Appointment signals Comcast's tighter grip on Hollywood

NBCUniversal's next big movie is "Rush," Ron Howard's film of James Hunt and Niki Lauda's 1970s auto-racing rivalry.
NBCUniversal's next big movie is "Rush," Ron Howard's film of James Hunt and Niki Lauda's 1970s auto-racing rivalry. (JAAP BUITENDIJK)
Posted: September 12, 2013

Jeff Shell, a former Comcast Corp. programming executive in Philadelphia, will head the Universal film studio as Steve Burke and Comcast Corp. tighten their grip on Hollywood.

Shell is the latest top executive installed by Burke, the CEO of NBCUniversal and a confidant of Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts.

Shell headed entertainment programming at Comcast before the cable giant acquired NBCUniversal. He trotted the globe developing deals for NBCUniversal over the last two years, a position many inside Comcast viewed as tailored to give him exposure and retain him for a more glamorous job. He had been based in London.

Shell replaces Adam Fogelson. Shell's appointment as chairman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group is effective immediately. He was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said. Shell will report to Burke, who said in the announcement that "first and foremost, Jeff is a terrific media executive."

TheWrap.com, which tracks Hollywood, quoted an executive with knowledge of NBCUniversal's moves as saying: "Steve Burke wanted his guys there. . . . There was no room for Adam."

The changes at the big movie studio come at a peculiar time.

Universal is having a banner year with the release of Despicable Me 2, Fast & Furious 6, and Riddick, the No. 1 earner at the box office last weekend. Through the second quarter, moreover, the film division reported revenue of $2.6 billion compared with $2.4 billion in the year-ago six-month period.

Additionally, operating cash flow was $102 million in the first six months of 2013, compared with cash-flow losses of $77 million during the year-ago period. This is the publicly available measure of profitability at NBCUniversal divisions.

The film industry, though, is facing decisions regarding distribution channels and questions over how long movies should remain exclusive to movie theaters.

As part of the corporate shuffling, Donna Langley was promoted to chair of Universal Pictures to run the creative and content side of the movie business.

Ron Meyer, a former president of Creative Artists Agency Inc., was named vice chairman of NBCUniversal and separately reports to Burke. Meyer retains responsibility for a redevelopment of the Universal theme park and studios in California, the first phase of which is a $500 million Harry Potter attraction that breaks ground this month.

Comcast and Burke have steadily replaced NBCUniversal's old guard since taking control of the company, based at 30 Rock in New York but with significant staffing and operations in Hollywood.

Burke himself replaced the former head of NBCUniversal, Jeff Zucker, now an executive at CNN. Burke chose Mark Lazarus to replace the legendary Dick Ebersol as head of NBC Sports.

This year, Deborah Turness replaced Steve Capus at NBC News. Capus lost his luster over the disastrous canning of Ann Curry as cohost of NBC's Today show.

Curry's removal deepened a ratings slide at the hugely profitable morning show, a saga captured in Top of the Morning, a book by New York Times reporter Brian Stelter.

Also this month, Kimberly Harris replaced Rick Cotton as NBCUniversal's general counsel. Cotton will remain at NBCUniversal as senior counselor with responsibility for antipiracy and intellectual property.


UNIVERSAL PICTURES

4,000-film library.

2,000 employees worldwide, mostly in Hollywood and London.

Next movie release: Ron Howard's Rush on Sept. 20 in New York and Los Angeles, wide release Sept. 27.

$3.2 billion in box-office receipts in 2013 through Sept. 9.


Contact Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob. fernandez@phillynews.com.

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