TheGrill: Ron Meyer on ‘Why You Don’t Have to Be an Asshole to Survive’ in Hollywood (Video)

The Vice Chairman of NBCUniversal sits down with producer Jason Blum for an intimate chat at TheWrap’s media leadership conference

NBCUniversal Vice Chairman Ron Meyer headlined the spotlight interview at TheGrill on Tuesday, where he sat down for an intimate chat with Jason Blum titled “When Does a Mogul Become a Legend?”

Meyer and Blum had a solid rapport, which comes as no surprise given that Universal and Blumhouse have a 10-year first-look production agreement.

Blum was especially impressed that in a town where executives trade jobs like musical chairs, Meyer has stayed at the same place for 20 years, prompting him to share his secret to longevity.

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While new ownership typically makes executives nervous, Universal’s revolving door of owners proved to be a blessing in disguise for Meyer.

“It sounds like a self-deprecating answer but in truth, I’ve had six owners in 20 years, and if I had one owner, I probably would not have survived,” Meyer said. “No owner has stayed more than 3 1/2 years, so each time they sold the company, in making the transition, they needed someone who had some sense of the place and kept renewing my contract.”

Asked which ownership transition was the most difficult, Meyer said Vivendi, which he called “a French water company that didn’t understand Hollywood or our business. It was difficult to explain to a French conglomerate what and why we are.”

But Meyer was understanding regarding the nature of his bosses.

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“You work for them. They’re your boss,” he said. “They can turn it into a parking lot if they want. The challenge is to maintain the culture and still give them what they want. It’s a very fine line. People would think we’ve had a lot of turnover but we really haven’t. There’s a strong continuity of management and they’ve done a great job in my opinion. My first two years were fatal years but I survived them, and the last 18 years we’ve had great success. New owners are entitled to make some changes but they’ve let us run it.”

A Different Kind of Studio Chief

Blum knows firsthand the value of a positive corporate culture, having worked with Universal on the “Purge” franchise and with sister company Focus Features on the “Insidious” and “Sinister” franchises. Blum gave Meyer credit for running Universal differently than most studios, adding that he’s nicer than most studio heads before asking Meyer how he maintains the corporate culture at Universal.

“You don’t have to be an asshole to survive in this business,” Meyer said. “The business has changed a lot. My counterparts at various studios are really good people but everyone has their own style. As far as corporate culture, it’s about people first. Making it a place people want to come to work. The right people will create the right culture. You want to make it a place people feel good about being a part of and proud to be a part of. With the right people and culture in place, business follows.”

“Many businesses in America don’t feel that way but Comcast has allowed us to operate as a company that way. Most companies value business and results over culture because they have shareholders to answer to and a lot of responsibilities. The bet is so big that companies can’t be owned by Jack Warner or Darryl Zanuck; they have to be owned by conglomerates. You have to have deep pockets.”

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As a founder of CAA, Meyer was asked whether he gets emotional during a big negotiation with the agency, as well as its competitors.

“A good deal has both sides feeling a little bit had, like they’ve both left something on the table,” said Meyer, who admitted that while CAA has great regard for him, he gets no special favors. “I have as close a relationship with other agencies as I do CAA.”

Older and now wiser, Meyer said he rarely gets upset when a deal doesn’t go his way. “I have a stupid temper so I do everything I can not to let it show, since I end up doing things I regret later. But sure, people piss me off sometimes.”

Retirement on the Horizon?

Those who think Meyer is less involved since moving upstairs to the position of Vice Chairman of NBCUniversal should think again.

Meyer confessed he’s just relieved when he drives on the lot and the security guard greets him with a friendly wave rather than a pat-down. He said, “When I became Vice Chairman, people were wishing me well on my retirement. I’ve got 3 1/2 years left on my contract! My job didn’t change that much, but it did give me broader responsibilities. I’m still involved with motion pictures and theme parks, but I’m also able to be involved with news people, including the morning people and the late-night people. It broadened the portfolio and I enjoy it.”

Still, every job has its drawbacks, and one of the hardest parts of Meyer’s job involves firing people. “You never get past it,” he said. “You say, ‘You’ll be better off,’ but that’s bullshit. You know they’re going to hate you forever and they should hate you forever. There’s just no good way to do it.”

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As Hollywood continues to adapt to changing business models and the influx of digital distribution, Meyer remains committed to the theatrical experience.

“There’s no better experience than going to the movies,” he said. “It’s cheaper than a rock concert, a play, a book, a sporting event. It is the greatest communal experience and it’s our responsibility as content providers to make it a good visual experience. Theater owners’ job is to make it a comfortable one, with good food and good seats. The theatrical experience will continue no matter what people say about its demise. It ain’t going any place.”

Asked how he remains current so he can continue being a tastemaker, the exec admitted that his tastes have changed over time.

