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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