Universal Chief Ron Meyer Addresses VOD Fiasco, Admits Cowboys & Aliens, Land of the Lost, Wolfman Kinda Stunk

wolfman630.jpgOf the major Universal Studios flops in recent memory, a handful stand out for their massive, and high profile, box office failings: 2009's Sid and Marty Krofft adaptation Land of the Lost, 2010's abysmal Wolfman and geek cult film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and this summer's megawatt disappointment Cowboys & Aliens. No one, it seems, is more painfully aware of Universal's missteps than longtime studio head Ron Meyer, who candidly addressed his recent Tower Heist VOD experiment, revisited his rise through the ranks to the top of the Universal chain, and admitted Wednesday in Savannah that some mediocre movies deserve their fate: "We make a lot of shitty movies. Every one of them breaks my heart."

Appearing at the Savannah Film Festival to speak to students and members of the public at the Savannah College of Art & Design, special guest Meyer -- founder of CAA, President/COO of Universal Studios, and the longest-running studio head of his generation -- spoke openly about his fortuitous rise through Hollywood's ranks and the many well-publicized moves Universal has made under his tenure, for better and for worse.

"There was no nepotism," Meyer told a group of assembled SCAD students and filmmaking hopefuls, recalling his beginnings. The son of Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany, Meyer dropped out of high school at 15, joined the Marines at 17, and decided it might be nice to work as a Hollywood agent after reading Stephen Longstreet's The Flesh Peddlers: A Novel About a Talent Agency while locked up in military quarantine with the measles.

"It was about a guy who worked at an agency, drove a fast car, and went out with beautiful women," Meyer recalled. "I thought, why shouldn't I be that guy?... So when I got out, I went looking for a job in the agency business."

From there, Meyer moved to Hollywood, worked odd jobs, and landed his big break as a messenger for talent agent Paul Kohner; six years later he was working at William Morris; five years later he and four colleagues left to start their own agency, Creative Artists Agency. The rise of CAA would make industry history alone ("I was the Henry Kissinger to Richard Nixon. Mike Ovitz was Nixon, of course. He was never as bad as he was made out to be, and I was never as good as I was made out to be, but we were a good combination"), but then Meyer took the gig heading Universal Pictures, a position he's now held for 16 years.

Below, read selected highlights from Meyer's hour-long chat.

On the failed Tower Heist VOD experiment, which he's not given up on just yet:

Meyer's seen a lot change through his nearly five decades in Hollywood. Recent efforts to advance Universal towards what he sees as the future of film distribution -- through the studio's Tower Heist VOD experiment, cancelled due to the loud objection of theater owners -- seem to be minor hiccups in an inevitable process.

"If someone's going to get our movies two weeks after they're released, then they have to pay a premium for that... We still think that's a valid model. Obviously the theater owners didn't want us to do it; we were led to believe that might work, but I think eventually we will get it to work in conjunction with theater owners."

Meyer is hopeful that the narrow VOD/theatrical release window is still a possibility: "I think there are a lot of people who won't go to the theater and are happy to pay a premium price -- whether $66 is the right price, or it's more or less. I think there are people that would be willing to pay that price to not have to leave their house and be able to watch that first-run movie while it's still in theaters, on whatever size screen you have at home. I think we have to be better about it, the studios, and the theater exhibitors have to probably be a little more accepting of what we want to do. We'll have to find a way to do it together."

Awards contenders and critically-lauded films are, unfortunately, not his top priority.

"[A critical hit is] great when it happens. But we did A Beautiful Mind, and I don't know that we'd do A Beautiful Mind again. That's the sad part. It's great to win awards and make films that you're proud of and make money, but your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do."

Building more Harry Potter-themed amusement parks, like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando, which falls under Meyer's jurisdiction, may be a priority.

Asked if there were plans to build additional Harry Potter amusement parks built outside of Orlando, Meyer would only respond, "Yes." The tight-lipped mogul couldn't reveal further details.

3-D is a seductive gimmick that audiences and studios should resist carefully.

"I'm not a believer that every film should be 3-D," said Meyer, acknowledging his own fiscal concern over Universal's expensive upcoming 3-D film 47 Ronin, led by Keanu Reeves. "I think there's a place for it; I think certain films lend themselves to it. Warner Bros. did Journey to the Center of the Earth; that movie would have never worked had it not been 3-D. The only thing that made that film palatable at all was the 3-D aspect."

"None of us would be able to do, or afford, what Jim Cameron was able to do with Avatar," Meyer continued. "Avatar was everything money could buy, and we can't afford to be in that business. He spent a lot of money, he did a brilliant job... you were inside that movie, and that's what made it work. You were surrounded by that film. I think 3-D has a limited capacity, but a capacity. I don't think all films should be 3-D and we should be careful about falling for that."

