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Departure Leaves a Big Void at Universal

February 27, 2006|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Help wanted fast: an executive who can soothe the egos of stars and filmmakers while working on a tight budget.

With Sunday's defection of top lieutenant Stacey Snider to Paramount Pictures Corp.'s DreamWorks SKG unit, Universal Studios Inc. President Ron Meyer is under pressure to quickly calm anxieties by naming a successor who can run a studio under the notorious tightfistedness of corporate parent General Electric Co.

Meyer also needs to reassure filmmakers, stars and agents, who may be wary of bringing new projects to a studio undergoing a management makeover. In addition, those who have movies in development at the studio worry about the fate of their projects.

"The hope is that they make a decision quickly without losing too much momentum in their greenlight process," said United Talent Agency partner Jeremy Zimmer.

Meyer plans to begin interviewing potential successors to run Universal Pictures this week, and he already has a short list. They include former production chief Scott Stuber, Focus Features co-chief David Linde, Universal Pictures Vice Chairman Marc Shmuger and Bonnie Hammer, president of the USA and Sci Fi cable channels, both sister companies of Universal's.

In the meantime, the former agent plans to oversee operations at the studio himself even though Snider's contract technically runs until December.

In a statement, Meyer sought to quell fears about Universal's instability.

"Even with her departure ... we will continue to effectively run our studio," he said. "It's business as usual."

Snider's replacement would have to be adept at managing the often tense relations with General Electric and the NBC Universal unit that the studio operates under. Snider chafed under GE's belt tightening, which included cracking down on spending viewed as run-of-the-mill in Hollywood, such as gifts and traveling first class.

Stuber, who was co-head of production at Universal with Mary Parent until last year, is well regarded by filmmakers and is a favorite of Meyer's.

Friends close to Stuber, however, say he prefers working as a producer and is unsure whether he would want Snider's job. He also lacks experience in dealing with a corporate parent.

Marketing chief Shmuger has had the closest relationship with GE, frequently representing the studio at corporate retreats. Shmuger is known as an aggressive marketer and someone familiar with the nuts and bolts of running the studio, although he is not a particular favorite of filmmakers. According to two top Universal sources, Meyer would not want to hand over the studio to Shmuger alone but might pair him with another executive.

Hammer successfully turned the Sci Fi Channel into a hit with such programs as "Battlestar Galactica," but she is unknown to movie makers. Though she brings mainly rave reviews from her colleagues in television, skeptics note that it would be a big leap from running a cable channel to heading a studio.

Linde, who was picked by Snider to run Focus Features with longtime partner James Schamus, is known for having pioneered the use of foreign investment and the selling of international rights to finance independent films. He is well regarded among the specialty film community.

But it is unknown whether Linde, a longtime New Yorker, wants to relocate to Los Angeles or can develop the studio's annual slate of more than 25 films -- twice as many as he currently oversees.

Snider's departure leaves a big void. She is credited with bringing Universal out of one of its worst slumps in history, marked by such duds as "Meet Joe Black" and "Babe: Pig in the City." Snider also is credited with steadying Universal and keeping it focused during the financial turmoil experienced by France's Vivendi Universal before it sold the studio to GE in 2004.

Snider oversaw lucrative movie franchises developed from the hits "The Mummy," "American Pie" and "The Bourne Identity" while at the same time championing such critical favorites as the Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind" and the Oscar-nominated "Erin Brockovich."

Brian Grazer, partner with director Ron Howard in Universal's biggest supplier, Imagine Entertainment, said he would invite Snider into editing rooms to pick her brain.

"I had a particularly unique affection for Stacey and enjoyed our creative collaboration," Grazer said.

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