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EMPIRE BUILDERS: They green-light big-budget features
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Restoring the Luster?

Stacey Snider Is Passionate About Turning Universal Pictures Around

March 26, 2000|Patrick Goldstein

How do you top sex with an apple pie? The question is unspoken but all-consuming as Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider sits in a conference room with three young writer-producers. She's listening to their pitch for a sequel to "American Pie," the teen sex comedy about a group of high school guys and their quest to lose their virginity.

There's a hint of urgency in the room. For a studio that's only a year removed from one of the worst slumps in its history, a successful sequel to "American Pie" is a high priority. The $11-million film was one of the studio's most profitable movies last year, making $200 million worldwide, and Snider has dreams of a franchise as lucrative as "Scream 1-3." Even though the writers have just begun work on the script, the second "Pie" installment is slated for release in the summer of 2001.

Adam Herz, who wrote the original film and is supervising "Pie 2" screenwriter David H. Steinberg, sketches a scenario that would reunite the "Pie" guys the summer after their freshman year in college. To an outsider, few of the ideas inspire confidence. But if Snider is underwhelmed, she doesn't show it. Her job, she explains later, is to keep the "architecture of the film intact. It's up to the screenwriters to decorate the room." Rather than dwell on plot issues, the 38-year-old studio chief reminds the writers of what gave the original film its cross-generational charm:

"There's something about proms, whether you're 40 or 14, that you can relate to. I'm not saying we shouldn't try for something edgier, but the movie's power came from [the audience saying], 'Oh my God, that could've been me. I did that or I would've done that.' "

At one point, Steinberg suggests a possible plot twist in which one of the leads would bed both of his fantasy women. Snider knowingly wags her head. "See," she says dryly. "It's a man's world."

In truth, the boys' club atmosphere in Hollywood is changing. Snider is one of three women who head major movie studios (Sherry Lansing is at Paramount Pictures; Amy Pascal is at Columbia Pictures). But Snider is the only one raising two small children at the same time.

Her corner office on the eighth floor of Universal's Carl Laemmle Building has rows of Dr. Seuss books, a wicker basket full of toddler toys and crayon drawings by 31/2-year-old daughter Katie taped on the office door. The conference room next door has a high chair for 12-month-old Natalie, who visits mom once a week with Katie for a two-hour playtime lunch. After the toddlers and their nanny leave, Snider picks wads of mushed banana out of her blouse as she takes a call from studio owner Edgar Bronfman Jr.

"Stacey has two important jobs," says Snider's friend, producer Laura Ziskin, "running a studio and being a mother."

of course one of those jobs has a considerably higher profile than the other. When Snider arrived at Universal at the end of 1996 as co-president of production, the Seagram-owned studio was viewed as a Hollywood laggard, its glory days long past. By the end of 1998, when Snider was named president (she became chairman last November), it had hit rock bottom, having staggered through a prolonged drought that continued until the release last May of "The Mummy." Even as recently as last summer, the studio was held in such low regard that Hollywood agents were saying they no longer took A-list material there.

It's too early to predict whether Snider will succeed in restoring the studio's luster. Since "The Mummy," Universal has had its ups and downs, with $100-million hits like "Notting Hill" and "American Pie" undercut by such expensive flops as "Mystery Men," "For Love of the Game" and "Man on the Moon." The studio is expected to have another hit with "Erin Brockovich," with Julia Roberts; industry observers also predict big box-office for "Nutty 2: The Klumps," due in July. But they are less enthusiastic about two other summer comedies, "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

Snider's critics complain that she has sold off the foreign rights for too many successful and potentially successful films, most notably "American Pie" and "Erin Brockovich." They also complain that Snider, who is famous for giving voluminous notes to directors, spends too much time taking credit for her hits while distancing herself from her failures. But even her detractors acknowledge that she is decisive, trustworthy and has brought a much-needed dose of optimism to the once gloomy Universal lot. She also is credited with assembling a staff that includes a number of highly regarded executives, led by production president Kevin Misher, her closest confidant.

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