Jim Watters, the longtime President and General Manager of Universal City Studios and Universal Studios Operations, has announced that he will be retiring at year’s end. He has been with the studio for more than 35 years and has reported to Ron Meyer for the past 15. Meyer tried to get him to stay, and persuaded Watters to stay on as a consultant for a few years. He just announced, so no movement yet to fill the post.
BREAKING: Universal Pictures Co-Chairman Donna Langley will continue her term through 2014. The studio extended the option on her deal, a move that was widely expected when Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson re-upped last week and will continue to have full day-to-day operating responsibility for the Motion Picture Group, reporting to Universal Studios President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Meyer (whose contract was recently re-upped through 2015) and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. That was a signal that the studio’s production team would remain intact after NBCUniversal was acquired by Comcast. Langley will continue to serve as a key strategic business partner overseeing the company’s production department, Focus Features and the studio’s worldwide acquisitions efforts. She reports to Fogelson and has been co-chairman since October 2009.
BREAKING: NBCUniversal’s new owners at Comcast have given a vote of confidence to the studio’s feature film operation. They’ve exercised an option on Universal Pictures’ Chairman Adam Fogelson and extended his contract through 2014. I’m told that Fogelson is, in turn, in the process of exercising the option of Donna Langley and she will continue as the studio’s co-chairman. They will also keep their executive team intact. Fogelson will continue to have full day-to-day operating responsibility for the Motion Picture Group, reporting to Universal Studios President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Meyer (whose contract was recently re-upped through 2015) and will now also report to NBCUniversal Chief Executive Officer Steve Burke.
While Universal has had its ups and downs, higher-ups are clearly convinced that Fogelson, Langley and their team are making progress. They’ve had recent hits –Bridesmaids, Hop! and Fast Five– but also had some recent misses that include The Dilemma, Change-Up and Cowboys & Aliens. In the latter case, the studio was on the hook for one-third of the film, and shared that third with Relativity Media. It has also been a year in which Fogelson and his team have made some painful decisions and let pricey productions go. That began with the Guillermo Del Toro-directed At the Mountains of Madness, which Universal developed for years and which was ready to go with Tom Cruise, until the studio made a late decision not to go forward because of the possibility the $150M film could carry an R-rating. Universal also dropped two projects that were in advanced stages of development: The Dark Tower, the Akiva Goldsman-directed adaptation of the Stephen King novel series that was to be made into three feature films and two limited-run TV series, with the first film and TV segment directed by Ron Howard and produced by Brian Grazer and Goldsman; and Oiuja, the Hasbro board game that had McG directing and Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes partners producing with Hasbro. The moves were surprising because Howard and Grazer are cornerstone filmmakers for Universal; and Del Toro and Hasbro have overall deals there. Ouija is one of several Hasbro properties the studio dropped, the others being the Gore Verbinski-directed Clue, the Ridley Scott-directed Monopoly and Magic, The Gathering. These were part of a groundbreaking deal the studio made with the toymaker several years ago, but the studio and Hasbro have re-focused their attention solely on Battleship, Stretch Armstrong, and Candy Land.
I don’t know if there’ll be a formal announcement of this, but Ron Meyer has signed a new contract to continue as President and Chief Operating Officer of Universal Studios. He will remain with the company at least 4 1/2 more years through 2015 and he will continue to report to Steve Burke, chief of NBCUniversal. And so concludes the recent saga of whether Meyer would stay atop the studio after the recent sale to Comcast. First came the inaccurate reports last November that the 66-year-old Meyer was about to get fired by the new owners. Then came more inaccurate reports in May that Meyer was in negotiations to get hired again. Actually, the longest-serving Hollywood mogul began bargaining shortly after that since the perks alone made the job worth the headaches, and Comcast wanted him to stick around.
Meyer’s current contract continues through December 2012 and he’s been running Universal Studios for 16 years in charge of motion pictures, parks and resorts, and studio operations. Since he arrived in 1995, he’s made it through four changes of ownership (Seagram’s, Vivendi, General Electric, and now Comcast) and nine different bosses (Edgar Bronfman Jr, Frank Biondi, Jean-Marie Messier, Pierre Lescure, Barry Diller, Jean-Rene Fourtou, Bob Wright, Jeff Zucker, and now Steve Burke). And each and every time, Hollywood collectively would turn to him with the same worried expression and say, “How are you?” And each and every time, Meyer would reply, “I’m still here.” Once, entertainment super-lawyer Bruce Ramer asked Ron to speak to an industry luncheon: of course, on the topic of surviving. It’s not only a miracle — a word Meyer himself uses from time to time — it’s certainly a footnote in the history books of showbiz. “Fear of failure has taken me a long way,” Meyer once told me on the record.
