So I predict that when the announcement is made, and trust me it must be, everyone atop Universal and NBCU will try to play kissy face. I even bet the media will be given some fictional account that this was Marc Shmuger’s and David Linde’s own decision to step down. Poor Linde: he’s just collateral damage since he came in as a tag team with Shmuger and will exit with him as well. But the truth is Marc kept clinging to his moguldom until the very last minute even when he was just embarrassing himself, and now he’s bitter as hell at being ousted. But what choice did Ron Meyer have? Especially when so many people inside and outside the company detested Shmuger (who had become known simply as “The Schmuck”). Case in point: “We’re all hoping,” Brian Grazer kept replying as Hollywood kept asking when Shmuger would get the boot.
I’ve always considered Shmuger’s biggest problem was that he thinks he plays well with others when, in fact, he treats people badly and then is blind to the fact they hate his guts. He considers himself a political pro but really is just a polarizing asshole. Which is why he deserves to be kicked to the curb as much for his own behavior as for the infighting he instigated inside the studio and for lousy box office in a downtown economy where DVDs can no longer cover a mogul’s greenlighting misses.
I believe Shmuger’s fate was unofficially sealed when Ron Meyer began fielding journalist calls about whether Universal’s well-liked and extremely capable and new mother Donna Langley was being fired. (Which would have besmirched Ron’s carefully crafted good guy persona and made him look no better than that long ago Paramount cro-magnon mogul Ned Tanen who fired Dawn Steel while she was on maternity leave.) Meyer was bewildered how such a nasty untrue rumor even got started. But studio chatter rightly or wrongly pointed to Shmuger who needed to get the heat off himself and to blame someone else for Uni’s dismal summer.
Yes, every journalist’s email has been overflowing with tips about Universal which has been rumor central. (Mine, every time readers saw Ron Meyer eating at the commissary with, say, Scott Stuber.) All summer and this fall, Shmuger has been the subject of rumor after rumor, speculative article after speculative article. The reason why so many people were more than willing to throw this thin-skinned cry baby under the bus is a cautionary tale for Hollywood execs.
I’d heard earfuls about how “all the filmmakers” couldn’t stand the guy. Michael Mann and Ridley Scott supposedly won’t return his calls. Spike Lee reportedly will never talk to him again. And Clint Eastwood openly hates him. As an insider revealed to me, “Clint once said, ‘You can see Mr. Shmuger thinking, plotting, scheming, all the time. He acts like he knows what he’s doing with such certainty. But he doesn’t. And he says really stupid things.’” Ouch! Of course, only an idiot would have greenlit another film with Michael Mann after the Miami Vice movie. Mann is one of those brilliant directors who also falls into the “Life Is Too Short” category. So Shmuger’s inability to handle talent became all too apparant when Public Enemies was filming, and Michael Mann and Johnny Depp stopped talking to one another. Unable to cool down the hot tempers himself, Shmuger has the less than brilliant idea to send in underling Dylan Clark to act as Universal’s official feud go-between. So Depp would talk to Clark who then talked to Mann, and Mann would talk to Clark who then talked to Depp. This was no way to run a production for the studio’s big 2009 summer blockbuster.
Still, Shmuger and Linde last January signed a new contract. At the time, people both on the lot and in Black Tower saw them as good managers. They had the marketing and distribution and newly independent international departments well organized. So firing them now may seem unfair since they were riding high just a year ago after back-to-back record-setting numbers for the studio. [Universal Pictures recorded its biggest year ever in 2008 with global theatrical grosses totaling $2.834 billion. Universal’s domestic box-office tally of $1.12 billion outpaced the record it previously set in 2007, which was $1.099 billion. Internationally, Universal shattered 2007’s box-office mark of $1.034 billion, with a 2008 total of $1.714 billion, for an incredible year-over-year improvement of 66%.] But success like this is cyclical in Hollywood. What goes up must come down, eventually.
And that’s where karma was a bitch for Marc. Here’s why:
In 2008, the usually successful studio Twentieth Century Fox had one of its worst summers in recent memory. Almost immediately, certain journalists predicted heads would roll among the long stable management because of what was suddenly seen as deep systemic problems at the studio. Prior to the summer, Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos had been lauded for doing more with less: spending little money and smartly laying off risk on highly commercial movies that outperformed with moviegoers if not the critics. Rothman especially was rumored ready to be axed that summer, and the relentless media rushed to print the minuscule Rotten Tomatoes scores for his slate of swill. (Ring a bell, LA Times columnist/blogger Patrick Goldstein?)
But what the film community didn’t know (and it even took Fox a long time to find out) is that those stories were no coincidence. They were planted by Shmuger who pushed and prodded and pressured entertainment and business journalists to badmouth the rival studio. He gave reporters all the ammunition they needed, from pithy off-the-record quotes about how Rothman had “ruined” the movie biz, to emailed handouts with facts and figures. He even put together the list of Rotten Tomatoes scores for all of Fox movies in recent years. His motivation for going to the media was that Fox made junk while he was making edgy and important movies at Universal. He depicted himself as the one truly creative mogul. And when some journalists wouldn’t play his nasty parlor game [Full Disclosure: I refused, arguing that successful slates were cyclical and the place for this criticism was in my weekly box office reports and not my banner headlines], he froze them out.
