First the Firing, Then the Hits
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Last Thanksgiving weekend, Universal Pictures Chairman and CEO Casey Silver got the call. It was Ron Meyer, his boss, informing him that his time was up. This was hardly a surprise: After an 18-month streak of flops that included For Richer or Poorer, BASEketball, Meet Joe Black, Primary Colors, and Babe: Pig in the City, Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. had already removed Universal Studios CEO Frank Biondi Jr. Now, Meyer told Silver, it was time for him to hand over the keys to the movie studio.
But here's the strange part: If the lineup that got Silver fired was full of dogs, Universal's slate since his firing--a slate developed during his tenure--has been largely made up of thoroughbreds. A month after Silver's firing, Patch Adams opened, and it quickly grossed $130 million at the domestic box office; it was followed by Life ($60 million), The Mummy ($127 million), and Notting Hill ($50 million, and counting). (To be fair, Notting Hill was one of several films acquired when Universal bought Polygram Filmed Entertainment and that Silver and Meyer persuaded Bronfman to keep.) The rest of Universal's summer, including the amiable Steve Martin-Eddie Murphy pairing, Bowfinger, and the Ben Stiller comedy Mystery Men, looks solid. The studio also owns around half of Shakespeare in Love, in a co-financing deal with Miramax. Even allowing for the flops Virus and EDtv, Universal is having a banner year, thanks in part to the guy it fired last November.
So how does Silver explain this turnaround? He cites some advice from Warner Bros.' co-CEO Bob Daly: "The only sure thing is, when you're hot, you're going to get cold. And when you're cold, you're going to get hot." Indeed, Silver's recent history stands as a rebuke to anyone who believes that the movie business is either safe or predictable. Six months ago he was painted as an idiot; today he looks like a savant. He's neither, of course; he's a guy for whom the pendulum has swung back.
"I would have preferred to have finished the job that I started," says a bemused Silver. "But, of course, it's satisfying." He displays little rancor for Bronfman and Meyer, saying of the firing, "I knew it was coming. The entire world knew it was coming." As such, he says, "I decided I would try to take it in such a way that would be best for the studio, for the rank and file, and for the filmmakers. I wanted to behave as honorably as I could."
Universal sources offer that the trouble with Silver didn't rest with his film picking but with his administrative skills: He wasn't the sort of manager the studio needed. Furthermore, his ex-boss Meyer notes that Silver didn't create the whole slate himself, and that plenty of other executives deserve a share of the credit. "We all, including Casey, deserve to be criticized for what didn't work and complimented for what did," Meyer says. Certainly the crew Silver left behind, particularly production chief Stacey Snider and distribution chief Nikki Rocco, deserve kudos. But that's a very different take from last fall, when Meet Joe Black and Babe: Pig in the City were held up as Silver's pictures.
Similarly, Universal sources argue that many key decisions in this year's slate were made after Silver's departure--for instance, the clever marketing of The Mummy and Notting Hill. But then again, since Silver's departure the studio also made the roundly criticized move of selling off most of the foreign rights to the forthcoming American Pie--a movie that cost only $11 million to make--for a mere $4 million and a cut of the gross. ("I was in shock when I heard about that," says Pie producer Warren Zide.)
As for Silver, he's still on the Universal lot and has an option for a producing contract at the studio; he says he plans to announce his next move by summer's end. And while Silver's recent history shows that it's best not to make bold predictions, one bet seems safe: Don't expect another talking-pig movie.