Commentary

NBCU's Shell Game: Why TV Vet Was Named Studio Boss

With the intent of expanding its global business, NBCUniversal is bringing in television executive Jeff Shell to run day-to-day operations at Universal Studios as chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. Adam Fogelson, who cut his teeth at Universal on the “creative advertising” side of the business and shared Ad Age’s Entertainment Marketer of the Year in 2003 for the campaign for "8 Mile," finds himself on Universal City Plaza without his chairman’s title at Universal Pictures as a result.

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The move “[signals] that international experience and close ties to the parent company may be more important in a movie studio chief than releasing a string of hit movies,” according to Ben Fritz’ lede on the story in the Wall Street Journal.

Donna Langley, who has been co-chairman of Universal Pictures, was named chairman of the unit, reporting to Shell. “Donna and her team have been a driving force behind Universal Pictures’ commercially successful and critically acclaimed films and this is a well-deserved promotion,” according to an email sent to staffers from NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke quoted in The Hollywood Reporter.

Industry insider Ron Meyer, a co-founder of Creative Artist Agency, has been promoted to vice chairman, NBCUniversal, “taking on a larger role within the company,” according to Burke’s email, “while continuing to work closely with both Jeff and Donna.” He has been president and COO of the studio since 1995.

“Tapping Shell, who has spent his career in television, came as a surprise to film business observers,” write Daniel Miller and Meg James in the Los Angeles Times. “But the company sees the increasing importance of the international film business as a key revenue driver and wants to exploit Shell's expertise in that arena.”

Comcast bought out the 49% of NBCUniversal it did not already own from General Electric in February, as Wayne Friedman reported in Media Daily News.

Shell is a “Comcast insider,” writes Brook Barnes in the New York Times and, in naming him, it “signaled that the movie studio is now firmly nested inside a corporate structure that cares as much about funneling content to cable video-on-demand services as it does about theatrical hits”

Universal has been on a roll lately with such hits as “Fast & Furious 6” and “Despicable Me 2,” although “R.I.P.D.” and “Battleship” were flops. Ironically, given all the focus on international development, the studio “is on track to break its global box office record of $2.93 billion set last year,” reports Variety’s Andrew Stewart.

“In the frenzy of speculation about major assignments following Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011, insiders tagged Shell as someone to watch,” writes The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters. “Those who know Shell say he's a capable executive who inspired enough confidence to be dispatched to London to oversee all NBCU international business, including TV and film distribution, home entertainment and theme parks.”

In a widely-quoted statement, Burke said: “I have worked with [Shell] for over a decade and have been consistently impressed by his strategic vision, operational focus and energy. In addition, having led NBCUniversal’s international operations for the last two and a half years, Jeff is perfectly positioned to lead our film group at a time when global expansion is more important than ever.”

Shell “decamped to London in 2011” for the international job, a source tells the LA Times’ Miller and James, with an understanding from Burke that he would be “rewarded later on with a more prominent job.”

With its eye on the real estate, The Hollywood Reporter broke the story last month that he’d purchased a 4,355-square-foot home in Beverly Hills for $7.25 million, setting curious tongues wagging.

Masters wrote at the time that “he and wife Laura Shell are avid Barack Obama supporters (unlike Burke); the president has nominated Shell to be chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an agency overseeing government-funded international broadcasting.” He has assumed that role.

Shell, who has been Comcast for eight years, “made his mark as an exec in the rough-and-tumble world of cable startups and regional sports nets,” writes Variety’s Cynthia Littleton, primarily with News Corp., where he was president of its cable networks group among other duties.

“Those who have worked with Shell in the past describe the exec as competitive and energetic when it comes to work but also someone who is considerate as a boss and ‘genuinely kind’ as a person,” Littleton writes.

That’s a compelling combination. All Hollywood will be watching to see if it’s a shootable script.
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