“The truth is, it’s a young person’s business,” he said. “I’m certainly not anywhere close to being as current as young people, who have different tastes than I do. My taste has changed drastically. In many ways, it shocks me what a square-head I’ve become. I’ve become a tough critic. I just want to be entertained. I read a lot but I’m nowhere close to as current as the people making decisions on a daily basis. I trust their instincts over mine about what audiences’ tastes are today.”

‘Serve Coffee. Do Whatever It Takes’

Regarding advice for young people in Hollywood, Meyer said it depends on what they want to do. “I think being at an agency is the best overall training you can have. But if you don’t want to be an agent, it’s not a great job,” he said. “The first six months in a mailroom are an education. You learn and absorb a lot. The next two years are for the agency, so you’re doing a lot of different jobs but in many ways, you’ve already learned a lot of what you need to know.

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“So you get a good education and the rest of the time you’re fulfilling a function for that company,” he continued. “If you don’t want to be an agent, you might not get a reward other than an education. Studios don’t have good enough training programs. Sure, you can grow through the ranks and there are assistant jobs and readers and production assistants — it all depends what you want to do. If you want to be a producer, find a way to get into a production company. Serve coffee. Do whatever it takes. There are a lot of ways to get into this business.”

So how did Meyer get his big break? It happened shortly after he left the Marine Corps.

“I went to every agency in town and filled out what I thought were applications,” he said. “Back then, you had to sit home and hope the phone rang. Nobody accepted me, but every person I met, be they my barber, my gardener or a date’s parents, I’d ask, ‘Do you know anybody in the agency business?’”

He worked in a men’s clothing store for $35 a week at the time, “and my mother had a friend whose husband’s sister was married to Walter Kohner, who is Paul Kohner’s brother,” he said. “I had no education but they said, ‘Do you still want the job?’ Most people give up and it makes room for those of us who really want to get in.”

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“I was never the smartest person but I had certain fundamentals that really made the difference. Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups and it changed my life. I decided I’d treat people the way I wanted to be treated. You can be a chump once but not twice. You can’t always tell the truth but you have to tell the best truth you can and work as hard as you possibly can. No matter what job you have to do, ‘yes’ and ‘thank you’ are the two best words. I said “yes” to everything they wanted and thanked them for letting me do it.”

The Path to Success

Meyer also addressed the panel’s title and reflected on his legacy. “I’m not sure I’m a mogul and I’m certainly not a legend, but I’ve been around a long time,” he said. “There was a time when I was an agent at William Morris and my biggest client was Sally Struthers from ‘All in the Family.’ She was an important client to me but I really felt my career was over. I really thought I wanted to quit. I didn’t want to leave showbiz but I wanted to get out and do something else. I remember thinking that in order to succeed, all those layers of people in front of me had to quit, die or go to jail, so I had to wait.”

Meyer also looked back on his time as a young agent at CAA, which he said grew organically. “We had little offices and folding chairs and one assistant for the five of us. There wasn’t one day where it exploded, it just grew and grew and grew. As an agent, you’re never 100 percent secure because if you really care about who you’re representing, you know you have a serious responsibility. You’re dealing with their lives and elements come into play. Some clients leave for no reason and it’s not about being disloyal.”

Working with Tom Cruise

One client who stood out over the years was Tom Cruise.

“Tom was my most important client and he’s still a good friend of mine,” he said. “One day I got an urgent message from Tom but there were no emails or cell phones back then, and I was told not to call after 10:30 p.m. Now when Tom Cruise calls you and it’s urgent, he’s not calling to say, ‘Thanks for everything’ — he’s got a problem! So now you’re sleeping with one eye open all night. … That’s the life of an agent. You never cure your patient. You’re always in surgery. You can leave the room to eat something but you have to go back to the surgery.”

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Meyer clearly knows how lucky he’s been in Hollywood. “I feel very fortunate. I’m an old guy now, so this won’t last forever, but these are great gigs,” he said. “But you don’t own it. You’re an employee. They hire you to have success and look at you cross-eyed when you have failure. I’m amazed I survived those first few years, when I was in way over my head. I was like Cinderella, whose stepsisters looked at her after the slipper fit and said, ‘You? You’re the one?’ It took me a while to navigate that and figure out how to make it work. You have to make a lot of tough decisions, but I’m secure in my life. I’m still up at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning waiting to get the grosses. If they’re great then celebrate, and if they suck then we suck.”

Meyer spent the first half of his career as a seller before transitioning to the buyer position at Universal.

“I made huge mistakes,” he admitted. “You love your clients as an agent but once you become a buyer, you have to look at things differently. We created monsters at CAA, where we raised prices for people. It was a very tough transition. I made deals I shouldn’t have made and I was responsible for them. It was a huge learning experience for me. As an agent, you have anxiety 24/7 and in this job, I have a lot of pressure but very little anxiety. It’s much better, but there is a big difference.”

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