Universal Pictures President Ron Meyer Talks Candidly about the Studio’s Recent Flops, 3D, Prestige Movies, and More

     November 3, 2011


Like any studio, Universal has had a tough time with movies they expected to be hits.  The Fast and Furious series is one of their killer franchises and they landed a sleeper hit with Bridesmaids, but the studio had to suck up bombs like Land of the Lost, The Wolfman, Robin Hood, Cowboys & Aliens, and even the geek-beloved Scott Pilgrim vs. The WorldRon Meyer, Universal’s President and COO for the past sixteen years, spoke about the studio’s flops at the Savannah Film Festival.  He also talked about 3D, avoiding prestige pictures, and their controversial move to try and rush Tower Heist onto VOD.

Hit the jump for When Studio Execs Speak Honestly.

ron-meyer-01Big credit to Movieline for this great story.  Let’s get to the best part first: Meyer talking about the major flops:

Cowboys & Aliens: “Cowboys & Aliens wasn’t good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it, it wasn’t good enough,” Meyer said, without pause. “All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it.”

Yes, I suppose if you do forget all the “smart people” involved with it, it wasn’t good enough.  I love how Meyer is basically saying, “Give a pass to all the talent we want to work with again.  Blame all of the unnamed people at the studio who work their asses off behind the scenes.”

Land of the Lost: “Land of the Lost was just crap,” he continued. “I mean, there was no excuse for it. The best intentions all went wrong.”

And for the geek darling, Scott Pilgrim

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: “Scott Pilgrim, I think, was actually kind of a good movie. [Addressing a small section of the audience, cheering.] But none of you guys went! And you didn’t tell your friends to go! But, you know, it happens.”

With all due respect, don’t blame us for your blown marketing strategy.  Were they seriously banking on a word-of-mouth hit?  If so, that’s an idiotic and incredibly risky gamble.  Maybe instead of trying to sell the movie as a romance, Universal should have tried harder to sell the movie to gamers and geeks rather than just assume that audience would show up (the same weekend as The Expendables, no less).  But I’m sorry we didn’t do your job for you.  We’ll try harder next time.

Meyer continued to speak candidly about these three flops:

Cowboys & Aliens didn’t deserve better. Land of the Lost didn’t deserve better. Scott Pilgrim did deserve better, but it just didn’t capture enough of the imaginations of people, and it was one of those things where it didn’t cost a lot so it wasn’t a big loss. Cowboys & Aliens was a big loss, and Land of the Lost was a huge loss. We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we’re all guilty of it. I have to take first responsibility because I’m part of it, but we all did a mediocre job and we paid the price for it. It happens. They’re talented people. Certainly you couldn’t have more talented people involved in Cowboys & Aliens, but it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie. It just happens.”

Imagine if you had twenty smart and talented people involved!  You could have had a kind-of okay movie!

But Meyer saved his greatest vitriol for The Wolfman:

And finally, a fitting end to all the real talk: Stepping in to ask the last question, Wolfman producer Stratton Leopold emerged from his family-run ice cream shop across the street to confab with Meyer about the film’s legendary failings.

Leopold, amiably introducing himself: “I’m Stratton Leopold…”

Meyer, good naturedly: “It’s one of those movies, the moment I saw it I thought, ‘What have we all done here?’ That movie was crappy.”

Leopold: “I said the same thing before the reshoot. I said, ‘Why are we spending all of this? Let’s shoot two scenes to create some sympathy for the [hero] and that’s it,’ but…”

Meyer: “We all went wrong. It was one of those things… like I said, we make a lot of bad movies. That’s one we should have smelled out a long time ago. It was wrong. The script never got right…”

Leopold: “The cast -”

Meyer: “—was awful. The director was wrong. Benicio [del Toro] stunk. It all stunk.”

“What have we all done here?”  I have an answer: You hired a talented director with Mark Romanek.  He did almost all of the pre-production work and wanted some more money.  You wouldn’t give it to him, so he left and then you had to hold everything in place while looking for a new director.  Then you ended up spending more money than if you had just given Romanek what he asked for in the first place.  But yeah, let’s blame the cast.  And here’s a fun fact: The Wolfman is an Oscar-winning movie (Best Make-Up, which it absolutely deserved and in no way “stunk”).

united-93-movie-poster-01Moving on from the flops, Meyer talked about the studio’s dearth of awards-season fare.  Technically, they do put out critical darlings through Focus Features, but you won’t see the Universal Pictures logo attached to movies like The Kids Are All Right or A Serious Man. Meyer is proud they got behind United 93 and he says even though it wasn’t a big hit at the box office, “it’s a film I believe every American should see and it showed you what people can do in the worst of times and how great the human spirit is and all that, so there are moments that can make up for all the junk that you make.”  So why doesn’t Universal make more prestige pictures?

“[A critical hit is] 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.”

This is interesting.  Universal is willing to dump hundreds of millions of dollars into a flop like Cowboys & Aliens, but spending less money on a film that will be a modest hit doesn’t meet the obligation to “make money”.

