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A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 20 edition of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For many months, Industry executives had been shaking their heads over how NBCUniversal had marginalized Ron Meyer, the long-reigning chief of Universal Studios. Some believed Meyer’s 18-year run finally might be over. But in August, NBCU CEO Steve Burke secretly invited Meyer to his house in Montana for fishing, horseback riding and a rapprochement. Meyer, 68, emerged with the title of vice chairman of NBCU and a contract extended to 2017.
Burke told Meyer that Jeff Shell, the 48-year-old chairman of NBCU International, would become chairman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. In the subsequent shuffle, studio chairman Adam Fogelson, who had been enjoying a run of success, abruptly was dismissed Sept. 9 and replaced by co-chairman Donna Langley, who had been seen as standing on shakier ground than Fogelson.
Industry observers say these outcomes result from a combination of pragmatism on the part of the suits at NBCU and the most old-fashioned type of corporate intrigue within Universal. They say Burke recognized that Shell — a TV executive who lacks film experience — needs Meyer to serve as his mentor in Hollywood.
The resulting shake-up is the first big move at the studio since Comcast acquired NBCU in 2011. Sources say Burke had come to recognize that finding a strong candidate to run Universal was no simple feat. At the same time, Burke and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts were seen as eager to put one of their own in charge — a well-regarded, no-nonsense executive with a Harvard MBA. (A source says Shell has made it clear that he feels no burning desire to mingle with celebrities.)
Burke was aware that as a newcomer to movies, Shell needed support that Meyer could provide. The industry often is hostile to outsiders who take top film jobs, as the short tenures of TV executives Gail Berman at Paramount and Rich Ross at Disney illustrate. “In order for Jeff Shell to succeed, you have to make sure there isn’t someone trying to kill him and there’s someone who can help him,” says one Universal veteran. Pointing to Ross’ tenure running Disney’s film studio, this person says, “If Ross would have had [former studio boss Dick Cook] there, things would have been different.”
Meanwhile, sources say Fogelson and Langley had reached a point in a long-strained relationship where each was trying to get the other fired. Fogelson was preparing a presentation to Burke on why Langley should go, while Langley had a contract negotiation coming up and expressed reluctance to continue with Fogelson in the job. Universal declined comment, but insiders say Meyer favored Langley — who had more production experience — and had wanted to give her the chairman’s job following the dismissal of studio heads Marc Shmuger and David Linde in 2009. But Fogelson, who had been a strong head of marketing, had the leverage to demand a promotion. “Adam made clear that if he wasn’t in line, he would leave,” says a knowledgeable source. Fogelson wanted his own team but was not permitted to replace Langley, say insiders.
Another slight, from Langley’s perspective, came after Comcast bought NBCU and effected a reorganization in 2011. A source says Langley believed she had been promised parity with Fogelson. “At the eleventh hour, she was made slightly subordinate,” says this person, and suspected that Fogelson might have blocked her promotion. “As reserved as she is, you could always feel sandpaper between them,” adds the source.
Although Burke flirted in 2012 with bringing in DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg to run Universal, Fogelson can’t be blamed for thinking the tide was in his favor. In 2011, he became a direct report to Burke as well as to Meyer, and Universal has had a strong run at the box office lately, with Fast and Furious 6 and Despicable Me 2 contributing to its biggest summer ever. Given that — as well as Burke’s apparent lack of regard for Meyer — a talent rep says Fogelson “must have thought, ‘Ronnie’s out and just has a ceremonial position.'”
As Fogelson felt his star was rising, sources say Langley remained deferential to Meyer. “She made sure Ron always knew what he needed to know,” says a source. That appears to have helped greatly when NBCU decided to bring in Shell and concluded that Meyer was important. (He retains authority over theme parks and the physical studio but also expects to have a role in movies.)
Now, with Meyer and Langley in place, says one source familiar with Burke’s thinking, Shell has “bookends on both sides who are ultimate insiders,” which may be crucial in a town that doesn’t welcome newcomers. The industry might not yet have taken the measure of Shell, says this observer, but “everybody knows what Jeff isn’t.”
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek