Jeff Shell, a film novice, leads Universal Pictures into the digital age – Los Angeles Times
A sleek black screen fills an entire wall of Universal Pictures’ executive conference room. The enormous display, measuring 24 feet by 5 feet, resembles a futuristic version of the game board for the TV show “Jeopardy.”
It is a high-resolution, eight-dimensional digital calendar marking release dates of upcoming movies. Dec. 18 has been reserved for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” from Walt Disney Co. March 25 was claimed by Warner Bros. for its clash of superheroes, “Batman v Superman.” Universal has staked out July 29 for its next Jason Bourne spy thriller with Matt Damon.
“It was Velcro when I got here — just names of movies placed on the wall with Velcro,” Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group.
He became Universal Pictures’ top executive two years ago with a mandate to ease the 103-year-old film studio into the digital age. His elevation came amid seismic shifts in the entertainment industry. Theater attendance in the United States has declined, DVD sales have been in a prolonged slump, and streaming services such as Netflix are elbowing into turf long reserved for movie theater chains. All the while, high-quality TV programs now rival studio films for cultural relevance — giving consumers plenty of easy entertainment options.
When the veteran TV executive was named head of the film studio in September 2013, Hollywood’s entrenched power crowd was surprised, even incredulous, that NBCUniversal and its parent, Comcast Corp., would hand the keys to its most prestigious property to someone with no experience in the film business.
But Comcast wanted a corporate insider who was a Hollywood outsider to lead its charge.
“Movies are right at the center of what Comcast is trying to do,” Shell said.
The 50-year-old executive, who has spent nearly half his life in the television business, is feeling more comfortable as a studio boss. On a recent afternoon, he proudly showed off his library-style wooden desk once used by Universal’s legendary mogul Lew Wasserman. Shell had it hauled out of storage.
It also helps that Universal Pictures is closing the books on its most profitable year ever. The Los Angeles studio is on track to deliver more than $1.25 billion in profit this year, up from $711 million in 2014.
Universal has been No. 1 at the box office for most of the year and has generated $5.8 billion in film revenue during the first nine months of 2015 — a 52% increase over the same period last year.
Three of its films — “Furious 7,” “Jurassic World” and the animated “Minions” — each have topped $1 billion in global box-office receipts — a feat no other Hollywood studio has achieved.
“In the movie business you need great product, great executives … and then it’s luck and timing,” said Ron Meyer, the president of Universal Studios for 18 years before he segued into the role of vice chairman of NBCUniversal to help Shell manage the studio. “You need all these things to come together.”
Shell, in a departure from the Hollywood norm, said he didn’t want to hog credit for the studio’s banner year.
He heaps praise on Donna Langley, the chairman of Universal Pictures, who picks the movies and oversees production and marketing, as well as Meyer and other senior executives. Universal is one of Hollywood’s most prolific studios — producing about 40 movies a year.
Next year probably won’t be as profitable as this one, Shell acknowledged, largely because Universal won’t be releasing as many tentpoles. There are also challenges brought on by changes in consumer behavior. Technology has roiled the economics of music, publishing, video games, and now TV and film.
“My career has been spent being parachuted into new businesses, and trying to figure out what I need to do with those businesses,” Shell said. “I am good at building things. I want to be in a business that needs fixing or is transitioning.”
The Los Angeles native is the oldest of four high-achievers born to a Cedars-Sinai cardiologist and teacher turned stay-at-home mother. (Shell’s sister is the U.S. ambassador to Qatar).A sports fanatic, Shell — who is 5 foot 9 — made the varsity basketball team at University High after spending long hours in his backyard perfecting his jump shot.
“He wasn’t the dorkiest, but he wasn’t the coolest kid by any means,” said his younger brother, Dan Shell, an executive at Fox Sports. “There was this grassy hill at our high school that was called ‘the Grove,’ and the cool kids would hang out together at the top of the hill. Jeff was in the group that got to hang out at the base of the hill. He was a ‘base of the Grove’ kind of guy.”
Shell earned a degree in economics and applied mathematics from UC Berkeley, and an MBA from Harvard University.
He started his career at the Salomon Bros. investment bank before joining Walt Disney Co. in strategic planning. He worked a variety of jobs for 11 years at Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp., including a year as chief executive of the troubled Gemstar-TV Guide International, which Fox then co-owned.
In 2004, Shell gambled on Comcast. He moved with his wife, Laura, and their daughter across the country to go to work for the Philadelphia cable Goliath with giant ambitions.
He was in charge of Comcast’s cable channels, including E!, the Golf Channel and its regional sports networks.
Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal from General Electric in 2011 left industry observers guessing that Shell was in the pole position to control a big chunk of the NBC television empire.