First, Walt Disney CEO/president Bob Iger fired Dick Cook as chairman of the Walt Disney Studios and on October 5 named Disney Channels Worldwide head Rich Ross to replace him. Meanwhile, on the same day, Universal Studios’ Ron Meyer fired Universal Pictures chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde and replaced them with Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley. I broke each of these stories: the firings and the hirings. Suffice it to say that Cook was fired for not playing ball with Iger. But the goings-on at Universal were much more complex and downright creepy.
Poor Linde: He was just collateral damage since he came in as a tag team with Shmuger. But Shmuger clung to his moguldom until the very last minute, even when he was just embarrassing himself. What choice did Meyer have? Especially when so many people 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’d always considered Shmuger’s biggest problem that he thinks he plays well with others, when, in fact, he treats people badly and is blind to the fact that they hate his guts. He considers himself a political pro but is just a polarizing asshole. So he deserved to be kicked to the curb as much for his behavior as for the studio infighting he instigated and for lousy box office in a downturn economy, where DVDs no longer cover a mogul’s green-lighting mess-ups.
Shmuger’s fate was unofficially sealed when Meyer began fielding journalists’ calls about whether Universal’s well-liked and extremely capable Langley was being fired while off on maternity leave (which would have besmirched Meyer’s carefully crafted good-guy persona). Meyer was bewildered by how such a nasty, untrue rumor got started. But studio chatter rightly or wrongly pointed to Shmuger.
Why people were so willing to throw this thin-skinned crybaby under the bus is a cautionary tale for Hollywood execs. I’d heard earfuls about how “all the filmmakers” couldn’t stand him. Michael Mann and Ridley Scott at one point supposedly wouldn’t return his calls. Spike Lee reportedly vowed never to talk to him again. And Clint Eastwood openly hated on 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!)
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. In 2007 and 2008 they were riding high with back-to-back record-setting numbers for the studio. But success is cyclical in Hollywood. That’s where karma was a bitch for Shmuger. Here’s why:
In 2008, the usually successful studio 20th Century Fox had one of its worst summers in recent memory, and certain journalists predicted heads would roll among the stable management because of what was suddenly seen as deep, systemic problems. Before that, Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos had been lauded for doing more with less: spending little and smartly laying off risk on highly commercial movies that outperformed with moviegoers. Rothman especially was rumored ready to be axed that summer, and the media relentlessly rushed to print the minuscule Rotten Tomatoes scores for his slate of swill. (Ring a bell, L.A. 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 journalists like Goldstein to badmouth the rival studio.
Shmuger gave reporters all the ammunition they needed, from pithy off-the-record quotes about how Rothman had “ruined” the movie biz, to e-mailed handouts with facts and figures. He even put together the list of Rotten Tomatoes scores for all 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. But some journalists wouldn’t play his nasty parlor game. 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.
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 jump in now that it was Shmuger’s time for public humiliation. That’s why I think Shmuger got what he deserved. 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.
Filmmakers hated his habit of forcing them to undergo humiliating Q&As before he green-lighted a movie. “Which was impossible because you can’t answer every question. So you bullshitted 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.”
When things began to go badly with State of Play, then with Land of the Lost, which was such a huge, embarrassing bomb (and, ironically, the kind of lowbrow comedy Fox would release — except better-executed), an insider told me, “Marc was so traumatized that he just sounded like he was under a hypnotic spell.”
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Things went from bad to worse. Universal’s next three movies had to total $300 million in any combination: Bruno, Public Enemies and Funny People. They topped out at $209 million, not nearly 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.
As media circled like vultures in search of carrion, Shmuger went pleading to NBC Universal for a vote of confidence. The response? “It would be a Band-Aid on a surgical wound.”
It was Meyer’s call on whether to can Shmuger and Linde, but G.E. still had to agree to pay off the two and a half years on their contracts — not an inconsequential amount. The Los Angeles Times was 100 percent wrong when it claimed Shmuger’s and Linde’s fate would have to wait until the negotiations for a 51 percent sale of NBC Universal was complete.
Still, I feared when I wrote one of my trademark, brutally honest Internet posts that it would cause Shmuger’s bosses to suddenly feel sorry for him and keep him. Yes, I wanted Shmuger gone that much. In the end, I wasn’t the only one.