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David Poland

By David Poland

When The Boss Gets Fired: Fox Edition

Tom Rothman was fired at Fox on September 12, 2012. He was co-chief of Fox’s film division with Jim Gianopulos, who was pushed upstairs twelve days ago. Tom was the driving creative force of the duo. Jim G. brought happier relationships, overall, an expertise in international markets, and no small amount of skill as an executive. But it was the norm to hear conversations, albeit rarely, about “Jim’s movie,” when the duo were working together. Mostly, Fox films were seen as Tom’s movies.

When Stacey Snider was hired in November 2014, it was clearly a choice to bring in another creative powerhouse to, again, balance Jim G (as he is known), but without some of the difficulties of Rothman, who did great things for Fox, but burned a lot of bridges. The 20 months of waiting for her ascension have been unpleasant, as the studio, known as a place with major internal political conflicts saw many fiefdoms defended and fortified against a stronger creative hand than Jim G’s. Snider, who is a great politician, now has the job ahead of bringing peace back to Fox. Unlike Rothman after landing at Fox, there is not expected to be series of bodies left on the side of the road. But time will tell. Snider is one to make room for others to have a lot of rope when they have earned it, so I suspect she will heal more than heel.

Fox has released 60 films since Tom Rothman’s exit. 24 of those were $100m (or better) domestic hits. 8 of those were from the Rothman era. Two of the eight were from the DWA relationship, so they are really outside of the control of the studio.

I would set The Other Woman as the first major release of the Gianopulos era and X-Men: Days of Future Past as the first big movie, released May and June 2014.

There are Rothman fingerprints on many of the Gianopulos hits… which is just circumstance, not an accusation. And really, it’s a double-edged sword. Days of Future Past was the most expensive non-Cameron movie ever at Fox (and remember, Fox hedged financially on both Titanic and Avatar). The film was developed and announced under Rothman with Matthew Vaughn as director. Vaughn left around the same time as Rothman. Jim G brought Bryan Singer, who had a massive falling out with Rothman when he left X-Men for Superman years earlier, back to the X-Men franchise and delivered both the biggest-grossing and highest-priced X-Men film.

Rothman’s scent is also on the deal for Kingsman, which Vaughn sold to Fox. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a sequel to a Rothman re-launch of the franchise. Three of Jim G’s 16 $100m+ domestic grossers were DreamWorks Animation… which came to Fox under Rothman/Gianopulos. Blue Sky, which added Peanuts, a Rothman project. Night At The Museum: Secret of the Tomb was a sequel to a Rothman film.

Don’t get me wrong. Gianopulos had to be the front man for some Rothman bombs, too. A Good Day To Die Hard did okay, but underperformed. The Internship, The Counselor, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

What turned my attention to Gianopulos and a notion that the reason for his exit/reassignment was no mystery at all was Independence Day: Resurgence.

The problem with ID:4-2, aside from the quality of the film (which never is an excuse for a bad opening, aside from not giving Marketing anything to work with) was startlingly familiar. It had no special draw. And by that I mean, a movie star who gets ticket buyers excited in a specific role or a great visual event or an idea that is intriguing and special… something… anything.

What other big Fox films under Gianopulos have suffered this problem?

X-Men: Apocalypse. Somehow, the brain trust decided that the big step of Days of Future Past secured a new place for this franchise. So the whole film was built around Mystique, a definitively supporting character, who happened to be played by the current Biggest Movie Star In The World, Jennifer Lawrence. Pay her. Don’t pay any of the more expensive talent that had been in so many other X-films. Put all the money on the screen.

But they forgot something. DoFP was the kitchen sink of X-Men events… pretty much every beloved actor in every beloved role was there. And the biggest effects sequences ever.

Even with all that, the film grossed just under $750m worldwide. That’s a $300m jump for the franchise… but still not as big as Deadpool, which is not one of Marvel’s crown jewels.

The uninspired Apocalypse choice brought the franchise right back to where it was before Future Past.

On another front, Eddie The EagleJoy... Victor Frankenstein… all relatively cheap, but misses nonetheless. Flipside is Kung Fu Panda 3 and The Revenant, but both are from companies with output deals at Fox and are not, primarily, Fox-owned.

No one can take The Martian away from Gianopulos. Big, terrific hit. Awards strategy was a bit of a disaster and Ridley’s relationship with Fox was long with Rothman… but a big hit… yay.

But then we’re back in last summer.

What happened to Fantastic Four? Lots of things. But a huge one was that Gianopulos greenlit a key movie for Fox with no established movie stars (not even a minor role, like Jessica Alba) and a filmmaker that didn’t want to make a giant action adventure film.

Paper Towns? This was a big movie because of the smash hit event that was The Fault In Our Stars. Shailene Woodley had an image and a following. Neither Nat Wolff or Cara Delevingne had the same. Obviously, the success of the first John Green/Neustadter + Weber project meant that Elizabeth Gabler had the freedom to reach for new/young/hip/rising… but the buck stops with the boss.

How do you get people excited about a Poltergeist without Spielberg being involved? I love Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt. But they’ve never opened anything.

I also love Christian Bale, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Joel Edgerton… but outside of very specific roles… not legit big studio openers… certainly not in beigeface.

The one Fox release that really pushes against this trend – even with Sam Jackson in support – is Kingsmen: The Secret Service, which blew up worldwide (relatively… $414m ww) with Taron Egerton as the lead. And bless this movie. Again… Matthew Vaughn became a Fox guy via Rothman (and didn’t direct a movie there the first time they danced because of Rothman)… but give Gianopulos his due.

