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‘Battleship’ shows a major course change at Universal Pictures

By Ben Fritz and John Horn, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Soon after Peter Berg signed on to direct a big-screen version of the board game Battleship, he was summoned to meet with the new heads of Universal Pictures.

The filmmaker best known for his work on “Friday Night Lights” and “Hancock” had reason to be nervous. Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley were inheriting a risky, expensive project greenlighted by their predecessors at a time of rampant cost-cutting in Hollywood.

But the executives had a surprising message: They wanted to increase the budget for “Battleship” and add a multimillion-dollar sequence set in Hong Kong.

“It was one of the craziest meetings I’ve ever had,” recalled Berg. “They said, ‘We want to go bigger.’”

That could very well be Fogelson and Langley’s mantra as they swing for the fences in 2012.

Following the May release of “Battleship,” which cost about $211 million to make, Universal has two more films for 2012 that cost about $175 million each: June’s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” starring Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart, and November’s “47 Ronin” with Keanu Reeves.

Fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars of new capital from Comcast Corp., which bought a controlling interest in the studio’s parent company, NBCUniversal, in January 2010, Universal is for the first time releasing a series of movies designed to be global blockbusters akin to “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

As it celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2012, Universal could use a shot in the arm. For each of the last three years, it has ranked last among Hollywood’s big six studios in worldwide box-office sales. In 2011 it eked out a profit of $10 million, down 96 percent from 2010. On a recent conference call with Wall Street analysts, NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke said the film business has “not been doing well.”

“This year you can see us marrying a new strategy with a level of resources that Universal has not had in the past,” Fogelson, the studio’s chairman, said in an interview. “We are in complete agreement that we need to do better and are optimistic that we will.”

The son of a movie marketing executive, Fogelson, 44, is the studio’s top decision maker and focuses on marketing and business strategy. He is known as a hard-charging boss who works long hours and takes criticism of Universal personally.

Langley, 43, is more even-tempered. A native of Britain’s Isle of Wight, the studio co-chairman is Universal’s creative guru.

“Adam is a fast, strategic thinker who is largely conceptual, while Donna works incredibly well with artists,” said producer Brian Grazer, who has made movies at Universal for 23 years.

After being promoted by Universal Studios President Ron Meyer in October 2009, Fogelson and Langley set three criteria for greenlighting films: They must be movies the duo think can be great, have a clear audience to market to, and, based on the history of similar projects, carry potential rewards that justify the financial risk.

“We can no longer afford to make movies that we love creatively, but where the scenario for success is marginal and the scenario for failure is cataclysmic,” Langley said.

That means trying to avoid costly films with limited appeal, such as 2010’s $100-million-plus flops “The Wolfman” and “Green Zone.”

Fogelson and Langley’s slate began rolling out in mid-2011 with hits including “Fast Five,” “Bridesmaids” and the recent “Safe House” as well as flops such as “Cowboys & Aliens,” “Tower Heist” and last weekend’s “Wanderlust.”

But the duo’s biggest test begins this summer. For the last decade, Universal has typically financed only one big-budget tentpole a year. Competitors such as Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Studios make two or three. That has weakened Universal’s bottom line because overseas moviegoers, who prefer films full of costly special effects, have come to account for more than 60 percent of worldwide box-office receipts.

“Adam and Donna have recognized that it’s a global business and all of the growth is coming from overseas,” said Scott Stuber, a former Universal executive who is producing “Battleship” and “47 Ronin.”

A major challenge has been a shortage of brand-name franchises. The studio currently has only its “Bourne” spy series (the $125-million “The Bourne Legacy” arrives in August) and “Fast and Furious” car movies (a sixth installment opens in 2013). But Langley said she was prepared to go ahead with sequels or spin-offs should the upcoming adaptations of a board game, fairy tale or Japanese samurai story be hits.

“We would love to have a ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Twilight,’ but if we take something that people think they know and imagine it in an entirely new way, that’s really potent too,” Fogelson said.

The duo decided early in their tenure to invest aggressively in animation company Illumination Entertainment and spurn their predecessors’ plan to recruit financing partners. The result was a huge profit from 2010’s “Despicable Me” and a decent return on 2011’s “Hop.” Universal has legitimately high hopes for the Dr. Seuss movie “The Lorax,” which opens Friday.

“Adam is taking a long-term approach and trying to build the company correctly,” said Chris Meledandri, Illumination’s chairman.

Fogelson and Langley have retreated from what had been top priorities for the studio. Universal paid a $5-million penalty to unwind a commitment to make several movies based on Hasbro toys and games, among them Candy Land and Stretch Armstrong. They also killed several films with A-list directors that looked too difficult to make profitably, including a Ron Howard adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” and a horror film from Guillermo Del Toro.

But the company is continuing to make comedies with “Knocked Up” director Judd Apatow, and is making low-budget genre movies via a deal with “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum.

Burke last year extended Fogelson’s and Langley’s contracts until 2014, giving them time to prove their strategy. In an email, the NBCUniversal chief said he believes Universal’s leadership “has a smart plan for success at a very challenging time for the industry” and that despite rumors, he does not want to sell the film studio or its specialty label Focus Features.

But with DVD sales falling throughout Hollywood and Universal’s high-stakes summer slate going up against tough competition such as “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” many in the industry wonder whether Burke will lose faith in his Universal leaders if their films don’t perform.

“Battleship” is already the subject of intense scrutiny, with many on the Internet mocking the attempt to make a movie based on a board game that has no plot or characters. Fogelson and Langley are confident that their most expensive picture will resonate with global audiences.

“It’s a big bet on what I can only call a ‘super movie,’” Berg said. “But it’s the right kind of bet.”

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