Marketers Become Producers: Why Studios Tapped Shmuger, Aviv

Disney, Universal Count on Execs' Audience Savvy to Boost Box-Office Take

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Hollywood, moving away from the if-you-build-it-they-will-come attitude, has elevated another top studio marketer into an expanded position with oversight on the kinds of movies that will be released.

Oren Aviv, who was the president of marketing at Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Pictures and more recently its chief creative officer, has been named president of production. In appointing Mr. Aviv, Disney dumped Production President Nina Jacobson, an eight-year Disney veteran with two years left on a recently signed three-year deal.

Mr. Aviv is the second high-profile marketing executive to rise in the studio ranks recently. Marc Shmuger, a longtime marketing executive at NBC Universal's Universal Pictures, was promoted to chairman this spring during a reorganization.

Steeped mostly in marketing, corporate partnerships and promotions, neither has had much hands-on production experience, though Mr. Aviv was an executive producer on the hit action-drama "National Treasure." He also originated the idea and had a story credit on the film.

Though Hollywood is having a solid year-box-office figures are up about 7% and attendance has increased about 4% from the previous year-studio executives are evaluating their slates, paring costs and paying more attention to what consumers want in their entertainment.

The thinking may be that former marketing executives will pay more attention to consumer tastes and trends and not just focus on artistic merit.

Responding to audiences

Universal landed in third place in market share last year, with just under $1 billion in box-office receipts, punctuated by the expensive but disappointing "King Kong" and the surprise summer hit "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." It's riding the recent hit "The Break-Up," and its next major release is Michael Mann's "Miami Vice."

Disney last year finished just behind Universal with $927.8 million at the box office. After a slow start, the studio had a strong second half with the action thriller "Flightplan" and the holiday blockbuster "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

By promoting executives with strong marketing backgrounds, the studios are acknowledging that they need to respond to audiences that are increasingly distracted by other entertainment options.

"These are very bright people who have an understanding of what makes movies work in the marketplace," said Tom Sherak, a partner with former Disney chief Joe Roth at Revolution Studios. "They're the right people in the right place at the right time."

Some industry veterans say production and marketing executives now work together more closely than ever and the two sides understand each other even if they come from seemingly opposite sides of the fence.

Still, marketing executives shouldn't be swayed just because they think a project is sellable, Mr. Sherak said.

"The business will always be about the idea and the written word," Mr. Sherak said. "Success will come because of passion."

But both executives have longstanding relationships with filmmakers, a crucial skill in production jobs. That fact has quelled some potential criticism about the business side taking a front seat to creativity.

Disney, on the heels of the year's most successful film, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," has said it will slim down its output from 18 movies a year to about a dozen live-action and animated movies under the Walt Disney and Touchstone banners. The studio is aiming for more four-quadrant films, which, like "Pirates," appeal across the broadest demographics. The majority of the releases, as many as 10, will be Disney branded. Those movies are most likely to spawn franchises that can fan out over Disney's various divisions, from theme parks to TV networks to music and home entertainment.

Touchstone, which produces mainly adult-targeted dramas and action movies, will play a much smaller role going forward.

One of Mr. Aviv's responsibilities will be sorting out which films are released under which label. ("Pirates," for example, was the first PG-13 movie under the Disney banner.) He declined to comment.

Disney executives also confirmed this week that they're cutting some 650 jobs worldwide, about 20% of the company's workforce. Home entertainment, distribution and international will be hardest hit.

Disney also shuffled other executives, naming Jim Gallagher president of Buena Vista Pictures Marketing. He had been senior VP-creative services. Mark Zoradi was named president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, overseeing worldwide distribution and marketing. Bob Chapek is now president of Buena Vista Worldwide Home Entertainment.

Marc Shmuger

Favors modestly budgeted movies rather than tentpoles.

Under his tenure, Universal launched hit franchises "American Pie," "The Bourne Identity," "Meet the Parents" and "The Fast and the Furious."

Oren Aviv

Has a flair for big marketing maneuvers.

Blasted the "Chronicles of Narnia" trailer in 30 countries simultaneously in 2005. Other campaigns included "The Incredibles," "Finding Nemo" and "Freaky Friday."
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