Fox's Emma Watts on 'X-Men' Success and Scandal, 'Gone Girl' Ending Change, Stacey Snider Rumors (Q&A)
The film studio's president of production recently took time out from her maternity leave to talk about Bryan Singer, "The Fantastic Four" reboot, "vagina" jokes and the possibility of getting involved with Oliver Stone's Edward Snowden biopic.
This story first appeared in the July 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
After years of watching rival studios dominate the summer months, 20th Century Fox is having a season to remember, thanks to X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Other Woman and The Fault in Our Stars (with July 11's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on deck). At the center of the revival is Emma Watts, whose job as president of production took on increased importance with the departure of hands-on former studio co-chairman Tom Rothman nearly two years ago. After Rothman left Jim Gianopulos solely in charge at Fox, Watts brought X-Men maestro Bryan Singer back to direct May's Days of Future Past, which has grossed nearly $700 million worldwide, a franchise best. She put the Apes sequel in the hands of Matt Reeves (Let Me In), helped convince David Fincher to take on Gone Girl (Oct. 3) and by year's end will have movies from Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings) and Shawn Levy (a third Night at the Museum).
The U.K.-born and Vancouver-raised Watts, 44, oversees a production group of about 30 employees and a slate of 10 to 12 movies a year. She got her start working with photographer Herb Ritts before joining Oliver Stone's production company, where she met her husband, producer Jonathan Krauss, with whom she has a young son and daughter, as well as a barely month-old girl. Watts recently took time out from her maternity leave to speak with THR about the Singer sex abuse scandal; whether Stacey Snider -- who could join Fox as Gianopulos' No. 2 -- would pose a threat and the possibility of getting involved with Stone's Edward Snowden biopic.
Fox is having a strong run at the box office. What has been most surprising for you?
God forbid, don't say that we're having a hot summer because that terrifies me. (Laughs.) It's always a relief when something works because you put so much into it, as do so many others, but the movie gods are fickle. I wouldn't call it a winning streak, but I will say the whole company has rallied and it's a great reflection of Jim's leadership and the overall strategy and slate we've put forth.
Days of Future Past has grossed $211 million more than the next biggest in the X-Men franchise. Why?
It was the management of the franchise. And a big part of it was getting Bryan [Singer] back [as director]. The debate about originality versus familiar titles is interesting. You can have original movies that feel derivative in their execution, and you can have franchise titles that feel solely original and aspirational in terms of the talent attached, the story, et cetera. So I think the reason for Days of Future Past's success is, it doesn't underestimate what the audience is wanting or capable of enjoying.
Was it tough when Singer had to bow out of the publicity push because of the lawsuit filed against him alleging sexual abuse?
It was really tough for him. Luckily, we had 18 mutants to get out there and sell the movie. But I think he did what had to be done.
Will he be back to direct X-Men: Apocalypse, set for release in May 2016, as planned?
Right now we are totally at the outlining phase. But nothing would make me happier than if it all worked out. It's always been the intention for him to do it.
Are you concerned there will be superhero burnout at some point?
Not so far. Certainly the audience seems to still be really enjoying it. We're making a big bet for 2015 with The Fantastic Four and director Josh Trank. To me, the key is the originality of the filmmakers and the choices they make. Josh is another really interesting example, who is using the vision he gave us in Chronicle to reinvent a franchise he's loved his whole life. It's not that you can't make original ideas -- you can, and we did it with Chronicle. The director is the key to not letting superhero movies go stale. That's the truth.
Will the Fantastic Four reboot have any of the same found-footage feel that Chronicle did?
It's Josh, so it can't not have that feel. That's his talent, that's what he does, and that's what excites him about it. It is a really interesting young cast [Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Kate Mara and Jamie Bell], and he is the magnet that's brought them all together.
Cameron Diaz's The Other Woman has grossed $180 million since April. Initially, it received an R rating. How did you get a PG-13 without having to make any cuts?
