Universal Chairman Wants 'Fifty Shades' for Summer 2014, More 'Bourne' and 'Van Helsing' Reboot (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Since being promoted to chairman of Universal Pictures in 2009, Adam Fogelson has steered the studio built on monsters like Dracula and the Mummy into less scary financial territory. Despite the disappointment of 2012's $209 million-budgeted Battleship, Universal enjoyed its highest-grossing year worldwide in its 100-year history, thanks to midbudgeted hits Ted ($535.4 million), The Lorax ($348.8 million) and Les Miserables ($378.9 million), which is nominated for eight Oscars. But Fogelson, 45, a genial Stanford grad whose father worked in movie marketing, knows his studio -- the last major without a billion-dollar-grossing movie -- lacks mega-franchises. And the Comcast-owned Universal's recent attempts to create them (Snow White and the Huntsman, launching Illumination Entertainment with Despicable Me filmmaker Chris Meledandri and a since-scrapped deal with toymaker Hasbro) or prolong them (The Bourne Legacy, American Reunion) have proved successful but not on the level of Batman or Bond. On Feb. 13 in the Carl Laemmle building on the Burbank lot, the married father of two daughters addressed his relationship with Comcast and revealed his plans for the Bourne franchise and when a Fifty Shades of Grey movie might hit theaters.
The Hollywood Reporter: In such a tentpole-driven business, is it still OK to have a slate filled with singles, doubles and triples, or do you need the home runs?
Adam Fogelson: I think if you are creating a healthy number of doubles and triples, you are OK. And from a profitability standpoint, we have a number of home runs. They're not grand-slam home runs in the sense that a billion-dollar-plus movie can be, but Ted or Lorax or Les Mis at those price points, those are huge, huge wins. Despicable Me 2 [out July 3] feels like it has a chance to become a huge, legitimate franchise. That said, there's no question that one or two reliable mega-tentpoles can make an enormous difference. But it isn't an immediate necessity for us to be considered successful or hugely profitable in our eyes or the eyes of our owners.
THR: That's coming directly from Comcast?
Fogelson: I have found Steve [Burke] and Brian [Roberts] to be incredibly smart, incredibly rational and really constructive owners. You can't call up a film company and say, "We want a billion-dollar-plus franchise." If it worked that way, everyone would be doing it. As a studio, because we have not had a Marvel library, a DC library, a Bond franchise, we've had to home-grow virtually all of it. Universal monsters are probably the thing people most equate with our library. But monsters are not superheroes. Virtually every monster story is by definition a tragic story. We are developing another Mummy. We are looking at rebooting Van Helsing because I think the idea for the Van Helsing story was a great way of solving the question of, "How do you make a blockbuster out of monsters?" I think of what we have done with Fast & Furious [the sixth installment opens in May], of what we did with American Pie this past year -- we had our best year box office-wise and our biggest movie [Battleship] was a whiff, so we did it without a single traditional franchise tentpole movie. Not one.
THR: Given that success, every time a top studio exec becomes available, there is speculation that he or she is getting your job. Annoying?
Fogelson: First of all, I wake up every day knowing it's a privilege to have this job -- not a right. Second, if you take emotion out of it and step back, I think that kind of thing goes with the territory. [Co-chairman Donna Langley and I] are still the newest in these jobs of anyone in this business. We're coming out of a really difficult period for the studio. We changed owners for the fifth or sixth time in my 15 years at the company three years ago. In this type of business, where people like to talk, all of that is going to contribute to an environment where those kinds of things happen. I can tell you we have felt very supported by our bosses.
THR: Was the Hasbro deal a mistake?
Fogelson: It certainly didn't work out as the dealmakers on either side envisioned it. But I'm not sure I would say the deal was a mistake, or if I were sitting in this chair at that time that I wouldn't have strongly considered it.
THR: Give us an update on the Fifty Shades movie. Some think you aren't moving quickly enough to capitalize on the buzz.