UPDATE EXCLUSIVE: Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard have reached a milestone unusual in Hollywood: partners for 25 years. When they first got together, Grazer was a TV producer. Howard, after growing up on the small screen in The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, had only directed a couple of TV movies and the low budget Roger Corman-produced Grand Theft Auto. Grazer and Howard have been at it together ever since, building a company that over 25 years has been one of the most consistent generators of content. Their TV series output includes 24, Parenthood, Arrested Development and Friday Night Lights; their movies have grossed $13.5 billion worldwide. That includes A Beautiful Mind, which won Howard the Academy Award for Best Director. Grazer and Howard shared Best Picture Oscars that night as well. Not everything they’ve done has succeeded, of course. They they took their company public and repurchased the shares; they helped launched and fold the online venture Pop.com; their most recent film together, the adult comedy The Dilemma, was a misfire that created controversy over the inclusion of the word “gay” in a trailer. They’ve had way more hits than misses.
In honor of Imagine’s Silver Anniversary, Deadline invited Howard and Grazer to look back over their quarter century together, and into a future that includes something never tried before by anyone in Hollywood. They’re adapting Stephen King’s 7-novel series The Dark Tower into a film trilogy, and a limited run TV series in between. It has pushed the envelope enough that their longtime home studio, Universal Pictures, postponed a planned late summer start until next year and asked the filmmakers to cut the budget. Some question the studio’s resolve on such a massive undertaking. The studio has to green light the film by next month or the rights revert to Imagine, Akiva Goldsman and King, who are determined to make it regardless.
DEADLINE: Not many marriages of any kind last 25 years in Hollywood. What is most important about the anniversary?
HOWARD: It’s such a challenging time to get movies made. And yet, look at all we have coming out. Tower Heist, the Gus Van Sant movie Restless, J Edgar with Clint Eastwood and Leo DiCaprio, Cowboys & Aliens, this big broad appeal four quadrant fantasy adventure story with Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. With The Playboy Club getting on the air, and Parenthood getting picked up, I’m proud we’re doing what we’ve always done. A wide variety of projects that got made because we care and put in the energy to get them done in light of how difficult it is these days.
DEADLINE: Simple as that?
HOWARD: Because I’m in New York, we’re not forced to stare at each other’s faces 24/7. But I think that’s not really it. We love what we’re doing, we have fun doing it and our sensibilities are in sync. In a business that can create so many feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, I learned to trust in that. Brian is smart and cares about me doing well and feeling good about what I’m doing. It’s a partnership built on support. It has been that way since the beginning.
GRAZER: It works because we have similar tastes and not only gravitate toward the same material but also what lives inside the core of the movie it becomes. We’ve done, and Ron has directed, all kinds of genres. We have a common interest in the humanity aspect of a movie, regardless if it’s a comedy or a drama. We also share a similar work ethic.
DEADLINE: When you cover all genres, does Imagine have a wheelhouse? For a company looking to last, is it advisable to have one?
HOWARD: The process is what gets Brian and me excited, whatever the genre. Not specializing has given our company a sense of flexibility and adaptability to whatever the market or the zeitgeist is suggesting. We’ve always respected each other as creative people. If Brian loves something and I don’t quite get it, I’ll tell him that but I’ll never try to impede the progress. He’s the same with me. With Apollo 13, I wasn’t sure the genre would work, because space films hadn’t done that well. Brian was instantly so excited about it, and made me realize we were onto something. 8 Mile, I don’t know anything about rap. This was something he understood. I didn’t know how to make that movie, but I recognized a great idea. Whenever the two of us get excited, on films like Splash, Night Shift and Parenthood, those have resulted in the building blocks of the company. I’ve always liked TV but I phased it out for awhile and it was Brian’s perseverance that has made us strong in both TV and films. Independent companies are rarely strong in both.
GRAZER: What we’ve do is agree on the moral center of a project, but nobody’s better at finding the language of a particular movie than Ron. He’s got a grasp of understanding new vocabularies, whether it’s the The Da Vinci Code, fantasy like Cocoon or Splash, or Backdraft and The Grinch. He is great at inhabiting a world and completely understanding and expressing its language. In A Beautiful Mind, he entered that world and understood the medical science of mental illness. So there have been times where he led the charge, and I was drawn in by his excitement.
DEADLINE: What was the last hard conversation or professional disagreement you can remember?
HOWARD: I can’t think of one offhand, but even when we have disagreements, I can’t think of a case where one of us ever said, ‘Oh, please don’t do this.’ If there’s a lot of passion from one or the other, then the support of the company is going to be there.
