Put Fox at the head of the line
NOTHING tells you more about how 20th Century Fox approaches the movie business than the way the studio handled “Borat.” Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy was one of the year’s most profitable films -- it cost only $18 million to make, but it’s already grossed more than $225 million worldwide. With a relatively unknown British comic in the lead and a TV hand as its director, the film had no profit participants -- except for Fox.
But when Cohen’s next project -- based on his “Bruno” character -- went on the auction block a week before the release of “Borat,” Fox shrugged and let its new comedy star walk. After a bidding war, Universal landed Bruno, paying $42 million for the film. For Fox, the deal was way too rich, since it would cost more than twice what “Borat” did, but the studio would get only U.S. rights while giving away a piece of the back end to Cohen. As a Fox insider succinctly put it: “Sometimes you have to say, ‘Are you ... kidding?’ ”
Almost any other studio would’ve fought to keep Cohen in its fold. But Fox isn’t like other studios. Unsentimental and intensely disciplined, its motto should be: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. In assessing the 2006 performance of Hollywood’s leading movie divisions for my annual Studio Report Card, Fox stands out. It is a model of a modern-day studio, run by tough, experienced executives who retain more control of the creative process than any of their peers.
Their financial discipline and marketing savvy has made the studio consistently profitable. But with the exception of Ridley Scott, the studio avoids working with prestigious final-cut directors and keeps top producers at arm’s length. The studio has two divisions, Fox Searchlight and Fox 2000, that make quality fare -- Searchlight did “Little Miss Sunshine” while 2000 contributed “The Devil Wears Prada” last year.
Big Fox is an assembly line, making low-risk movies with low-wattage filmmakers. (2006 offered such forgettable fare as “Grandma’s Boy,” “Date Movie,” “Just My Luck,” “John Tucker Must Die” and “The Marine.”) At other studios, sequels often end up being larded up with pricey actors and ego-fueled directors. Not at Fox, where with the exception of the “X-Men: The Last Stand,” every sequel in 2006 was made in a genre -- usually comedy or animation -- that was unlikely to involve costly or hard-to-control filmmakers.
Paramount spent a year spinning its wheels, run by an executive, Gail Berman, who everyone expected to be fired. (She finally was last week.) At Fox, everyone knows who’s running the show. Even though co-chairmen Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman give their division chiefs a lot of autonomy, they keep a firm hand on the tiller, with Rothman in particular involving himself in so many minute decisions that “X-Men” director Brett Ratner was amazed to discover last summer that Rothman was even approving the first press stills from the movie.
In an era where the only real growth in moviegoing is overseas, Fox has the best international distribution system, contributing to the huge numbers that films like “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” “Prada” and “X-Men” did overseas. It has also created an entire new division, Fox Atomic, designed to exploit the studio’s investment in MySpace, the Internet’s leading marketing platform. But good money does not go after bad. When Fox was unable to figure out how to sell Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” even though Judge had made the studio tons of money with “King of the Hill” and “Office Space,” Fox dumped it, with no trailers, TV spots or critic screenings.
On the other hand, when given a movie with a great hook, like “Night at the Museum,” no one does a better job of image sculpting and profit maximizing. At Fox, executives avoid conventional wisdom -- they’re always looking to be ahead of the curve. Lean and mean, Fox churns out hits, but rarely aspires to greatness, making it a studio very much in sync with our time.
What follows is my 2006 Studio Report Card with three grades: first for box-office performance, second for film quality, third for overall. (The quality grade doesn’t include films made by specialty divisions.)
20th Century Fox’s performance: A-plus. Quality: C. Overall: A-minus.
This is a studio that reflects the overcaffeinated personality of its top executive, Amy Pascal, the one studio chief today you could imagine flourishing in the 1970s. She wears her heart on her sleeve and falls in love with filmmakers, often at her peril. Pascal’s biggest failures were from directors she adored, notably Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” But thanks to improved studio performance overseas and shrewd slate deals with outside investors, Sony did a better job of protecting its losses -- the studio only put up roughly 25% of “The Holiday’s” costly $100-million-plus budget. The studio took a few risks on critic faves like “Stranger Than Fiction,” but it hit home runs with its mainstream fare, most notably “The Da Vinci Code,” “Casino Royale” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
Performance: A. Quality: B-minus. Overall: A-minus.
