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Brand new skills for studio execs

October 06, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

A year ago, Marc Shmuger and David Linde were riding high as the heads of Universal Pictures, in the middle of what was to become the most profitable year in the studio's history, presiding over a two-year string of hits that included "Mamma Mia!," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Wanted" and "Knocked Up." Today they're licking their wounds, having been ousted after months of bad buzz about studio infighting and weak, inconsistent leadership.

Even though they had a lot of early success, the duo never built a loyal following, either inside or outside the company. So they're out, replaced by Adam Fogelson, who is now studio chairman, and Donna Langley, who will be the studio co-chairman, while still retaining her old job as head of production.

What's fascinating to me is that even as Universal is totally revamping its executive team and Disney has named a successor to studio chief Dick Cook, who was abruptly fired two weeks ago, no one seems to have given much thought to the complex array of skill sets needed to run a contemporary movie studio.

Until a decade or so ago, it was pretty easy to identify what it took to run a movie studio. The best executives had the same kinds of skills -- they were movie pickers. They could identify a good script, figure out the kind of talent who should star in it and hire the right filmmaker to make it, all the while having a relatively good grasp of its commercial potential. But studios aren't movie-idea incubators anymore. They're brand businesses, always on the lookout for a project that can be transformed into a franchise that not only has worldwide appeal but -- even more crucially -- can be duplicated over and over in sequel form.

Now that they are so dependent on the franchise business, studios need leaders with a skill set that is something closer to an advertising brand manager. It's hardly a surprise that Disney, which is now largely a collection of identifiable brands (Pixar, Bruckheimer, DreamWorks and Marvel) has replaced Cook with Disney Channels chief Rich Ross, who has overseen the creation of such successful young teen brands as "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana."

With rare exceptions (meaning Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean"), the franchises that have been the biggest profit centers for studios in recent years, such as Harry Potter, Transformers, Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men, are films that rely more on our collective pop-culture subconscious than any individual movie star or creative talent. Even as recently as four or five years ago, you'd measure the value of a studio chief by his or her relationships, either with A-list stars or the top writer-directors in town who could supply ready-to-shoot, talent-friendly scripts. But at today's studios, the real payoff comes from acquiring a new, pop-culture brand, a brand with the kind of kinetic energy that appeals to moviegoers who speak different languages and live in all sorts of different cultures.

The big movie brands no longer depend on top talent. It hardly mattered who was cast in Harry Potter or Spider-Man movies. The characters, already clearly parts of the pop-culture firmament, were the stars, not the actors. The same goes for the filmmaker, as the evolution of "Harry Potter" has proved, with the various installments all padding Warners' deep pockets, regardless of whether a real auteur -- like Alfonso Cuaron -- or a journeyman director was at the helm.

This emphasis on brand management has led many corporate chiefs to hire marketers to run their studios. Dick Cook came out of marketing, as did his lieutenant, Oren Aviv, Disney's current head of production. Shmuger had been in marketing for years; the same goes for his replacement, Adam Fogelson, who's been the studio's head of marketing and distribution. Rob Moore, now Paramount's vice chairman and a major force in all of the studio's strategic moves, had also been overseeing the studio's marketing before assuming a larger role in production.

Most studios make essentially safe, traditional top executive hiring choices because out-of-the-box thinking has so often backfired. At Paramount, studio chief Brad Grey made two unconventional picks for the studio's job of production chief, both of which were disasters. His first choice was Gail Berman, a TV executive; his second was John Lesher, a former talent agent who'd run Paramount Vantage. Both were branded arrogant and uncommunicative, although if they'd managed to create a couple of new franchises, it's possible the lack of people skills would've been overlooked.

People skills still count, since every studio still has to make a few talent-dependent films to fill up the slots in its slate between the franchise tentpoles.

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