Universal's biggest recent disappointment? The Wolfman.

"We make a lot of shitty movies," Meyer admitted. "Every one of them breaks my heart."

"We set out to make good ones. One of the worst movies we ever made was Wolfman [produced, coincidentally, by local Savannah resident Stratton Leopold.] Wolfman and Babe 2 are two of the shittiest movies we put out, but by the same token we made movies we believe in. We did United 93, which is one of the movies I'm most proud of. It wasn't a big moneymaker, but it's a film I believe every American should see and it showed you what people can do in the worst of times and how great the human spirit is and all that, so there are moments that can make up for all the junk that you make."

What happened, then, with well-publicized financial disappointments Scott Pilgrim, Land of the Lost, and Cowboys & Aliens?

Movieline put the question to Meyer: Why did the aforementioned Universal event films fail?

"Cowboys & Aliens wasn't good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it, it wasn't good enough," Meyer said, without pause. "All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it."

"Land of the Lost was just crap," he continued. "I mean, there was no excuse for it. The best intentions all went wrong."

"Scott Pilgrim, I think, was actually kind of a good movie. [Addressing a small section of the audience, cheering.] But none of you guys went! And you didn't tell your friends to go! But, you know, it happens."

"Cowboys & Aliens didn't deserve better. Land of the Lost didn't deserve better. Scott Pilgrim did deserve better, but it just didn't capture enough of the imaginations of people, and it was one of those things where it didn't cost a lot so it wasn't a big loss. Cowboys & Aliens was a big loss, and Land of the Lost was a huge loss. We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we're all guilty of it. I have to take first responsibility because I'm part of it, but we all did a mediocre job and we paid the price for it. It happens. They're talented people. Certainly you couldn't have more talented people involved in Cowboys & Aliens, but it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie. It just happens."

Next: How Meyer has lasted this long, why he passed on At the Mountains of Madness and The Dark Tower, and a surprise Savannah Film Festival confrontation

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  • Voice in the Wilderness says:

    I liked The Wolfman.

  • David says:

    Has Meyer been this honest and public with his thoughts for the last 17 years? If not, will there be an 18th?

  • SusieQ says:

    Screw you, Meyer, The Wolfman was a terrific update and a new cult classic. It's like the 80s The Blob remake - is it the original? no. But it's damn entertaining. I haven't watched it with a single person that didn't like it.

  • Mimi says:

    So many of the films being made in Hollywood right now stink. And Meyer is responsible for a lot of the stink.
    A lot of the problem comes from what is expected in financial returns. Meyer mentions A Beautiful Mind. You'd think it lost money. No, actually it was profitable, just not enough apparently, to please the fat cats.
    3D... problematical. Financial returns on 3D films are not great. Maybe, just maybe, it's because the films are often pretty bad and no one wants to pay a premium to see garbage. We'll all agree about Avatar, but where are the other magical 3D films? I haven't seen any yet.



  • star jonestown says:

    Great coverage.
    He's really letting loose. Wow.

  • vegimorph says:

    What a jerk. I personally like Cowboys and Aliens. It was ambitious and the filmmakers were trying to do service to it. Sure its nowhere near the Searchers but its still a lot of fun. I haven't seen the Wolfman either but it looks pretty well done as well.

  • Stephanie says:

    The reason why so many of the films coming out of Hollywood stink is painfully obvious... studio bosses, production company heads and screenwriters are woefully out of touch with an audience that's getting older, who are becoming more discriminating about where their dwindling discretionary income goes, and who are growing tired of the weak, mediocre, derivative and formulaic franchises, remakes, retreads and reboots that have been foisted on them.
    I would love to see studio execs, movie producers and screenwriters get out of the socially insulated bubble they live in and spend some time with (and really talk to, not talk at) non-Hollywood people who don't live in L.A., and find out what they're interested in, including finding out the kind of stories and original ideas they want to see told on the big screen, and perhaps asking them if they have their own stories and ideas they'd like to tell.
    By the time they got finished talking to non-Hollywood people, they'd have so many fascinating, powerful stories to tell that challenge our beliefs and ideas but don't disrespect our beliefs and ideas, and don't rely on excessive use of violence, bad language, toilet humor and gratuitous sex in order to tell a great story.

  • dude says:

    When will these corporate yes men understand that their terrible management and insistence on meddling is what makes these films fail, and not the hard work put into them by the people who actually put forth effort to make a good movie despite the idiotic demands of their superiors?
    The Wolfman could have, and should have, been fantastic, but it's not Johnston's fault, or Benicio's fault, that the film turned out the way it did. It was studio meddling from people who had no idea what they were doing or how to make a great movie. People like Meyer.

