By Ron Grover
Every once in a while, a Hollywood studio seems to catch lightning in a bottle, and everything it makes has "hit" written all over it. These days, Universal Pictures looks like that studio. For the past two years, it seems that the studio can do wrong. Since 1999, it has turned out no fewer than nine films that each generated more than $100 million in domestic box-office sales, more than any other Hollywood studio. (Technically, Disney has had more, although its count would include Miramax, a very independent unit that distributes its own films.)
However you cut the numbers, Universal is one hot studio. And its streak will likely continue through the summer, with The Mummy Returns closing in on the rarified territory of $200 million at the box office and The Fast and The Furious near $80 million only two weeks after being released. Over the next month, Universal will release sequels to two of its films that each climbed over the $100 million threshold: the Jurassic Park series and American Pie. Although buzz around town is that neither is as good as the original, both have a decent shot at hitting the same mark.
So what makes a film studio hot? That's hard -- no, impossible -- to say. Hit films are the visions of a small army of folks who make them -- writers, directors, and producers -- and of the suits who greenlight them. At Universal, that means Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider, a 39-year old law-school graduate who worked her way up through the money pit called Sony Pictures to become perhaps the shrewdest film-picker Hollywood has these days.
Snider, the mother of two, is no one's fool. She can be tough when she needs to be: In fact, she hard-balled The Mummy star Brendan Fraser over his salary to make the sequel, giving him a only modest increase by stressing to the actor that the special-effects computers did most of the heavy lifting anyway. And she can sweet talk Hollywood producers with the best of them. She has managed to maintain warm relations director Ron Howard and his producer partner Brian Grazer, who contemplated leaving last year. Instead, they produced blockbusters like Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps in return.
Nothing quite matches the up-from-nowhere success of The Fast and the Furious, a film Universal made for a fairly tame $38 million and is already the year's surprise hit. Focused on street clubs that illegally race cars late at night, the movie zoomed past Eddie Murphy's second Dr. Dolittle film for Fox and opened with a none-too-shabby $41.6 million in its first weekend. That was roughly twice what pundits like the folks at Variety had predicted the street-racing film would generate in its opening. It's hard to see the film doing less than $100 million -- and it ought to turn a gigantic profit for Universal in the process.
Originally scheduled to be released in March, Universal decided to hold The Fast and the Furious until the kiddies were on vacation in June after a pair of very strong test screenings showed it was a huge hit with teens. Credit that smart decision to Marc Shmuger, Universal's vice-chairman, and to Snider, who let him have his way. It wasn't the first time that duo has turned a tiny film into a huge moneymaker. In 1999, in fact, a little movie called American Pie grossed $101.7 million.
Last year, Shmuger turned a cheerleading film called Bring It On into a minor hit. Made for a paltry $9 million, it went on to sell $68 million in tickets after Shmuger recut TV commercials to emphasize a competition between rival black and white cheerleading squads. The film was targeted to women under 25 with a slew of commercials on MTV and WB. It opened with $17 million, making it profitable a week after it hit the theaters.
All of which makes Snider a very popular person these days with the brass at Universal's parent company, French utility company Vivendi Universal. Along with Ron Meyer, the one-time Hollywood talent agent turned suit, Snider runs what is the largest part of the Universal Studios entertainment unit -- which includes both theme parks and the film studio. In its most recent year, revenues increased by nearly 23%, to $4.5 billion, and it generated cash flow of $229 million after losing $91.26 million the year before. In late June, Vivendi paid a compliment to Meyer and Snider by merging much of the filmmaking responsibilities of its StudioCanal film operation with Universal.
I sat down not long ago with Pierre Lescure, Vivendi's chief operating officer, when he was in Los Angeles shopping for a home. He made it abundantly clear that he intends to let Snider and Meyer run their own show with little or no interference from France. "In America, the saying is that you stick with a winning team, I think," Lescure said. "We have a winning team."
JUST AWFUL JOSIE.
Of course, that team has had its failures. Mixed among its 15 films last year were such losers as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. And no one at Universal can be too thrilled with the much-hyped and really awful Josie and the Pussy Cats, which will no doubt saddle Vivendi with a nifty loss after selling only $14 million in tickets.
After all, this is Hollywood, where even the best film-pickers don't always get it right. At the moment, Snider is definitely picking far more hits than just about anyone else in town -- certainly enough for people to overlook her misses.
Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell