Executive Firings: What's Behind Hollywood's Season of the Witch Hunt (Analysis)

 Illustration by: Jacob Thomas


Hollywood's insular film industry always has been leery when outsiders are named to big studio jobs, and it was no different when NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke dispatched Shell, a longtime Comcast exec, to Los Angeles on Sept. 9 to replace Fogelson as head of Universal. "This is the real world and we knew one of their guys was coming," says one insider. But when the move came, it was swift and ruthless. While 18-year studio veteran Meyer was granted a contract extension and a new title (vice chairman of NBCU), Fogelson was blindsided shortly after stepping off a flight from Toronto, where he'd spent the previous evening celebrating the North American premiere of Rush with director Ron Howard.

Shell became part of Burke and Comcast chairman Brian Roberts' inner circle when he joined the cable company in 2005 as president of programming. He spent the past two years in London as chairman of NBCUniversal International, overseeing all foreign operations of Comcast-owned entertainment companies. And, though an outsider, so far he's impressed those he's met. Before he officially moved into Fogelson's office Sept. 27, he'd already begun meeting with producers with strong ties to the studio, including Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer and horror maestro Jason Blum. Shell doesn't pretend to be an expert on the film business, say those who've met with him. "He knows what he knows, and he knows what he doesn't know. He's already well-liked," notes one source.

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The plan, says another insider, is for Universal chairman Donna Langley, who was promoted from the co-chairman role she played alongside Fogelson, to serve as the creative force, while Shell will be the studio's business leader. Shell has made sure that he is accompanied by Langley at the meet-and-greets. "The person who will help Jeff the most is Donna, who is the day-to-day person. He's got a lot to learn," the source says.

Less than a month after she was promoted to chairman, Langley made her first big move, bringing in FilmDistrict's Peter Schlessel to overhaul Focus Features, the studio's specialty film division. James Schamus, who co-founded the unit more than a decade ago and cultivated hits like Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right, was sent packing. While Focus, which is currently overseeing the production of Fifty Shades of Grey, has been releasing about six pictures a year, the studio wants Schlessel to oversee a more diversified (which is to say, more commercial) slate of as many as 10 pics a year.

Some did find the timing of Fogelson's exit ironic considering the studio had moved past last year's megabomb Battleship -- which Roberts called "an unfortunate, large miss" -- and now is enjoying its best year ever, having crossed the $2 billion mark overseas while taking in $1.3 billion domestically. The winning streak has been fueled by Fast & Furious 6 and Despicable Me 2, which will be Universal's most profitable film in history after earning nearly $864 million worldwide. But beyond the numbers, a big part of a studio head's job is having a rapport with fellow executives, talent, agents, financiers and producers. And that's where insiders say Fogelson, a former marketing exec, fell short -- at least according to the Comcast team.

In his new job, Shell will have to build a strong relationship with Thomas Tull, CEO of Legendary Pictures, Universal's new co-financier. Legendary, with its deep coffers, had a successful run at Warner Bros., where it co-financed marquee titles, including Christopher Nolan's Batman films. Tull and Shell have met several times and have hit it off. "Jeff is getting his arms around the business," says one person who knows him.

The honeymoon period might not last long, though. On Christmas Day, Universal's big-budget gamble 47 Ronin is slated to open. And while Shell certainly won't be blamed if the troubled film, starring Keanu Reeves, doesn't work, he'll certainly get a crash course in crisis management.

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