It’s not everyday you expect to stand in a room with a 16-year studio head and hear him flat out admit that some of his studio’s biggest films were terrible and deserved to flop. It’s not every day you can ask him face-to-face about $250m projects from massive filmmakers that he’s canceled in the last year and get a candid response in return. Universal President and COO Ron Meyer however, was unafraid of discussing all of these things in front of an eager crowd of students, film professors, industry professionals, and many many cameras just yesterday at the Savannah Film Festival.

The hour+ panel at the fest covered a great many topics including VOD, inflating blockbuster budgets, and a fair amount of biographical details from Meyer himself. I arrived later in the panel and was able to sneak in a question that I’ve been pondering for some time, about which Meyer provided a very unique perspective.

CHUD: In the last year alone, we’ve seen several examples of what seem like unprecedented shut-downs of projects from people that are not usually told no. Be it Del Toro and Jim Cameron at Universal, or Disney telling Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp to trim their budget, or Ron Howard’s Dark Tower… two of these projects have (or are close to) returning to life by cutting out $50m-$70m out of the budget. So, do you feel like the ever-inflating blockbuster budget has finally reached a breaking point, or do you feel like the economy has finally caught up to the big guys?

From this Meyer made the point that there are many reason for canceling a project, and that’s it’s not as unusual as the new horserace, blogging coverage of the industry would have you thinking.

Meyer: “I think it’s a combination… Two of those films were ours. Dark Tower was ours, and Mountains of Madness was ours. It’s not unusual, we’ve done it many times. The difference is in today’s blogging world, everyone seems to know what everyone’s doing. So when it comes to big movies, we’ve said “no” to a lot, and put a lot of films in turnaround– some were good decisions, some were bad decision. That’s the nature of the business…”

Meyer also made the point that Lone Ranger was always a foregone conclusion, but that the two Uni projects faced not only massive budgets, but financial structures that would ensure the studio’s (inevitable) profits would come in too slowly.

Meyer: “…I think the only one that’s found a home so far is Lone Ranger. They’ve cut the budget and everything, that was never a surprise. Disney was going to make a film with Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, and I don’t think there was ever any question that was going to get made, they just had to find a way to make it for a better price. We looked at the economics of those two films –our two films– and it just didn’t make sense for us, for what we would have to put out for what we could make back. It didn’t feel secure enough for us, and that’s the reason we didn’t do it. They’re both good projects, they were just more expensive than made sense for us to spend.

If I thought that we could get a better return and everybody was willing to cut their gross, I wasn’t afraid of the price, I was just afraid of the return. I didn’t want to invest, you know, $200 million to not make enough to show that that was worth investing that money. The profits come in too slow for us. I hope they get made, for those guys’ sakes.”

Continuing on, Meyer made the point that if the Dark Tower ends up at HBO it will certainly be for a much lower price, and will ultimately be a different kind of project. When asked by moderator Chris Auer (Chair of SCAD’s Film department) if dropping projects affects his relationship with certain talent, Meyer made it clear that his priorities simply are what they are, and that the best directors know this.

“No one wants to hear the word “no,” so it’s never simple to just say it. My first responsibility is to do what’s right for the studio, so I can’t worry about what’s right for [them].”

Much of my audio of the event was garbage because of my position in the room, but fortunately the lovely Jen Yamato was on the scene and also did a nice breakdown of the event at Movieline. She picked up on some of Meyer’s other candid answers on other subjects.

On the controversial premium VOD topic, Meyer continues to toe the studio line by suggesting this is something the market wants, and that it will happen once the studios find a way to placate the theater owners.

We still think that’s a valid model. Obviously the theater owners didn’t want us to do it; we were led to believe that might work, but I think eventually we will get it to work in conjunction with theater owners…

I think there are people that would be willing to pay that price to not have to leave their house and be able to watch that first-run movie while it’s still in theaters, on whatever size screen you have at home. I think we have to be better about it, the studios, and the theater exhibitors have to probably be a little more accepting of what we want to do. We’ll have to find a way to do it together.”

Moving on to specific films, Meyer was asked specifically about Land of the Lost (“just crap”), Cowboys & Aliens (“it was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it”), Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (“…kind of a good movie, but none of you guys went!”) and finally Wolfman (“..awful. The director was wrong. Benicio stunk. It all stunk.”), which was disowned with special ruthlessness by both Meyer and Executive Producer Stratton Leopold who happened to be in the room as well.

When asked about the place of prestige films in the Universal model, Meyer was very candid about awards-bait not being a big part of the studio’s vision.

“It’s great when it happens. But we did A Beautiful Mind and I don’t know that we’d do A Beautiful Mind again. That’s the sad part. It’s great to win awards and make films that you’re proud of and make money, but your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do.”

That’s a real shame, and one of the places I really took issue with the studio head. While it’s not always a selfless act of cinematic charity, studios like Warner Brothers and even Fox do prioritize making sure they have at least a few well-pedigreed films in their slate. That said, you could bring up plenty of examples of both of those studios dumping films that deserved better in recent years, so perhaps it’s best for a studio to stick to their real priorities rather than half-assing it…

Finally, Meyer dropped a completely detail-less hint about future Harry Potter parks outside of Florida by responding simply, “yes,” to a question about having any such plans. So clearly the man likes money, and to make lots of it…

Shrewd businessman though he may be, it’s great to see Meyer open up on these topics and at least own the products he’s responsible for. Despite all the tossing of his own films under the bus, he did make it clear that no one is ever setting out to make garbage and that these failure do not pass without some flinching. I’m thinking this sentiment will get lost when his comments inevitably get blown up and cause the studio a headache. Still, it made for the best quote of the day…

“We make a lot of shitty movies. Every one of them breaks my heart.”


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