NBCUniversal's Ron Meyer Defends Brian Williams: "Good Man" Who "Did a Not-Good Thing"
The vice chairman discussed 'Furious 7' and the hardest part of his job for The Hollywood Reporter and Loyola Marymount University's 'The Hollywood Masters' interview series.
NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer has revealed he was one of a number of executives consulted early this year when the company was deciding the fate of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, in the wake of revelations that Williams had exaggerated his war reporting.
"I don't want to presume to tell you what was in his head, but I know enough that he never lied on the air on his broadcast," said Meyer in a conversation Wednesday at Loyola Marymount University. "What he did was — by the way, he did enough things that were good enough, heroic enough: He was at [Hurricane] Katrina, he was on that plane behind the helicopter that was shot at, but he was in a war zone where they were shooting. So it wasn’t like he wasn’t there."
"He did do the wrong thing. I mean, I'm not excusing him at all," continued Meyer. "I was fortunate enough to be part of the consultant group that talked about what should be done with him and not, and I certainly didn't feel that he should have been fired. I think he's, you know, he's a good man and did a not-good thing."
Meyer went on to laud the network's handling of Williams, which comprised suspending Williams for six months before replacing him on Nightly News with Lester Holt and moving him to MSNBC, where he debuted on Sept. 22 covering Pope Francis. "It wasn't my decision, fortunately, so I can't again take blame or credit, and I'm too personally involved with him to give you probably an honest answer," said Meyer. “But I think that it worked out well for everyone, and I think that he's at MSNBC, and he has a chance to really do something good for that network. And I think that network can do something good for him."
Meyer spoke with The Hollywood Reporter executive features editor Stephen Galloway for THR and LMU's The Hollywood Masters interview series. He opened the fourth season of the series, which will continue with Jane Fonda, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Caine, Amy Adams and Damon Lindelof. Previous guests include Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn and Alfonso Cuaron.
In the rare appearance, Meyer discussed some of his career’s hardest challenges — including finishing Furious 7 after the death of Paul Walker.
Completing the film was no certainty, said Meyer. He recounted how the studio shut down the production: “Even though we were a quarter of the way into production and you have no choice, you know, a life has been lost, and it's just a movie. And so we stopped." It was not until weeks later the producers got together to consider how they could work Walker's brothers Caleb and Cody and previous footage of the actor into a new Furious 7.
"We said, 'Let’s see if there’s a movie. We're not going to do it if we can't.' If we were just going to make some crappy film, there was not a chance," said Meyer. Would have killed the franchise if there were no chance of incorporating Walker? "I think it would've killed itself," he told Galloway.
In his career at Universal, where Meyer became president in 1995 after co-founding Creative Artists Agency, he handled films from Apollo 13 ("It felt like a mule had kicked me in the side of the head" when it lost Best Picture to Braveheart) and United 93 to the Fast and Despicable Me franchises. Speaking with Galloway, he recalled one he refused to release, Todd Solondz's Happiness.
Why not? The film dealt with a pedophile, and "he didn't get caught in the end. And I said, 'It's one thing for somebody to do a film about a pedophile, but there's got to be some sanction, there’s got to be some punishment,'" said Meyer. "The filmmaker felt very strongly that we should wonder what happens to him. I said, 'I'm not going to wonder what happens to him,' and so I refused to release the film."
The decision proved controversial. "But I always felt very good that we didn't [release it]," said Meyer. "I didn't care what they wrote about me or said about my censorship. It was my prerogative, you know?"
But the toughest thing about his job? It’s not production crises, Oscar snubs or controversial content.
It's firing employees. "No matter what anybody says about firing someone — and we all say the same thing, by the way: they're going to be better off — it's bullshit, no one's better off," he said. “It’s the most daunting thing that I do.”
The full transcript follows.
GALLOWAY: Summer of 1995, the whole industry is consumed with rumors, biggest change in years. The two men who founded CAA, you and Mike Ovitz, are going to leave and join Universal. In the end, Ovitz didn’t, you did. Walk me through that time, what your thinking was, what happened. Were you scared, anxious, nervous, thrilled?
MEYER: You just said it all. I was all of those things. Yeah, it was an interesting experience for me. I always saw myself as — probably a bad example — Henry Kissinger to Richard Nixon, not to compare either of us, Mike or myself, to either of the two of them, but that’s really how I saw myself. I loved being the second guy, I liked being the support to — we were co-leaders, but Mike really was the figurehead of the company, and I liked the role of being the second guy, it worked for me very well, I liked it. And when I found myself saying yes to Universal, it was the right time for me to leave CAA. I always said we were in the 20th year of a 10-year plan. And we’d always talk about maybe transitioning it to the younger people and letting them take over, and it just didn’t happen. And Mike and I at that time were sort of a marriage going bad, and so it was time for one of us to go. And actually, I thought he would go, and I wouldn’t, and it turned out that I was the one that went. It was a job that I thought that I was prepared for and I really wasn’t. I mean, certainly, in the first couple of years I went through a very tough learning experience, and I was lucky that they stayed with me in those two years. I really did not quite understand enough. You know, we’d started a company at CAA; we started with five of us and one assistant, and all of sudden, when I left, there were probably 400 people working there, but they were all people that were handpicked, so I knew every one of them, I knew kids and husbands and wives, and spouses and best friends, and you know, it was a family. And so I came to Universal, which was 15,000 people, thinking that I knew a lot of people there and they were happy to see me. I always kind of likened myself to — the best example would be when Cinderella’s stepsisters found the slipper fit her, and they said, “You’re the one?” And that’s who I was there. I got to Universal and people were resentful in many ways that I was the one who had got the job. They had been there a long time, and they thought they were in line to get the job and, so it was a very funny time, and I wasn’t qualified for the job. I thought I was, but I really wasn’t. It was a different kind of business.
GALLOWAY: Why were you not qualified?
MEYER: I wasn’t a numbers person, that was not my background at all. I’m much more of a culture person and much more of a people person, and I realized that I was not surrounded by people that were much smarter than me, which I’ve changed, and everybody who works for me is smarter than I am. I figured that out, but it took me a while, and I made a lot of mistakes. I did a lot of things wrong, and it was a big, big learning experience for me.
GALLOWAY: What were the things you did wrong? What were the things you did right?
MEYER: Well, the things I did right: I had a good group of people — Cindy Gardner, who’s here somewhere, was with me; and a great HR person; and a great legal person. When I finally put a team together, it made all the difference in the world, and that was the right thing that I did — get the right people in place. The wrong things were decisions that I was just not qualified to make about big business. I did some right, did some wrong, but in running a big company, there’s a lot more than just the day-to-day interaction with people; there’s a business there, and it’s a big business. There’s a fire station, a police station, a hospital — you know, again, a world of 15,000 people — and I wasn’t ready for all of it. I think I grew into it. I’m still there, so I must have done something right, but certainly in the beginning, I was very lucky that the Seagram Co., who owned Universal at the time, kind of stuck with me through that bad learning-groove period.
GALLOWAY: Why did the marriage with Mike Ovitz go south?
MEYER: Oh, you know, we started for five years together at William Morris, and we were very best of friends. The two of us started with three other agents at CAA, and we just, you know, we grew somewhat apart. And it just was a marriage that we made work. We made it work for the company. But I think we both grew apart. It sounds so corny, but that’s the best way I can say it. He was never bad as he was made out to be, and I was never as good as I was made out to be. We were a good couple for a long, long time in a business, and we just grew differently.
GALLOWAY: Did you like the agency business?
MEYER: Oh, I loved the agency business.
