Nikki Rocco, one of the film industry’s game changers and revolutionaries, will retire from Universal Pictures tomorrow as its President of Distribution, a post she held for 19 years as part of her 47-year run with the studio that began at age 17 (Deadline announced the news back in April). Rocco is an anomaly: Not only has she survived countless regime changes in a dog-eat-dog business, but as the first female distribution head she rallied Universal past the $1B mark nine times (2000, 2003, 2005, 2007-08, 2011-14), with last year’s $1.42B haul marking an all-time high for the studio. Such box office feats have been achieved by Rocco not only by meeting moviegoers head-on during prime seasons such as summer and the year-end holidays but in her boldness to successfully launch titles and cater to crowds on weekends that rival distrib chiefs underestimated.
Before any Marvel film broke an opening record during the first weekend of May, Rocco and her team proved that audiences would come out en masse if the right film was on the schedule. For years, the period prior to Memorial Day weekend was a dead zone for films, but Rocco’s philosophy has always been, “If you build it, they will come” — the mantra of Universal’s 1989 Oscar-nominated baseball film Field Of Dreams.
On three occasions during her tenure, Rocco moved the start date of summer, arguably before any other studio did. One of the first instances when she knew crowds would come out before the Memorial Day holiday was in 1990 when “she had a voice,” as she puts it, in Universal’s release decisions as Senior VP: She rallied for the studio to unspool the Mel Gibson-Goldie Hawn comedy Bird On A Wire during the May 18-20 frame. The film bowed to $15.3M, impressive at the time and ultimately made five times its bow with $71M. Rivals noticed, and mid-May during the ’90s become a tentpole-launching ground for such films as Warner Bros.’ Twister and Paramount’s Deep Impact.
But then Rocco and the Universal distribution team one-upped themselves a second time: They moved the start of summer to the first weekend of May in 1999 with the $43.4M bow of The Mummy, giving fanboys something to watch while waiting around for Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, which was bowing two weeks later. Universal would break its May first-frame record again with the opening of sequel The Mummy Returns racking up a $68.1M. But then Universal one-upped itself again, succeeding where others fell flat: It literally started summer during the final weekend of April 2011. Fast Five, the fifth installment of the Fast & Furious, franchise bowed to a spectacular $86.2M.
When it comes to such benchmarks, Rocco is modest and shares the success with her co-workers, saying: “I can’t singlehandedly take credit for starting summer early. I was always part of team that believed you could open a movie 52 weeks a year. And that’s been part of the studio philosophy.”
While midweek biz is always healthy during the summer and the holidays, Rocco always was keen to take advantage of the off months and to never leave money on the table. “I believed in the moviegoing audience,” she said. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, that if you don’t give them something in months like March, April and October, then they won’t come. But if you give them what they want, then you make your own destiny.”
Such business sense has produced such off-season hits as March 1997’s Liar Liar (opening $31.4M, final cume $181.4M), October 2000’s Meet The Parents ($28.6M opening, $166.2M cume) and February 2012 Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds actioner Safe House ($40.2M, $126.4M). Team Rocco proved that women adored R-rated raunchy comedies just as much as guys with May 2011’s Bridesmaids ($169.1M) and that the mid-August-to-fall period was prime to unspool an R-rated guy comedy starring a former satirical TV news show correspondent: The 40-Year-Old Virgin ($21.4M opening, $109.4M cume off a $26M budget) made both star Steve Carell and director Judd Apatow marquee names.
Spotting the box-office potential for a film is an instinct Rocco possess, literally at the script stage. “It’s something that no one can teach,” she says. When it comes to potential projects at the studio, Rocco has been one in a series of executives who signs off on greenlights. However, Rocco’s film-business acumen was honed early on when the Queens, NY, native took a job as a paid intern during high school in Universal’s sales department in New York (“That’s what they called distribution back then,” she says). Rocco was a clerk whose responsibility was to analyze each theater’s box-office numbers, a position which led to her being an assistant to various senior-level sales executives. It was during this time that she forged a close working relationship with Universal Pictures chief Lew Wasserman, who would frequent New York to oversee the sales team.
“He would bring in a box of sweet rolls and I would put on a pot of coffee and all of the executives and assistants would gather in the office and strategize,” Rocco says. “My love for the business started with Lew. He would ask me how much a movie did at the Criterion on Broadway. It was my job to monitor the grosses from the day before.” In 1981, Universal relocated distribution to the West Coast, and Rocco and her husband followed. At first she was the administrative assistant to general sales manager William Soady. By 1984, Rocco was promoted to VP, reporting to Soady, who became president.
