Universal in shape before arrival of Barry Diller

By Gary Gentile The Associated Press
Tuesday December 18, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Can Barry Diller leave well enough alone? 

Diller has shown he can work media magic when it comes to turning around a troubled movie studio or starting a television network from scratch. He is credited with revitalizing ABC Television in the early 1970s, with turning around Paramount Pictures and with launching the Fox Television Network with such programs as “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted.” 

He is known as a demanding boss, a hands-on manager with a clear vision for the companies he leads. He has also mentored such successful executives as Michael Eisner, chairman and chief executive of The Walt Disney Co., and Jeffrey Katzenberg, a founding partner of DreamWorks SKG. 

But in taking the reins at the newly formed Vivendi Universal Entertainment, which includes Universal Studios, Diller’s biggest challenge may be to stay out of the way of a team of executives behind two year’s worth of blockbusters, including “The Mummy,” “American Pie,” and “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” 

“I don’t see Barry reading scripts,” said Jeff Logsdon, an analyst at the investment firm Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co. “Barry has seen enough in his years at Paramount and Fox to use his instincts and his intelligence to be a positive contributor.” 

Last week, word that Diller might head the studio as part of Vivendi Universal’s purchase of the entertainment assets of Diller’s USA Networks reportedly sent shivers across the Universal backlot. 

Universal Studios president and chief operating officer Ron Meyer and Universal Pictures chairman Stacey Snider have led the two-year comeback of the studio. 

Calls to Universal Monday were not immediately returned. 

“In the movie business there is no such thing as a company that is totally in distress or a company that is totally healthy,” Eisner said Monday. “You’re only as good as your last few pictures. So I think that company is very lucky to have him and I’m sure he will work well and deferentially with Ron and Stacey.” 

Vivendi executives and Diller himself took pains Monday to reassure any nervous Universal executives. 

In the flurry of press releases released as part of the announcement, Vivendi Universal issued a separate, two paragraph release confirming that Meyer is “the No. 2 person in the U.S. to Barry Diller” and that Snider and other executives will report to Meyer, not directly to Diller. 

In a separate release, Diller reassured the two. 

“The executives of Universal, and in particular Ron Meyer and Stacey Snider are first rate, doing first rate jobs and, while I’m sure I’ll have opinions, I intend to join their fine culture rather than imposing my own,” Diller said. 

Logsdon said Diller’s ability to manage finances and encourage creative talent will serve Universal well. 

“The current management does not have to worry about Barry,” Logsdon said. “If anything, this should be a plus in their thinking because of his ability and clout to be sure the organization is going to support the business plan.” 

Kevin Wendle, who worked for Diller for nearly five years at Fox, said Universal executives have nothing to fear. 

“Barry does not suffer fools easily, but he knows how to extract the best from the best people,” Wendle, chief executive officer at IFilm, said. “He will not be threatening to the people who are performing. They will find him to be a mentor and a friend.”