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Oscar Roundtable: 6 Top Studio Executives Reveal the Perks and Pitfalls of Hollywood Power

This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As busy as it is for talent during awards season, they've got nothing on the top executives running the major studios and independent companies. More often than not, these execs have multiple movies to shepherd through the dizzying process and parade of events. To kick off our annual Awards Season Roundtable Series, THR invited six of them -- Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, 58, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group co-chairman Rob Friedman, 62, Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos, 60, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, 61, Universal co-chairman Donna Langley, 44, and Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore, 50 -- to engage in a candid discussion about why Paramount passed on Moneyball, the big gambles behind Life of Pi and Les Miserables and how much awards, for better or worse, mean to them.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What surprised you most about becoming a top film executive?

Rob Friedman: Getting my phone calls returned. (Laughter.)

Jeffrey Katzenberg: The passions and emotions in the movie business have always been pretty intense, and that's probably only gotten greater. Today the stakes seem to be so high, and so it really creates a tremendous amount of pressure on everybody involved.

THR: Is it different when you're directly responsible to stockholders?

Katzenberg: You mean as opposed to Rupert Murdoch? (Laughter.)

Jim Gianopulos: I think what Jeffrey referred to is an interesting aspect: The complexity, the nuance of it, the randomness of how movies come together, the collision of molecules that makes a movie, the surprising things that become easy and the things that become difficult. And on the other end of the ringing telephone is your worst nightmare or your greatest surprise. Somebody didn't come out of their trailer, or the tracking for the movie goes completely and totally wrong.

Katzenberg: Or your film opened to $12. (Laughter.)

Donna Langley: The best moment is when you have a film that exceeds your expectations. We've have had a couple along the way. Mamma Mia! was a great moment in the company's history. It is the company's most profitable film [$610 million worldwide gross on a $52 million budget], and it was a complete surprise. I mean, it went from being a, "Oh, maybe it will work internationally in Sweden," to being a huge worldwide hit. And then, of course, this year with Ted. The single worst moment is the all-around failure of any movie. This year, to air my dirty laundry, it's no secret that it was Battleship.

Rob Moore: With us, Paranormal Activity came out of nowhere. It was a movie that we had owned for several years and talked about whether to release or not, or to remake it. So there are times when you don't really know, but then you capture something. And then there are other times when you put all this time, energy and investment into something and nobody cares. That's when it's really hard.

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THR: Do you get calls from Sumner Redstone saying, "What the hell were you thinking?"

Katzenberg: He's not that polite. (Laughter.)

Moore: He's been around the movie business his whole life, so he understands the volatility of it. I think the best moment is when you get a surprise like True Grit. It was a Western, and there hasn't been a Western that broke out to that kind of success [$251 million worldwide].

THR: How much do awards mean to you?

Katzenberg: When I came to Hollywood, I was 23 years old and from New York. The dream, as a young kid starting out in this business, is to own a house in Malibu Beach and win an Academy Award. (Laughter.) One was the fantasy of, you know, Beach Blanket Bingo or whatever, the good life. That was the representation of what [the late former Paramount owner] Charlie Bluhdorn used to call the "Bank of America award." And the other side of it was the achievement of something great in the eyes of your peers. And the Academy Awards were then and are today -- irrespective of anything else in terms of what they are to the outside world -- for our community, they are the pinnacles of success. That's always the yin-yang that you get so caught up in, which is, "Is this about the way our customers see our business, or is it about the way we see ourselves?"

Michael Barker: You wanted to live in Malibu and win an Academy Award … I wanted to live in New York, and my mom wanted to see me at the Academy Awards. (Laughter.)

THR: Are there times you don't agree with the best picture winner?

Katzenberg: Pretty much every time. (Laughter.)

Barker: Here's the thing: The Academy Awards, as far as the nominations are concerned, they've had a lot of integrity. They don't pay attention to commerce and so forth. Yes, there are many years when the best film doesn't win, but it's almost irrelevant. To be in that room means so much when you have to choose between five and 10 high-quality films. Someone's going to be left out. Sometimes it's a moment in time, and that moment in time is the only time that particular movie would win. If you look at the history of the Academy Awards, you can see when those instances occurred.

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THR: What has been a "moment in time" for all of you?

Gianopulos: Which time? The time we waited for Sideways to win or the time waiting for Avatar? (Laughter.)

THR: It was a historic upset when Avatar lost to The Hurt Locker, which belonged to Rob.

Gianopulos: Well, we did win the Bank of America award that year.

Friedman: I did offer to trade our award. (Laughter and clapping.)

THR: Irving Thalberg would greenlight a movie just because it was a great movie, or so the myth goes. Is that still possible?

Katzenberg: That was a time when 40 percent of America went to the movies once a week. That was the reality in his day.

