Following a dismal year at the box office and the disastrous performance of its holiday movies, Seagram Co. has fired Casey Silver, the chairman of its film division, and put Universal Studios President Ron Meyer in direct charge of the operation.
Silver was the last top executive holdover from the regime that ran Universal Studios before the Canadian liquor giant bought the entertainment company in 1995.
This last weekend's Thanksgiving holiday debut of the costly sequel "Babe: Pig in the City" and disappointing returns from the equally big-budgeted release "Meet Joe Black" nailed the coffin shut for Silver, whose job has been in jeopardy for some time over the generally poor performance of movies he's overseen during the last three years.
Silver's firing comes on the heels of the ousting two weeks ago of Universal Studios Chairman Frank Biondi Jr. and continues the management turmoil and corporate unrest that has plagued the entertainment company since Seagram's chief executive, Edgar Bronfman Jr., took the reins.
The removal of 43-year-old Silver places Meyer--the top-ranking executive in the entertainment division--squarely on the hot seat. Meyer was Silver's boss and, in assuming Silver's responsibilities, he'll be operating for the first time in the trenches, much like his counterparts at other studios, who include Warner Bros.' co-chairman Terry Semel and Walt Disney Co.'s Joe Roth.
Meyer, a former talent agent and co-founder of Creative Artists Agency, has been functioning in a more behind-the-scenes, nondescript role since joining Universal in 1995.
Meyer--to whom the movie, theme park and television divisions report--is the executive who puts on a public face for Universal as he travels to Florida theme park operations eight to 10 times a year and undertakes such endeavors as showing up in Osaka, Japan, for the formal groundbreaking of its $1.7-billion theme park/entertainment center, to open in 2001. Universal has a 24% equity stake in that park and will collect an additional management fee.
Hollywood insiders question whether Meyer will be up to the daunting task of turning around the fortunes of Universal's movie division, whose paltry domestic market share of 4.48%, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., lags every major studio except MGM/UA.
Meyer has very strong talent relationships from his three decades as one of Hollywood's top agents, but the day-to-day demands of managing a major movie studio and being the one ultimately responsible for a billion-dollar slate of movies requires somewhat different skills.
It also isn't what he signed on for when he left the agency business to join the corporate studio ranks.
"It means I will get up earlier and go home later," said Meyer, 54, who lives in Malibu, cherishes his personal time, and is known for his laid-back, noncorporate style.
Meyer said he's not overwhelmed by the pressure of being on the line in movies, given all the support he expects to get from Universal's production team. "I will be responsible for green lighting the movies, but I have a very good staff I'll depend on to bring me projects," Meyer said.
Concurrent with Silver's removal, Universal announced that co-President of Production Stacey Snider has been promoted to production president and Kevin Misher has been named co-president of production. Chris McGurk remains president and chief operating officer of Universal Pictures, who along with the movie group's department heads will report directly to Meyer.
"The buck will stop with me and I'll be responsible for final decisions on the production slate, but that's not to say that decisions didn't get made here without my being aware of them," Meyer said, acknowledging that he was "clearly disappointed in the performances" of "Babe" and "Meet Joe Black."
The cost to produce each film approached $100 million and tens of millions more to market, and each was controlled more by the filmmakers than by the studio.
"Babe," the sequel to 1995's highly successful sleeper, grossed just $8.2 million over the five-day holiday weekend, getting creamed by two competing kids' movies, Disney's "A Bug's Life" ($45.8 million) and Paramount's "The Rugrats Movie" ($27.4 million).
On Sunday night, Meyer called Silver to tell him he was being released--news that came as little surprise to the studio chief.
"This is not about any one film," Meyer said. "We've not had the success we should have had and sometimes you need a change of focus."
Silver, who has a multiyear production deal built into his contract, will set up shop at Universal as an independent producer.
With more than three years to go on his current contract, sources said, Silver also will receive a cash severance.
Industry insiders were surprised last year when Meyer extended Silver's contract for an additional four years amid a disappointing run of movies that included "Kull the Conquerer," "Daylight," "A Simple Wish," "The Chamber" and "McHale's Navy."