Fogelson: I certainly understand why some people might take that point of view. But I don't believe that [author EL James] had any interest in going to a studio where rushing it into production was the vision. I don't believe that the second or third film would have benefited from that strategy. And I think that there are totally legitimate questions about what this book is as a movie. I will tell you that it is an absolute priority for us. It's conceivable that we could be ready to release it as early as next summer.
THR: Is it true you asked Angelina Jolie to direct?
Fogelson: No. We're involved in a different project [the World War II drama Unbroken] with her. But we have had really, really interesting, great conversations with talented, serious filmmakers.
THR: Given their public affair, will you make a Snow White sequel with Kristen Stewart starring and Rupert Sanders directing?
Fogelson: We're actively developing the movie right now with Kristen's character central, as well as the Huntsman role. We think that for a first movie out of the gate to do basically $400 million worldwide, there is a lot of opportunity. I don't think Rupert is pursuing the next Snow White as a directing opportunity.
THR: Tom Cruise's last movie, Jack Reacher, wasn't a big hit and you've got him in Oblivion in April. Worried?
Fogelson: There's virtually no star out there right now in the modern age who doesn't have some movies that perform better and some that perform less well. We think this kind of movie is in Tom's wheelhouse. We made it for an incredibly responsible price [$120 million]. We love the way it's looking. And Tom will do everything that we collectively feel is in the best interest of selling the movie.
THR: Last summer's Bourne Legacy grossed $276.1 million worldwide without Matt Damon -- good, not great. What's your plan for the Bourne property?
Fogelson: The point of the last movie was to create a universe, a world and characters that give us a lot of freedom and flexibility in how we go forward. Yeah, the movie didn't perform the way the last one did. It also didn't cost what the last one did. It performed more along the lines of how the first one did. I absolutely see us doing more Bourne, 100 percent yes. Matt has talked about the possibility of coming back, and we totally respect that and are excited if and when he wants to have conversations. But I think the last movie gave us a big bunch of options to pursue a next chapter.
THR: In December you've got 47 Ronin, the $175 million-budgeted Keanu Reeves samurai movie, which has been delayed and plagued by reshoots. Do you believe Reeves is still a major action star?
Fogelson: Keanu Reeves has been very selective over the years in the sort of big action franchises he has chosen to involve himself in. And when he's done it, he has been, on a global level, incredibly successful. We're excited that this is the one he's chosen for this part of his career and think that every time he comes back to any version of this genre, it has been remarkably consistent.
THR: With Les Mis a hit, why haven't you greenlighted Wicked?
Fogelson: Wicked has been an enormous win for this company [Universal is majority owner of the Broadway musical]. The way it works, we should be in agreement together on when the right time to do this is. But I will tell you I believe that we are collectively moving toward Wicked coming to the screen sooner rather than later.
THR: What about an Identity Thief sequel? You've got a few projects in development with Melissa McCarthy.
Fogelson: Absolutely a conversation that we're having. We think we created great characters, so we'll discuss how to re-pair Jason [Bateman] and Melissa going forward.
THR: From escalating costs to piracy, the film business faces tremendous challenges. How much do you strategize with your peers at other studios?
Fogelson: We're all facing versions of the same challenges. We talk generally about theories about moviegoing and where we all see the business headed.
THR: So what's the biggest fear?
Fogelson: Honestly, I wouldn't call it fear. I'd say concern. I think that we need to continue to evolve this business. We have to evolve what it costs to make films. We have to evolve what it costs to market them. We have to evolve how we monetize them. And many of those things are not core competencies that the industry was built around. And I don't think we can be patient in solving those challenges. My biggest concern is: Can we do it fast enough to hold our heads up as a legitimate, responsible business?
THR: Do you think that a tech power like Google or a Chinese company will buy a studio?
Fogelson: Well, I certainly hear rumblings to that effect. I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that content is really valuable.