MEYER: Well, it was a great time. I was representing people that I had fanaticized about representing. It was a lot of fun being an agent in Hollywood at that time, you know? It was kinda cool starting a company and having it be successful. I’d been in the agency business for 10 years before we started CAA. I was a messenger for five years for Paul Kohner, and then I was at William Morris for five years. But it was a great time. I mean, I enjoyed it, and it was great building a company and I was with people that I really cared about, and I cared about my clients, and you know, when you have clients that are successful like that, it was great, it just worked for me, you know? Once, early in my career, I remember I said, “For me to succeed, all those people ahead of me had to quit, die, or go to jail,” and eventually I stayed around long enough for most of them to quit, die, or go to jail! And so it worked, and I found myself at a place that I always kind of dreamed about. And so I was very happy in the agency business.
GALLOWAY: Let’s go back to the beginning. One of the things I want everybody to realize is, you didn’t come from wealth.
GALLOWAY: You dropped out of school at the age of 15. You didn’t go to university.
GALLOWAY: Your parents were Germen Jews who fled the Holocaust. Tell me about them, and their coming to America and how they shaped you.
MEYER: Well, I had great parents, great parents. They escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, and then came to America, where I was born some years later.
GALLOWAY: How did they escape? Because that’s after Kristallnacht, which is the real turning point with the Nazis.
MEYER: My mother immigrated. My mother had sponsors in the United States, and they brought her over, and my father’s family had money in Germany, and they gave everything they had. They were bankers, and they gave all the money they had to a Nazi official who smuggled them out of the country. So it was just one of those things that worked. My father actually was married to a non-Jewish woman at that time; my parents met in the United States. But they both left at the exact same time and had very similar backgrounds, although there was a big age difference. And so they came to the United States. My father was a lady’s dress salesman. For those of you who know Death of a Salesman, my father was Willy Loman. And he drove from Arizona to Oregon and Washington and that was his route. And he had the back of his car filled with dresses, and that’s what he did. I had great, loving parents. I was kind of a screw-up as a kid.
GALLOWAY: Why were you a screw-up?
MEYER: I don’t know. I was more popular probably that way. You know, it was an identity. I can’t give you a good answer to it, because I look back at how ridiculous it was, but I spent more time boxing and shooting pool than doing anything else, and then when I was —
GALLOWAY: Where did you grow up?
MEYER: West L.A. I was born here, and when I was 15 I stopped going to school, and when I was 16 I legally dropped out, and when I was 17-and-a-half I went in the Marine Corps. And when I got out of the Marine Corps, I got a miracle job as a messenger; I got a lot of jobs, but I got a really miracle job as a messenger for a great old-time theatrical agent, a man named Paul Kohner, and he represented — if you’re film students, you’ll know — William Wyler, John Huston, Billy Wilder and Ingmar Bergman and people like that, and so when they would come to town I was their driver, and I was his driver, and, I did that for five years.
GALLOWAY: You famously walked out at one point. But before we get to that, what did the Marine Corps teach you?
MEYER: When I was there it was many years ago, and they used to then call it a million-dollar experience — meaning, you wouldn’t go through it for a million dollars! But it made a huge difference in my life. It really kind of organized me and got me squared away and settled me down, in a strange way, and it gave me a purpose. I was much more proud of having been there, than having done it, if that’s the right away to say it. And I look back on what a difference it made in my life, and it was, you know, it was an interesting kind of tough experience, but it was one that really kind settled me down. When I got out, I didn’t want to be the same guy that I had been when I went in. You know, like a lot of young people I was getting in trouble every day, and when I got out, none of that really interested me anymore, and I really had separated from where I used to live. I went and moved to a complete other neighborhood, so the people I had grown up with, you know, were still getting in trouble, and I had sort of decided not to do that anymore.
GALLOWAY: I think your mother sent you a novel.
MEYER: Well, what happened was I had gotten the measles, and in those days, there was what they called the sick bay, still probably call it that, and it was probably about a room this size, with about 10 beds in it, and I was quarantined, and there was no one else in the room, and there was certainly no cell phone, Internet, barely television, radio once in a while — and I don’t think I had a radio in there. And my mother sent me two books, and I know it sounds ridiculous, but when I was 18 years old, I had never read a book. So I mean, you imagine, I was never properly educated — I went to three different junior high schools, five times. School just wasn’t for me. Probably the wrong way to say it, but I have four kids, by the way — two graduated from college, one is a senior in college, and one just started college, so it’s very important to me. Education’s important, and I insisted my kids go to college. My oldest daughter, by the way, is the first person in my family to ever graduate college, ever go to college. So anyways, I had never really read a book. I wish I could tell you it was ‘cause I was too smart, but it was ‘cause I was too stupid. And my mother sent me two books. One was called The Amboy Dukes, which is about kids in trouble — and I always fancied myself one — and the other was called The Flesh Peddlers, and it was about a young guy [agent]] who drove a fast car and went out with beautiful women. It’s the only way I can describe what the book was. I said, if I want to be one of two people, going out with beautiful women and driving fast cars seemed like a better gig than being a jerk-off in trouble.
GALLOWAY: It was about the agency business?
MEYER: It was about being a theatrical agent, and it was a fictitious agency, but a big agency like William Morris or something, or what CAA became, and I thought, well, I want to be that guy, I think I want to try that. And so I went door to door to every agency, asked everybody that I met, anybody in the agency business. And the best way I can say this is: my mother’s best girlfriend had a brother whose wife’s sister was married to an agent. [laughter] And through that, that’s the one interview I got, and I was working at a clothing store called Zeidler and Zeidler, and the messenger quit at the Paul Kohner Agency. And they were desperate, they didn’t know what to do, they had a guy that worked for them for a number of years, and he quit, and they were desperate to find someone who could deliver the mail and do all that stuff, in those days there was no Federal Express. I mean, mail took five, six days when you mailed it. And they remembered this guy named Ron who worked at this clothing store named Zeidler and Zeidler, and that was me, and they called me up and — to put it in perspective, I was making $35 a week at this clothing store, and they said, “We pay $75 dollars a week and give you a gas credit card.” I was rich overnight! I mean it changed my life, and that’s what happened.
GALLOWAY: How did you imagine your life then? Here you are, working in a clothing store, you don’t have a degree, you’ve been to the Marine Corps. Did you think, ”What am I going to be when I’m 40 or 50?”
MEYER: I didn’t think past the next day. I wasn’t qualified to think past the next day. I mean, if this hadn’t happened, I probably would have been a salesman of some kind somewhere. Probably not doing very well. I sold shoes, I sold ladies’ clothes, I sold men’s clothes. I worked in restaurants, I did stuff, and I would have made a living, I guess. I boxed — I was going to box for a living, but I decided I didn’t like getting hurt, and so it seemed like there were better ways to do it. But I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have time to think about it, and all of a sudden, when I was 21 years old, I got this job. I’d been out of the Marine Corps a year, and there was no time to worry too much about the future. Once I got the job, I was a guy that never wanted to leave show business.
GALLOWAY: At one point you left the Kohner Agency. You got angry about something —
MEYER: I was 21, 22 —
GALLOWAY: Something upset you.
MEYER: Yeah. I worked for Paul Kohner’s assistant, his secretary, but she really ran the office, she was the office manager. And I when I wasn’t driving or delivering, I did filing — and again, there were no computers in those days, so you did manual filing, by alphabetical order, and you had files. He saved all his correspondence, actually in a museum right now. He corresponded with, literally, Albert Einstein and with Ernest Hemingway. He was a really a very formidable guy that I worked for, and he was a very renowned, well-known man, and so he had these great relationships, and it was always by mail, and it was great reading those letters. They were letters, literally, and one university has half of them, and the motion picture Academy has the other half. I mean extraordinary letters, great, great letters to all the great people of that generation. And so I spent every day reading them and filing them, and she [the secretary] abused me. I actually learned a lot from her, but at that time I didn’t appreciate it. I said. “I’m a veteran. l I should be treated with a little more respect.” And she abused and yelled at me, and I would do a lot of things wrong, but she would amplify it by telling me what a dope I was and really shouting at me and screaming. And one day I was filing away, and I knew I was the best messenger in the country at that time. So I basically said, “Take this job and shove it up your ass.” It was a small office, a small building; there were six, seven offices there; so I said it loud enough that everyone would hear me, and I had to wear a coat and tie every day, and I grabbed my coat, and I got a little desk in her office where I did the filing, and I grabbed my coat, and I walked out the door, ‘cause I knew, of course, that everybody would come running after me, that they couldn’t afford to lose the best messenger in the city. And I’m walking out the door, and I carried my coat, and I always remember, I started walking down the street there — the office was at 9168 Sunset Boulevard near Doheny — and I’m walking, and waiting to hear them please begging me to come back — and no one came. I started walking slower and slower, you know, and I thought, “I can either maybe get my old job back selling clothes, or I gotta go back in. I don’t know what to do.” And my life flashed before me, and no one came, no one said a word. I went back in. Of course no one was in a panic; they were just doing what they were doing, probably thinking about who else they were going to hire. And I went back in, I sat at my desk, and just kept filing. [laughter]
MEYER: She didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything, you know? It was just one of those things.
