Fox's Regime Change: Why Tom Rothman Is Out, and What's Next
Rupert Murdoch dismisses a top exec amid morale issues as Jim Gianopulos sets his plan — and how Jeffrey Katzenberg fits in.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Several months ago, Rupert Murdoch delivered a warning to Tom Rothman, co-chairman and CEO of the Fox film studio: Rothman's autocratic behavior was affecting morale. "The thing about Rupert," says one executive who has worked with the mogul, "is that once he's down on you, you're kind of dead." On Sept. 14, News Corp. announced Rothman, 57, will leave the studio Jan. 1.
Complaints about Rothman's style were nothing new, but he and co-chairman Jim Gianopulos had presided at the studio since 2001 without a single quarterly loss and had released such Oscar-winning hits as Moulin Rouge. Usually financial results speak louder than other actions in Hollywood. But for the past couple of years, Fox has performed erratically. Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the X-Men franchise were big successes, but the studio passed on Seth MacFarlane's Ted while missing this summer with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the Ben Stiller comedy The Watch. And Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus fell short of expectations.
Now Gianopulos, 60, is left to convey a sense of stability -- with just a bit more filmmaker friendliness -- as the town wonders what will come next at the studio that has a reputation for micromanaging and grinding on budgets. Industry veterans with ties to Fox expect Gianopulos to take a pause then hire a creative executive to oversee movies. While there's considerable speculation on what the future holds for production president Emma Watts, as well as marketing co-presidents Oren Aviv and Tony Sella, for now the signals are that Gianopulos will see what his team can do without Rothman's relentless input.
"Jim comes at it as a good manager does -- be sure you have the right person in the job, and empower them and rely on their instincts," says Hutch Parker, a top film executive at Fox from 1998 to 2008 and who is currently producing Wolverine. "He's a believer. He wants to back filmmakers and back projects."
Indeed, Gianopulos supported both Titanic and Avatar. "Jim G. has always had an irrepressible enthusiasm for film as a grand entertainment, a visual spectacle to be shared," says James Cameron's production partner Jon Landau. "So many studio execs have lost sight of that. Neither Titanic nor Avatar would have gotten made without his support." Adds Cameron, "I go into every meeting with him knowing that there is no problem the two of us cannot solve together."
The rap on Gianopulos is that his strengths have been not on the creative side but in international distribution and dealing with the digital revolution. So some top agents and executives believe that eventually Murdoch and News Corp. COO Chase Carey will elevate Peter Rice, named chairman and chief executive of Fox Networks Group in June, to a broader job overseeing film and television. The role would be similar to the position occupied by Peter Chernin before he became COO of parent company News Corp. (he left in 2009 to become a producer). Rice has extensive experience on Fox's film side and is perceived as a Murdoch favorite.
And yet another player now lurks in the Fox universe. In August, Gianopulos brokered a distribution deal with Jeffrey Katzenberg's DreamWorks Animation. It's no secret Katzenberg has long hoped to sell his company. "Jeffrey does not want a distribution deal," says one prominent executive. "He needs somebody to buy him." And if he could engineer a deal, some also speculate Katzenberg might be in quest of a high-level job at Fox.
News Corp. insiders say the company is not likely to buy DWA anytime soon. But observers say Katzenberg and his longtime associate David Geffen have been heavily courting Wendi Deng Murdoch, who joined the two aboard Geffen's yacht in May after the Cannes Film Festival. Whether the two are still pursuing a sale to Fox or a broader corporate role for Katzenberg continues to be a matter for speculation.