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.