GALLOWAY: So you go from there to William Morris. You’re at William Morris, and you cofound CAA, which is this really monumental change in the agency business, and you get some major clients, and you’re involved in films that become classics. We’re going to look at a clip from one of them, Rocky. I wonder if you realized what a classic it would become?
MEYER: I assume you’ve all seen it. If you haven’t, it still holds up as great movie.
GALLOWAY: So, you represented Sylvester Stallone.
MEYER: Well, I didn’t yet.
MEYER: What happened was, I actually represented Talia Shire, who played Adrian.
MEYER: And I represented Burgess Meredith.
GALLOWAY: Who plays the trainer.
MEYER: They were my two biggest clients actually. When we started CAA, after the first six months or year, they were really my two biggest clients, and we didn’t have any. Our big clients were TV clients. But they were my two biggest clients. [Producer] Irwin Winkler, still one of my close friends, was a producer of the movie. Strange enough, Lee Strasberg was who they wanted for the Burgess Meredith role.
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
MEYER: And an actress named Carrie Snodgress was who they wanted for Adrian. They won’t know her [but] you will.
GALLOWAY: Do you all know who Lee Strasberg was?
MEYER: Lee Strasberg was a great, famous acting coach. Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach.
GALLOWAY: And he’s phenomenal in The Godfather.
MEYER: Yeah, yeah, he’s great. And so they wanted the two of them for those two roles. And I did a good sell job. I convinced Sly and Irwin Winkler and everybody involved in the movie —
GALLOWAY: John Avildsen directed.
MEYER: — to read Burgess Meredith and Talia, in case they couldn’t make the deal for the two of them. And neither made their deal and so they both got the job, and so through that I met Sly. We had a slight relationship, and then a little while later, before he did Rambo and before he did Rocky II, he became my client and that changed my life. I mean, all of the sudden Rambo came out and Rocky II came out. And all of the sudden he was the biggest star in the world. And I was riding a whale by the tail. You know, I was hanging on for dear life.
GALLOWAY: How do you represent a star like that? I mean, what makes a good agent?
MEYER: Well, like everything, luck and timing and then some preparation.
GALLOWAY: But more than that?
MEYER: Yeah, I know.
GALLOWAY: What’s the toughest moment you had with him?
MEYER: Oh God, there were —
GALLOWAY: — that you can say on the record. [laughter]
MEYER: You know it wasn’t so much that. We became very best of friends and he was — you know, it’s hard to describe it, because it was a real experience for me. We went all over the world together. And I still had other clients while I was representing him. Once you represent someone of that stature, it gets easier to sign other people. At that same time we were building a huge client list. I signed 25 other stars. But he was my most important, in the sense that he was my first, and we were close friends, and he required a lot of handling. Offers were coming in nonstop, I mean, every film wanted him in one way or another. And it was complicated, you know, it was a great, complicated relationship. But it was a full time one.
GALLOWAY: You’re being very diplomatic here.
MEYER: But he made such a huge difference in my career and my life. I'm not good at anecdotes, but it was a great ride. And he had great instincts. For instance, Rambo. I don’t if anybody knows, the book First Blood is what Rambo is based on. And in that book, if any of you who saw the movie, if you remember the Dick Crenna character goes into the gas station when he’s blowing up the station. He’s gone crazy. And the way the book ends is that the Dick Crenna character shoots him. He has to terminate him because he’s so crazy. He’s been a comrade of his in the military and loved him and felt that he didn’t want him to be arrested and didn’t want him to be shot by the police and all that. So he said he had to do it. And Sly insisted, against everybody’s objection, that the character live. He said, “The guy should be a hero and not a mad dog.” And so Sly had great instincts about things like that and it was a huge fight. And obviously the character lived and they’ve done, I don’t know, they’re into fifth Rambo, I think, now. It was a great experience for me.
GALLOWAY: Is it still a good career for all these guys, being an agent? Is it still a good path?
MEYER: Oh, it’s great. It’s great. It’s great.
MEYER: First of all, you make more money than you do if you’re a heart surgeon. So, that’s already a good thing.
GALLOWAY: If you’re good.
MEYER: Yeah, if you’re good. But it’s a great business. So, you’re overpaid and you can have a great time. I love the agency business. And if you decide to do something else, it’s a great learning experience — although it’s a full-time job. Being an agent is a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job. People say, “What’s the difference in the two careers I've had, as an agent and as a studio executive?” As an agent, you have seven days a week, 24 hours a day of anxiety. You have anxiety because you never know when other agents try to steal you clients. When you’re helping a client make a decision, those are career-making and breaking decisions. And when you’re advising them to do a picture, if you’re wrong, it’s a terrible decision, it’s a terrible mistake to make. So, as an agent you have seven days a week, 24 hours a day of anxiety. In my studio job, I have five days a week of pressure and very little anxiety. And when I turn the lights out at night, the job is over. As an agent, it’s never over. The phone rings in the middle of the night and weekends — and there’s no emails, you just use a phone. You’re an agent, you better not be living by your emails. You better be talking to your client. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s a great learning experience. It’s probably, by the way, the only training program that really exists in this industry. So, working at agency mailroom, I wouldn’t recommend doing it unless you want to be an agent. ‘Cause it’s a long educational process. It can be three years in a mailroom; or being between mailroom and secretarial desk and assistant, can be three or three and a half years. So, it’s a long time. It’s going back to college. But the people who own CAA today all did it.
GALLOWAY: Are you still friendly with them?
MEYER: Oh, sure. I'm very good friends with them.
GALLOWAY: Do they ever ask you for advice?
MEYER: Oh, occasionally, I think you know. But they know pretty much what to do. But I'm very close friends, certainly with the senior people that are there.
GALLOWAY: CAA is now largely owned by another organization. Was that a decision that you would have made if you were one of the CAA owners?
MEYER: Oh, sure. There’s nothing like being bought out or being monetized. In a personal service business, what always interests me is — and I'm not in the financing business — but as the agent, even if you sell out in any form at all, you still run that company. Those financiers can’t take over your clients. And really the only thing an agency has is their clients. They don’t really have other assets. Their asset is their client. And that’s a relationship business.
GALLOWAY: You were there 20 years.
MEYER: I was.
GALLOWAY: And it went from five guys to being the dominant agency in Hollywood. And you and Ovitz were the two most powerful agents since Lew Wasserman. It’s kind of ironic that you then went to the company that Lew Wasserman bought, Universal. Just before we get to that, I want to take a look at a clip from another picture that seemed to be very high risk, and also did phenomenally well. Let’s take a look at Apollo 13.
MEYER: I assume you’ve all seen Apollo 13? Good. I only ask it because my daughters — especially my two older daughters — I want them to see films. So I make lists and lists of films for them to see and get them DVDs and what have you, so they’ll actually look at them.
GALLOWAY: I hand a list of films to our reporters. We have Jane Fonda coming next week. Has anybody seen Klute? Anybody? Oh, wow great.
MEYER: Klute’s a great film.
GALLOWAY: But look who hasn’t.
MEYER: I represented Jane. She was great.