It was hilarious because I was nine months pregnant when I went to the appeals hearing with Cameron, so it was quite a visual to have me walking in. It was actually a really interesting debate. There's a double standard in terms of the kinds of things men can say in PG-13 movies. You put those same words in the mouths of women and it became far more terrifying. As soon as we articulated this and brought up examples, it was incredibly gratifying to see the MPAA came to the same conclusion. And Cameron was just brilliant at the hearing.
I've heard one joke they took issue with was "close your vagina."
You had all these other examples of PG-13 movies in which men would call it a "cookie jar," or this or that. The use of the actual word seemed far more terrifying than a pseudonym for it.
In January, Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn said the film's ending is different from the book. Are you worried about fan reaction?
No, not at all. Audiences are going to be incredibly gratified. Fincher just crushed it. [Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay,] had more freedom than anyone else would have in terms of what to keep and what to lose because she created it all. So I think she has this unique ability to be both editor of her work and creator at the same moment. And David was really in it with her from the get-go.
Earlier this year, some religious leaders attacked the liberties Darren Aronofsky took with Noah, and Paramount went to great lengths to say it wasn't a literal Bible adaptation. Will you do the same with Exodus?
I think it's first and foremost a spectacle movie, with mass appeal and phenomenal performances. We always joke internally that Ridley should teach a master class. He has five cameras going at the same time, he knows exactly how he's going to edit the scene as he's shooting it, he is not daunted by extras and crowds. It's pretty amazing.
But do you think the faith-based audience will embrace it?
I think they are going to be incredibly pleased with it.
You also are rolling the dice on director Matthew Vaughn's upcoming genre spy thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service. Why?
We had a great experience with him on X-Men: First Class, and he did amazing things for the franchise. He was supposed to direct Days of Future Past but became obsessed with Secret Service, and I was determined to make sure he stays at Fox because he's an immense talent.
Rothman is known for being intimately involved with production. How has your job changed since his exit?
It got harder. The transition was tricky. He is a good friend, and I learned a lot from him. No one works harder than he does, so after the dust settled, I just put my head down and did the work. I think the slate is a reflection of the whole team doing just that and saying, "OK, that happened -- let's make the best possible choices and move forward." I had two bosses in Tom and Jim [Gianopulos]. So while I miss Tom, I am incredibly lucky to have the continuity and history and the shorthand I have with Jim. So it was both new and not new at the same time.
Do you have a relationship with DreamWorks' Stacey Snider? What do you know about her possibly coming to Fox as Jim's No. 2?
Yes, I know her, and am a big fan. If everyone decides that it's the right thing, I think it would be great to have access to her immense experience and relationships. I'm all for it.
How much are you involved with the three Avatar sequels that James Cameron is shooting?
I was the executive on the first one, and I get to be on these, too. Jim is incredibly close to James Cameron and [producer] Jon Landau, but certainly I get to work on them, and it's truly a gift.
Speaking of close relationships, Oliver Stone has just announced his Edward Snowden film. Is there a chance that Fox might distribute it?
No one is a bigger fan, and I owe him a great deal. I haven't heard his plans yet, but I'm sure I will soon. (Laughs.)
Between having a new baby and your work, how do you manage stress?
I run, I mountain bike, I do yoga and swim. And honestly, I think the thing about a family is that they demand that your work disappear. You can't be on your BlackBerry or on your iPhone having a real conversation with your children. They won't tolerate it. Having kids makes me better at my job because I'm more engaged emotionally. And I think the danger of these jobs, when you are putting out 10 movies a year, is becoming burned out and jaded, and to stop connecting emotionally. That's when the work suffers. Work and family feed each other in a way that I get a tremendous joy from.
You are technically on maternity leave right now. Are you able to disengage from work?
That's a hard one. I would say my maternity leaves with my other two kids were different. I have a different job now, although I feel very lucky to work at a company where they have allowed me to be human.