Many years ago, a longtime friend started working at 20th Century Fox.
In one of his first meetings in his new job, he was introduced to Tom Sherak, who at the time was senior vice president of Fox Filmed Entertainment, where he worked in marketing and distribution.
“He’s like the mayor of Hollywood,” the friend said of the gregarious executive.
Nearly two decades later, Sherak more or less has become that person.
In appointing the veteran marketing and distribution executive to be his senior film advisor, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is asking Sherak to become the industry’s ambassador at a time when the movie business needs a lot of help.
“The entertainment industry generates more than 500,000 local jobs. Protecting and expanding it is an absolute necessity,” Garcetti said in making the announcement Thursday.
Sherak’s main responsibility will be keeping film production in Southern California.
Movies and television shows have been abandoning Los Angeles to other states and countries, many of which offer rebates, tax breaks and cheaper labor. Sherak will be asking state leaders for more California production incentives, which now total $100 million, a fraction of what other states such as New York and Louisiana now hand out.
In every interview about his new job, Sherak has joked that politics, borrowing a line from “Star Trek,” is his final frontier. But in many ways, his career up to now has been pointing to a job just like being Garcetti’s film czar.
While many careers in Hollywood are overtly political — jobs that demand making influential friends, lobbying others for money, managing duplicitous agents, managers and studio executives — Sherak’s past employment has made him particularly well-suited for Garcetti’s appointment.
Distribution, Sherak’s primary specialty, is the closest version of backroom deal making in Hollywood.
It’s the place where distributors (such as Sherak’s 20th Century Fox) and exhibitors (the likes of Regal and AMC) hammer out terms for revenue sharing, preferred auditoriums, trailer placement and accounts payable — an unofficial, you-scratch-my-back-and-I-will-scratch-yours world of trading favors that, when done well, benefits all of the parties involved.
And at Fox, one of Sherak’s primary obligations was making sure that George Lucas, whose “Star Wars” films were distributed by Fox, was very, very happy with the studio’s handling of his franchise, down to the design of the typeface used in “Star Wars” movie posters. He also had to hold director James Cameron’s hands during the release of “Aliens” and “The Abyss.” Making peace with Sen. Ted Cruz is probably easier.
Sherak’s duties as the past president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences weren’t that different. Yes, he was the public face of the academy during its Oscar broadcast, but the president’s job included putting out countless internal fires, trying to unite an often fractious membership and dealing with legitimate political problems, especially trying to diversify the academy’s overwhelming older, white, male roster.
As a studio executive whose Revolution Studios shot many of its features outside of California, Sherak knows the challenge that awaits him. Just asking Paramount or Warner Bros. to please keep their upcoming feature in Los Angeles won’t work.
It all comes down to money. And that’s where Hollywood and politics are one in the same.