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05.16.10

Can Hollywood's Survivor Do It Again?

After a soft opening for Robin Hood, Universal’s veteran studio boss, Ron Meyer, again finds his job in jeopardy. Peter Lauria on a looming showdown with his new corporate masters.

Ron Meyer, the leader of Hollywood’s iconic Universal Studios since 1995, first met Ryan Kavanaugh through a mutual friend when the red-headed, hoodie-wearing hotshot was still running a hedge fund. The two exchanged pleasantries and said that they would talk soon, which in Hollywoodspeak means: “I’ll never see you again.” A few years later, after Kavanaugh’s hedge fund imploded, he had an idea to start a business loaning money to studios to help finance productions in return for ownership stakes in their movies. Remembering his conversation with Meyer, Kavanaugh gave the bespectacled Universal CEO an out of the blue call. Meyer, in keeping with a policy started during his agency days as one of CAA’s founders of responding to every phone call, believing it both good manners and good business, took it.

“He had nothing to gain, but he picked up the phone and gave me advice anyway,” Kavanaugh told The Daily Beast in a rare interview. “I was immediately drawn in by his lack of pretense and humbleness.”

“He was slamming the guy’s head in the ground and punching him at the same time.”

That call was the first in what ultimately became a decade-long relationship between Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media and Meyer’s Universal Studios, a profitable partnership in which Relativity finances 50 percent of the production budgets for films like this weekend’s Robin Hood, which grossed a mediocre $37 million domestically in its debut this weekend (though next week’s low-budget MacGruber seems poised to be a hit). Kavanaugh, like thousands of others in Hollywood, refers to Meyer as “Ronnie,” a term of endearment that suggests that the longest-tenured leader of a Hollywood studio is, as Henry Hill described his friends, a “goodfella.” Meyer is indeed now firmly in the club, Hollywood’s ultimate survivor.

“I don’t know anybody who has been more successful at making themselves invaluable to his bosses than Ron,” says longtime Meyer friend and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. “Through six owners and 15 years, he has done a remarkable job of holding the place together and I can’t imagine a tougher job.”

Now, with cable giant Comcast on the verge of assuming control of NBC Universal, the question confronting Meyer is twofold: Can he survive yet another corporate transition—and does he even want to?

Last year, Meyer experienced his share of fireworks, though none of them came from his legendary Fourth of July party. Instead, NBCU boss Jeff Zucker, his hands already full from trying to triage the Peacock Network’s hemorrhaging prime-time schedule, dispatched the company’s CFO, Lynn Calpeter, to Los Angeles to observe Meyer’s process for greenlighting and budgeting films. Meyer had whiffed on a few big swings— Land of the Lost, Funny People—and Zucker wanted answers. Though profitable, Meyers’ studio was sputtering at precisely the same time that NBCU parent company General Electric was negotiating to sell to Comcast, and the last thing the folks in Stamford, Connecticut, wanted was for the studio’s depressed performance to shave a few hundred million off the company’s sale price. In the end, Zucker got heads instead of answers, as Meyer, who learned at CAA how to let others have the spotlight, fired chief lieutenants David Linde and Marc Schmuger.

“In my opinion, getting rid of [Linde and Schmuger] was probably one of the hardest things Ron’s ever had to do,” says Kavanaugh. “But it shows that, as a manager, he can make the difficult decision.”

Since Comcast announced its deal to acquire control of NBCU late last year, Hollywood has been abuzz with speculation about what the staid cable folks might do with its glitzy but faltering movie studio. Unlike NBCU’s cable networks, which include USA, Bravo, and CNBC, and feature both an advertising and subscription revenue stream, movie production requires a high capital investment and, frequently, a low margin return. Moreover, macroeconomic factors like piracy, a decline in DVD sales, and a shift toward original programming rather than premium movies on pay-TV channels like HBO, suggest that Universal—and by extension Meyer—aren’t long for Comcast’s brave new world. Cable guys like reliability, and the movie business is anything but reliable.

And even if Comcast decides to stay with Universal, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay with Meyer. His detractors say that the vision he exhibited of packaging stars, producers, and studios together during CAA’s early days is no longer apparent in his managing of Universal, noting that the studio has no discernible presence in emerging platforms such as digital or mobile telephony, for instance. They say his main quality—“knowing celebrities”—isn’t going to help convert file-sharers into paying customers.

“Comcast’s managers are young, ambitious builders,” says a rival studio executive. “They don’t need Ron to get them in the door. The people in Hollywood will be more than happy to meet with Comcast.”

That may be so, but as recent examples like Viacom’s Sumner Redstone kicking Tom Cruise off the Paramount lot or the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien fiasco illustrate, it takes a special kind of executive to manage both a profit and loss statement and the ebb and flow of creativity. Time after time, Meyer has shown an ability to soothe creative tensions, like when he helped strike a deal between Tobey Maguire and Sony Pictures after the Japanese studio considered replacing Maguire as the lead in Spider-Man (Maguire is married to Meyer’s daughter, Jennifer).

That Meyer not only helped broker the separation agreement between NBCU and Conan O’Brien, but also was the only one to come out of the situation unblemished says a lot about his diplomatic skills. Leno, for instance, recently emceed a Museum of Tolerance event at Meyer’s request. And even O’Brien’s manager, Gavin Polone, conceded that Meyer’s interpersonal skills were chiefly responsible for getting a deal done when negotiations with NBCU looked like they were dead in the water.

Critics, however, claim Meyer uses his political skills less for altruistic reasons and more for personal corporate survival.

Pointing to the Schmuger and Linde firings, a friend of Meyer’s says almost in admiration: “He makes sure he’s never in the line of fire for anything.”

Meyer might have learned such survival skills from his rich network of Beltway contacts, a platinum Rolodex of politicians that can be useful for a cable company like Comcast, which has historically been viewed suspiciously on Capitol Hill. Unlike Zucker, who has never donated to a political campaign, Meyer and his environmental-activist wife, Kelly, frequently host lavish political fundraisers as his Charles Gwathmey-designed, green-friendly Malibu mansion. According to data from OpenSecrets.org, Meyer, who describes himself as a right-wing Democrat, has donated just under $600,000 to politicians ranging from Joe Biden and John McCain to Al Gore and Al Franken, as well as organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Republican and Democratic Congressional Committees.

Despite coming off one of the most difficult years of his career, at age 66 and with two years left on his contract, Meyer still appears to love running a Hollywood studio. And despite his calm, reassuring demeanor, the ex-Marine and former amateur boxing champion certainly has the fight in him to take on one more corporate master. Joel Silver, producer of blockbusters like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, recounts a story of how Meyer, known among Hollywood moguls for his prowess at pool and fondness for gambling, once pounded a burly man yelling at Silver’s sister for messing up a craps bet.

“He was slamming the guy’s head in the ground and punching him at the same time,” Silver says. “I think Ronnie might have even broken his own ribs.”

The tale perfectly encapsulates the Meyer aesthetic—look at all options and be prepared for all results. Pursue a diplomatic path and avoid fighting, unless you have to, in which case take out whoever is necessary without prejudice. That’s Meyer’s blueprint for Hollywood survival, and for the last 47 years it has served him well. The question everyone in Hollywood is waiting to have answered is whether it will work for Meyer one last time.

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Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.