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William Sherak’s Hollywood career unofficially began at the age of 8, when he’d run call sheets to execs on the 20th Century Fox lot where his dad, the late Tom Sherak, was working as president of marketing and distribution.
Over the course of more than two decades in the business, Sherak has carved his own path — while still very much treating Hollywood like a family business, a mindset he got from his dad.
“My dad genuinely believed for him to succeed other people didn’t have to fail,” says Sherak. “This business is better when everybody’s succeeding. There’s enough audience out there for everybody. I like to think that I work that way too.”
In addition to his successful career as a studio exec, with a filmography including Die Hard, Independence Day and Black Hawk Down, Tom Sherak was a dedicated philanthropist, served three terms as president of The Academy and was L.A.’s first film czar, a position he held until his death in 2014.
“The legacy piece is an interesting conversation,” says Sherak. “I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to different classes at film schools and you have to be honest. I had a leg up. I did. I can’t pretend I had to figure out how to get into the business.”
Sherak took advantage of the time he spent on the Fox lot visiting his dad, and built a relationship with prolific producer John Davis, who would eventually give him his first job.
“My dad always said, ‘Look, I’ll open any door you want. If you don’t stay in on your own, I will never open a door again,'” recalls Sherak. “I think that’s the genius of this business, is that you still have to stay in on your own. At some point you’re judged on your own.”
He took the opportunity and ran with it, working his way to director of development for Davis Entertainment before starting his own shingle, Blue Star Entertainment. From there he launched and sold Stereo D to Deluxe Entertainment, still working as an executive while also producing movies. He chose to dive fully into the latter and in 2019 founded Project X with collaborator James Vanderbilt (whose writing credits include Zodiac, Murder Mystery and the new era Scream films) and Paul Neinstein, a seasoned finance and operations exec whose resume includes Spyglass, Paramount Pictures and RatPac, and also happens to be Sherak’s brother in law.
During a busy March — which saw Scream VI open to a franchise record $44.5 million at the domestic box office and spy series The Night Agent premiere on Netflix — Sherak talked with The Hollywood Reporter about building a career centered on passion-driven projects, looking for a smart acquisition to help Project X scale, and how he inspired the 1991 reboot of The Addams Family.
At what point watching your dad work did you decide that you wanted to make this industry your career too?
When I was eight years old. We moved to California from back east. He was working at General Cinema Theaters, which at the time I believe was the largest theater chain in the U.S. We moved to L.A. and his first job at Fox was president of marketing and distribution. I fell in love with Hollywood. I remember I went the Return of the Jedi premiere in ‘83 when we moved here. It was my first premiere. I never turned back.
My dad was my best friend. I used to go to Fox two or three times a week after school and just hang out on the lot and go to people’s offices. That’s how I got my first job out of college as John Davis’ assistant. When I was little, John’s father, Marvin, owned Fox. That’s who brought my dad to L.A. John had recently graduated Harvard Business School and had a production company on the lot, and I used to spend a lot of time with John a little kid. I would deliver call sheets at the end of the afternoon, and then I would get production reports and deliver those. I was sort of like the non-paid mail boy around building 88, which at the time was the executive building at Fox.
I never looked at it as trying to live up to my dad. I just wanted to be in the business. That’s all I ever wanted.
From those first days as an assistant to where you are now, what have been some of the major milestones along the way?
John Davis was arguably the best first boss you could have. I was so lucky to start out working for John. He had no issue with me going to every meeting, sitting in every room, being on set with him every day. It was a learn by fire situation. You can’t learn the nuts and bolts without just doing it and being there, and John allowed that.
My first studio movie was this little picture with Sony Revolution called Darkness Falls about a killer Tooth Fairy. It working, and being successful in my first studio movie, was just a good feeling. You release it and it works and you’re proud of yourself and your dad’s proud of you. It means something. I was able to make a bunch of movies, a television show. Then I started what became the largest 3-D conversion company in the world and ran that, and then sold it to Deluxe and became president of Deluxe Post-Production.
Now, starting Project X with one of my partners, Jamie Vanderbilt: his first writing credit was Darkness Falls 23 years ago. So, it was my first producing credit and his first writing credit. I think that is a testament to how I grew up. This is not an industry of colleagues; this is an industry of friends because we spend so much time together. If you look at it a different way, it’s not as fun.
How was Project X born?
