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Universal film chief Jeff Shell gets detained in Russia: ‘I did feel like I was in a ‘Jason Bourne’ movie’

Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

The chief of the studio behind the “Jason Bourne” movie thrillers, Universal Filmed Entertainment Chairman Jeff Shell, unwittingly found himself at the center of a real-life episode of international intrigue and high-stakes political drama.

Russian authorities refused to allow the NBCUniversal executive to enter the country late Tuesday, detaining him a locked room at a Moscow airport for more than three hours. The incident comes at a time when U.S. and Russian relations have become increasingly fragile and testy.

“It was surreal and strange, and I did feel like I was in a ‘Jason Bourne’ movie,” Shell said in a brief phone interview with the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday morning.

No explanation for his detention was provided to Shell, who also serves as the chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. That group oversees the U.S.-funded radio outlets Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, which are said to be unpopular with Russian leaders.

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The Los Angeles native, who was traveling on business, said he strongly suspects that the incident was related to his role with the BBG and not his position at NBCUniversal. The media company, owned by Comcast Corp., has an office and operations in Russia.

Shell said that after arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport at about 11:30 p.m., he was pulled out of an immigration processing line by a guard. He then was taken to a small interview room, where he was asked to sign a document, which was written in Russian.

Shell said he refused to sign the paper, even after being presented with a translation.

He was taken to a second room and held there, behind locked doors, for about three hours.

“They never asked me any questions, they never took my cellphone, so I had my cellphone for the whole time, and they never looked through my stuff,” Shell said from London.

“There was a guard outside, so presumably if I had banged on the door long enough, they would have gotten me something,” he said. “It was just very weird.”

The BBG brought the incident to the attention to U.S. diplomats in Russia.

“Shell was denied entry into the country despite having a valid passport and Russian visa, and subsequently detained in a locked room for several hours, before being accompanied by Russian security officials to board a flight to Amsterdam,” the BBG said Wednesday in a statement.

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Before taking over the Universal movie studio nearly three years ago, Shell served as head of NBCUniversal’s international operations and was based in London. He is a longtime Comcast employee.

Eventually, he said, Russian authorities escorted him to a flight bound for Amsterdam, giving his passport to the pilots of the jet.

“The worst part was getting walked down to the plane by the guard,” Shell said. “That was so embarrassing as I had to fly for three hours with all of these people who thought I might have been a terrorist or something.”

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When he arrived in Amsterdam, he said, the pilots gave him his passport. The pilot told him that the Russian guard had instructed them not to return his documents until he was on Dutch soil.

“I got a call this morning from Matt Damon, and he asked me if I was all right,” Shell said. “And I told him: I really could use ‘Jason Bourne’ right now. It was all very weird.”

Shell first described his experience in an interview with the New York Times.

meg.james@latimes.com

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@MegJamesLAT

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UPDATES:

11:24 a.m.: This article has been updated with quotes from Jeff Shell.

This article was originally published at 10:26 a.m.

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