Fox's Film Studio Politics at Play in Top Executive Shake-up

STEVE SCHOFIELD
Stacey Snider

Stacey Snider takes the top job as 21st Century Fox leaders James and Lachlan Murdoch usher in a new era at the studio with a succession plan announced to quash chatter about Snider's lack of a defined role

Stacey Snider became the first woman to head two major motion picture studios on Thursday, when 20th Century Fox announced she will succeed Jim Gianopulos as the company’s top film executive. Snider, 55, served as head of Universal Pictures from 1999 to 2006 and then spent eight years running DreamWorks Studios with Steven Spielberg before Rupert Murdoch personally wooed her to join Fox as co-chairman just 18 months ago.

In the aftermath of the reveal, several top Hollywood insiders expressed to The Hollywood Reporter both immediate surprise at Snider's elevation (especially after questions swirled about her role at the studio) and then a sense that the transition may have been set in motion back when Murdoch first brought Snider to the studio in 2014. Now the question is whether there will be fallout and possibly more executive churn at Fox, which has cut about 400 employees in the film and TV divisions this year in a cost-cutting effort under new 21st Century Fox leaders James and Lachlan Murdoch.  

From the moment Snider arrived at Fox, questions arose as to where she ultimately would fit in the studio’s power structure. For a dozen years, Gianopulos, 64, had run the studio alongside Tom Rothman, and after Rothman’s exit in 2012, Rupert Murdoch reportedly urged him to bring in a strong second-in-command. But Gianopulos actually had a strong executive bench already in place, headed by production president Emma Watts, whose unit was turning out hits like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: Days of Future Past. While Snider brought with her strong talent relations and a proven ability to manage a studio, there were those at the Century City-based studio who wondered aloud at the time, “Why do we need her?.”

In recent months, that question only became more persistent. Given the tight rapport between Gianopulos and Watts, as well as the output of a third executive, Elizabeth Gabler of Fox 2000 (The Fault in Our Stars) and the specialty division Fox Searchlight (Birdman), run by Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley, it was unclear to many what role Snider had carved out for herself. While some in the industry criticize Snider for seemingly not having accomplished much in her new job, others suggest she was smartly biding her time, with one explaining, “She cunningly didn’t put together any projects and thus doesn’t have any bombs to tarnish her.”

But the fact that that sort of speculation was becoming more widespread may be exactly what provoked Lachlan and James Murdoch, who are in the process of exerting their own control over the studio, to make a move. Snider is said to have been upset at the mounting rumors about her role and, backed by quiet yet influential mogul David Geffen, pushed to accelerate the promotion. (Fox declined to make its executives available for comment on Thursday beyond statements in the press release.)

In terms of Fox’s standing at the box office, there was no immediate need to disrupt what has been a period of relative success and stability. Fox currently ranks second in domestic market share, behind only the super-dominant Disney. Earlier this year, it pulled off a coup when Deadpool surprised the industry by grossing $775.7 million worldwide, and while X-Men: Apocalypse, which has taken in $483.6 million to date, is lagging behind 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which ultimately collected $748 million, raising some questions about how that franchise is being developed, the studio has potential hits like Independence Day: Resurgence and Ice Age: Collision Course waiting in the wings.

The Murdochs may not have been planning to formally announce the transition for some months, since Gianopulos’ current contract runs through June 30, 2017. The timing of their decision, more than its outcome, is what proved most surprising to the industry observers polled by THR. But the public perception that Snider was adrift at Fox, the attendant rumblings in the press and Snider's desire to squash them may have forced their hand.

As the baton was passed, the studio said Gianopulos will remain at his current post for a year before then taking on what it described as an unspecified “new strategic role” at the studio. But many are now wondering if he will remain that long — although the studio could find it needs to keep him around in a senior advisory role since he’s a close confidant of James Cameron, who has embarked on four pricey Avatar sequels, the first of which he is scheduled to deliver in 2018. For his part, the well-respected Gianopulos, who may have only learned of the Murdochs’ intentions during the course of the past week, put a positive spin on the day’s events, saying, “Stacey has great creative experience and she and the Fox team will have lots of success together.”

However long it takes for what the Murdoch brothers called the “succession plan” to be formally completed, the shift effectively has taken place. “In less than an hour, Stacey went from having no power to having all the power,” one source says. Others suggest Gianopulos misread the situation. And while one filmmaker calls the news “baffling” and “disappointing,” another agent, though professing shock, says at least there will be more clarity now about which execs to approach about future projects.

The dramatic turn of events inevitably is going to raise questions about Watts’ future, having been passed over for the top job after delivering a string of hits. But a Fox insider counters, James and Lachlan Murdoch “have full confidence in Emma." That does not necessarily mean Snider and Watts will be able to sort out a working relationship. "I'm not going to say there hasn't been tension" between Snider and the Gianopulos-Watts team, this person says. Snider took her job "when the company was doing well. That's not an easy place to come into. These things are never easy."

Observes a Snider ally, “I think many people at Fox underestimated her. And they should have been nicer to her.” But another insider familiar with the situation adds, “This will be good for her actually. Her strength is rallying people behind a common esprit de corps, and now she has the wherewithal to communicate her own ideas and vision. She hasn’t had it easy. I think she’d admit she also has made mistakes, but I think she will surprise people and really build that spirit there.”

If Snider does avoid wholesale executive turnover as she asserts her rule, the general consensus is that Fox can stay the course. Notes one observer, “Warners is unstable, Paramount is unstable, Fox is not unstable. There will be some uncertainty, but this team has seen a lot of success.”

Pamela McClintock, Kim Masters and Borys Kit contributed to this report.

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