I was ready to leave Deluxe. Full stop. I was allowed to produce while I was at Deluxe, but I was ready to leave and not be a vendor anymore and go back to producing full-time. Jamie and I had made four movies together while I was at Deluxe. He was ready to start something new, I was ready to start something and my brother-in-law, Paul [Neinstein], who’s our third partner, was also ready. We each have such different skill sets and thought this would be an interesting and potentially successful group of people to go start a new company. We wanted to build a creative-first company that had the business acumen to scale properly and not just be in the producer-for-hire business. It was right place, right time, right age, right group of people, stars aligned.
We wanted to work with family and friends. The idea being that we could put ourselves in a position where saying no was okay and we could work with only people we really want to work with. We’ve been super fortunate that we’ve been able to do that.
Is there any kind of common denominator in the kinds of stories you’re wanting to tell?
I think that we want to make the most commercial version of any movie or TV show. We try to be genre agnostic. We like stuff in every genre. Not everybody inside the company has to like one of our projects, but someone inside the company has to love it. As long as somebody loves it at the company, we will all get behind it. We don’t need more projects in development just to grab onto stuff. If we don’t believe we can add value and push something forward, then there’s other people you should work with.
When you’re looking at projects from a lens where commercial viability is an early threshold, the whole idea of eventizing projects and the dedication to the theatrical experience seems like it would be a lot easier.
One hundred percent. I grew up around 20th Century Fox in the ’80s and ’90s. Talk about popcorn movies, Die Hard, all the Schwarzenegger stuff, Titanic, Aliens, Independence Day. Those are my childhood movies. That’s the kind of stuff we want to do. We grew up in a time where movies were the event. A good tagline, a good poster and I was all in.
My dad and I would go to movies on the weekends and he used to bring trailers on 35 millimeter film. He had a little Nike duffle bag of them, and he would have the theater managers put those trailers on. He would see audience reaction to the trailers he wanted to see play. That’s as real as it gets. People who paid to go see a movie on a Saturday that have no idea that they’re watching trailers specifically for a studio guy to see reactions. It was all about making sure the audience liked what you were doing.
That’s the place we’re all coming from. When we look at the projects we want to make, and the things we get excited about from a DNA standpoint, we like the fun stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching movies that are serious and dark. I can experience them as a consumer and appreciate the talent that goes into it. I just don’t know that I could go through the process and watch that movie a hundred times before release.
March has been a big month for you. Walk me through this month.
It’s actually been one of the crazier months of my professional and personal life. We had Scream VI come out. We have Night Agent on Netflix, our first TV show. Shawn Ryan is so talented. It was the first book we optioned when we started the company. He was looking for a way into a story like that, and the book provided it and he ran with it.
We start our next movie soon, and that’s casting as we speak. It’s a feast or famine business. It always has been. It is not easy to get stuff made. So, you celebrate the win when it happens and you toast with your friends, and then you go, “OK, what’s next?” It’s exciting to get the next thing. The fun is making the thing, whatever the thing is, especially if you love it. I think part of that is we are genuinely working with people we like — like Radio Silence. We just finished our third film with them and we’re about to do a fourth. It’s fun when you get to work with people you like.
How are you feeling about the opening weekend of Scream VI?
It’s a franchise record with people you love. The fact that we got Kevin Williamson back into the Scream family on five was such an important piece of the puzzle to us. I think he spent that time going, “Am I glad I’m back?” Then he became a friend and realized we were telling him the truth. We genuinely wanted him back because he’s amazing and he created this thing and we’re good guys. He got to actually experience this one even more. The last one was successful, but it was during the pandemic.
Scream VI just kind of fired on all cylinders. The text chain still exists from the whole cast, and Kevin and Matt and Tyler and Chad and all of us. We look at the premiere and the fact that all of the kids from V came back to celebrate with the ones who survived to go on to VI. That’s the atmosphere we tried to create, and they all came back because we did it right. The night before the premiere we all went for drinks. There weren’t photos, there was no press, but we were all together. That’s the stuff that matters.
What’s in the pipeline that you’re able to talk about?
We’re super excited about Fountain of Youth, the Skydance movie that Jamie wrote, and the Universal picture that shoots in about 12 weeks with Radio Silence. We have our first animated TV show based on Bloom County, the comic strip from the ’80s with Opus the penguin that Berkeley Breathed won the Pulitzer for. I’ll be excited if we get to do another Scream. That’ll be an amazing experience if we get to do that again. I have to get these couple movies through the pipeline that start very soon. That’s the next step.
