Fox's Jim Gianopulos on Working With Jeffrey Katzenberg: 'We're Used to Demanding' (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Every August, Jim Gianopulos, still tied to his parents' homeland, vacations on the Greek island of Antiparos. This summer was no different, but the studio chief had a busier vacation than usual. On Aug. 20, it was announced that Fox would be taking over from Paramount distribution for Jeffrey Katzenberg's DreamWorks Animation films. Then on Sept. 7, the studio made public an aggressive initiative to reinvigorate the home entertainment market by offering movies for purchase online for $15 three weeks before the DVD release. Gianopulos, who turned 60 in March, has shared the chairman-CEO role with Tom Rothman for 11 years -- a remarkably stable marriage by studio standards. Personable and diplomatic, Gianopulos is a favorite among such filmmakers as James Cameron, George Lucas, Michael Mann and Luc Besson. In a Sept. 4 interview with THR in his spacious office on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, he touched on everything from Hollywood's down summer box office to the fate of Avatar 2. A resident of Brentwood with his wife, Ann, and daughters, Alexa, 9, and Niki, 8 (his eldest, Mimi, 23, is an actress), Gianopulos restores antique cars as a hobby, a passion that led to his driving a restored Jaguar several years ago in the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile race along the back roads of Italy.
The Hollywood Reporter: With the addition of DreamWorks Animation titles, Fox has significantly increased its footprint in the family space. How did the deal come about?
Jim Gianopulos: Jeffrey and I got to know each other through Motion Picture and Television Fund a decade ago, when I became a board member. A friendship developed, and when it became apparent that DWA was leaving Paramount, it was a no-brainer for Tom and I to do everything possible to bring them here. The rest was the usual working through the needs of both sides.
THR: How were you able to outmaneuver Sony?
Gianopulos: I don't know what discussions took place there, but I do know that we made a hard push for it, and we were able to convince Jeffrey that we were the best home for him.
THR: Will the deal put a strain on Fox's marketing and publicity units, considering how exacting Katzenberg is? (There will be 12 DWA titles released over the next four years, the most ambitious animation slate in Hollywood history.)
Gianopulos: We're used to demanding. We've had some of the most demanding creative and business people in the industry working with us for decades, from James Cameron and Jon Landau at Lightstorm to George Lucas to Arnon Milchan's New Regency. We have the resources to keep the best and brightest people in the world working. It keeps us on our toes.
THR: What is the status of the second and third Avatars? Originally, you hoped to release Avatar 2 in 2014.
Gianopulos: We never really thought it was likely. Doing it right was more important than sticking to a fast schedule. Not only is Jim [Cameron] developing the stories for Avatar 2 and Avatar 3, he is developing the technology and visual imagery that will once again go beyond anything you've ever seen. He's deep in preproduction.
THR: Will Avatar 2 take place entirely underwater?
Gianopulos: It's not public what the subject is or where it takes place, other than Jim on the record saying it will expand beyond planet Pandora.
THR: Fox will have a major stake in the awards race this year with Ang Lee's Life of Pi. What made you think you could trust him with his first big-budget, 3D film?
Gianopulos: Because he's a masterful filmmaker, and it takes a master to make a film like this, with its narrative -- a boy stuck in a boat with a tiger -- and spiritual sensibility. For a long time, this was considered virtually impossible to make.
THR: You also are distributing Steven Spielberg's Lincoln -- another awards contender -- globally. Will it be tough selling an American historical epic overseas?
Gianopulos: It is based on American history, but I think Lincoln as a character is well known and understood all over the world. Steven Spielberg also is known all over the world, and Daniel Day-Lewis is, too. It's a film that will find an audience all over the world. It's just that good.
THR: Fox had a mixed summer: Ice Age: Continental Drift grossed north of $880 million worldwide, but Ben Stiller's The Watch fared poorly. What happened?
Gianopulos: There were unfortunate external events that haunted the film. There was the tragedy in Florida where Trayvon Martin was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer and then the Colorado shooting tragedy. Our movie [originally titled Neighborhood Watch] opened smack in the middle. It was badly timed and missed its mark. Ben is an incredible talent, and we've done phenomenal successes together and continue to do so. He's filming The Secret Life of Walter Mitty right now, and it looks amazing.
THR: The studio's rights to Marvel's Daredevil recently reverted to Marvel. Are you disappointed?
Gianopulos: Yes. The sand ran through the glass on that. We had great ideas on reimagining the character -- like the X-Men franchise with X-Men: First Class -- but weren't able to work it out.
THR: Movie attendance plummeted this summer to a 20-year low. Are you concerned?
Gianopulos: Every time we bemoan the end of theatergoing as we know it, an Avengers or Avatar comes up, and people get excited and go to the movies.
THR: Doesn't allowing consumers to buy a movie digitally before the DVD and Blu-ray release suggest you yourself believe the theatrical experience is waning?
Gianopulos: No. Our biggest challenge remains the "dark zone" -- the period between the average life of a film in theaters, which is about 3.5 weeks, and the DVD release, which is around four months. We need to develop offerings that don't leave audiences in the dark for so long. With almost 800 million broadband devices globally, we feel the medium's time has come. A number of online retailers have embraced the plan. And we're working with Apple to develop other ways people can enjoy ownership of movies.
THR: Last year, companies like Google killed legislation pushed by Hollywood to allow more authority to crack down on illegal downloading sites. Will Hollywood and Silicon Valley find a compromise?
Gianopulos: It's already happening. After the SOPA debacle, I think the creative community realized that we should have been more engaged with the tech industry. Hollywood didn't wake up one morning and say, "I have an idea: Let's destroy the Internet." I think what happened after SOPA went off the rails is that both sides started discussing their common interests in having a free and open Internet.
THR: Have you had conversations with Google people?
Gianopulos: I went up to Google headquarters two months ago and met with senior engineers to get an understanding of issues allowing Google to be Google while upholding its social obligation. We now have ISPs who understand the common interest of not allowing their legitimate businesses to be polluted by a lot of illegitimate conduct. So the business interest and the creative interest are merging.
THR: You are an active Democrat. What did you think of Clint Eastwood's RNC speech?
Gianopulos: I try to keep my business and personal life separate. I'm a great supporter of President Obama, but when it comes to business, we've had great support from both sides of the aisle.
IN THE OFFICE
Met Cute: Jim and Ann Gianopulos (in blue dress) at the Academy Awards in 2010, the year Fox's Avatar lost out to The Hurt Locker for best picture. "She's the ultimate Zen wife and the best person I know," he says. "We met at LAX 15 years ago when she did marketing at Turner Pictures and she was on the same flight. It's the only time that I spent most of a trip talking to a stranger."
Music To His Ears: The black Carlo Robelli guitar was used in Fox 2000's Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, released in 2005. The film, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, was a critical and commercial hit and earned Witherspoon the Oscar for best actress.
Biking For a Cause: On Sept. 8, Gianopulos participated in a 100-kilometer charity bike ride for Best Buddies, an organization founded by Anthony Shriver that helps kids with intellectual disabilities.