If you thought you were up to your ears this holiday season, just think about the pressure on Stacey Snider, chairman of Universal Pictures. In a matter of weeks, she has overseen the releases of King Kong, Munich, Brokeback Mountain, and The Producers. She also had to deal with the loss of DreamWorks to Paramount Pictures (VIA). On the eve of the King Kong premiere, I spoke with Snider (who, like me, works for NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric).
King Kong cost $200 million to make and another $50 million for marketing. What kind of return do you need to feel like it worked?
I'm no different than other studio executives: We live for the opening weekend. We are addicted to that and have created a benchmark. But in this case, [King Kong] has to make hundreds of millions of dollars...and needs to perform really well over time.
Does it make sense to make these expensive films?
For this one...it makes sense. When you look back at Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory...you see that strong intellectual property, coupled with a state-of-the-art visual experience, [adds up to] a blockbuster. And blockbuster theatrical success tends to set up ancillary blockbuster success.
After nine months of negotiating, how did DreamWorks get away? Was there support from [GE CEO] Jeff Immelt?
You should ask him. My understanding was that there was ambivalence about the value of DreamWorks to GE. (GE)
Do you think GE will be in the movie business in five years?
I don't feel comfortable speculating about that. [GE] bought a studio not more than two years ago... and my sense is that it is committed to content. That means TV, movies, etc., as part of having a presence in a digital global marketplace.
Could you visualize an acquisition that might take Universal in a less conventional direction?
I don't want to speak for [NBC Universal CEO] Bob Wright or Jeff Immelt, but we are all keeping an eye on News Corp.'s (NWS) acquisition of MySpace.com. I think some movement toward having more visibility in the Internet space is a possibility.
Tell me how the movie business has changed in the past five years and what it will look like in the next five years.
When I first started, all the studios were independent. Sony (SNE) was owned by Coca-Cola (KO). The studios were run by movie people, for movie people, about movies. No one said things like content or product or brand. We made Sleepless in Seattle for $25 million. [Now] everything is much more complicated, high-risk, high-visibility. The studios are owned by big companies. Not just Universal. Paramount, Sony, and Warner Bros. -- and all are subject to a different scrutiny. We are a drop in the bucket for GE's earnings, but we can embarrass them or make them proud with one release. So it's a lot more pressure.
Moviegoing has been down since 2002. Is it the explosion of DVDs, or are the movies just not good enough?
The choices were not as compelling this year as they have been. It's a creative business. You can't just churn these things out. And we have trained the consumer to know that in a couple of months, you can catch it on DVD.
How about the video iPod? Does it help or hurt your business?
If we can implore the technology companies to institute meaningful digital-rights management -- you can buy 1 and make 2 copies but not buy 1 and make 10 -- it's great for our business.
You have worked with some major people in entertainment. Lots of egos.
I started with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, then Peter Guber and Jon Peters, Jean-Marie Messier, Barry Diller...and the truth is you learn from all of them and you are honing your skills and borrowing from them and becoming your own person in the process. It's been a good ride. When I face tough times, I can look back at two truths: that I survived and learned from all of those guys and that I'm a mother. If you do either reasonably well, you can do anything.
Maria Bartiromo is the host of CNBC's Closing Bell