GALLOWAY: Oh, did you?
MEYER: Jane’s great. Yeah, she’s just terrific.
[CLIP DOESN’T PLAY]
GALLOWAY: So, here’s a movie then, which we would have seen a very nice clip from. I never thought people were going to go and see that movie. I thought, “People know the ending.” You have Tom Hanks, Brian Grazer the producer, Ron Howard — all CAA clients. How did you work through that as an agent?
MEYER: I wish I could give you a complicated story. The truth is it was a wonderful script and Ron Howard is really a great director. He doesn’t pretend to do something out of the ordinary. He gives you a beginning, a middle and an end. And he’s really, I think, one of the finest directors in the business. I would say it’s one of the great movies of all time. And it makes you feel proud to be an American. Makes you feel good about it. You worry about the guy, even though you know he’s going to make it.
GALLOWAY: I know.
MEYER: I think Ron’s a genius. And Ron and Brian and Tom Hanks have done a number of films together. They did Splash together. They’ve had experiences. But Ron had a great vision. And he’s a director to be trusted and I think nothing’s changed. Even if he misses once in a while, which rarely happens. You have to trust him in a film like that. And it’s a great story to be told. And he made you care about everybody in it and every moment of it. When that capsule’s coming down and you’re not sure if he’s going to make it or not, he makes you feel that. And when he gets there, you still applaud.
GALLOWAY: When you’re representing clients like Tom Hanks — this is more than just one deal, you’re looking to whole career — what are the conversations? What’s the advice?
MEYER: Clients know a lot. Actors and directors and actresses know very instinctively what they feel good about doing and what they think they can play. Not always right, but certainly they know for themselves what to do. Getting clients and keeping them is a whole other world. And that’s really the art of being an agent. You know, I always said there’s a lot of smart people who make deals. Dealmakers can always figure out what to make and how to do that. Getting the client’s an art and keeping the client’s an art.
GALLOWAY: What’s the key to that?
MEYER: Well, you first have to convince them to be with you. It’s not much different than being in love. You know you want to date someone.
GALLOWAY: So, I'm your client. How are you going to convince me to come to you?
MEYER: You don’t have the time for this right today. [laughter] But it’s a courtship. It’s a relationship. It’s convincing that client that you’re going to do a better job for him or her then someone they’re with already. Now sometimes you find that the person they’re with already has not done a good job for them and they’ve made mistakes and given them bad advice, not been available to them or represented them properly. Forget about creating clients; that’s another business. Stealing clients from another agent — which, unfortunately, we did and people did it to us and it’s gone on forever — it’s just the nature of business. You try to create new business for yourself. You have to convince them that you’re going to do a better job for them than whoever they are with has done. And it’s about: do they trust you? Do they believe you? Do they believe in you? How much do you believe in them? And how much do they like you? Which obviously always matters. And how much they believe you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do. And then once you’ve now won them over, it’s like every relationship, you’ve got to work at it. I mean, it’s not much different than anything you do. If you have a store, and customers come in, you have to work at that and make sure they want to come back. So you want to treat them right and do the best you can for them. I loved them, I loved my clients. I worked, as I say, seven days a week. I saw my clients all the time. I was in touch with them all the time. I never would go on a trip. You know, again, those days there were barely — cell phones were the size of this table. There was no such thing as putting a cell phone in your pocket. When they were the most popular, you had a strap and a thing about this big that you wore around you. You looked like you were on a bivouac. But I never went on trip or anything that I couldn’t be in touch with my clients every day. It’s about a relationship, it really is. Sometimes great agents do a bad job and bad agents do a great job, you never know. But it’s a relationship.
GALLOWAY: I think the clip is ready if you want to —
MEYER: Sure, you’re the boss.
MEYER: I inherited the movie as soon as I got to Universal.
GALLOWAY: Well, right. Because the movie comes out in June 1995 — and you arrive at Universal in August 1995.
MMEYER: We were at the Academy Awards that night, you know, prepared to stand up as they announced that it had won, and of course it didn’t.
GALLOWAY: Oh, what won?
MEYER: What won was the Mel Gibson Braveheart. And I remember it felt like a mule had kicked me in the side of the head.That was only way I could describe it, you know, 'cause we were so sure that it was going to win.
MEYER: And felt like it was going to win. Nobody’s going to assume that, but it felt like it was the frontrunner.
GALLOWAY: So, you arrive at Universal.
GALLOWAY: And what do you do? You’re in an office; you now have a company not with 400 but with 15,000 people, and offices around the world. What are the first things you do? Who’s the first person you telephone?
MEYER: Well, the first thing I did was go see Lew Wasserman, actually.
GALLOWAY: Does everybody know who Lew Wasserman was? Lew Wasserman was an agent who became the most powerful agent in Hollywood and merged his agency with Universal. And then was forced legally to divest the agency business.
GALLOWAY: And for decades he was the head of Universal and the elder statesman and most powerful man in Hollywood.
MEYER: He was the last of what you would refer to as a mogul. I’m not — none of us; we have jobs. Lew Wasserman was really —
GALLOWAY: You’re a mogul.
MEYER: Nah. But Lew Wasserman really was a titan in the business. He was the last of his era and really a very great man. And so the first thing I did was go see him. Literally, I went. I knew him a little bit. I didn’t know him very well. And I called up and I said, I’d like to come see him. What happened was, a man named Sid Sheinberg had my position before me. And he’d been there for many, many years and had been with Lew Wasserman. But when the Seagram Co. took over [and bought Universal], they decided to make the change with both of them. Lew Wasserman was able to stay as chairman emeritus, without any real responsibility. But he was there. I'm his boss , but — it’s kind of hard to describe it — you know, it would be like a President of the United States elected and the other President still stays in the office next door for a while. It was kind of an overwhelming experience. Sid Sheinberg actually left on a Friday and I came on a Monday to a desk filled with papers, filled with stuff. And I had no clue what to expect. And he didn’t leave me a note. He didn’t say, “The right drawer has some paper clips,” you know, nothing. He wasn’t leaving me any information. You know, “Tough shit. You’re on your own.”
GALLOWAY: Well he wasn’t happy to leave.
MEYER: I think he probably wasn’t happy the way it happened. And my guess is — although we have a nice relationship — I'm sure he thought, “How is it possible this pip-squeak got the gig?” He was also the second of the last moguls. So, he probably said, “Really? This guy now is coming here?” And so there was nothing about it that was an easy transition. But I went and saw Lew and I said to him, “Look, we have the same sort of background, the agency business. I'm going to love this place. I'm going to treat it like it’s my own. I'm not a suit. I don’t get suited up every day. But I’ll have great respect for it. And I’ll do the very best I can. I just want you to know that I am here.” And he was lovely about it and we had a great relationship. And we would have lunch on a fairly regular basis. And I felt very fortunate that he sort of accepted me, as he did. And then I kind of went and plowed through stuff and I tried to find out who the people that worked for me were, all my direct reports and stuff like that. That goes back to what I said earlier to you. That was part of my learning process. I didn’t really know who the people were. I knew who the people who were making movies were, and the people who were doing television. But I really didn’t understand the running of a studio, running of a lot, and a business like that. There was a lot I had to learn, and you know, I’m a delegator and I believe everybody should do the job they’re hired to do. And if they do it right they deserve credit, if they do it wrong I deserve blame. 'Cause I really do believe in letting people do what they’re supposed to do, and I want to be able to help and assist. But you shouldn’t hire people if you don’t think they can do their job properly. So, I really didn’t know enough, who was who, and what they were doing and how they were doing it and that’s part of the learning process for me. I realized I needed people around me that I could really trust and count on to counsel me, and it took a while to build that team. But as I said, I was able to do it and the team stayed intact.
GALLOWAY: Is it difficult to fire somebody?