That said… I see a consistent issue with Gianopulos’ choices.

With Rothman, the complaint was always that he would ride you like a thorned cowboy from hell on budget and on marketable elements. Many filmmakers felt abused by his fingers felt tightly around every film. There were lots of mediocre numbers, but numbers big enough to find black ink. And of course, he was in charge for the DVD rise and fall… but oh, what a rise it was. Rothman delivered 16 years of black ink to Rupert Murdoch and some big wins (as well as losses) along the way.

Every studio chief has a mountainous career of highs and lows. And Gianopulos was no different in that regard.

But has he ever really had a voice as a studio chief… in terms of the films his company made and released?

I would argue that these big films made without big stars and a lack of a big hook isn’t Gianopulos’ voice, but that he worked – perhaps because it reflects Murdoch’s expectations – the Rothman idea of a studio, but a “kinder, gentler” version. Unfortunately, that became the worst of both worlds, as would seem inevitable.

Why has Stacey Snider, who has a clear voice as a studio chief and is a much more natural fit in that job, been left sitting on the bench (relatively) for 18 months, getting smacked endlessly by the buzzards? Kingsmen in March 2015… Spy in June 2015… The Martian in Oct 2015… The Revenant in December 2015… Deadpool in February 2016… four months later… nothing but nyet.

So why was Jim Gianopulos pushed out before Independence Day: Resurgence opened? Because a blind monkey with its nose stuffed and a ball gag in its mouth could tell this was one rotten banana from a quarter mile away. You don’t want to humiliate a guy who has served the company well and honorably for a long time.

There is no where else to potentially regain strength until Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children at the end of September… and who knows whether that is a big hit waiting to happen? (And no, an Ice Age hit doesn’t count.)

They have a thoroughbred in the stable. They know that Jim G. on his own was not going to be the future. Pull the Band-Aid.

One last note… there was a Hollywood Reporter piece about studios committing suicide every decade that was a silly as it was reckless. This is not the damned swans returning to Capistrano.

Every studio has a very different story of struggle. Universal, which has been the least stable studio in terms of ownership and top film-side leadership since Stacey Snider left is solid right now. So is Disney, obviously. Fox, which pivoted away from Bill Mechanic for unclear reasons when they gave the gold ring to Rothman, sent Rothman packing and someone other than Gianopulos was an inevitability from the day they did it. Amy Pascal had some great years for Columbia, but had been stale, supported by some great talent relationships, for a while. Who is running the studio at Paramount, under Brad Grey? Come on… don’t look it up! (Marc Evans) And Warner Bros? Sigh… Harry Potter and Batman stabilized the place for a long while in the post Semel/Daly era.

But… Snider, Rothman, Alan Horn/Sean Bailey, the great survivor Donna Langley… not exactly unfamiliar leadership at 4 of the 6 majors. May Greg Silverman and Marc Evans be as much a part of the firmament some day.

There are micro trend stories all the time. But the effort to make everything into a macro trend story is a horrible failure of journalism. Just wanted to get that off my chest.

And on we go…

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9 Responses to “When The Boss Gets Fired: Fox Edition”

  1. Kane says:

    Great piece. A solid, niche story that truly shows inside chops. You have just a few copy editing things (‘Tom G’ at the top) that make the reader have to go back over prior sentences. This is not a critique, you are on deadline and it is a great piece – you published and it just needs a quick look over for a few stops in the flow. Great job and I will be back for more of your pieces. Kudos.

  2. Bob Burns says:

    yup. great piece. thank you.

    begs the question…. why does it take a studio head to ensure projects have a marketing hook? apparently it does, but that seems pretty dysfunctional

  3. Ryan says:

    Thanks Dave…

  4. Missy says:

    Great article, Dave. I have a couple of quibbles.

    You fault Fox for not doing more with stars. But studies by economists find that they do not influence box office much. Aside from DiCaprio and Denzel, they do not seem to power box office. A lot of movies with marquee names are not doing well. Think Cooper in Aloha, Bullock in Brand of Crisis, and so forth.

    Also, X-Men Apocalypse was a clear box office disappointment. But, the world wide number did jump a bit from past X-Men team installments. X3 made 459M WW. The international market has grown a lot since then, obviously. Still, that leaves the franchise slightly higher worldwide than it was before DOFP, not right where it was.

    Overall, though, this post does make shed a lot of light on a lack of inspiration that is clearly affecting performance at Fox.

  5. Del Shores says:

    Interesting thoughts but your writing skills leave a lot to be desired.

  6. Gustavo says:

    This ain’t a freaking high literature paper thesis, it’s a blog, dude of the shores.

  7. amblinman says:

    “Think Cooper in Aloha”

    Coming off American Sniper I thought Aloha would be the real test to see if Cooper is a star or not. He ain’t. The movie wasn’t good but I would have figured his next after AS would have been somewhat foolproof.

  8. YancySkancy says:

    Would have sworn I left a comment here praising the article and pointing out that the Capistrano reference should have been swallows, not swans.

  9. Hcat says:

    Cruise and Dicaprio have skewed what we consider movie star reliability. It’s unreasonable to expect the star to pull an audience EVERY SINGLE TIME, unless they never ever stray from a single persona like Sandler. Cooper had a remarkable run before Aloha, people aren’t movie stars because they never flop, they are movie stars because they come back. There is no better current example of this than Bullock, whose career has come back from the dead more times than Christopher Lee

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