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Universal Studios chief will be in the hot seat as Comcast takes over

Ron Meyer is Hollywood's longest surviving studio head. But his new boss, NBC Universal Chief Executive Steve Burke, has shown that he's not timid about making changes.

January 28, 2011|By Claudia Eller and Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Ill stay as long as they want me, Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer says about his new Comcast bosses.
Ill stay as long as they want me, Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer says about… (Matthew Staver, Bloomberg…)

Cats have nine lives. Ron Meyer has had nine bosses.

His 16-year reign as president of Universal Studios has made the former talent agent Hollywood's longest surviving studio head.

Now Meyer faces his toughest screen test.

His new boss, NBC Universal Chief Executive Steve Burke, has shown that he's not timid about making management changes and shaking up the status quo. Before the cable giant even closed its merger with NBC Universal on Friday, he swept out several of the company's top television executives.

Although fixing the NBC broadcast network will be Burke's priority, the looming question for the movie studio is how much leeway he will give Meyer — whose contract lasts two more years — and his lieutenants, Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson and co-Chair Donna Langley, going forward.

Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast Corp., appeared to be seeking to allay fears about an imminent studio shake-up at a town hall Thursday with employees. Roberts recounted advice that he said his father, Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, once said to him: "You never go into business without an expert." He called Meyer one of NBC Universal's "great assets."

When asked whether he would be stepping down, Meyer diplomatically responded, "I'll stay as long as they want me."

Questions about what Comcast might have in store for Universal are natural given the studio's recent performance. Universal's operating income sank to $200 million in 2009 from more than $700 million in 2007, according to a knowledgeable person, because of such flops as "Land of the Lost" and "Funny People." It rebounded to $350 million last year as the hit animated family film "Despicable Me" made up for losers like "The Wolfman" and "Green Zone."

But the studio has gotten off to a slow start this year. Its first release, the Vince Vaughn and Kevin James comedy "The Dilemma," has been a disappointment.

Meyer and his two deputies, whom he tapped after firing his former movie chiefs in 2009, will be in the hot seat as their slate of movies rolls into theaters in April with the family comedy "Hop." It will be followed by such high-profile releases as "Fast Five" — the fourth "Fast and Furious" sequel — and the comic book adaptation "Cowboys and Aliens," a sci-fi western co-produced by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks that cost $180 million to make.

The team's riskiest bet arrives in summer 2012: "Battleship," a movie version of the Hasbro board game, which is currently in production with a budget approaching $200 million.

The hopeful news is that Comcast executives have said they will invest in content, which could give Universal more financial resources than it's had in recent years under owner General Electric Co. That would enable the studio to compete more aggressively with rivals in making big-event films such as "Harry Potter" and "Transformers," which, if successful, generate a steady stream of profits from box office, DVD, video games, theme parks and retail sales.

Burke, who spent a dozen years at Walt Disney Co. overseeing consumer products and theme parks, has told people he wants Universal to develop movies that can be tied into those businesses. An obvious opportunity lies with the studio's family film unit, Illumination Entertainment, which made "Despicable Me" and the upcoming "Hop."

Indeed, the hottest new addition at Universal's theme parks — overseen by Meyer — is the Harry Potter attraction, which came from a competing studio: Warner Bros.

But Burke has never worked in the movie business. He will now get a firsthand look at how volatile it can be compared with the cable business, where he has spent half his career. That has led some to wonder if Comcast will blanch once it sees how different Hollywood is from the reliable cash flow of its core business.

Comcast's Roberts told studio employees that the company accepted the differences.

"The film business is a hard business," Roberts said. However, he added, "We're very comfortable with risk."

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

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