The New Power of "Yes": Who Actually Has Greenlight Authority at the Movie Studios

Illustration by: Kevin Davis

Paramount re-evaluates Brad Grey's influence as industry upheavals alter internal politics all over town and committees become the norm. Gripes one producer, "You used to know whom to appeal to — and now you're not sure."

In the days after new Viacom CEO Bob Bakish said Feb. 9 he wanted more collaboration across the company's divisions, he and Viacom vice chair Shari Redstone have been reassessing the studio's greenlight process, the definitive marker for who holds power in Hollywood. "Shari is trying to put in place a greenlight committee," says one major producer. "She's working with her team to change the dynamic, and they're having conversations about how to do that without violating [Paramount chairman and CEO] Brad Grey's contract."

Grey's ironclad deal might make this all but impossible, effectively leaving it up to him if he agrees to put a broader group in place. But the effort highlights the fact that Grey remains among the last studio chiefs to hold sole greenlight authority, even with movies whose budgets reach into nine figures. That increasingly is becoming an outmoded way of doing business in an industry where decision-making has become ever more diffuse. "I don't know that anyone has that power anymore; everyone weighs in," says producer Mark Johnson, who recently wrapped Paramount's Downsizing, starring Matt Damon.

Seventeen years after New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye committed a then-massive $300 million to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the days of such autonomy largely are over. Greenlight committees have become the norm, sometimes involving a handful of executives, sometimes more than a dozen. And with top executive changes at Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Lionsgate in the past year, the question of who actually can give producers a coveted "yes" has become more of a mystery, causing widespread confusion and frustration. "You used to know who to appeal to at the studios," adds Johnson, "and now you're not sure."

Such complex decision-making reflects an industry where the bets are getting fewer but bigger, making studio owners reluctant to vest authority in one person's hands. It also comes as production has become part of an ever-larger equation in which marketing, merchandising, licensing and often theme parks all play roles.

In addition, embracing sole greenlight power can hurt when an executive is tied to a large-scale flop; hence Rich Ross was displaced from his post as Disney Studios chairman when he was linked too closely to 2013's The Lone Ranger. "It can help sometimes to make it seem like you don't have that power," notes Hacksaw Ridge producer and former Fox chairman Bill Mechanic.

The committee model likely will become even more pervasive if Paramount alters its structure. This may give comfort to studio parent corporations, but producers see it as bad news. "It used to be you could go to an executive vp or president of production and they could convince their boss to make a movie, but now the only way to get the project made is if it's approved by a committee," says Unbroken producer Matt Baer. "It's no longer about the pure passion of the executives."

Each studio has developed its own system, but almost all are variations on a theme. Here's how the studios now function:

DISNEY

With much of its production pipeline fueled by four mega-brands (Lucasfilm, Pixar, Disney Animation and Marvel Entertainment), no single greenlight process applies to any one film. "The very term 'greenlight' is sort of outmoded here," notes one executive.

In the case of Lucasfilm, authority rests with its president, Kathleen Kennedy, and Horn (to whom she reports), but the final say on each movie also involves Disney Studios president Alan Bergman and even Disney CEO Bob Iger.

The same group greenlights the Marvel movies, with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige replacing Kennedy. With Pixar and Disney Animation, Feige plays no role, but chief creative officer John Lasseter does. While Lasseter does not report to Horn, Horn gets to weigh in, as does Iger, who is said to have been involved in a pricey revamp of Zootopia late in its production.

Even in-house Disney product is similarly diffuse. "It's inconceivable that if Disney is developing Beauty and the Beast, which crosses into all our ancillary businesses, Alan wouldn't discuss that with Bob," says one executive.

WARNER BROS.

Warners has a greenlight committee that includes marketing/distribution chief Sue Kroll, international distribution and growth initiatives president Veronica Kwan Vandenberg and home entertainment president Ron Sanders. But with the elevation in December of Toby Emmerich to president of Warner Bros. Pictures, he and chairman/CEO Kevin Tsujihara have final say (with Tsujihara said to wield outsized influence in committee meetings). "You've got to get through the committee to get gaveled," says an executive affiliated with a Warner subsidiary. "It's got to get through the scrum. But if everyone is supportive, then Kevin and Toby say yes or no."

FOX

Recently installed movie chair Stacey Snider has sole greenlight authority, according to a Fox insider. But sources say she consults closely with 21st Century Fox leaders James and Lachlan Murdoch on pictures budgeted above $125 million to $150 million. Fox 2000 executive Elizabeth Gabler wields influence on her projects, but even such modestly-budget Fox 2000 films as Hidden Figures need higher-up approval. Specialty division Fox Searchlight can go ahead with low-seven-figures acquisitions without having to seek corporate approval, but a big play like last year's $17.5 million purchase of The Birth of a Nation at the Sundance Film Festival requires a sign-off.

SONY

More mysterious is the greenlight process at Sony. With Michael Lynton exiting his role as Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO, it's unclear who will have the ultimate authority to greenlight films. For now, three executives must sign off before a movie is made: Lynton, movie group chairman Tom Rothman and the studio's chief financial officer, Philip Rowley.

That studio's specialty division, Sony Pictures Classics, has the ability to acquire small festival movies in the few-million dollar range without approval.

UNIVERSAL

Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures, and Jeff Shell, chairman of the filmed entertainment group, share ultimate greenlight power. But there, too, a committee winnows the process and includes NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer, along with the heads of production, marketing, publicity, distribution, international, home entertainment, consumer products and finance, among others.

LIONSGATE

While Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer can greenlight pictures on his own, the company has a process whereby each key executive is asked to weigh in. "There's a greenlight form, and each division chief has to write how much they think a movie can make in their respective areas," says one executive. "That all comes together in a grid." That means Patrick Wachsberger, chairman of the Lionsgate motion picture group; Erik Feig and Steve Beeks, co-presidents of the motion picture group; Tim Palen, the head of marketing; David Spitz, the head of domestic distribution, as well as the home entertainment heads and vice chairman Michael Burns. Adds the exec: "But there's only one person who has final greenlight authority, and that's Feltheimer."

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

comments powered by Disqus