During the early days of the 1980s blockbuster era, soon after the success of Universal’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Rocco moved the industry forward, pioneering an internal projection system for the studio to predict weekend box office grosses. A manual process, she would look at samplings of grosses and try to determine what the final weekend B.O. totals would be.
“That’s when the weekend work began,” she says. “Tom Pollock, who took over the studio from Frank Price and Marvin Antonowsky, was a geek when it came to box office. He encouraged me to come up with a projection system and to look at the grosses that Entertainment Data Inc. (EDI) was collecting – then they accounted for 50% of the theaters, not 95% — and extrapolate the day before. We created the weekend work. It used to be that we would come in on Monday and report what the weekend business did. Today, everyone is projecting by Friday afternoon what the entire weekend will be. I helped create that monster.” In addition, during the late ’80s, Rocco built an internal database system that recorded competitors’ grosses.
But the brass tacks to a distribution executive’s job, and the standard that they are measured against, rests on choosing the right release date and being correct about it in the end, proved clearly in a film’s final B.O. performance. One of Rocco’s early highlights came with Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991). Then-Universal President and COO Sid Sheinberg asked Rocco to travel to New York to critique a director’s cut of Cape Fear in a private screening with Scorsese and his then-agent Michael Ovitz. Rocco was nervous as her boss Fred Mound wasn’t invited and after the screening it was her sole responsibility to choose a release date. She chose her birthday, November 13.
“I did my homework with Cape Fear,” Rocco recalls. “I had my competitive studio calendar and was prepared for that trip. It felt like a fall movie, and the best time was a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, which just happened to be my birthday.” Cape Fear opened unopposed by any wide releases in November 1991, making $10.3M and a final cume of $79.1M; close to 8x its first FSS.
Convincing directors and leading stars that their films would flourish on a specific release date wasn’t always an easy task. For every filmmaker who was on the same page as Universal — read Justin Lin with Fast Five’s late-April opening (“He knew we were getting the jump on something,” says Rocco) — there were those who the distrib chief had to stand her ground with; letting them know that the Universal distribution team was, in fact, correct.
In 1999, Rocco and other Universal executives believed that Julia Roberts’ romantic comedy Notting Hill was prime Memorial Day weekend counterprogramming to The Phantom Menace‘s second sesh. Recalls Rocco, “Julia Roberts’ agents kept calling me. How could we even think of going against a film such as Star Wars?” In the end, everyone laughed their way to the bank: Notting Hill became Roberts’ highest opening to date with $27.7M and a cume of $116.1M.
But the biggest challenge for Rocco in her position as the president of Universal’s distribution being as a woman working in a man’s world. With the sudden retirement of then-distrib chief Mound in 1996, Rocco was thrust into the position. “I panicked,” she says. “It was tough.” Rocco counts Jaws editor Verna Fields as one of her early mentors. “She would come and sit outside my boss’ office during the early days and we would talk about how important it was for me to make my career grow. I needed a couple of shoulders to cry on. Thank God there were female colleagues in my part of the industry such as Shari Redstone (president of National Amusements exhibition).” In the latter part of her career, Rocco counts Regal Entertainment group chief Amy Miles, former Universal Chairman Stacey Snider and current Universal Chairman Donna Langley as close peers. She always has found mentors in top Universal execs including Wasserman, Chairman Tom Pollock (“the best negotiator and consummate attorney”), Sheinberg and NBCUniversal Vice Chairman Ron Meyer, who Rocco even hoped to work for at one point at CAA. Pollock convinced Rocco to stay at the studio.
What part of the changing distribution biz will Rocco miss? “I’m going to miss everything about my position, but I look forward to what the future holds and the challenges that the industry will face.” But no matter how much we love our jobs, there’s always one aspect we can do without. Quips Rocco, “I’m not going to miss the drive to the studio. The traffic to the studio is horrendous!”
Rocco isn’t leaving immediately. She’ll continue to serve as an exclusive senior adviser to Universal distribution for two years, initially overlooking the success that she started with Angelina Jolie’s World War II epic Unbroken (which has made more than $51M in its first five days). Given the demands in the box-office biz of working weekends, not to mention that the majority of Rocco’s extended family is in the Northeast, she looks forward to spending extra time with them. Rocco also is an avid golfer; her 90-person team at the studio chipped in and gave her custom-made clubs.
It takes a great executive to maneuver a company from the lean years to the high ones, and Rocco always has possessed a resilient attitude. In a conversation with her three years ago over the lackluster performance of Ron Howard’s dramedy The Dilemma, which fell short with a $48.5M cume, she reminded me, “We don’t go into these movies looking to fail.” Rocco built on that statement Monday, saying, “We look to make a profit and make sure that every endeavor makes money for the studio.”