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Universal sees rebirth of box-office prospects

June 06, 2007|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

The sleeper hit "Knocked Up" has Universal Pictures' top executives breathing easy again.

A year after they were tapped to head the studio, and having suffered through duds like "Miami Vice" and "The Good Shepherd," Marc Shmuger and David Linde found box-office tonic with the R-rated comedy.

The question is whether it will be an enduring shot in the arm.

Universal's hope is that "Knocked Up," which grossed more than $30 million last weekend, will mark the beginning of a strong summer.

The studio's next film, "Evan Almighty," is expected to be a crowd pleaser; then come the Adam Sandler comedy "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," part three in a series.

"We were all very eager to get back in the game in a big way," said Shmuger, the studio's chairman. "It feels good."

The challenges ahead include a roster of expensive dramas due out in the fall that could be as tricky to sell as the prestigious but money-losing Universal films "Munich" and "Children of Men."

Shmuger and Linde, the co-chairman, had their work cut out when they took over from Chairman Stacey Snider last spring.

Both were on the Universal payroll. Shmuger oversaw the global marketing and distribution of major releases and Linde was co-president of the specialty unit Focus Features, which made "Brokeback Mountain" and "Pride and Prejudice." But they had never worked with each other and neither had overseen the production of a large movie.

As a symbolic gesture of togetherness, Shmuger and Linde had new offices built for themselves, with a connecting conference room, in the same area as the studio's production team.

"In creating a partnership, until you see the results there is always a lot of unknowns," said Universal Studios President Ron Meyer, who chose the pair. "But I feel gratified that it did work."

(Meyer's bosses at General Electric Co., which owns NBC Universal and the studio, apparently think the 62-year-old is doing well. He just signed a new five-year contract that will keep him in the presidency past GE's mandatory retirement age of 65.)

Shmuger and Linde went through some rough patches.

In October, under pressure to trim budgets and rich profit-participant deals, Universal and its partner, 20th Century Fox, tried to change the terms of the deal in the midst of planning for "Halo," based on the Microsoft Corp. video game. The players refused and the movie was tabled.

That angered executive producer Peter Jackson, among others. Linde, who has known Jackson for 15 years, made it a priority to make amends -- and now Universal will finance and distribute "Dambusters," a World War II thriller that Jackson is producing.

Recently, director Tom Shadyac complained that "Evan Almighty," which will be released June 22, was getting lost amid the marketing blitz for other studios' blockbusters, including "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." Studio executives said Shadyac, who declined to comment, was assured by Linde, Shmuger and Universal's head of marketing, Adam Fogelson, that his movie would get plenty of attention.

It received plenty of studio money. "Evan Almighty" was a complicated shoot with lots of special effects and hundreds of animals to corral, and it went over budget, coming in at about $175 million. Marketing costs could propel the total to more than $200 million.

Linde and Shmuger persuaded Shadyac and other profit participants -- who take a certain percentage of the first dollar made by the studio at the box office -- to change their deals. Now, they won't start collecting their takes until the studio recoups its production and marketing costs.

"Bourne" was taxing too, shooting for about 100 days in six countries. With last-minute script changes, it has cost at least $125 million.

Frank Marshall, producer of all three "Bourne" movies, said that he was initially anxious but that Shmuger and Linde rolled with the punches.

"You always hold your breath," Marshall said. "But nothing changed. They gave us everything we needed.... The [Bourne] movies are always chaotic -- when you are shooting in the middle of Ramadan in Morocco, it's chaotic."

Shmuger and Linde have moved to strengthen some studio weak spots, including in the big summer movie category. "I have a massive case of tent-pole envy," Shmuger said.

He's looking forward to next summer. Universal's lineup includes the third installment of "The Mummy" series, set in China and starring Jet Li and Brendan Fraser. Its release will coincide with the Summer Olympic Games in China, which will be broadcast by NBC.

The studio is also planning to revive the "Wolfman" and "Hulk" brands and to broaden the appeal of "Hellboy."

The two executives also hope to make more family and animated films. For that job they lured Chris Meledandri, 20th Century Fox's former head of animation and the executive behind the hit "Ice Age," to Universal.

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