MEYER: Oh for me, to this day — it’s funny I had lunch with someone earlier and he was talking about how he just had to fire someone. I said, “You know, I’ve had to fire people.” Because I always believed in doing it personally; if it’s people who worked for me on a certain level, I feel I have to do it myself. I don’t want a third party doing it, so I do it. And my father was fired ultimately and never recovered from it, and I take it very seriously. If people say, “What’s the worst thing about your job?” It’s not about flopped movies; it’s not about bad decisions; it’s about firing people. No matter what anybody says about firing someone — and we all say the same thing by the way: they’re going to be better off — it’s bullshit, no one’s better off. You’ve irrevocably altered their lives. They may turn out to be better off, but they have to come home and tell their mother, their father, their husband, their wife, their boyfriend, their girlfriend, their children — somebody. They’re going to have to tell them that they no longer have the job that they packed up for that morning. And it’s a horrible decision to make, and I never treat it lightly. Once I was in a position to have to do it and be able to do it, it’s the most daunting thing that I do.
GALLOWAY: What did that job entail? You supervised the whole film studio.
MEYER: In those days it was a different kind of studio. I’ve had, by the way, six owners in my 21 years, but when I got there it was the film company, a theme park company, a television company — we had Sci-fi and USA Networks; we had a music company, Universal Music, which encompassed Interscope Records and Death Row Records, Motown Records — a very big music company that ultimately bought Polygram Music. So we were the largest music company in the world. We had a publishing company, Putnam Berkley Books. We owned gift stores. We had 100 stores in the country. So we had a lot of different businesses, and it was a big company to oversee. Each owner over the past 21 years has kept something or sold something of that business, so it’s still a big company, but even though there’s a Universal Music it’s not ours any longer. We have nothing to do with it at all, it just retains the name and sort of the logo that looks like ours. And we don’t have a publishing company any longer.
GALLOWAY: How did you go through the transition of having six different bosses? What’s the first conversation you have with a new boss?
MEYER: First, they liked it enough to buy it, so it wasn’t that broken. They saw something in it of value. And they all paid more money than the previous owner. So my first conversation would be kind of, you know, “Trust me a bit and don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. There’s things that are broken and I can tell you what’s broken, but, you know, don’t come in and completely turn us inside out.” The last five bosses were Seagram, two complete Vivendi’s, Barry Diller and General Electric. And then Comcast is the owner of the company now and they’re here to stay, and they are completely invested in every way in this company. So they’re here for the long run, and they’re great owners, and they’re smart people and they know to do it.
GALLOWAY: So Comcast comes in a couple of years ago, and they move you to a different role. You’re now vice chairman of NBC-Universal, this unbelievable title. Why did they move you to that role, and how is it different from what you did before?
MEYER: First of all, it’s different because I have different reporting responsibilities, but it gave me a broader overview of the company. A lot didn’t change, except that I have a little more involvement in the television business. I’m a little more involved in the overall strategy of the company. It probably was a right decision — not in the sense of being promoted to something, but in giving me a little broader reach and ability to use, maybe, what talents I have with people to work in other areas.
GALLOWAY: You’ve gone through quite a few crises beyond just film. I want to talk about them. The first one I want to look at is a global crisis, 9/11, this astonishing thing. I want to talk about how the studio handled it, and how you actually dealt with it on film. So let’s take a look at a clip from United 93. This is what Paul Greengrass theorizes happened on that plane.
MEYER: And by the way, he did theorize it but there’s a lot of data that tells you about 85 percent to 90 percent of what took place there.
GALLOWAY: Yes. And I know you’re very proud of this film, rightly.
MEYER: I am very proud of this film.
GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at United 93.
GALLOWAY: It’s so powerful.
MEYER: We made that film a couple of years after 9/11, and it was the first post-9/11 film that was made, and we were concerned about doing it, and not sure that it was the right time. And so we went to the surviving families and got their permission. So it was, for us, for me, a very rewarding film. It’s an important film, and I think a really well done film, and you know, like I said about Apollo 13, it makes you proud to be part of this country and what we can all accomplish as individuals.
GALLOWAY: Where were you on 9/11?
MEYER: I was home. My daughter was a student at NYU, my middle daughter. And she called me to say — I get up early anyway — she says, “You’ve go to turn on the news,” you know. A plane had just hit the World Trade Center. So that’s where I was, home getting ready to go to work, and I went to work. I mean, I felt I had no choice. I went to work because I felt there was a responsibility, and people needed to know what to do and not to do.
GALLOWAY: What did you then do? [Former Paramount chairman] Sherry Lansing was saying to me that the studios were told, “You’re next.” There was a lot of information that the FBI was getting confidentially that said, the next target would be one of the studios.
MEYER: We spent the next two days on a soundstage and had every employee in the company come to that soundstage, in groups of 200 or 300 at a time. And I was there with the head of our security and the head of the lot. It was a group of us. And we did feel — I mean, truthfully, none of us in the country knew, none of us in America knew what was next, what would happen. We were in a kind of — to say a strange time is an understatement. None of us really knew what could happen or would happen. And I felt that the studio was as safe a place as you could be. I go back to what I said before: there’s certainly food, medical help, police. There’s everything you could imagine in a small town, and it’s gated. It’s a gated community. And we had a huge amount of security overlooking the studio. We put up barriers very quickly, put up very large barriers outside on Lankershim Boulevard, which is the main street for the studio. And as a spokesperson for the studio, I said to each group of 300 — they came every half hour, they could ask all the questions they want — I said, “We’re going to stay open. You certainly have the right not to come to work if you want. I mean no one’s being forced to come to work. But I’m going to come to work every day. I have children. I feel exactly like you do. I’m as nervous about what’s going on in this country as you are. But I’m going to be here. And I have young kids. I’m not looking for something to go wrong.” And that was basically the tone of it. And I had really great professionals who could talk about the security systems within the studio, and how we operated. And we have great operations at the studio all the time. We have people who are trained in disasters, and people volunteer all the time to do that. And so we have a great staff of people for whether there’s an earthquake, or whether it’s a fire, whether it’s any kind of disaster; they’re prepared to handle that disaster. And I’m lucky to be the spokesperson for it, but the truth is they do the real work.
GALLOWAY: Were you scared?
MEYER: Well I was scared, for sure. I was scared for the country, I was scared for my children. Didn’t know what the future would be. I mean, you feel kind of hopeless. You know it’s hopeless and helpless. I don’t know about hopeless, but you feel helpless, really. You feel that there’s no control. It’s not like you can arm yourself and say, “OK, I’m going to sit on my perch here, see who shows up.” The country was at war. It’s still a war.
GALLOWAY: There was another terrorist incident recently. [To the audience:] I don’t know if you know about this, but Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked. [To Meyer:] What did you think when you heard that? Were you worried that —you’re smiling now, so [laughs] I want to know why. Were you worried that you might be hacked? Do you email? I know you talk on the phone.
MEYER: I prefer phones. My emails are one-liners. “Yes” or “No” or “Call me.” I don’t like emails. I think there’s an email tone that you’ve all grown up with, so you’re all comfortable with it. There’s an email language, but there’s no bedside manner. There’s a lot of ways of saying “No,” but N-O is just no. And there’s no finesse to it, there’s no explaining what that no means, there’s no tone to it. “ Oh no, I’m not going to do that,” or “No! I’m not going to do that.” I’m an old guy. I don’t have to worry about it too much, but I don’t like it.
GALLOWAY: Did you beef up Universal’s security? What were the steps Universal took?
MEYER: Sure. The first thing we did — as probably every smart company would do — was say, “How do we protect ourselves from this ever happening?” Because we all say stupid things in emails and in shorthand. You’ll say, “Oh yeah, they’re a jerk” — whatever you want to say that when it gets published in the newspaper, you look pretty bad. So, of course that’s the first thing we all did — say, “How do you shore that up and make sure there’s a way that you can evaporate those emails and put them into some deep dive so that no one ever sees them again?” I smile because what Sony did or didn’t do, you know, I’ve questioned. And by the way, it’s easy to say, “I wouldn’t have done it,” but you know, you do a film about a living dictator, sending two people to go assassinate him, and they accomplish it. He’s still alive. Whether you agree with his philosophy in politics or not, if someone did that about our President, we’d all be outraged. We’d boycott the country. We would do all kinds of things. It didn’t make this movie any better, so why not make it a fictitious country with a fictitious dictator? That’s my personal opinion. Easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but I do feel that way.
