Why Top Exec Debbie Liebling Was Pushed Out at Universal (Analysis)

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Debbie Liebling

Despite the success of "Fast Five," the fired president of production is perceived by some as the "fall guy" for the studio's recent troubles.

Universal's announcement Monday of a shake-up in its motion picture department came on a peculiar day, as the studio was in the midst of celebrating a huge opening weekend for Fast Five amid an otherwise extended drought at the box office.

The timing, according to some industry observers, was not coincidental. The move allowed the studio to dump negative news on a day when most of Hollywood was marveling at the success of a franchise once considered to be coasting on its last fumes. And some insiders have concluded that by dropping production president Debbie Liebling, who had been on the job a mere 18 months, the current regime -- chairman Adam Fogelson and co-chairman Donna Langley -- hopes to signal a fresh, winning start at the troubled studio to the new bosses at Comcast.

In Liebling's place, Universal has promoted Peter Cramer and Jeffrey Kirschenbaum to split her job.

There's no saying how the move might play with Comcast, but one agent expressed the view that Liebling was "the fall guy" for the studio's troubles. "How long has their bad run been going on?" this person said. "It long preceded Debbie Liebling. She's No. 4 in the chain of command. She had no power there. She had no job. She takes the fall."

Sources with ties to Universal concurred that Langley continued to be very hands-on and that Liebling had never gotten much traction at the studio. Echoing the agent word for word, one said, "She had no job."

Last weekend's big bow for Fast Five provided Universal with the highest domestic opening in the studio's history, beating previous best Lost World: Jurassic Park at $72.1 million. Fast Five grossed $86.2 million at the domestic box office, and overseas it pulled in $45.9 million for the weekend, bringing its worldwide total to $168.2 million.
But the hit came amid a string of underperformers. In fact, Universal's last bona fide live-action hit was the previous installment of Fast and Furious in 2009, which grossed $353 million worldwide (2010's Little Fockers grossed $300 million worldwide but cost more than $100 million and required big backend payments to key talent). Other recent films with high expectations -- such as The Adjustment Bureau, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World and The Dilemma -- have underperformed.
Universal has had more recent success in animation, with the 2010 hit Despicable Me delivering $540 million in worldwide gross. A lesser hit but still profitable, the Easter live action/animation hybrid Hop has grossed about $163 million and counting.
But the success of Fast Five, while certainly welcome to Universal, also serves to highlight the studio's lack of other franchises -- those bankable properties that deliver virtually guaranteed box office and have become the lifeblood of studios, shielding them from the huge risks inherent in making and releasing movies.
Universal has not been able to launch an A-list franchise in recent years, and its one consistent performer, the Jason Bourne series, has stalled (although the studio is trying to restart the franchise with Jeremy Renner in place of Matt Damon). Tellingly, just before Fast Five opened, Fogelson proclaimed that his regime had rebooted the franchise to prolong its life, changing the focus from the world of street racing to a series of heists and putting in motion a Fast and Furious 6.

Amid this scramble, one source with ties to the studio noted that cutting ties with Liebling could deflect scrutiny for a period.

"It buys them a little bit of time," the agent says. "But if the movies don't start working real soon, they're going to have to start making changes at the highest levels. ... But who knows? Maybe this movie will start a good streak for them."

Coming later this month from Universal is the female-skewing comedy Bridesmaids, which looks to have middling prospects, and in late July, the DreamWorks-produced sci-fi/Western Cowboys and Aliens, which -- though risky -- might be the studio's best hope in years for a new franchise.

Email: Kim.Masters@THR.com
Twitter: @KimMasters