Q&A: Ron Meyer

Exec talks star salaries, market share and his approach to management

After 13 years at the top of Universal Studios, Ron Meyer has created an environment noted for its stability and consistency. He spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's Alex Ben Block and Stephen Galloway about his management philosophy.

THR: You talk a lot about creating a corporate culture. What do you mean by that?

Ron Meyer: It's people: how they're treated, how they feel, wanting to come to work, wanting to do the best job they can.

THR: Hollywood can sometimes seem like a culture of fear.

Meyer: You can't operate out of fear. I mean, we all know that we're going to lose our jobs if we don't deliver results, but you can't deliver results every day. And I want people in a bad time -- I know what to do in good times -- I want in bad times for everybody to feel empowered to go out and take chances, and go out and come back to fight another day. We all need that.

THR: You're known for sharing the profits with your colleagues to a greater extent than is usual in Hollywood.

Meyer: The buck stops with me, but we're all in this together. If this company does well, people deserve to be paid for it and credited with it. And if they do poorly,
and if we do poorly as a company, then I deserve to be blamed because I empowered those people and trusted them to do the job. I don't want to do everyone's job, nor am I qualified to do everyone's job; I've surrounded myself with the very, very best people I could ever find. And I get to be sort of the coach of a Super Bowl team. But they're really the players. If they're not delivering the results and doing what they should be doing, then the coach has got to be blamed for not overseeing it intelligently.

THR: What are the areas that you have trouble with? What was a struggle for you? Was it finance?

Meyer: Well, it's not a struggle because I surround myself with the very best financial people. I still am not a financial person, but I understand when we're making money and when we're losing money, and I understand what it takes for us to make money -- and, unfortunately, what you can do to lose money. I understand enough to understand what's going on and what we need to do. I understand the language they're speaking. But there are people who are experts at that, and I believe in letting experts do the job that they were trained to do. I ask to be spoken to in layman's language, not a language that I'm trying to translate. When people give me memorandums about what's going on, I ask in every area: Break it down in a couple of paragraphs that I'll understand; if I need to go deeper, then I'll do it.

THR: Some companies fight for market share, some companies only worry about the
bottom line. You seem to be more about managing the portfolio with the profit
margins in mind.

Meyer: Clearly market share has never been our goal. I'd love to have market share just for bragging rights. But we have always been very focused on profitability. We learned that, with a good-sized but probably middle-sized production budget, we've been able to run our business. And we've been able to find the right strategic partners when we needed to.

THR: When Stacey Snider left for DreamWorks, you chose the team of Marc Shmuger, who had come from marketing, and David Linde, who had run the specialty division Focus Features, to run Universal Pictures. What was your thinking?

Meyer: I knew them both well. I knew Marc much better than David, but I felt that the plans for the future -- growing internationally, eliminating our distribution partnerships internationally and setting up a studio internationally -- required two people. It needed a partnership; it was too big a job just for one.

THR: You tried to have Universal acquire DreamWorks in 2005 but the GE board balked at the price. How did you handle that?

Meyer: It was a very disappointing loss, both personally and professionally. But last year we still managed to have the best year in our company's history.

THR: There's a chance they may circle back and land at Universal again.

Meyer: Aside from the speculation that I read, as far as I know, DreamWorks is still at Paramount. To date, we have had no conversations. If and when they become available, we'd love to find a way to be back in business with them.

THR: Would it have to go before the GE board again?

Meyer: We wouldn't need NBC or GE to do that, since this doesn't seem to be a $1.6 billion acquisition (it would be purely a distribution deal), and it would come under the heading of our normal business operations.

THR: Every studio is facing the issue of soaring star salaries. Ironically, at CAA, you and your team were among the guys who jacked them up. How do you approach demands for big paydays?

Meyer: I felt this way as an agent and I feel this way now: There are certain people who deserve to get paid a lot because they put butts in the seat, and there's other people who don't deserve a lot because they don't put butts in a seat. They still get a lot; we all get overpaid. But I have no problem paying for someone who I believe is going to give me real value in a film. Sometimes it's not the obvious value. Sometimes you get home video value out of it, you get international value out of it -- you never know what it will be. But we make that evaluation.

THR: Have you changed the way you do those deals? According to Universal Pictures vice chairman Rick Finkelstein, about two years ago the studio put a percentage cap on the amount of gross revenue that can be given to profit participants on any one movie.

Meyer: Every situation is different. By the way, when I was an agent it was the same thing. With some deals, you'd have to go in and find a way to make it work. I find that agents and stars and directors are still willing to do that in certain circumstances. I really don't think it's as onerous as one would make it out to be. Rarely do films that are supposed to get made not get made because you can't make deals.

THR: We have seen a lot of labor unrest in Hollywood, a writers strike and a
battle between SAG and AFTRA. Why, after years of labor peace, has this been the year from hell for labor?

Meyer: I wish I could give you an answer. I'm sure that the Internet has made a big difference: It has talent believing the streets are paved with gold, when in fact we haven't made any money from that area yet -- not to say that we won't one day, but so far we haven't. That's the only thing I can think of, because otherwise these strikes are debilitating, and they're unfortunate, and the people who suffer the most are the people that can afford it the least. And it's tragic, because there's always a proper deal to be made.