GALLOWAY: Is there any film that, for political or controversial reasons, you said, “We’re not going to do at Universal?”
MEYER: Yes. Many years ago, you might remember — unfortunately I was written about often because they said that I sort of threw in the face of the First Amendment. It was my first three years there. They made the film [Happiness]. They shot it, and it dealt with a pedophile, and it was a father. And I remember his son would have kids come over and spend the night, and he would give them sandwiches that knocked them out. And he didn’t get caught in the end. And I said, “It’s one thing for somebody to do a film about a pedophile, but there’s got to be some sanction, there’s got to be some punishment. Got to catch him, got to put him in jail, you got to do something. I mean I can’t think of a worse crime.” The filmmaker felt very strongly that we should wonder what happens to him. I said, “I’m not going to wonder what happens to him,” and so I refused to release the film.
GALLOWAY: So what happened to the film?
MEYER: Someone else released it. It didn’t do much business, but someone else released it. But I always felt very good that we didn’t, and I didn’t care what they wrote about me or said about my censorship. It was my prerogative, you know? I don’t like films where there’s not some cause and effect. I don’t like films that show drug use as being recreational. You know, someone could smoke a joint once in a while, but I don’t want someone doing cocaine and showing that it makes them do better. I want to show that there’s reasons not do to cocaine, not reasons to do it.
GALLOWAY: What’s your own favorite film?
GALLOWAY: Favorite! [laughs] Unfavorite is interesting, too.
MEYER: Oh, you know, I love movies Rocky and Apollo 13 are in my list. You know, Magnificent Seven, still when I watch it love it. But probably Godfather I and II are two of the best movies ever made — III was not. [audience laughs] Far from it, you know. But I and II are probably the two great films that hold up and stand the test of time. I love movies and I see everything, and I like old films. It’s such a great medium. I wish I could just have one favorite.
GALLOWAY: Do you love television?
MEYER: I love television. I watch a lot of television. I watch some network television; but I think HBO and Showtime and Netflix, they do a great job. And they, of course, they don’t have the same restrictions that network television has, so they have a big advantage. They’re not restricted by language, or nudity, or violence or whatever those things that have to be tempered.
GALLOWAY: You were involved with a television crisis. NBC News anchor Brian Williams forced to step down because he’d exaggerated or lied about things he’d done. Tell me how you heard about that — and you’re very closely involved with veterans. So what was the emotional impact that had on you, and how did you get involved in helping to fix that situation?
MEYER: First of all, Brian’s a very close friend of mine, and he’s actually a wonderful guy who cares a lot about veterans. And I don’t want to presume to tell you what was in his head, but I know enough that he never lied on the air on his broadcast. What he did was, — by the way, he did enough things that were good enough, heroic enough: he was at Katrina, he was on that plane behind the helicopter that was shot at, but he was in a war zone where they were shooting. So it wasn’t like he wasn’t there. One magazine called him a raconteur. And he exaggerated a story. I have great affection for him, and he’s a really decent guy. But he did do the wrong thing. I mean, I’m not excusing him at all. He went on David Letterman, and he went on Jimmy Fallon, and he would tell stories and made himself a little more interesting. I thought it was interesting enough the places he’d been without having to exaggerate. But he exaggerated those stories.
GALLOWAY: So how do you deal with that internally?
MEYER: Well, I wish I could take blame or credit. I was part of the group, but I spent a lot of time with Brian after that happened and we talked about it a lot. And I was fortunate enough to be part of the consultant group that talked about what should be done with him and not, and I certainly didn’t feel that he should have been fired. I think he’s, you know, he’s a good man and did a not good thing.
GALLOWAY: Would you have brought him back as anchor?
MEYER: Oh, that’s such a loaded question. I can’t give you an answer to that. I mean, Lester Holt is doing a great job; ratings are great. I think it wasn’t my decision, fortunately, so I can’t again take blame or credit, and I’m too personally involved with him to give you probably an honest answer. But I think that it worked out well for everyone, and I think that he’s at MSNBC, and he has a chance to really do something good for that network. And I think that network can do something good for him. So I’m rooting for him. I hope I was helpful, in the sense I spent a lot of time with him, and I was a good mediator for both sides.
GALLOWAY: I want to talk about another crisis, which is maybe the most famous one you’ve been involved with — the death of Paul Walker. Let’s look at the latest in the Fast and Furious franchise, and then we’ll talk about that.
MEYER: Get me so emotional and show all the stuff that I care about.
GALLOWAY: I knew everyone was going to gasp when the car heads towards that tree, you know. Let’s get the students in play for questions if we have the mic there, 'cause I’m going to turn to student questions. I just have a couple more to ask. So Paul Walker dies, and you are very, very involved with that. It’s turned out fantastically, the way you handled it. What did you do? How did you handle that?
MEYER: I mean, obviously, it’s a tragedy. A young man, a terrific guy, been part of our lives since we started with the first Fast and Furious, so I mean we had a long relationship with Paul. And a good hardworking guy, a father, you know, to a young girl. And so obviously the first thing you do is shut the film down. And next thing you do is call everybody — which I did — involved in the film, all the actors and people involved in the film. And the families of Paul Walker just to say, you know, “Everybody, go home. We’re all heartbroken, and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.” And you know, right now as far as we’re concerned there’s no movie. Even though we were a quarter of the way into production and you have no choice, you know, a life has been lost, and it’s just a movie. And so we stopped. And we shut down and after the first couple weeks it settled in and we had a memorial for Paul and people started asking, “Are we going to make the movie again?” You guys asked, “Are we going to do the film? Or what are we going to — ”
GALLOWAY: We get paid to ask those questions.
MEYER: Everybody was curious. People wanted to know, could they take another job, should they? And so we said, “We will now try to see if there’s a movie. And if there’s a way to mount this film and make it work without Paul —he had brothers who had some similarity to him, there’s a lot of footage of Paul in past films, past Fast and Furious. There was some footage already shot, and we said, “Let’s see if there’s a movie. We’re not going to do it if we can’t.” If we were just going to make some crappy film, we weren’t going to do it. There just was no chance. But great creative people in the studio and in the film crew came up with a way to put it together. They wrote a script that made sense; we found enough footage of Paul that we could put it together. We went to his family, again got permission. We wouldn’t have done it if the family said don’t do it.
GALLOWAY: Would you have killed the whole franchise?
MEYER: Easy to say yes, but I think it would have killed itself. I don’t think that Vin [Diesel] would have done it. I don’t think anybody would have done it. So, I think that would have been the end of it, probably.
MEYER: But everybody agreed to try to do it, and Vin and I spent a lot of time together, and he’s very emotionally attached to Paul, and obviously to the film and to the crew and the cast. And in the end we all came together and said, “Let’s do this. Let’s try to make it work.” Never expecting it to work as it did. But I have to say, when you see the film, fortunately for Paul it’s some lasting legacy, at least for his daughter. And you feel he’s in the film, and you feel it’s well represented. It’s nice when those things work. Just, the tragedy is that a life was lost, and one that was valued. I’d rather not make a movie, and have him be alive.
GALLOWAY: Where does the next one stand? Do you have a director now?
MEYER: No. Not yet. We’re minutes away. I mean, we’re close.
GALLOWAY: Well, you can break the news here. [laughter]
MEYER: No, but we’re close, we’re close to getting a director. We’re not there yet, but there will be another one.
GALLOWAY: I also want to ask how you revitalized the Jurassic Park franchise, which of course is the most important, because it’s about theme parks as well as box office. How difficult was that? And what were the conversations with Steven Spielberg?
MEYER: Well, you say “I,” but there’s a great group of people doing that.
GALLOWAY: The studio, yes.
MEYER: The first thing was to make the right deal work and it’s been years of discussions with Steven. You know, we’ve always talked about doing another one, but Steven felt, and rightfully so, that if we were going to ever do it, it had to be right; he didn’t want to just try to jerry-rig a Jurassic Park film. And so we had a lot of discussions about how it could work and what it should be, and the right cast and the right kind of story, and we knew we had to go back to Jurassic Park. We had to go to the place. And the question was, “How do we get it done?” And I must say Steven really came up with a director and really helped bring the story together. So we all agreed we would never do it unless it could be right. And it took obviously many, many years to feel comfortable and to get him focused, to get us focused, and to feel comfortable that we would have a film that we’d be proud of. And you know, it’s like all of Steven’s films, they’re part of his legacy, but certainly Jurassic Park is a big part of it, so...
GALLOWAY: Is he going to come back to Universal with a deal?
MEYER: It’s too early to tell you that. I mean, certainly we would like it. I can’t speak for Steven, but we have a long relationship. You know, I was his agent, before.
GALLOWAY: Oh, you were?
MEYER: Yeah, we represented Steven, and we have a long friendship.
GALLOWAY: What kind of person is he?
MEYER: Oh, he’s great. We have a long friendship. His office is on the lot. He and I have, when he’s in town, we have a once-a-month lunch on the lot. And so we see each other a lot. And the hope is we’ll be in business together. But I can’t speak for him. I would tell you that of course the studio, probably every studio, wishes they’d be in business with him. We’re on the list.
GALLOWAY: Last question before we turn to student. Outside of Universal, you’re very involved with the Olympics bid. What does that involve? How do you get the Olympics to come to L.A. and are they going to?
MEYER: Well, I hope so. We’re the city in the United States, and hopefully we’ll be the winners. I have to say, Mayor Garcetti’s done a great job — and the city council and the people involved with him. There’s a great group. Lew Wasserman’s grandson, Casey Wasserman, is very involved in it. And they’ve done a great job of convincing the Olympic committee that Los Angeles should be the host city when Boston dropped out. Now it’s in the hands of people who know much more about this than I do, and they’re trying to show them why we have the infrastructure and we’re better equipped to do it than any other city or country. So, hopefully it’ll be us.
GALLOWAY: What do you think the chances are?
MEYER: I wish I could tell you. I’m optimistic, because they’re optimistic. And they’ve done a great job of presenting it, and I do think when they show what we have here, already built to have the Olympics, I think that they have a good advantage. So, we’ll see.
GALLOWAY: Let’s open it to student questions.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Elsie Dortelus. I’m a film production student in the graduate program. I thank you for joining us this afternoon.
MEYER: Thank you.
QUESTION: In a previous interview, you said that for any business, people must come first and the culture must be right. What are the top three essential elements for creating a culture where people want to come to work every day and do their very best?
GALLOWAY: Great question.
MEYER: Too tough for me. [laughter] I’ve always said that I think, yes, you have to have the right people, but many businesses, many companies, would say you get the right people and then you worry about business, and then culture is somewhere else. I’ve always believed that you have to create a right culture. We spend more time, and probably you guys spend more time at school than you do at home, so when you actually get a job you’re going to spend more time at work than you do with the people you love the most and want to be with the most. It just works out that way. Rarely are there jobs that you come in at, you know, eight-hour jobs. It almost doesn’t exist anymore, especially if you like what you’re doing. You end up spending more time with your work than you do anyplace else. And so it’s incumbent upon the managers of any company to make it a place that you want to spend that time with. Little things, I mean, cleanliness of the place, how do you keep it looking right? Do you give people time off, if you have the ability to give them time off? Are there benefits that you can give them that they might not have normally gotten? It’s not huge things, it’s little things, but it’s things that make you more comfortable in that environment, feel better about the environment that you’re spending so much time with, and I believe that when you do that right you’ll want to make the company more successful and work harder for the company. So everybody benefits from it. But I really do think they’re such small things that you could do culture-wise, certainly as a leader of a company. You have to show the people in the organization that you’re willing to do everything you asked them to do yourself. You can’t ask them to dig a ditch if you’re not prepared to get in that ditch with them. You can’t be eating caviar while everybody in the company’s eating out of a tuna can. I think it’s how leaders manage an organization and let people know that they’re in it with them. I hope I said that right.
GALLOWAY: There’s a culture of fear in a lot of companies, where they almost want the employees to be afraid.
MEYER: I think it has to be the opposite. I’ve always believed that. I think there was a time, by the way, when that probably paid off in this world. Today, you can’t do that anymore. We’re all in it together, and I think you have to have your people feeling that you’re in it together.
GALLOWAY: Next question, please?
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Meyer. My name is Jasmine, and I’m a graduate student in the screenwriting program. My question for you is: you have a very diverse background, from being an agent to being president of Universal Studios. What are some life lessons that you acquired, and how does it benefit you today in the industry?
MEYER: You know, my life [lesson] was pretty simplistic: I think you must treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s all going to sound so basic, but it’s probably less basic than you think. You must treat people the way you want to be treated. You have to be as honest as you can be. I believe you have to do the things that you say you’re going to do. Things like that are essential, you know. There’s always going to be someone smarter than all of us, better at a job than all of us, but those basics are the things that will make the difference. I think those are the foundation to work from. I feel very strongly about things like that. You know, if you read my stuff — forgive me, am I in a Catholic school? Is this a Catholic school?
GALLOWAY: Not everybody is.
MEYER: I probably swear too much for a Catholic school, but you’ll all forgive me.
GALLOWAY: These guys never swear. [laughter]
MEYER: I know you guys don’t swear. But I saw a sign once, many, many, many years ago, 50 years ago. It said, “Assumption’s the mother of all fuck-ups.” And it changed my life. It really changed my life. And if you assume things, you’re going to get in trouble. Assuming things — meaning, you’re trusting something to happen that you lose control over. You’re trusting something you say to someone. “Oh, will you take care of that for me?” And they say, “Oh, sure, don’t worry about it.” And then they go off and do something else and forget about it. And you’ve assumed that they’re going to do it and you’re the one responsible for it. Things like that are just the basics. I’d say, return every phone call, return every email, whatever it is. Don’t leave those things for days. If people are calling you or asking for something, there’s a reason they’re asking for it. They deserve an answer. I’m a believer in basics.
GALLOWAY: You said somewhere else, at the UCLA commencement speech, you thought you were doing a great job when you were working at the Kohner Agency, because you’d done 9 out of 10 things great.
MEYER: Well, that sort of assumption, I used to — I never wrote anything down, and the woman that I worked for, that I did the filing for, would send me on errands and give me a list of 10 things to do. And I’d run all over the city and do 9 things, and I’d forget the 10th. I’d come back and say, “Ah, I got them all.” And she’d said, “Well, what about number 10?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, yeah.” And she’d get pissed off at me. And I used to get angry that she’d get pissed off at me, and I realized, she’s 100 percent right. If you say you’ll do 10 things, you must do all 10 things. You can’t just let them go. So to this day I write everything. I write the dumbest things down. I write, “Pick up my laundry.” You know, “Call my sister, call my wife, call my friend.” You know, I write everything down. And when I’m done with it, I cross it out. And that way I never have to think about it. I don’t like, and by the way I don’t like things inside a Blackberry or inside a computer, because they’re gone then. I want to see it. I want a sheet that tells me everything I need to do. And I get rid of it. And those things for me are all basics. You know, being smart, and making the best deal and being strategic and all that — yeah, you’re going to have to learn how to do some of that stuff, but if you don’t have those basics down, no matter how smart you are, I believe you ultimately won’t get as successful as you should be.
GALLOWAY: Next question?
QUESTION: Hi there, my name is Samuel. I do film, theater and business. My question to you is: what are some of the early struggles you had trying to build CAA up?
