Talkback: Should Studio Heads Be as Candid as Universal's Ron Meyer?
I was traveling all day as Movieline's report from the Savannah Film Festival picked up steam around the blogosphere, but early on it was clear that two polar-opposite reactions were building in response to Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer's comments about his studio's well-publicized (at least, outside of the studio) recent flops. Either you love his blazing moment of candor -- because we've all thought the same about most, if not all, of the woeful Universal films mentioned -- or you despise what he stands for. But Meyer is a businessman, the President and COO of one of the largest movie studios and theme park conglomerates in the business. Should more filmmakers and studio heads follow suit?
Real talk on the level of what Meyer dropped, in the form of numerous truth bombs, is so woefully rare. It's not a surprise that a studio chief necessarily must make money to keep his company, and his own job, afloat, or that he'd make decisions to green-light projects based on potential profit, or that he'd regret putting out subpar product. (Even if awards-winners and prestige pics happen more by accident then by design.) What's surprising -- refreshingly so -- is that he'd be so open about it.
Meyer confessed to watching every movie that comes out, either in his home theater or at the multiplex -- where he can gauge the reactions of real ticket-buyers -- and, yes, he knows what's up when a movie like The Wolfman struggles to gain a critical or commercial foothold. Admitting to the faults of releases like that failed horror reboot, the Will Ferrell vehicle Land of the Lost, and even this past summer's Cowboys & Aliens made Meyer more human; when an employee of Wolfman producer Stratton Leopold entered the Savannah Film Festival Q&A to tell Meyer his boss was right across the street, Meyer replied, with a smile, and without skipping a beat: "Tell him I hold him responsible." (The two shook hands and went for ice cream following their exchange, so it seems any hard feelings were forgotten in the haze of commiseration.)
So it would seem Meyer might not worry so much that folks like Jon Favreau and Benicio Del Toro may get wind of the complaints he aired down in Savannah. "I wonder about the way these comments are going to affect his relationships with filmmakers," wrote HitFix's Drew McWeeny of Movieline's report. "If I were Jon Favreau or Benicio Del Toro or Brad Silberling or Joe Johnston, I'd think long and hard about comments that go beyond blunt to being publicly insulting." Meyer is, after all, their boss; and he is, by his own admission, the one ultimately responsible for Universal's output. If said output is "mediocre" or even "crappy," then at least the guy at the top acknowledges it.
The question some folks asked, then, is how could Meyer sell product he knew was subpar while pretending it smelled like roses? It's an idealistic question with no practical answer, since this is an industry. A movie business. Product is made, product is sold. Better product some of the time -- but with many, many exceptions -- earns bigger demand. Could Meyer have made said crap films better before releasing them, as Scott Weinberg points out? Sure. I looked back at images of Meyer with the cast and crew of The Wolfman at its L.A. premiere. Did Meyer's smile that night belie a sense of worry, of fear that "one of the worst movies we ever made" was about to meet its fate? Not a chance. Maybe he was hoping that despite the film's failings, it would still find an audience. Maybe he has an excellent poker face. Probably both.
Meyer's reputation for being the longest-sitting studio chief of contemporary times was another of the topics he addressed down in Savannah, talking to an audience filled with a number of aspiring producers and filmmakers eager for such lessons in career success and longevity. He answered, self-deprecatingly, that he considers himself "OK" at his job, but reminded the audience that he's had 14 consecutive years in the black at Universal. Practically speaking, I'd think that record, and recent hits like Fast Five and Bridesmaids, would mean more to the folks Meyer works for than his recent truth-saying; probably less so for the filmmakers who work under him. But maybe knowing Meyer's unafraid to unleash the real talk will force everyone around him to sharpen up, make better decisions, create less crappy -- maybe even good, or great -- films. And now that the conversation's out there, maybe Meyer will think twice himself before making the next Wolfman.
But here's the thing: Meyer's not the only studio head out there who has to think of the bottom line while churning out product of questionable and/or varying quality. If other studio chiefs 'fessed up to their own duds, could this industry entertain an actual dialogue that improved the overall quality of the mainstream offerings released into the world?
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[Top photo of (L-R) Universal Pictures co-chairs Donna Langley and Adam Fogelson, Benicio Del Toro, Ron Meyer and Wolfman producer Rick Yorn: Getty Images]