment, it’s hard to imagine who would call him a victim of cancel culture (although, someone might). However unwittingly, he is part of a cultural revolution in Hollywood, one that is seeing the new Hollywood order push aside the old. Expect more veterans to be put out to pasture, victims of their fat paychecks, limited viability, or in the cases of Meyer and respected Warner Bros. studio head Kevin Tsujihara, the lure of the same femme fatale.
Dallying with Charlotte Kirk cost both 25-year studio executives their jobs, after each admitted to having consensual affairs with the British actress, who was trying to leverage a Hollywood career. Like WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey before him, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell expressed regrets at behavior inconsistent with leadership expectations at their respective studios. Meyer’s corporate bio is already erased from the NBCUniversal website, and he has resigned as Academy Museum Board Chair.
It’s an ignominious end to Meyer’s Universal career, but in some ways his exit is not much different than what WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt experienced last week: He reportedly learned that he was out of a job on the same morning that newly installed Warner Media CEO Jason Kilar announced the company’s reorganization. The reasons are very different, but both men experienced sudden exits without the slower and more expensive face-saving machinations that were once all but guaranteed in Hollywood.
In Hollywood’s survival sweepstakes, the 75-year-old Meyer played a winning hand for five decades. The wily CAA co-founder ran Universal Pictures through three owners over 25 years, outlasting former NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker, Meyer’s valued lieutenant Stacey Snider (DreamWorks), former production heads Scott Stuber (Netflix), Mary Parent (Disruption Entertainment) and Debbie Liebling (“PEN15”), and distribution and marketing chief-turned-chairman Adam Fogelson (STX), among many others, since he joined Universal in August 1995.
Genial and candid, with a steely interior befitting an ex-Marine, Meyer deployed his deep relationships in Hollywood as the ultimate fixer/negotiator/manager. The studio had its ups and downs, but never put all its eggs in the franchise basket (although the “Jurassic Park” series has generated $5 billion worldwide since its 1993 launch). Instead, Universal chased a diverse balance of product spread throughout the year.
The studio took calculated risks that paid off with lucrative franchises such as “Fast and Furious,” Illumination’s “Despicable Me,” “Meet the Parents,” and Jason Bourne. For the past decade, Meyer relied on motion picture chief Donna Langley to produce more hits than losses, and she delivered a diverse lineup that included F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton,” the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise, and the “Mamma Mia!” series. (The two musical hits, and the global success of Oscar-winner “Les Miserables,” also led to the colossal disaster that was “Cats.”)
Of course there were many flops, some worse than others: “Land of the Lost,” “47 Ronin,” “Mortal Engines,” “Public Enemies,” “The Wolf Man,” “Robin Hood,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Battleship,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” and “Larry Crowne” were balanced by hit comedies such as “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” the “Johnny English” series, “It’s Complicated,” “The Break-Up,” and “Couples Retreat,” as well as producer-director Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” “This is 40,” “Get Him to the Greek,” and “Bridesmaids.”
Jason Blum’s horror factory Blumhouse continues to churn out multiple hits for the studio, including “The Purge” and the “Insidious” series, Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winner “Get Out” and follow-up “Us,” and the reboot of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” franchise. But Universal has not launched any fresh new franchises. While “F9” and “Fast & Furious 10” are in the works for 2021 and 2022, respectively, and “Minions: The Rise of Gru” is set for 2021, those properties are long in the tooth.
Under Langley, Focus Features remains steady with Oscar contenders such as “The Theory of Everything” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” surprise hits “Harriet” and “On the Basis of Sex,” and recent Spike Lee Oscar-winner “BlacKkKlansman.”
The days are gone when a studio can rely on endless remakes, prequels, retools and too-expensive tentpoles. Staying nimble is essential in today’s quicksilver universe, and Shell is an industry leader as he pushes theatrical releases to VOD and forges a landmark 17-day window with AMC, the world’s largest theater chain.
Meyer is an exemplar of a free-spending Hollywood that will likely be consigned to our pre-pandemic memories. While this humiliating exit is not the way Meyer would have chosen to go out, don’t feel sorry for him. In 1997, he bought a bluff in Paradise Cove, Malibu for $5 million to spite his former CAA partner Ovitz, after he left to go to Disney. In 2019, just before Meyer sold the property and its Charles Gwathmey mansion for $100 million, he hosted a huge party (in concert with Chanel and the Natural Resources Defense Council) with a guest list that included Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Courteney Cox, Priyanka Chopra, Mandy Moore, and Cindy Crawford.
Those were the days.