What do you see for the future of Project X?
I think it’s finding a platform to acquire to scale the business from an opportunity standpoint. The more scale we have, the more opportunities we can provide for our creative friends and then our family gets bigger.
I grew up in a world where the definition of family was you had to show up, it wasn’t blood. My dad loved the business and everybody was his family. My parents got remarried every five years in a black tie wedding. My dad’s thought was that my mom was the love of his life, and he never liked that as you make new friends they weren’t there for the most important day of your life. So, he’d recreate that day, literally a 200-300 person black tie wedding, and his friends and family at that moment would be there. The first time they did it, I want to say it was at 20 or 25 years, was at Alan Horn’s house. I was the best man.
It shows you what this industry can be. I love this business. I love the history of it. I love the people in it. A good idea can genuinely come from anywhere, and you just have to put yourself in the environments with people who love this business and love creating stuff. When I was 11, we were in a limo bus going to a test screening in San Diego. Scott Rudin was president of production at Fox at the time and we were playing Name That Tune and I gave him the idea to make The Addams Family into a movie. He told the story in Rolling Stone magazine. I still have it framed. U2 was on the cover. He tells the whole story of me on the bus giving him the idea. My dad used to joke with him that if I had been 16 I’d be a producer, but at 12 I got a special thank you at the end of the credits and a one sheet.
When I look at scale, it’s to give all of our creative friends and family the most opportunity to do things. If we can create a bigger platform to do that, nothing would make me happier. We have a lot of friends with a lot of stories to tell.
Speaking of your dad, how would you describe his legacy?
He had the two best jobs in retirement you could have in our business. The first L.A. film czar and president of the Academy. As you get further away from somebody like that passing, you hope people remember. The Academy piece, I think, lives on because I think the thing he was most proud of was getting the museum greenlit. That was his love.
He was part of a generation that was in the business solely because he loved movies. He loved the business of movies, loved going to them, loved popcorn, loved everything about it. More than that, he was a philanthropist and he thought that this industry could give back more than any other. He required it from all his friends and colleagues. I think that those two things together is what gave me my love of the business.
I was fortunate that I didn’t have a dad who disappeared. I got to grow up with somebody who allowed me to be part of his work. There was a joke at Fox when I was at school. I went to University of Denver in Colorado and for four years almost every test screening at Fox was in Denver. My dad would make everybody go to Denver. I forgot which Die Hard it was, but [John] McTiernan and Bruce Willis were like, “What are we doing in Denver?”
My kids are the same. They come to set and they get to experience it the same way because I’m not scared to bring them around. I don’t hide my kids. They’re my family. It’s a family business. Have they ruined a take or two on set? Yes, but it is what it is. I’ve gotten far enough where I don’t have to ask that permission, and I grew up that way too. Everybody I grew up around, all those people that were my dad’s colleagues, I still talk to. I’m going to do the same for my kids as long as they’re willing to spend time with me, whether they want to be in this business or not.
Have your kids expressed any interest in the industry?
Oh yeah. We’ll see where that goes. My 13-year-old daughter is extremely dramatic. She actually created a bedazzled Ghostface mask for the movie that we got to use. I think it’s in the subway in the background, which was a ton of fun. She loves special effects makeup. She came out of her room one time and there was a nail sticking through my son’s finger with latex. So that’s a big thing in her life. My son is 12, and he just likes being around everybody, anything that puts him in part of a team. I grew up the same way. I was always there and nobody ever thought twice about it, and I’m going to take as much time as my kids are willing to give me.
Is there anything else about you, or the company, or your dad’s legacy, that you want people to know?
When people talk about the greats in our business, I got to grow up around a lot of them. Larry Gordon is one of my godfathers and one of the best producers of all time. I got to work for John Davis, my first internship was for John Landau when he was head of physical production at Fox, my second internship was for Gary Barber when he was running Morgan Creek. I got to be on a lot of sets growing up and spent time with a lot of unbelievably talented filmmakers.
The common thread of the greats was their love of the content. They loved movies and television. The business was secondary. I think that that translates into why Paul, Jamie and I are partners. That love is consistent in the company. If you love it, and you work with people who are good at it, you should have more hits than failures. That’s the through line and that’s the important thing for us as a company.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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