Emanuel Nunez has exited CAA. Nunez is the financing wiz who helped put bring offshore companies into Hollywood, particularly at a time in 2008 when those companies decided to bet on specific talent. He was a key point person on making the match between DreamWorks partners Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider with India-based Reliance Entertainment’s Amit Khanna. Reliance also made first look deals with the production companies of CAA clients that included Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Jim Carrey, Brett Ratner, George Clooney and Jay Roach. He plugged in India-based UTV with Overbrook partners Will Smith and James Lassiter, and also M. Night Shyamalan. The Cuban-born Nunez had been at CAA since 1991, brought in by Mike Ovitz and Ron Meyer to find offshore funds for film. The agency confirms he’s no longer there, but claimed it had no information on where he went.
First, Vulture.com’s Claude Brodesser-Akner inaccurately reported last November that 66-year-old Ron Meyer was about to get fired by the new Comcast owners. Now the Los Angeles Times‘ Ben Fritz inaccurately reported today that Ron Meyer is in negotiations to get hired again. Jeez, can’t you people get this right? Here’s what’s true: there is no bargaining underway, no contract extension on the table, no sticking points, no nothing. Just an “indication” from the Comcast overlords to Ron Meyer that they’d like him to stay. Does he want to stick around? Of course. (The perks alone make the job of mogul worth the headaches…) Will he stick around? Without doubt. But Fritz’s story isn’t correct as to where things stand today. ”It’s too early. The LA Times is honestly getting ahead of themselves. Everyone’s afraid to get beat by you,” an insider tells me. (Yikes, so now their mistake is my fault? On what planet?)
Meyer’s current contract continues through December 2012 and he’s been running Universal Studios for 16 years in charge of motion pictures, parks and resorts, and studio operations. Since he arrived in 1995, he’s made it through 4 changes of ownership (Seagram’s, Vivendi, General Electric, and now Comcast) and 9 different bosses (Edgar Bronfman Jr, Frank Biondi, Jean-Marie Messier, Pierre Lescure, Barry Diller, Jean-Rene Fourtou, Bob Wright, Jeff Zucker, and now Steve Burke). And each and every time, Hollywood collectively would turn to him with the same worried expression and say “How are you?” And each and every time, Meyer would reply, “I’m still here.” Once, entertainment super-lawyer Bruce Ramer asked Ron to speak to an industry luncheon: of course, on the topic of surviving. It’s not only a miracle — a word Meyer himself uses from time to time — it’s certainly a footnote in the history books of showbiz. “Fear of failure has taken me a long way,” Meyer once told me on the record.
EXCLUSIVE: This is the reason that Universal Studios president/COO Ron Meyer and his team trekked to Arkansas last week for a personal visit to the Wal-Mart headquarters. I’ve just learned that Universal’s first family film/toon unit from Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me made first-day sales on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital downloads of nearly $25 million Tuesday. What made the difference was the exclusive debut of three all-new mini-movies on the DVD Double Pack, Blu-ray Combo Pack and 3D Combo Pack starring the film’s wildly popular Minions. The mega-hit animated family comedy sold well over one million units to consumers (excluding rentals) in its first 24 hours of release and is poised to become the 2nd biggest-grossing animated home entertainment title of the year. The movie has already grossed $500+M in worldwide box office.
Good thing the morons at Universal aren’t in charge of Homeland Security. Because I’ve learned that studio bosses Ron Meyer, Jim Waters, and many others only recently discovered a security breach that has existed on the lot for decades — even throughout all the beefed-up security in effect post-9/11. The bigwigs had no idea non-employees have been able to go onto the lot without showing any ID by telling security guards they’re “a friend of Bill’s” and then heading to the 12-step meetings held in a building near the front gate. Meyer personally found out about the situation by accident 3 weeks ago and immediately ordered a stop to a 27-year-old practice. “Ron went ballistic. He was out of his mind. And it was embarrassing beyond belief that this was allowed at the same time people were using mirrors to check under cars,” a source tells me. No one is suggesting the 12-step members themselves were security threats. But the possibilities for abusing the system by anyone intent on doing harm are obvious. Now 12-step meetings on the lot are for employees only. Universal is still trying to find a nearby meeting room off-lot for the non-employees. (The studio has offered to pay for space but most 12-step programs stipulate that each group be fully self-supporting and not dependent on outside contributions.)