Friedman: I think the process always starts with the material. You fall in love with it, and then you start to do the analysis. Will people want to see it? How hard will it be to get them to see it? And what are the economics? So it's more about "how do we get this done" as opposed to "let's not do this."

Moore: We have Flight, a movie that was a very dark script on the page, but then Bob Zemeckis, who's one of the most successful directors of all time, sparked to it. But even with him, we're saying, "This is the level [at which] we're prepared to do this." So even though it's Bob Zemeckis, you're only giving him, in this case, $30 million. There's still the reality of saying, "It has to be perfect execution."

THR: Is there a particular project you loved but had to turn down because it wasn't economically viable?

Moore: The script for Moneyball was available, and I had read the book when it first came out. I found that story very inspirational. And then you get to the business of it, and you're saying: "It is a movie where much of the dialogue is a discussion about baseball statistics. How is this going to travel, even with Brad Pitt as part of it?" Somebody ultimately made the movie, and the movie got nominated. The movie was a great movie that ultimately didn't do a lot of business outside of the U.S. So it was a great movie that I was happy got made and got to see it, but ultimately it was one that you just couldn't find a way to make those economics work.

Gianopulos: That's why it took Elizabeth Gabler [president of Fox 2000] over 10 years to get Ang Lee on board and wear Tom [Rothman] and I down to saying yes to Life of Pi at a number that would normally scare anyone.

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THR: And what was that?

Gianopulos: A substantial budget. [Reportedly $100 million.]

THR: Donna, you also took a bit of a gamble on Les Miserables. Why?

Langley: I know it sounds pat, but we really did love the material. Les Mis is a piece of material that has taken 27 years to come to the screen. And Cameron [Mackintosh, the producer], who is just an incredible theater impresario, understands the material inside and out. I mean, he birthed it. He knew that he had to wait until he had the right team around him. And so when the full package was presented to us -- I was involved with Working Title in persuading Tom Hooper to come on board and direct the movie after winning the Academy Award for The King's Speech -- it just all sort of made sense to us. From a business perspective, we looked at it as almost a tentpole, but it's not priced like a tentpole. It's actually priced very responsibly. But in terms of the IP value of it, this is a show that's played for 27 years in 50 countries around the world and has had hundreds of millions of viewers. So it just made us believe that we could present it as a real event, particularly in the holiday season.

THR: Jeffrey, how did you feel in 1999 when Saving Private Ryan lost best picture to Shakespeare in Love? You were running DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

Katzenberg: It's very hard. Shakespeare in Love was a wonderful movie, but for me, someone who grew up on movies and remembers seeing Spartacus as a kid on Broadway, Saving Private Ryan is one of the great movies of all time and will stand the test of time. How that happened will always be a mystery to me.

Barker: That's one I'd like to see the vote on. It could have been one vote; we don't know.

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THR: Harvey Weinstein changed the game with his campaign for Shakespeare in Love. Did you realize it at the time?

Katzenberg: Most of these executives here have been in business with Steven Spielberg over the years, and one of the things I've always respected enormously about Steven is that there is no such thing as campaigning, even during our DreamWorks phase. It was like: "Forget it. I don't do this. This is not what the Academy is about. I don't believe in it." He forbade us from campaigning. Terry Press, who is as good at this as anybody, was shackled with duct tape over her mouth.

Barker: I personally think it is totally overdone. I'm a little bit on Mr. Spielberg's side. I think you have to spend on an Academy campaign to get the Academy members to see the film, but I don't think they're influenced beyond that.

Katzenberg: Unfortunately, that's not true. I mean, honestly, that's no longer the case.

Gianopulos: It's sort of like campaign reform legislation in the political arena. Unless everybody plays by the rules and agrees to them, it's not going to stop. Rob and I are both members of the board of the Academy, and the Academy has tried to put some lids on what people can do and some of the practices that have gotten out of hand.

Friedman: If it was left unbridled, it would get really bad.

Gianopulos: It would go nuts. (Laughter.)

Moore: Some of the spend is political. The pressure comes from the filmmakers and the talent when they start to ratchet things up because they see what someone else is doing and they're saying, "Why aren't you doing the same thing for my movie?"

Langley: To Rob's point, when you do vanity campaigns, you look at it like that.

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THR: There are enormous changes occurring in the business. What will it look like in 10 years?

Katzenberg: They haven't even begun. I think that 10 years from now, almost everything changes. All the stakeholders are going to be rearranged. Movies are only growing in their popularity, and I think that the power of this is going to more than just transform the consumption of movies -- it's going to revolutionize them. Today, about 100 million people will see a movie and pay $10 on a blended basis. Ten years from now, 2 billion people will pay $1.50. Some people will watch it for 65 cents on this [holds up cell phone], some will watch it for $2 on a TV screen, some will go to state-of-the-art theaters where you'll have a meal and a great experience there. They'll pay $50. But it all changes. Now I don't know if that's 10 years or 15 years, but it's coming.

