Dialogue: Marc Shmuger & David Linde
EmptyIt's an important time of transition for Universal Pictures, the venerable studio whose history ranges from 1930s horror icons like "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" to modern movie favorites like Jason Bourne, "Bridget Jones" and the Focker family. Last spring, with the departure of Stacey Snider for DreamWorks, vice chairman Marc Shmuger moved up to the chairman's post, and Focus Features' co-president David Linde was named co-chairman. One of their first priorities was to prepare for Universal's Jan. 1, 2007 departure from United International Pictures, its overseas distribution joint venture with Paramount Pictures. Recently, they announced a reorganization under which worldwide acquisitions for Universal Pictures, Universal Pictures International, specialty division Focus Features, and Focus' genre label Rogue Pictures will all be handled by one team of executives, headed by Jason Resnick as senior VP and general manager of worldwide acquisitions. THR sister publication Film Journal International spoke with Shmuger and Linde about their first year as chairmen, the changes ahead, and what they view as an exceptional 2007 lineup.
Film Journal International: What was the thinking behind the consolidation of your various acquisition labels?
David Linde: Universal and Focus domestically are less reliant on acquisitions, while at the same time internationally we are going to be expanding our acquisitions profile overseas. Whereas Universal and Focus might at the most acquire one or two titles per year, we will probably be acquiring as many as four to five films overseas. If you're investing a lot of money and time and effort into looking at a lot of different movies with an international focus, then you might as well have everybody doing it together because you cover much more territory that way.
FJI: When you greenlight a project, do international concerns carry a lot more weight than they did ten years ago?
Marc Shmuger: Certainly they do. The way we operate, international theatrical and international video are as much voices at the table in the greenlight process as domestic voices. And then it depends on the project. Some projects really have their core business overseas, and others have their core business in domestic. [International is] involved in all the greenlight processes, and in many cases they're driving the process.
Linde: We've gotten out of our UIP joint venture in most of the major territories overseas as of January 1st, so we're making a bigger play overseas than we have in over 20 years. In addition to that, we see ourselves as a leader in terms of global production anyway because of our relationship with Working Title.
FJI: Would you say the breakup of UIP has been a good thing?
Shmuger: I think so. UIP enjoyed a fantastic run as the pre-eminent distribution organization for two decades. But Paramount and Universal each recognized the need to develop our own distribution operations if we were truly going to get significantly larger and more competitive on the international stage. It is a good thing, and our first release out of the U.K. on Hot Fuzz is a testament to that.
FJI: David, have you had to adjust your mindset coming over from Focus?
Linde: Absolutely. Everything is played out on a much larger scale--that's the best way to put it.
FJI: Are there certain kinds of films that you'd like to see more of in the marketplace? Is there a void that Universal can fill?
Shmuger: I would love to see fewer films in the market, coming from a competitive point of view--not of our own, but just the glut of movies which seem to be coming out week after week after week. We are aggressively developing and putting into production some fantastic comedies. And they operate both as domestic comedies and international-based comedies, as you saw with "Hot Fuzz." We've got "Knocked Up" and "Evan Almighty" and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" all coming out this summer, which I think are going to prove to be a trifecta of incredibly popular and acclaimed comedy entertainment. We have also been putting a focus on getting our franchises back on track, which in 2006 was an off year for us in that regard. In order to compete at the highest level, a studio needs to be vigorous in that space. Throughout 2007 and well into 2008 and even going into 2009, we have made a lot of headway toward getting franchises going. A lot of the credit goes to Donna Langley and the production team, who have refocused their efforts in this regard. Specifically, we've recently greenlit or put into pre-production "Hellboy," from Guillermo del Toro, and "Wanted," the new film from Timur Bekmambetov [the Russian director behind Night Watch]. We're fast moving toward production on a new Mummy movie which will be directed by Rob Cohen. And we're making great headway on a re-imagining of the Wolf Man myth out of our great monster library. We are developing the third "Meet the Parents" movie right now, and we're hopeful we'll be able to get that ready as early as the end of '08. It's been an incredible property for us. And this summer we're releasing the third Bourne movie, with Matt Damon returning as Jason Bourne and Paul Greengrass returning to direct. That's a property that proves you can have a franchise that is being executed with the most impeccable quality while serving the broadest popular taste. And we believe there are other Bournes to come--as we've worked on this one, it just feels like there are more places for the characters to go.
