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Ron Meyer, The Mogul Next Door

Ron Meyer is one of the most successful business leaders in Hollywood, with a distinguished career built from scratch on tenacity and his own brand of education. His current role as President and COO of Universal Studios includes oversight of Universal Pictures, Focus Features, Universal Television, USA Network, the SCI FI Channel, and Universal Theme Parks and Resorts.

Prior to taking the reigns at Universal, Meyer was one of the five founders of CAA, which he, Michael Ovitz and their partners built into one of the most successful talent agencies in Hollywood. While a senior agent at CAA, Meyer represented marquee names such as Martin Scorcese, but also saw ways he felt the production side of the movie business could be run more effectively. Last Tuesday in Aldrich Hall, he shared his views with us on the challenge of managing a studio toward peak performance, and his personal thoughts on business practices and the evolving media landscape.

Dressed casually in black with white sneakers, it was clear in the first five minutes that Meyer was not there to conduct a lecture on Hollywood mogul-dum. He gave the audience permission to “ask anything you want”, and went on to field over an hour of questions. Even with an auditorium crowd, the exchange took on the warmth of a fireside chat.

Meyer’s passion for his work is clear. When asked the downside of his job, he couldn’t think of one. “I wish I could say it was a drag, but I sleep well, I’m paid well- it’s a great gig. I’m the Mayor of a small town of 5000 people.” While he is able to influence the slate and tone of Universal’s movies, he is quick to point out that the strongest mandates often come from markets and shareholders, not his personal taste. “I try to minimize smoking, drug use, violence in films, gratuitous nudity or sex”, but he admits that studios have pressure to deliver big hits, often at the expense of more intellectual fare. “There was a time in the movie business where you could hit singles and doubles…[now] generally, big movies make big money. If you start chasing the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding you’ll go broke. High risk films pay for low risk ones.”

Recently, Meyer’s bets have been paying off nicely. Under his tenure, Universal has delivered such hits as American Pie, The Fast & The Furious, 8 Mile and The Bourne Identity. In turn, these have funded ventures on art house flicks such as Oscar phenomenon The Pianist, by Roman Polanski, which Universal’s more ‘indie’ label Focus Features acquired for its initial slate of films.

Exemplifying his commitments to honesty and humility in business, Meyer accredits Universal’s box office and critical successes to its having “the best staff of people of any company around”. In all that he has done at Universal, Meyer considers his assemblage of a top-notch executive team to be his greatest achievement.

Meyer also shared his insights on all that is going at Universal outside the day-to-day creation of box-office hits. Lately the company has been the center of much Wall Street speculation as the struggling French-based company Vivendi Universal has made it clear the Universal entertainment assets-purchased less than two years ago-are again up for sale. The recent departure of Barry Diller from the CEO post of Vivendi Universal Entertainment has many guessing that he is among the likely bidders for the studio.

Meyer did not downplay the difficulties of leading a company with an uncertain group of future owners. He discussed Universal’s need to hold off on investments, and the challenge in not being able to plan even 3 months ahead. For example, on the cable side of Universal, an area Vivendi Universal’s ousted leader Jean Marie Messier had endorsed, growth plans are on hold for the foreseeable future. Meyer also stressed the need to communicate constantly in the face of uncertainty by calling “a town hall meeting with 500 people, leaders of the company” to address the challenges of being in play. He also expressed a desire to make any sale fair for all employees, and enable them to share in the upside.

Not that he’ll be running any of the valuations. When asked his greatest deficiency as an executive, Meyer keyed right in on his lack of finance training. Having dropped out of high school at the age of 15, “I never got past simple division class in school, let alone algebra”. He went on to explain that his lack of formal education made him rely heavily on professionally trained business people-including many MBA’s-to help him make key decisions. Meyer challenged all of us in the room to take advantage of education, and made it clear there was a place for the MBA in entertainment.

Closing the afternoon with more of his personal business philosophy, Meyer distilled his approach down to a few simple skills: “[be] honest, and to treat everyone the way you want to be treated. Care about people.” Not the kind of advice you would expect from the Hollywood mogul. Although, after the casual, open and informative talk he offered, it was clear that these principles lay at the core of his success-even in Hollywood.

April 14, 2003
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