Jeff Shell’s promotion to run Universal Pictures surprises Hollywood

As a teenager Jeff Shell was determined to earn a spot on the elite basketball team at West Los Angeles’ University High School.

Despite being considered a long shot, he spent hours in his backyard practicing his jump shot and working on his moves until he made the team.

“It was a pretty impressive feat,” said his younger brother, Dan Shell, a Fox Sports executive.


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Jeff Shell has again nabbed a high-profile assignment. This week NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke tapped him for the top job at Universal Pictures film studio.

The move startled Hollywood insiders because Shell, 48, has never worked in a film studio. Furthermore, Universal Pictures has been riding high this summer. Its animated “Despicable Me 2” has become Universal’s most profitable movie ever with more than $830 million in worldwide box-office sales, and “Fast and the Furious 6” has fetched more than $785 million.

But Shell, who spent the last two years running NBCUniversal’s international television businesses in London, was eager to return home. The executive and his wife, Laura, formerly an aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, recently bought a home in Beverly Hills.

Also, Burke wanted to find a spot where one of his trusted lieutenants could navigate the increasingly complex film business.

“You always kind of knew they had bigger and better things for him,” said Tim Leiweke, the former AEG chief executive who now runs Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in Toronto and is a close friend of Shell. “He’s wicked smart and he’s quicker on the curve than anyone I have ever met.”

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Burke decided that Shell — not Adam Fogelson, who until Monday was chairman of Universal Pictures — had a better grasp of foreign markets and the emerging technologies that are increasingly important to the film business, according to people familiar with Burke’s thinking.

Burke also saw Shell as more of a team player than Fogelson, which was exhibited by Shell’s interest in working closely with Ron Meyer, who has served as president of Universal Studios for 18 years and is now transitioning into a senior corporate role.

“[Shell] is a very good consensus builder,” Leiweke said. “He will get educated on the issues, then he will push [executives]. Hollywood will not intimidate him or overwhelm him.”

The installation of Shell at the film studio further solidifies Burke’s management team, which is largely made up of Comcast executives and former colleagues recruited from rival media companies.

The promotion of Shell, who has a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, also underscores how Hollywood no longer is ruled by strong-willed studio moguls and auteurs but rather business executives who are comfortable reading spreadsheets, negotiating deal points with digital services such as Netflix, and lobbying to ease film release restrictions in China.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you start seeing all kinds of new distribution deals,” said Adam Ware, a media consultant who has known Shell for two decades. “He recognizes it is about making money and figuring out ways for content to move through the system.”

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Although the move raised eyebrows in Hollywood because of Shell’s lack of film credits, his colleagues say that Shell will win over the film community.

“Creative people like him,” said Ted Harbert, chairman of NBC Broadcasting, who reported to Shell when they were both Comcast programming executives. “He’s passionate about all forms of content.”

In addition to Meyer, whose contract was extended through 2017, Shell will work closely with Donna Langley, a 12-year veteran elevated this week to chairman of Universal Pictures, the studio’s top creative executive. Shell and Langley will assume the responsibilities of Fogelson, a marketing executive who is leaving the company after 15 years.

In 2012, Universal’s film division generated nearly $5.2 billion in revenue, and $79 million in operating income. That was a dramatic improvement over the previous year, but filmed entertainment was still the least profitable of all of NBCUniversal’s businesses.

A lifelong Dodgers fan, Shell was a key member of the team at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox that bought the Dodgers from the O'Malley family in 1998. Shell also helped to build Fox’s regional sports networks and oversaw other cable channels such as National Geographic. In 2005, Shell left Los Angeles for Philadelphia to accept a job with Burke managing Comcast’s television networks, including its regional sports channels, the Golf Channel and E!

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When Comcast took over management of NBCUniversal two years ago, Shell was expected to get a prominent TV position. But at the time Burke had something of a “Jeff problem,” with three aggressive TV executives — Jeff Zucker, Jeff Gaspin and Shell — all angling for a major role. Zucker and Gaspin left the company, and Shell decamped to London.

Burke wanted to make room for two respected NBCUniversal cable television executives, Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick, who both remain within the company in senior roles. Shell accepted the London assignment even though he told friends that he worried that his profile within the company might shrink.

Despite any misgivings, Shell jumped in, and during his first year visited 41 countries to learn about distribution and regional differences.

The oldest of four siblings, Shell is the son of a retired cardiologist father and therapist mother. Competition was typical in such a high-achieving household, according to his brother Dan. That competitive edge went beyond school and sports to the Apple Pan, the famous Westside diner where Shell and his friends used to challenge each other to eat their way through the greasy spoon’s menu.