  • Boss Eisley says:

    I think someone's out of touch with "non-Hollywood and Hollywood people", but I don't think it's the studios...
    For every one of those original films that succeed (such as Inception), there's another 10 films that don't. Whereas the percentage of big "broad" films with proven formulas that actually succeed is a much higher hit rate, and so they work better for their company’s business, and in turn their employees, stockholders etc..
    The studios are just following the money and the industry trends, and industry trends are based on the box office money movies make at cinemas, and the bulk of cinema money comes from “non-Hollywood people”, so they are telling Hollywood what they want to see at the movies by going to see those movies.
    And I think it’s idiotic to think that people who work in Hollywood are all money grabbing tycoons. I think if you got off your soapbox and actually researched, you’d find that most people who work in Hollywood actually love quality films and would like nothing more than to produce them all the time. But the sad truth is there’s just no money in it, and it’s naive to think otherwise...

  • BT says:

    Someone needs to stand up for Babe: Pig in the City. I've always thought it was a miracle that George Miller was allowed to make that movie. It's all the more incredible now that I know it's 13 years later and the guy in charge doesn't know it's a classic. Dude, you made Hop, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Nutty Professor 1-2, The Mummy Returns, Couples Retreat, Alone In the Dark... there are plenty of things you should be embarrassed about, and accidentally staying out of the way when a great movie you didn't understand was made is not one of them. That one you can pat yourself on the back for.
    Wolfman you can take though. You really should have kept the original director, that's just common sense.

  • casting couch says:

    I was going to post the same thing. The Wolfman was actually a good movie. Marketed badly. And with the stink of reshoots on it. But it was good.

  • Rosie says:

    Is this guy a fucking moron or what? Just because "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" wasn't a big hit, doesn't mean it was lousy. Yes, it wasn't perfect. However, I have yet to encounter a perfect film. I thought it was still pretty good. "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" is still in theaters in other parts of the world and is about to be release on DVD. Yet . . . he decides to make a negative statement about it? What a moron!

  • Jesse says:

    Honesty. That is why you have kept your job.
    Thank you.

  • sabrina says:

    I think it is interesting in the wake of a new owner (Comcast) Meyer has suddenly become so open about essentially doing a rotten job at Universal for the last 17 years.

  • Shannon says:

    Of all the shitty universal movies he chooses 3 that were actually pretty decent. What is it with big studio heads thinking that just because a film doesnt make much money it must be shit. That's not always the case. The Wolfman was good, not to mention the winner of an academy award. I reckon he should be standing up admitting how bloody terrible The Change Up, Observe and Report, Johnny English 2, Hellboy II and Green Zone were.

  • "Scott Pilgrim did deserve better, but it just didn’t capture enough of the imaginations of people, and it was one of those things where it didn’t cost a lot so it wasn’t a big loss."
    Seriously wrong in this statement... Scott Pilgram cost 60 million to make... And it so far made 48 million worldwide...

  • Anson says:

    Scott Pilgrim vs The World was the second greatest movie of 2010, I can't believe anyone would think it's bad?

  • ken land says:

    "Babe 2" is not a shitty movie.

  • Anjuli says:

    What an ass. Cowboys & Aliens was awesome.

  • Jay Meyer says:

    i appreciate his candid honesty. it must be hard working at a studio where so many yes-men make decisions, knowing that certain movies will fail.

  • Ugly George says:

    I'm supposed to believe that "Cowboys vs Aliens" is a crappy movie while the inane, infantile, bloated fanboi "Transformers" movies are good?
    Not bloody likely!

  • anonymous says:

    A Beautiful Mind made over 300 million worldwide on a 58 million budget yet he wouldn't want to make a movie like that again? Its no more risky than making a movie like Cowboys and Alien. This kind of attitude is way so many studio movies suck.

  • I haven't really run into anyone that didn't like Cowboys & Aliens. It's a silly premise done right. They actually put some effort into it and it showed.
    Scott Pilgrim? Well, I for one had to travel 500 miles just to find a theatre that played the friggin' thing! And by the time it reached Sweden at all, I could buy an american bluray with the film. When I had done all that, I lobbied the local arthouse cinema to do a theatrical run of it for a week. But it was just too late and the theatre was probably too small for a movie like that. But don't say I didn't do my best to see it and make sure that others did too!
    No, the reason good movies like these fail is in my experience that distributors f**k it all up. They sit on their copies until it's too late and then they only show it in the big cities without really trying to win people over to go into the theaters. We want to see them. But the distributors won't let us.

  • SoulHonky says:

    I think Meyer needs to admit that he is the problem. He says he probably wouldn't give Ron Howard 60 million to make "A Beautiful Mind" the same year in which he gave Ron Howard 70 million to make "The Dilemma"?