Vanessa Morrison is soft-spoken and unassuming, but she's got a resolve that helps explain how she has repeatedly accomplished the improbable: becoming the first woman to head a studio animation division and, more recently, breaking the 2011 box-office curse with Carlos Saldanha's Rio, an idea she embraced in 2007 only a few days into the gig. With her dad the first black physics professor at her alma mater, UC Berkeley, she's also one of the few African-Americans to hold a top studio job. She started as an intern at Fox, became a creative executive in live action and was groomed for a top production job by studio chairs Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos. She gravitated to family movies, her favorite genre (her mother was an elementary schoolteacher), and Morrison, 42, has a family of her own now and is married to James Murchison. Her young son, nearly 4, recently watched his first movie in a theater: Rio. "He loved it," Morrison says, beaming. Lots of people are beaming about Rio's box-office performance, with the film on track to gross $400 million worldwide.
Will there be a Rio sequel?
I would be very open to and excited about a Rio sequel. But with sequels, it's always about finding an idea that is organic and feels as exciting as the first.
It's gutsy to embrace an original idea. How did Rio come about?
Carlos and I met in 2007, right after I got the job as president of Fox Animation. It was at the beginning of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, which he was directing. I have always loved Brazilian music and culture, and I love characters that start in a place of being caged and haven't experienced life to the fullest. We both sparked to his idea and decided we would make it our next movie with
Why do you think Rio has worked so well around the world?
There's a wonderful character journey that's elegant and quite beautiful. It also transports you to a different place. And the other thing that it offers is spectacle. I mean, there is nothing bigger and more enchanting than Carnivale. And the last thing was music.
Rio has a brainy female protagonist, unusual for a kids film. How did you decide on Anne Hathaway to voice the character of Jewel?
Carlos always envisioned this character being wild, beautiful and intelligent -- and the kind of bird that would shake Blu's foundation. Anne Hathaway was the first person we thought of. It was a list of one. We went to New York, and Carlos pitched her the story from beginning to end. We live in a modern world, and this movie feels very contemporary.
There aren't many women in top studio positions, not to mention many African-Americans. Do you feel you have a role to play because of that?
It's a complicated question, so it's a complicated answer. I feel the modern world is a diverse place in terms of gender, ethnicity and religion. I think it is important for diversity to be reflected in the workplace, so I'm proud of where I sit, and I think Fox should be proud of the fact that they have given props to women and have a good track record. I can't think of any other studio where there are female heads of all the production groups. I think it is important for me to be a conduit for other people. My group is a small group, but we're a diverse group.
What is it like in the days leading up to the opening of a film?
Well, you're always nervous, no matter whether it is Ice Age or Rio or any other movie. That goes without saying. With Rio, it was more that Carlos had made this from his heart. He had made this wonderful movie, and I think -- I mean, he can speak for himself -- but from my perspective, I think I just wanted people to really appreciate and enjoy what I knew for him had been a tremendous undertaking.
Did you love movies as a child? What were your favorites?
Yes, I knew I always wanted to make them. I loved The Red Balloon, and there also was a very obscure English version of Alice in Wonderland that I always loved. It had Peter Sellers in it, I think. I can vividly remember it. And I certainly did love animation as a kid.
Did you use your son as a sounding board on Rio?
He was too young. I mean, I was pregnant with him when we first started thinking about Rio. Now, it's come full circle.