But to his credit, Meyer isn’t willing to churn out 3D movies just because they offer the possibility of higher box office revenue:

“I’m not a believer that every film should be 3D,” said Meyer, acknowledging his own fiscal concern over Universal’s expensive upcoming 3D film 47 Ronin, led by Keanu Reeves… None of us would be able to do, or afford, what Jim Cameron was able to do with Avatar,” Meyer continued. “Avatar was everything money could buy, and we can’t afford to be in that business. He spent a lot of money, he did a brilliant job… you were inside that movie, and that’s what made it work. You were surrounded by that film. I think 3D has a limited capacity, but a capacity. I don’t think all films should be 3D and we should be careful about falling for that.”

Finally, Meyer also talked about the recent Tower Heist VOD test balloon:

“If someone’s going to get our movies two weeks after they’re released, then they have to pay a premium for that… 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.”

Meyer confirmed what I said when the test balloon popped: Universal and other studios are far from giving up on a shorter VOD window:

“I think there are a lot of people who won’t go to the theater and are happy to pay a premium price — whether $66 is the right price, or it’s more or less. 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.”

The chutzpah of asking exhibitors to “be a little more accepting of what we want to do,” is sublime.  “Hey exhibitors, would you mind if we speed up the inevitability of killing your business?  We still need to figure out the right price point, but it would be nice if you stopped whining about us destroying your industry so us studios can survive in a changing marketplace.”

I know I’ve come down pretty hard on Meyer in this article, but I do appreciate his candor.  There’s not much to say about a studio exec who will say with a straight face that they’re proud of all their movies.  I’m glad there’s a veteran like Meyers who’s earned the confidence to call out his studio’s misfires.

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  • Christopher Olson

    It sounds like the only mistakes he made were to trust the artists working for him. As much as that sounds like he’s accepting responsibility, he’s really just casting the blame at those below him.

  • lugo

    is cowboys and aliens really that bad? i’ll have to check it out to confirm.

  • Dan Geer

    Admittedly, The Wolfman had its shortcomings. However, I’m a fan of the original 1941 film, and I still thought the 2010 update was pretty fun, despite the lack of sympathy we have for Lawrence Talbot. It was very true to the Wolf Man lore, the atmosphere was great, and the Wolfman himself was REALLY awesome. It was simply a good monster movie that could’ve been great.

  • Jackie Diane

    I did my senior thesis on the last part of this article – with VOD as the smoking gun to the death of the theatre biz. Here is my projection based thereon: like drive in movie theatres, the movie theatre will never truly “die” but diversify – of which examples we can see in theatres in New England and the mid-west. However, the VOD service movie studios are pushing for in order to make the quickest buck is their own death knoll, acclimating viewers to the home video experience and continuing to make crap movies. Imagine paying a VOD premium for Cowboys vs. Aliens. Imagine the ire of the home viewer who has just paid a HUGE premium for an hour and a half’s worth of crap with no recourse except… to hope for a better experience the next time. Except, the next time, they will netflix a movie for the same experience and that much less expense with the cost being a little bit more of a wait. Movie studios have been sounding their own death knolls with the advent of VHS and finally sealing it with DVD. What the internet has taught us is that PIRACY cannot be controlled. IF it could be stopped, then the court cases surrounding napster and all of the subsequent “examples” the RIAA makes every few months would actually deter the practice. It has not. As movies become easier to stream and codecs become simpler to allow for HD viewing on-line, we will see a rise in piracy and a drop in big budget studio features as the money-mongerers write themselves into little more than a footnote in entertainment history. Also, this guy has just talked himself out of a job.
    Finally, Wolfman was an obvious homage to 50s era monster movies as evinced by the Universal logo at the start of the film; anyone who expected anything less has only themselves to blame.
    Did anyone else read the Cowboys vs. Aliens graphic novel? It was crap. And not like that campy first edition Green Lantern lame origin story/chauvinist crap but 4th grade level plot device story expositional bad dialogue crap.
    Everybody knows 9/11 was an inside job (you, too Toby keith) so United 93 bombed. Pun intended.
    Jennifer Connelly kept her clothes on for Beautiful Mind and although I like seeing Russell Crowe play a schizoid loser, meh.
    Next time, do proper marketing for good movies like Scott Pilgrim, Universal, or… follow the steps I listed above and fall into the abyss.

  • Sal

    I wonder… Had they made big money would he be saying the same?

    But yeah I kinda agree. I had to leave from most of these movies. They were unwatchable.

    • ds

      If they had made pirates of the carribean, transformers, harry potter etc type revenue he most certainly would be saying a different tune

  • Gas

    While I too appreciate his candor this interview seemed he was trying to placate and shift some of his own and other studio execs mistakes on to those that acutally made the films like the directors, actors and so forth on the films such as cowboys & aliens and the wolfman. Those people envolved often have no say in budget, release dates, marketing and so on.

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