My pal Claudia Eller has a funny little scoop on the LA Times website about how Starz chief Chris Albrecht made a Blackberry mistake that led to Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett’s exit from Overture. (So I gotta ask: is this why moguls like Alan Horn and Ron Meyer refuse to use smart phones or even computers?) On July 1, Albrecht began a vacation in Majorca and read a hush-hush e-mail about the future of the Overture duo. Albrecht tapped out a confidential response suggesting that when he returned on July 12th there should be a discussions about removing the pair. But the reply went to approximately 400 Starz employees and senior executives — including McGurk and Rosett.
Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Game Plan Includes ‘Despicable Me’ Sequel, ‘Minion’ Spinoffs, Dr. Seuss, The Addams Family
EXCLUSIVE: Three years ago, Universal Pictures brass wooed Chris Meledandri away from his president post at Fox Animation to start its first family film unit. Over the weekend, Illumination’s first effort, Despicable Me, nearly doubled Universal’s gross predictions for a $56.4 million opening. Suddenly, the Meledandri decision looks like one of the better ones made by NBC Universal in a good long time. The studio has reinforced that by making a full commitment to the venture. Illumination’s original co-financing game plan made by former chairmen David Linde and Marc Shmuger called for Universal to fund only half the operation and film budgets, and Illumination’s founder and CEO Meledandri raising the rest. But that plan was delayed by the credit crunch. Then Universal chiefs Ron Meyer, Rick Finkelstein and Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley told Meledandri, in a decision that went all the way up to NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker, that they didn’t want to share and would fully fund him. Meledandri, who has autonomy but won’t make pictures that don’t excite the studio’s toppers, sparked to Uni’s financing plan because it incentivizes hustle to release and market the films. Despicable Me, for instance, was heavily cross-promoted in NBC-Universal platforms that included network, cable and theme parks.
The result is now a momentum changer for Universal on several fronts. Despicable Me ended a prolonged hit pic slump. It plugged the studio into a …
I smirked while watching the highlight reels of Big Media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Sir Howard Stringer and Jeff Bewkes being interviewed at the “All Things Digital” confab (aka D6 co-hosted by the Wall Street Journal‘s Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher) taking place right now at the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Southern California. And not just because of the stupid stuff that gets said. (For instance that Hollywood “ex”, Barry Diller, seemed very proud today of his Tinseltown putdown which I happen to endorse – ”Hollywood is a community that’s so inbred, it’s a wonder the children have any teeth” – while dissing both sides behind the WGA strike. ) No, what really amuses me is that while the people running the parent companies play at all things Internet, the guys back in Hollywood running the offspring networks and studios are tech-challenged.
Everyone already knows that Universal’s Ron Meyer won’t touch a computer. But not many are aware that Warner Bros’ Alan Horn also isn’t hands-on with a laptop or desktop. So he wastes his assistants’ time by having them print out his emails, collate them and prioritize them, and then input his replies. Horn, like Meyer, is still a phone guy, and he’ll never change the Hollywood way he does business no matter how prehistoric he looks to his Time Warner boss Bewkes. Which no doubt is why Horn insists on carrying a Blackberry even though I’m told it’s mostly just for show. C’mon, in any other arena, computer know-nothings would be asking, …
Ovitz Testifies Busch/Weinraub NYT Articles “Wildly Embarrassing”: Says He Suspected Ron Meyer & David Geffen Were The Sources So Hired Pellicano
2ND UPDATE: Michael Ovitz on the witness stand at the Pellicano trial today pointed an accusatory finger at his former friend and CAA partner Ron Meyer, now president/COO of Universal Studios, and at his longtime nemesis David Geffen, the billionaire co-founder of DreamWorks. Ovitz testified that he suspected they were the sources behind those co-bylined New York Times articles damaging to him and his AMG business written in 2002 by freelance writer Anita Busch and staff writer Bernie Weinraub. So he says he hired Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano and paid him $75,000 to find out.
Ovitz: I called him because I knew he was sourcing the articles. Not the people writing the articles. He knew a substantial number of people in the West Los Angeles business community. He was working with people I was having problems with — Ron Meyer, David Geffen.
Cross-Examination by Chad Hummel, the attorney for defendant LAPD Sgt Mark Arneson: Did you believe these two individuals were sourcing the articles?
Ovitz: I did.
Hummel: What did you want to know?
Ovitz: When I was going to be ambushed. When the other shoe was going to drop… He told me I had a huge problem with Ron Meyer.
On the subject of Anita Busch:
Hummel: Did he [Pellicano] give you embarrassing information about Anita Busch?
Ovitz: No. He was rather dismissive of her.
Hummel: Did he give you embarrassing information about Bernard Weinraub?
Hummel: Did you ever hire Mr. Pellicano to put a fish on Anita