MEYER: They were all early struggles. When we started CAA, a man that had sort of mentored Mike Ovitz and myself and really was the boss of all five of us [at William Morris] was forcibly retired. He’d been there 35 years, and he was a great leader, a really great man, and did an amazing job. Instead of booking the deals himself, he’d get deals set up and then he’d give them to the other agents, so we could learn how to be better and learn how to do those things. And the then-head of the company came to him one day and said, “We’ll put your name in a computer.” By the way, in those days a computer was the size of this room. “We’ll put your name in a computer.” And it came up wanting. I always remember that expression. Because he didn’t book a lot of deals; he turned his deals over to other people to help them get better at it. He was our boss and he was a great man. And when he left, Mike Ovitz and I decided we were going to open up a little mom-and-pop company; we had about a year-and-a-half plan [after which] we were going to do that. We were going to save some money. And then we hooked up with the other three guys, and we all had this plan. We were going to wait for our bonuses, save money. I was the only one not married; the other four guys were married and everybody had a little bit of savings, but I had to borrow money to go into business. And we were found out one week into that plan. And so we were fired, literally, right away. And we had no idea what we were going to do. So that was the first struggle. We didn’t have offices, didn’t have clients, didn’t have money, didn’t have anything. No preparation at all. We really imagined that we were going to open the company a year later, you know, we would quit and there’d be assistants working at desks and phones ready to light up, and clients signed, and furniture in the place. So obviously we had none of that. And so the first couple years we were not prepared. Our furniture was card tables with folding chairs. We found an office building that had five offices and one secretarial area, and a conference room. And we went for $250 and bought a big conference table and put folding chairs around it, and that’s how we started. And for the first couple years it was a struggle; we didn’t have much money coming in. And the few clients that we’d signed — good clients — most of those clients had to pay commission to William Morris, because that’s where our relationships were. It took a few years to build it, and it grew slowly, but it obviously grew.
GALLOWAY: Next question.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Lucas. I’m a film production major here. And my question is — a lot of people have speculated about it, but what do you think led to the massive success of Universal’s box office this summer?
MEYER: SO many things. You know, first, we had never had a $1 billion movie before. No film at Universal ever did $1 billion worldwide. So this year we had three of them that did that. But two of the movies, Furious 7, because of poor Paul Walker’s death, was supposed to have been a last-year film. And because of the delay and all of what we did, it became this year’s film. So all of a sudden, a film that was not expected to be in this year, came. Same with the Minions movie. The Minions movie was supposed to be last year’s film and we — along with Chris Meledandri, who really is responsible for it — felt that it wasn’t ready yet. And we decided to delay it and put it into this year. So, all of a sudden, we’d never had a $1 billion movie, and we had two $1 billion films that would’ve been last year’s films. Whether they would’ve done $1 billion or not those years, we don’t know, but they came into this year. And forgetting everything else, I really do believe that we have the very best motion picture production, development, distribution and marketing worldwide of any studio ever. I really do feel that way. I say that because I haven’t always felt that way. There were times when I didn’t feel like that. But we do have it. And it’s an amazing group of people, and they do just a great job. It won’t always be like this. But last year was, even without those two big films, last year we had an amazing year. And this year obviously we broke our own record and everybody else’s record. So, who knows? I mean, we had good films, good luck, good marketing, good dates to distribute them, and good production. It just all came together, and it’s a great group of people doing a great job, and it just paid off in every way.
GALLOWAY: Next question?
QUESTION: Hello. My name’s Sam and I’m a senior screenwriter. My question for you is, you mentioned you watched a lot of Showtime and Netflix. What’s Universal doing to compete with those caliber of shows? And who did Alec Baldwin base his character on in 30 Rock?
MEYER: Good question.
GALLOWAY: These are great questions.
MEYER: It’s funny. You know, I represented Alec for a long time and after I saw it I called him. Because — and I have great respect for GE and for Jeff Immelt — but I said to him, I said, “You sound just like a GE guy.” And I said, “Did you study anybody?” And then he said, “No, I just felt that’s how one of those corporate guys would behave.” So it was a compilation of a lot of people who probably [are in] corporate life. It happened it was GE, because they were the parent company at the time. But he sure licked it, and when he said, “We’re selling washers and dryers and TV shows at the same time,” it was true, exactly how they would operate. You know, competing is a tough thing. Network television has lost a lot of viewers over the years, because the competition is just extraordinary. I mean, forget just basic cable; when you get to the other places, they have great programming without any of the restrictions that network television has. NBC works very hard at competing, and in some areas they compete, but they’re really competing with the other networks. They’re not competing with HBO and Showtime and pay cable. So, it’s a tough business, but when you have shows — The Voice is an example: The Voice carries you for a long distance. And that’s as big a hit as you can hope for. But network is doing it too, on occasion. Empire is a huge hit, and will last for many, many years and be a big success for Fox. There’s opportunities to do it; it is hard to find the right shows. NBC’s betting big on Blindspot. They’re doing everything they can to get certain shows on the air, but Dick Wolf shows remain — the Law & Order franchise, Chicago Fire. They have shows like that that work, but it’s hard to find network shows that can last because the competition is enormous — and you guys are now wanting programming on your time, not on network time. You’re able to watch it when you want to watch it, whether it’s Hulu or wherever you’re getting it; you’re getting programming when you want it, and not having to watch it at a prescribed time, so that changes the viewing habits of America.
GALLOWAY: One more question, and then we’ll wrap up.
QUESTION: Hi, I’m Brett. I’m a screenwriting student. You talked a bit about some of the hard decisions you have to make about whether or not to move forward with a specific project due to events or whatnot. Are there any decisions that you made as to going forward with a project or whether to pass on it that you regret as a studio head?
MEYER: Yes. Only one. I mean, of course I regret every movie we ever said no to that was a hit. [laughter] But I don’t make the final green light decision: I’m part of the process, but there are people who are younger and smarter than me that really ultimately have to decide that. Yeah, early on I said no to Titanic. And so that was —
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
MEYER: That was my colossal error. You know, I’m just getting over it. [laughter] That was a life business changing decision, and —
GALLOWAY: Did you make that decision? Because Casey Silver was then the chairman of the studio. I thought Casey had said no?
MEYER: Nah, Casey and I said no together.
MEYER: You know, I’ll take the blame.
GALLOWAY: That’s big of you.
MEYER: I’ll take the blame. I could’ve said yes. I could’ve overwritten it. But we — truth is, what happened, Casey and I both said yes. And we were going to do it. We had a number of meetings with Jim Cameron — this was for the domestic part of it — and we both had agreed to do it. Casey Silver at the time was the head of the motion picture group. And we were going to do it, and my boss, then Edgar Bronfman Jr., who ran Seagram — there’d been a number of movies none of you would know, but there were three or four Titanic movies, literally. One was called Raise the Titanic, one was called Sink the Titanic. There were numerous Titanic movies that all failed. And I remember we were at a pretty bad run at that time, and it was my learning period still, my first —
GALLOWAY: And you’d come off Waterworld, which was a huge problem —
MEYER: Yeah. Yeah. Waterworld was a problem project. I didn’t make it, but I inherited it. But it was just a bad time for the studio. And we were — up to that time, we had always been kind of a B-studio. We were the last place people wanted to bring their projects to, and Edgar said to me, “Really? You’re going to make another Titanic movie?” And at that time it was a $50 million investment, which is of course a lot of money, but in those days it was a colossal sum of money. Today, you’d be relieved to make a $50 million movie or make an investment of $50 million. And I just said, “You know what, why am I going to fly into the face of my boss?” By the way, the only consolation for me is, had we made it, for that year and a half, Paramount, who did make it and bought the domestic part — the headlines of all the trade papers, those days the trade papers were daily papers — was how stupid they were for making that movie. It was over-budget, over-time, over-everything, and why are they doing it? And I probably would have been fired in that year anyway, so it’s probably better I’m still here and didn’t make the movie. But I do regret it.