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THR: Does that mean fewer people will go to an actual movie theater?

Katzenberg: Just the opposite. It's like sports. Sports have never been more popular than they are today. You go back 30 years ago, and if you lived in Los Angeles and you wanted to see the Lakers, you actually had to go to a Lakers game because they would black it out on television. And so in the same way that sports has been completely transformed and now is very broad, highly popularized and you can experience it on so many different levels and price points, that's what's going to happen to us. 

THR: Why do you think it hasn't happened with the music business?

Katzenberg: Because the music business did the opposite of what we've done in the movie business, which is that I think greed got the better of them.

Gianopulos: They also have a very different model. The first thing that happened was, one day there was no Napster, the next day the cataclysm was there. And so it caught them completely off guard. Jeffrey's right: They were greedy, and so every time that the sales of CDs went down, they took the price up because customers realized that it just didn't seem right. And apart from that, their business model is different in the sense that their first exposure of their creative content is free. It's on the radio. Our first exposure is in the best setting possible and at the highest price.

Friedman: From a psychology perspective, the consumer always felt they were getting it for free.

THR: Many of you are in favor of releasing films on premium VOD either day-and-date or shortly after they appear in theaters. Are theater owners softening to the idea?

Gianopulos: We've been having ongoing conversations with theater owners, and they're starting to come around. The average life of a movie in a multiplex is 3-1/2 weeks. The video window is about four months. So you have three months of darkness. We'll call it "the dark zone." Three months at the time when consumers and audiences know the most about a movie, but when there's no place to get it. So that doesn't mean that they don't get it. That means they either resort to piracy, or they stay home and watch something else. So how do you do something about that? We've started that process by moving the window of availability of the digital download up a little bit, but that was a small step. We're hoping that we can gradually get theaters around to that idea.

Moore: I have three teenage sons who are now in a place where they expect to be able to watch things when they want them on whatever device. And they are oddly as comfortable watching a movie on their iPhone as they are watching something on a big screen. They view them as not exclusive experiences, but they are different experiences. There are times when they want to go with a group of people out to a movie theater; there are times where they're hanging out and want to spend 20 minutes watching something on their phone.

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THR: What is the one film that means the most to you?

Katzenberg: Here's the problem with that question: Everybody's going to answer the same movie -- Lawrence of Arabia.

Langley: Probably the most influential film for me -- sorry, because it's not necessarily my favorite film -- but the most influential film was The Red Shoes.

Gianopulos: I'd have to go back to the second Godfather. That's what I thought Jeffrey was going to say. (Laughter.)

Friedman: As a kid, I lived in an extraordinarily small town, and the film that I remember most vividly is The Ten Commandments. We got out of school and we went and watched it.

Moore: See, mine is The Godfather, so Jeffrey is right: Jim and I, at least, are on the same page. Mine actually was the first Godfather.

Katzenberg: I'm just older than all of you. That's all. (Laughter.)

Barker: I think Rear Window is it. It tells us why we do what we do as a viewer, as a practitioner, as a storyteller.

THR: If you weren't studio executives, what would you do?

Moore: Well, my dream when I was a kid was to become a sports announcer.

Friedman: As a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist, but then I realized you had to go to school, so that didn't really work out too well. But philanthropy is very exciting to me now, and I'm very active when I'm not 100 percent working. I also have four children, so that keeps me busy too.

Langley: My husband is an interior designer, so I think I would love to develop a high-end hotel with properties around the world. Sounds interesting. … I think I might even text him that now. (Laughter.)

Barker: I was one of those people that maybe strived to be an artist but knew there was no way I was going to pull that off. So what I would do is serve the artist. And that's always been fulfilling for me. But I think for a lot of us, when we were kids, the movies provided something for us. Maybe we didn't like ourselves so much, we found life a little boring, and these films kind of enlarged us and made us into bigger people. We didn't want to be diminutive or common, and to me that's how it all started when I was a little kid, when I went to see Rio Bravo when I was 5.

Gianopulos: Well, I started out wanting to be a musician at one point, and also a fireman at one point.

Katzenberg: I wanted to be a fireman! Honestly. I was 6 years old, and I had a fireman hat.

♦♦♦♦♦

THE CONTENDERS

Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics
Rust and Bone, Amour, West of Memphis, Smashed

Rob Friedman, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group
The Impossible, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Jim Gianopulos, Fox Filmed Entertainment
Life of Pi

Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation
Rise of the Guardians, Madagascar 3

Donna Langley, Universal Pictures
Les Miserables

Rob Moore, Paramount
Flight, Not Fade Away, Rise of the Guardians, Madagascar 3

Watch the full uncensored roundtable below.