FJI: Are there any sleepers that are going to surprise people?
Shmuger: We think we've got a real sleeper hit in "Knocked Up," the new Judd Apatow movie. It stars Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl, and it's Judd's first directorial effort since "The 40 Year Old Virgin." It's a continuation of that sensibility that is uniquely Judd's--it's raunchy, it's sweet, it's heartfelt, it's hilarious, and it really speaks to modern male psychology and modern female psychology, in a wonderfully uncensored way. He continues to perfect his voice, and "Knocked Up" is both a great crowd-pleaser and just a great movie. And as Judd did for Steve Carell, the vehicle is a fantastic launching pad for these two actors who haven't yet broken as movie stars.
FJI: You have some major star vehicles toward the end of the year: Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in "Charlie Wilson's War," Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in "American Gangster"...
Shmuger: And George Clooney and Renee Zellweger in "Leatherheads." It's a fantastic lineup, with people like Mike Nichols, Ridley Scott and George Clooney directing those movies. And from Working Title, we have "The Golden Age," Shekhar Kapur's sequel to "Elizabeth," which promises to be a wonderful drama. We moved "The Kingdom" into the fall in order to have more time to get the campaign to do full justice to the movie. It just rocks. We had a fantastic research screening on it. I think of it as the first pure post-9/11 entertainment. This is a great action movie, but everything about the world and the characters and the cultural situations in the movie is entirely true to today's world. It's not some make-believe version of the world we don't know; it is exactly the world we do know and the world we live in. It's about an elite FBI team -- Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper and Jennifer Garner -- who go to Saudi Arabia to investigate a bombing in a Western housing compound. And the most unexpected and powerful friendship develops between a Saudi cop and Jamie Foxx as the lead FBI agent as they proceed to investigate who's behind these horrible murders. It's as good a film of its kind as I've seen in years.
FJI: You recently signed a new seven-year deal with Working Title co-chairmen Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. What does your relationship with Working Title mean to the bigger picture at Universal?
Shmuger: They mean a tremendous amount. They truly fill a unique role as producers. Their sensibility is unique, being based out of London, approaching movies from a true global perspective. They've built the most extraordinary track record of both commercial and quality success. Movie after movie, when you look at what they've delivered, it's hard to find filmmakers anywhere who match their output and its consistency of quality. And they are awfully busy with us right now with "Hot Fuzz," "Atonement," "The Golden Age" and a new Bean movie. They are a critical cornerstone to the strategy of this company.
Linde: We're in a period of time where each of the studios is operating on different content platforms. And I believe Working Title is the only production company that acts as a supplier across all those platforms. No other studio has a company that's making four or five movies a year which acts as suppliers for every content platform.
FJI: How important to you is the preservation of the window between theatrical and DVD?
Linde: We're big believers in preserving the theatrical experience. Obviously, the digital age means that there are going to be changes across all the spectrum of windows, and we're going to continue focusing on what the best way is to distribute our movies, but at the same time we're very focused on preserving the theatrical experience.
FJI: You released two of the most acclaimed and daring studio films of 2006, "United 93" and "Children of Men." What do films like that mean to you personally?
Shmuger: We couldn't be more proud of both of those movies. Before, I talked about comedies and franchises, but by no means did I get through the entire breadth of what we're focused on. We want to continue to make movies like that, with the best filmmakers in the world, in which their unique voices have expression. That's something we'd always like Universal to be known for. Filmmakers like Paul Greengrass, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, Timur Bekmambetov, we see Universal being the perfect home for them, and their films an expression of the kinds of movies that Universal makes.