EXCLUSIVE: Nielsen/NRG has ousted one of its top executives, sending shockwaves across  studios, talent agencies and filmmakers who looked to him for guidance and has prompted several calls into the company to voice their dismay over the decision. Nielsen/NRG president Derek McLay, who joined the company in 2009, was the behind-the-scenes guru for many high-ranking executives around town, well-liked and knowledgeable and, by all accounts, a straight-shooter unafraid to tell it like it is. McLay was the liaison between the company and all the major studios, providing the those in the industry with insight into the all-important area of research and tracking.

tn44748_57_Jobs_DWC_20130813_157According to sources, McLay was called into the office Monday night and told his services would no longer be needed. Nielsen/NRG is one of the preeminent research firms for the entertainment industry.

In my 30 years of reporting, I seriously have not seen an outpouring of support like this (both on and off the record) for any executive after a firing. Clearly the guy had strong relationships and also, quite apparently, a dedication to his clients. Don’t take my word for it, just look:

Derek McLay is the heart and soul of NRG and I’m crushed,” said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Co., whose company relied on him for guidance and research expertise on a number of pictures including Oscar nominees Silver Linings Playbook, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Django Unchained to mention a few. Added TWC COO David Glasser, “It’s one thing to get information, it’s another thing to interpret it and have the personal relationships to communicate those results to the studio and the filmmakers in a way that we can not only understand it but use it to help shepherd our films.”

Filmmaker David O. Russell, said through his rep that he was surprised, noting that he “enjoyed working with McLay, and always found Derek extremely helpful.” (Russell is well-known to be a big believer in the research process and uses that information to help shape his films and the their marketing).

Those who have worked with him said McLay made sense of the research and translated the numbers to the executives and what mattered is that he truly understands marketing and distribution, having previously worked at MGM in distribution. Rob Friedman, co-chairman of Lionsgate, said “Derek is an excellent executive and a great help in all of our processes and hope he’s back at it soon so we can again take advantage of his talent.” Friedman, himself, is a marketing expert with many years under his belt and has an astute understanding of the importance of research to the overall picture.

Marketing and distribution executives around town, for the most part, were also floored. Josh Greenstein, chief marketing officer at Paramount Pictures, called McClay “a tremendously valuable partner in the marketing process. Derek McLay is incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about the moviegoing audience and market research.”

In a time when tentpole after tentpole are opening and smaller pictures are trying to compete, the kind of information and interpretation a research expert can give can make or break a picture so its no wonder people around town are upset. For instance, based on research, media buys are made in certain markets where the film might not be tracking as well. One source pointed out that McLay also worked for the smaller distributors such as Open Road Films and this is likely to hit those companies as well. In fact, the only picture I could find of the guy online was with Open Road Films’ exec vp distribution Elliot Slutzky.

“Derek was a cornerstone of the NRG experience,” said Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg. “All of us at Open Road will miss his presence there on both a personal and professional level.” Added Slutzky, “Derek was always the professional, always willing to take the time to make sure his clients were well informed, a pleasure to work with him.”

“He’s a guy who goes to screenings at midnight and would take your call at 6 AM to talk about tracking and marketing. He’s as dedicated as you can get in this business,” said one top executive at a major studio who said that McLay was omnipresent. “Everyone was surprised by this. No one saw this coming or expected it at all. It seems like a decision that wasn’t really thought through very well. There are so many clients that are so happy with his work, that it just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Echoing what many in the industry said, Erik Lomis, president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment for The Weinstein Co, noted: “He’s a consummate professional and I’m shocked and saddened by this news.”

Added Hank Lightstone, president of The Film Group in New York, “I was in total shock when Derek called with the news. He has been a dear friend since we worked together at United Artists Theater Circuit back in the day. I have witnessed firsthand how the Hollywood community has embraced Derek at film premieres and other industry events. I will always rely on Derek for his insight and expertise in judging film.” The Film Group is the the fourth largest film-buying circuit in the U.S.

A Nielsen/NRG spokesperson said the company doesn’t discuss personnel issues. McLay declined to comment.