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Two Universal Execs Lose Marketing Posts

The changes point up the desperation of Seagram chief Bronfman as he seeks better results from the studio.

April 17, 1998|CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a continuing dismantling of top management at Universal Studios, movie marketing heads Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones have been forced out of their posts with 2 1/2 years to go on their contracts.

Shutt and Jones, who are among the most highly regarded and highest-paid marketing executives in Hollywood, represent the third major executive change at the studio in the last week, underscoring the desperation of Seagram Co. chief Edgar Bronfman Jr. to extract better results from his entertainment empire.

Universal's movie division has been plagued by a string of box-office duds, including, most recently, "Primary Colors" and "Mercury Rising." In such cases, the marketing executives often get blamed when movies don't work, and Bronfman has privately criticized Shutt and Jones for not operating as team players.

Tuesday, production president Marc Platt was let go for clashing with his boss, motion picture group chairman Casey Silver. Last week, Howard Weitzman, executive vice president, corporate operations, was also ousted long before his contract expired.

In true Hollywood fashion, Shutt and Jones will, at least for now, remain in the Universal fold as producers--positions guaranteed them by contract when they first came to the studio in the fall of 1994.

Platt, who has a rich producer's deal built into his contract, also is considering remaining at the studio as a filmmaker.

Few in Hollywood believe that Shutt and Jones, who will continue their marketing efforts until a replacement is found, will be the last high-level terminations at Universal. For one thing, none of the executives fired so far had much to do with choosing the movies that have bombed since last summer's hits, "Liar, Liar" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park."

Driving the management changes has been mounting pressure from Bronfman, who is playing an increasingly hands-on role even from behind the scenes.

Since his Canadian spirits company acquired Universal Studios three years ago, Bronfman has fashioned himself as a big-picture manager. While that may have been his role initially, developments at the company over the last year suggest otherwise. Despite the best efforts of his underlings to portray their boss as a hands-off macro-manager, Bronfman has clearly moved into a micro mode--a role not uncommon for the moguls running many of today's media companies.

Sources on Thursday, describing the latest management upheaval, repeatedly referred to Bronfman's concerns without any mention of Universal Studios Chairman Frank Biondi's involvement. Biondi's position at the studio has been undercut since the day Bronfman announced a deal to turn over the studio's television assets to Barry Diller.

Though Bronfman distances himself from personnel changes, one source associated with the studio assured, "He's totally calling the shots."

The cascade of rumor and reality gushing through Universal now is overwhelming top executives, interrupting deal-making and generally disrupting business as usual.

In that sense, Universal finds itself in the company of other Hollywood studios that have been there before. Two years ago, Sony Pictures was mired in endless turmoil over who would run the beleaguered studio or even whether the studio's Tokyo-based parent would keep its entertainment sector as part of its global company. More recently, MGM was frozen for nearly a year as the company was put on the auction block.

Management disarray at a Hollywood studio not only is severely unsettling to those executives in jeopardy, but is potentially devastating to the process of putting movies together and keeping all the trains running properly.

Stars, directors, writers and producers get understandably unnerved when they fear their projects could be derailed by management changes. Top creative talent often will lean toward shopping their projects elsewhere when studio management is tottering.

Further destabilizing Universal is a continuing rumor that Bronfman is entertaining the idea of cutting Universal loose to DreamWorks and Diller, who controls USA Networks Inc.

A Universal spokesperson said, "There's absolutely no truth to that rumor." And a DreamWorks official punched a hole in an item in Thursday's New York Post reporting top-level talks supposedly were held late Tuesday about "the takeover" of Universal by Diller and the DreamWorks trio of Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg.

"It's categorically untrue that DreamWorks is planning to be involved with Universal in any way beyond our relationship as it currently stands," said Terry Press, a top executive with DreamWorks. (Universal distributes the company's videos and, through its foreign partnership, UIP, its movies overseas.)

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