The low-key Fox movie executive who shepherded the offbeat Oscar winners “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Juno” was put in line Thursday to become Rupert Murdoch’s No. 2, spearheading his News Corp. media empire in Hollywood and on Wall Street.
Peter Rice, a publicity-averse executive at Fox adept at turning quirky films into mainstream commercial hits, was tapped by Murdoch to run the Fox television network.
The appointment thrusts the British-raised Rice, not widely known outside Hollywood’s tight-knit independent film community and even something of a lone hand inside News Corp., into one of the most visible positions in Murdoch’s entertainment and newspaper conglomerate.
By overseeing the network of “American Idol” and “24" and the operation at the heart of Murdoch’s media machine, Rice becomes an odds-on favorite to eventually take the place of Peter Chernin, who is leaving as president and chief operating officer of News Corp. in June.
While Murdoch acts as News Corp.'s grand visionary and public voice, the No. 2’s job has been to run the company on a daily basis, tending to relations with temperamental stars, impatient investors and prying lawmakers.
The surprise appointment -- Rice has no experience as a television executive -- demonstrates the urgency with which Murdoch wants to reorganize and reshape Fox’s television and movie operations, even before Chernin officially departs.
Rice’s background in turning low-cost films, frequently centered around precocious teens in unsettling circumstances, into broad-appeal successes could help the youth-oriented Fox network develop a new generation of shows for the Twitter generation.
“This is probably the most challenging economic environment anybody in the television business has faced in 30 years,” said Larry Gerbrandt, principal of Media Valuation Partners. “I think [News Corp. is] looking for fresh approaches and a rethinking, because the way consumers are using the medium is changing rapidly.”
Rice, 42, succeeds Peter Liguori, who is stepping down as chairman of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting. Rice will report to Tony Vinciquerra, chairman of Fox Networks Group, who will continue to head the cable networks and the business aspects of Fox broadcasting and gain responsibility for the network’s programming.
As part of the reorganization, the co-chairmen of Fox Filmed Entertainment -- Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman -- will oversee film and television production.
The L.A. troika of Vinciquerra, Gianopulos and Rothman will assume Chernin’s responsibilities.
“Ours is a company that has always thrived on change,” Murdoch wrote in an e-mail to Fox employees announcing the restructuring.
Rice has risen swiftly at Fox, and his family, unlike many other News Corp. executives, has ties with Murdoch that date to the mogul’s years as a scrappy press baron on Fleet Street. Rice’s father knew Murdoch, and through that connection Rice obtained a summer internship at the movie studio in 1989.
As executive vice president of production at 20th Century Fox, Rice cultivated relationships with Baz Luhrmann, Danny Boyle and Bryan Singer, working on projects such as “Moulin Rouge,” “X-Men” and “The Beach.”
In January 2000, he was named president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, where he demonstrated an ability to pick offbeat films that resonated with the public, such as the comedies “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Little Miss Sunshine” and the acclaimed dramas “The Last King of Scotland” and “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Searchlight’s crowning success came with “Slumdog,” the story of an 18-year-old Mumbai orphan who strikes it rich on the Indian version of the TV quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The film picked up eight Academy Awards and has grossed $127 million at the domestic box office.
Rice’s success spurred speculation that he would one day take a more prominent role in the main Fox film studio. Instead, Rice is following a mirror image of Chernin’s cross-training through News Corp.
Chernin served as entertainment president of Fox broadcasting, launching such hits as “The Simpsons” and “Beverly Hills 90210" before becoming head of the Fox film studio. Rice’s promotion is vintage Murdoch: Reward proven managers with new responsibility, not flinching to throw them into untested situations.
“Peter Rice is one of our most talented creative executives,” Murdoch said in a statement. “As we increasingly look to apply unconventional approaches to our businesses, I’m convinced Peter Rice is the right person to transform our broadcast television business.”
Liguori has been credited with transforming News Corp.'s FX cable channel into what has been called the poor-man’s HBO, with such successful shows as “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and the post 9/11 firefighter drama “Rescue Me.” But he has not been able to repeat that success on the Fox network, where he has failed to produce a break-out hit.
Times staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this story.