Nikki Rocco, the first female president of a theatrical distribution division at a major studio, will retire in December from Universal Pictures, where she has worked for nearly 50 years.
Rocco, who has been the head of U's domestic distribution since 1996, will retain a consulting position with the studio. While Universal has not yet named her successor, it is likely the studio will promote from within and tap Nicholas Carpou, who currently serves as co-president of distribution.
Jeff Shell named chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment and Donna Langley upped to Universal Pictures chair.
The longevity and staying power of Rocco's career as the first female head of distribution in a male-dominated area of the business makes her a trailblazer in the movie industry. Only a few women have taken on similar roles, including Warner Bros. Intl.'s Veronika Kwan Vandenberg and Paramount's Megan Colligan.
"Universal has been my home longer than any other home I've had, so it's hard to imagine not coming to the lot every day and not crunching numbers with my team every weekend," Rocco said. "I've been fortunate to work with some of the industry's best and most talented executives, filmmakers and exhibitors, and I'm very proud of what we've accomplished together.
"While this was a hard decision for me, I am excited to spend time with family and friends and travel," added Rocco, who also has a passion for golf, "but I'll still likely be up at 4 a.m. checking box office numbers."
Over the decades, Rocco has fostered close, long-lasting relationships with many of Hollywood's filmmaking heavyweights including Peter Jackson, Imagine's Brian Grazer and Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg.
"Always determined, fighting for the best theaters, the longest holdovers, she was squeezing every dollar out of every playdate," says Spielberg, noting that Rocco worked on every film he ever made at Universal, among which were "Jaws," "E.T.," "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List."
Spielberg credits Rocco with being a tough, no-nonsense pro, who is always in the filmmaker's corner.
"Because she knew her business, breaking glass ceilings before they coined that term, she could be honest," says Spielberg." She loved to deliver great news on a huge opening, but she also knew how to handle the disappointments with compassion and understanding."
Rocco, 64, held a number of positions on both coasts since joining the studio in 1967 as a paid intern in New York. She and her husband Joseph moved to Los Angeles in 1981. She then took on an administrative assistant role for Universal's general sales manager, before being promoted to VP of distribution in 1984. Ultimately, Rocco wound up heading the department shortly after former CAA partner Ron Meyer was brought on to run the studio in 1995.
"Nikki Rocco is one of the hardest working, most loyal people I've ever known, and I've cherished every moment we have worked together at this company," said Meyer, who was promoted last fall to vice chairman of NBCUniversal.
Langley gives Rocco kudos not just for being a "trailblazing female" but because "she's amazing at her job."
Read the full version of this story in the April 22 issue of Variety.