Universal takes a public spanking for its movie flops
It's mea culpa week in the movie business. First, it was Harvey Weinstein trying to put the best face possible on his financial woes in Sunday's New York Times. And now it's Universal trying to explain away its series of summer duds.
It was fascinating to see Universal chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde willingly sit down for a Q&A with my colleague Claudia Eller today, knowing full well that with the studio having taken up a prolonged residence in Flopsville, that Eller, a hard-nosed reporter, would give them the third degree for the studio's horrific summer swoon. In fact, except for its well-reviewed Michael Mann drama "Public Enemies," the studio has released a string of films that have failed so spectacularly -- especially in terms of audience acceptance -- that it has called into question Universal's fundamental understanding of the marketplace.
But for me, the most intriguing aspect of the story was Universal's willingness to talk at all. Usually when studios are amid a nasty downturn, the last thing the top brass wants to do is answer any tough questions about why it happened. After all, trying to explain why you thought it was a good idea to spend $100 million making the dreadfully unfunny "Land of the Lost" is sort of like trying to explain why you thought it was a good idea to make fun of a cop with a pot belly while he was giving you a speeding ticket. Any way you spin it, you're bound to look foolish.
At Paramount, when things went south earlier this year, with top execs John Lesher and Brad Weston getting the ax, studio chief Brad Grey stayed above the fray, far from any incoming media fire. 20th Century Fox chieftains Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos wouldn't dream of subjecting themselves to a public grilling when things go bad, as they did last summer. At Fox, the motto is: Never complain, never explain.
So why is Universal going public with its mea culpa, with Shmuger acknowledging that it has been "a humbling year," confessing that with "Land of the Lost," the studio "spent too much" money on a film whose "tone was just too weird, and in hindsight we got it wrong?"
Reason No. 1: Get the bad news behind you. Showbiz reporters are pack journalists. Once one reporter does a good story, everyone else follows it. Now, whenever a reporter calls to do a piece on the bad summer tidings, Universal's PR team can say the bosses have already fully addressed the issue. This is an old story. It's time to move on.
Reason No. 2: Let your boss know you're taking the matter seriously. NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker reads the L.A. Times too. He may already be looking for a graceful way to bring in a new team of picture pickers, but by falling on their swords, Shmuger and Linde show that they're willing to take public responsibility for their blunders, which could at least buy them valuable time in the hopes that the studio will have a couple of hits and rebound before Zucker can find a suitable replacement.
Reason No. 3: Make the case that you have a new plan of action. Although I can't say I was overwhelmed by any of the top execs' ideas, they did manage to say they were "refocusing" their programming strategy, as Shmuger put it, ready to concentrate on making modestly budgeted comedies and a new round of tentpole pictures. Of course, when anyone in Hollywood is in trouble, they say they want to make cheap comedies, which is the crack cocaine of the movie business.
But cheap comedies aren't easy to come by. They tend to be accidental hits -- would anyone at Warners have dreamed a year ago that the studio's most profitable picture this year would be a raunchy, R-rated comedy called "The Hangover?" The problem is that most comedies made by studios today are no longer inexpensive, which is exactly what got Universal into trouble in the first place, by spending $100 million on "Land of the Lost" and upward of $75 million on "Funny People," its other costly summer comedy dud.
You can say you want to make a cheap comedy, but unlike action films, where there are perhaps 70 or 80 decent filmmakers who can make things crash and burn in a spectacular fashion, there are literally only six or seven talented comedy directors -- the short list includes John Hamburg, David Wain, Greg Mottola and David Gordon Green -- who can bring a movie in for less than $60 million and have a reasonably consistent track record. So Universal has its work cut out, especially since it has another $100 million comedy coming this Christmas from Nancy Meyers called "It's Complicated." [Universal execs insist to me that the film only costs $70 million, but I've been hearing a much higher figure, so perhaps we should simply call it another very expensive Nancy Meyers comedy.] At any rate, the title is apt, since as Universal has shown this year, running a studio at a profit is not at all an easy proposition.
Photo of Universal Chairmen David Linde, left, and Marc Shmuger by Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times