Flash forward to 2009 when suddenly it’s Universal’s turn to fall apart at the box office. To their credit, the Fox moguls didn’t return the favor when now it was Shmuger’s time for public humiliation. And that’s why no one is crying a river for Shmuger now. If anything, the feeling is he’s getting what he deserved. Certainly, Uni’s movie slate isn’t getting any better since the summer. Love Happens didn’t with audiences, and that upcoming Vince Vaughn starrer Couples Retreat has little box office heat. True, Nancy Meyer’s It’s Complicated does have considerable buzz, but it’s a comedy aimed at adults. As a result, Universal won’t make its numbers this year, which would mean that for the first time in a long while the studio won’t be quietly contributing is annual $1 billion profit into GE coffers.
Shmuger and Linde started out strong in the wake of Stacey Snider’s unexpected departure to go run Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks. Meyer had total confidence in Snider, and let her do her thing while he did his. Which, like all those top jobs at subsidiaries of bigger media companies which are subsidiaries of even bigger companies, consists of kissing the rings of corporate overlords. And GE especially is a dictator when it comes to meetings and retreats and town halls and all the other bullshit, not to mention the GE Finance beancounters. So why doesn’t this fish stink at the head? Because Ron Meyer isn’t really in the movie biz, he’s in the running-the-studio biz. He has to leave the movie-picking and -production to underlings, who in exchange for freedom have to bear the responsibility.
Shmuger and Linde were merely dogpaddling for a good long while as they carefully navigated their new moguldom. Linde took over international and did well. (He’s the guy who oversaw Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds from spec script to box office success, trying not to be manipulated by Harvey Weinstein all the while.) But the creative part of the job was all Shmuger’s.
It’s not just that he made too many Russell Crowe movies. And too many ambivalent message war movies. Or that he bizarrely patted himself on the back for originality when he rebooted Fast And Furious with the original cast. Or took Hellboy from Sony and came out with a sequel. Coming from marketing, without production experience, he was viewed suspiciously by filmmakers. It wasn’t long before they complained about all things Marc. They hated his habit of forcing them to undergo humiliating Q&As before he greenlighted a movie. “Which was impossible because you can’t answer every question. So you bull-shitted him,” a source told me. “He acted like that dean in Animal House who takes himself so seriously, but we all know he’s a joke.”
Then, after the movies would start production, Shmuger was scorned for periodically calling up filmmakers “and giving them random notes on one set of dailies and never doing the foreplay,” one insider described.
When things were going swell, Marc was never warm but at least cordial. But when things began to go badly, first with State Of Play, then with Land Of The Lost which was such a huge embarrassing bomb (and, ironically, exactly the kind of low-brow comedy that Fox would release only better executed), “Marc was so traumatized that he just sounded like he was under a hypnotic spell.”
Then things went from bad to worse. Universal’s next 3 movies had to total $300 in any combination: Bruno, Public Enemies, and Funny People. First, Public Enemies opened July 1st and to date has taken in only $97.1M domestic. Bruno debuted July 10th and tapped out around $60M. And Funny People was released July 31st and hit a high of $51.8M. That’s $209M tops, not nearly good enough. “During that time, Shmuger became delusional and weirdly paralyzed. It was too hard to talk to him. He became a contrarian. If you said one thing, he’d say the other thing,” an insider told me.
To their credit, both Shmuger and Linde responded to the crisis by setting the example of working even harder than before (they were never slackers) and mending fences hither and yon. But Shmuger’s deep-rooted insecurity got the better of him. Obsessed with what the media were not just writing about him but also thinking about him as they circled like vultures in search of carrion, Shmuger went pleading to NBCU for a vote of confidence. “He said he wanted to be supported in some press story about what his accomplishments are, that would let him go talk about them and then the bosses reinforce that. He wanted a bullshit endorsement,” one Hollywood publicist told me. But there was worry “it would be a Band-Aid on a surgical wound”. Nevertheless, Shmuger arranged for LA Times journalist Claudia Eller to do an exclusive interview (and kept that secret from other media, ridiculously responding to their constant phone calls with just ums and ers). While his future remained uncertain at Universal, he attempted to rally other journalists on his behalf.
It was Meyer’s call whether to can Shmuger and Linde, but GE still had to agree to pay off the 2 1/2 years that they both have left on their contracts — not an inconsequential amount.
FYI, my info is the Los Angeles Times was 100% wrong when it reported Friday that Shmuger’s and Linde’s fate would have to wait until the negotiations for a sale of NBC Universal was complete. And that stuff about Jeff Zucker telling Ron Meyer to wait because of “something big” was pure fiction. But, if others were writing speculation about turmoil at the top of Universal, why didn’t I?
Because, readers, I hate Shmuger, really detest the putz, and I didn’t want it to look like I was doing him harm because of a personal vendetta. I told The New Yorker why I was waiting: because I believe in killing the king, not just wounding him. And I feared writing one of my trademark brutally honest posts only to have Shmuger’s bosses suddenly feel sorry for him and keep him. Yes, I want Marc gone that much. More importantly, I’m not the only one.