A risk-adverse studio made even more conservative by the departure of well-liked production chief Nina Jacobson, Disney began its transition from movie studio to family entertainment firm. It had gigantic hits with Pixar’s “Cars” and the second installment in its “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, but it offers little room for adventuresome filmmaking, the exceptions last year being Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” and Chris Nolan’s “The Prestige.” The studio had an especially rocky fall, with the collapse of “The Santa Clause” franchise and a rare dud from Jerry Bruckheimer (“Deja Vu”), inspiring worry that the studio will miss Oren Aviv’s marketing savvy now that he’s immersed in his new production duties.
Performance: B-plus. Quality: C-plus. Overall: B.
For all the media criticism of Berman, the studio somehow assembled a respectable slate, bolstered by a pair of winners from DreamWorks (“Over the Hedge” and “Dreamgirls”) and some modest successes like “Failure to Launch.” The classy “World Trade Center” also helped to ease the disappointment from a sluggish “Mission: Impossible 3" that made money only for Tom Cruise and prompted a rare public tantrum from Viacom chief Sumner Redstone. Berman’s demise was simple enough to predict -- in a town where access to material is everything, you’re in trouble if you don’t have people who feel they have a special relationship with you, at least special enough to make you their first call with a hot script.
Performance: C-plus. Quality: B-minus. Overall: B-minus.
A rare off year for this behemoth. Unlike Fox, Warners does co-productions on almost every picture, which protects its downside but creates a less vigilant atmosphere in which movie after movie costs more than it should, leading to costly stinkers like “Poseidon” and disappointments like “Blood Diamond.” The studio still had hits, notably with “Happy Feet” and “The Departed,” but it somehow managed to get a string of really bad movies from really talented directors, notably “The Fountain,” “Lady in the Water” and “The Good German.”
Performance: B-minus. Quality: C-plus. Overall: B-
A true independent, Lionsgate has turned its lack of deep pockets into a plus. Buoyed by stylish ad campaigns designed by marketing chief Tim Palen, the studio’s movies have tapped into a youth-culture fondness for bloodstained horror films, producing a string of grisly hits like “Saw 3" and “Hostel,” all drenched in gore, torture and violence. In addition, the studio had another hit from Tyler Perry with “Madea’s Reunion” and won a best picture Oscar in March with “Crash.”
Performance: B-plus. Quality: C. Overall: B-minus.
GE did better on its lightbulbs than it did on its investment here. The studio produced only one $100-million hit, “The Break Up,” and a few modest moneymakers, like “Inside Man,” while seeing its expensive summer tent-pole film, “Miami Vice,” go down in flames. The studio aimed higher than most of its rivals, with such critically lauded projects as “United 93" and “Children of Men.” But the new bosses -- Marc Shmuger and David Linde -- found themselves scrambling to fill the second half of the year with forgettable acquisitions, including “Black Dahlia,” “Idlewild” and “Man of the Year.”
Performance: C-minus. Quality: B-minus. Overall: C-plus.
Once as edgy and opportunistic as Lionsgate, New Line has lost its focus, somehow going an entire year without releasing a decent youth comedy, long the studio’s bread-and-butter genre. Production chief Toby Emmerich will get help from Richard Brener, a respected young executive who was recently promoted to studio chief operating officer. New energy and ideas are needed. The studio’s one modest hit was “Final Destination 3,” while the missed opportunities included everything from “Little Children,” a classy film that has been barely a blip on the Oscar radar, and a hapless “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” sequel (believe it or not, it’s a big step down from Jessica Biel to Jordana Brewster).
Performance: D. Quality: C-minus. Overall: D-plus.
Give studio chief Harry Sloan credit. Armed with a batch of pay-TV slots, he’s managed to stitch together a slate, keeping overhead low and having his outside producers pony up their films’ marketing expenses. Unfortunately, except for Joe Roth, who delivered “Rocky Balboa,” the outside producers -- notably the Weinstein Co. and Bauer Martinez -- mostly supplied a slew of clinkers. This may be a cagy way to rebuild a film library, but until it attracts better material, MGM is a long way from being a real studio.
Performance: D-plus. Quality: D-plus. Overall: D-plus.
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The Studio Report Card
Here’s the lineup and the studios’ overall marks, as graded by Patrick Goldstein.
20th Century Fox: A-minus
Warner Bros.: B-minus
New Line: D-plus