Honesty isn’t always fun, but in environments where it is a rare commodity honesty can provide entertainment like nothing else. Ronald Meyer is the head of Universal Studios. He’s a US Marine who co-founded the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in 1975 and became president of Universal in 1995. He has held that post ever since, through six regime changes. He’s doing something right, even when he does things wrong.

The question is, which of these things was wrong: making Land of the Lost, The Wolfman and Cowboys & Aliens, or publicly admitting that the movies were mistakes? While appearing at the Savannah Film Festival, Meyer talked with surprising candor about Universal’s recent fortunes and the state of the studio’s business today. The quotes in the headline are just the beginning.

Movieline saw Meyer speak at the SFF, and we can kick off with his general comments about what the movie business is:

[A critical hit is] great when it happens. But we did A Beautiful Mind, and I don’t know that we’d do A Beautiful Mind again. That’s the sad part. It’s great to win awards and make films that you’re proud of and make money, but your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do.

He couldn’t see how they could make money on another project from A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard, The Dark Tower. Of that canceled project (and another one, At the Mountains of Madness) Meyer said,

They’re both good projects, they just were more expensive than made sense for us to spend. If I thought that we could get a better return and everybody was willing to cut their gross, I wasn’t afraid of the price — I was just afraid of the return.

And now get ready. Here comes the real honesty. I’m going to throw out a series of quotes for you to digest and since we don’t often hear a studio head talking this way you should really take the time to savor these statements, even if you disagree with them:

We make a lot of shitty movies… Every one of them breaks my heart… We set out to make good ones. One of the worst movies we ever made was Wolfman.

Cowboys & Aliens wasn’t good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it, it wasn’t good enough. All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it.

Land of the Lost was just crap… I mean, there was no excuse for it. The best intentions all went wrong.

Scott Pilgrim, I think, was actually kind of a good movie. [Addressing a small section of the audience, cheering.] But none of you guys went! And you didn’t tell your friends to go! But, you know, it happens.

Cowboys & Aliens didn’t deserve better. Land of the Lost didn’t deserve better. Scott Pilgrim did deserve better, but it just didn’t capture enough of the imaginations of people, and it was one of those things where it didn’t cost a lot so it wasn’t a big loss. Cowboys & Aliens was a big loss, and Land of the Lost was a huge loss. We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we’re all guilty of it.

And of The Wolfman:

The script never got right… [the cast] was awful. The director was wrong. Benicio [del Toro] stunk. It all stunk.

I don’t even highlight these comments out of a sense of glee or schadenfreude. Making movies is a tricky, weird, difficult business, and making good movies sometimes seems like a sort of impossible science. With a project like The Wolfman, where no one involved seems to have been able to agree on what the movie should be, the chance of a good result was almost nil. Trying to make that movie wasn’t a mistake; moving forward with the project in that state was.

And keep in mind these are comments coming from one specific guy in a somewhat off the cuff situation. I don’t think he’s right about why Cowboys & Aliens was bad — that was a script deficiency, pure and simple. He also lumps Babe 2 in with the worst movies the studio made, saying “Wolfman and Babe 2 are two of the shittiest movies we put out,” before going on to (thankfully) praise United 93.

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