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Studio Chiefs Unleashed: 6 Top Execs Spar Over Gender Pay, Sony Hack and ‘Star Wars’ Box Office

No topic is taboo as THR grills Universal's Donna Langley, Lionsgate's Rob Friedman, Fox's Stacey Snider, Disney's Alan Horn, Paramount's Rob Moore and Sony's Tom Rothman in the annual Executive Roundtable.


This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Thanks to the Sony hack, Patricia Arquette‘s rousing Oscar speech and Jennifer Lawrence‘s recent essay, “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?,” gender-pay issues are front and center in Hollywood. So the six film studio chiefs at The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual executive roundtable Oct. 20 tackled the topic head-on. “I probably could mentor more,” admitted 20th Century Fox co-chairman Stacey Snider. Sony chairman Tom Rothman agreed: “More needs to be done. And there is a certain cynicism that needs to be overcome.” Both Snider, 54, and Rothman, 60, are relatively new to their posts, the former shifting from DreamWorks Studios, and the latter having replaced Amy Pascal in February in the aftermath of the attack on Sony Pictures.

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The hack and its impact was another hot topic. Lionsgate Motion Picture Group co-chairman Rob Friedman, 65, revealed he moved fast to shore up his own studio’s digital vulnerabilities. And everyone on the panel — including Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley, 47, whose studio is in the middle of a record-smashing year with more than $6.5 billion in global box office — sits in awe (and fear) at the impending arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Dec. 18. Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn, 72, tried to manage sky-high expectations for the Star Wars franchise, while Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore, 53, questioned whether the first film can reach the $300 million domestic opening that some have predicted. In a feast-or-famine era of the movie business, the panel was frank in addressing the risks of putting marquee properties in the hands of untested filmmakers, as Snider’s Fox did with Josh Trank and this summer’s flop Fantastic Four. But Snider said she can’t manage successfully without taking risks. “The worst thing you can do is duck and cover,” she said in what could be a mantra for all studio chiefs. “You have to dust yourself off and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to take some swings … and it’s going to work more than it’s not going to work.’ ”

Let’s start with the issue of women being paid less. Every major actress is talking about it. Jennifer Lawrence wrote her scathing essay. Is there an economic justification for this gap?

Snider: The issue of opportunity for women is real, and it’s in front of us. It’s incumbent upon us as business leaders to really address it seriously. And I feel an obligation to look into it professionally in my executive capacity and also just as a woman in the business. I feel like I probably could mentor more. I could probably extend myself personally more to enable young female writers and directors to have some access and information about how to navigate through the process.

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Moore: When you look at compensation in general, so much of our business now is about the international performance. We just started putting together a movie with Stacey’s old home DreamWorks, Ghost in the Shell, with Scarlett Johansson. She was coming off of Lucy, which had just done a giant number internationally ($332.2 million). I don’t think anyone would look at what she’s going to get paid for our movie and feel like she was being discriminated against. I know there could be some exceptions, and Jennifer Lawrence was looking at a very specific piece of information [her pay on American Hustle versus her male co-stars]. But a lot of times it is about what people’s quotes have been in the past. [Lawrence] was obviously on the rise with a lot of other people who’d been in different movies before. So, there’s a combination of your current market value and what your history had been to that point.

Langley: I don’t think it’s as simple as just saying, “OK, let’s get everybody commensurate with each other.” If you went around the table, each of us would say equality is always top of mind with any minority group. It’s part and parcel of the bigger issue of films geared toward women and films that are more masculine-driven. As tastes shift around the globe and there are more roles for women, there are more women who can participate. Salaries will go up and be commensurate.

Horn: There are variables that do affect what one pays any performer. Angelina Jolie, for example, got a lot more money for Maleficent than Daisy Ridley did for Star Wars, but they’re both women. It’s a function of lots of different variables. But I agree with Stacey that the subject of equality for women in our industry should be a priority for us all.

Rothman: There’s a myth in the business that young males drive the box office. Maybe a decade ago or so that was true. I don’t find that true now at all. I actually think women drive the box office. I’m very proud of the fact that right now we have five movies — two that are actively shooting and three that are actively prepping — with female directors. They are not “typical female” subject matter, and we have, for the first time, a woman directing the new Underworld movie (Anna Foerster). We have a Hispanic directing Miracles From Heaven (Patricia Riggen), and Jodie Foster’s just done a thriller for us (Money Monster). So there is growing diversity. More needs to be done. And there is a certain cynicism that needs to be overcome. When we announced an “all female” Ghostbusters, we actually didn’t say it was a female Ghostbusters. We announced that there were four women, and then it immediately became “female Ghostbusters.” Having seen it, it’s a f—ing hilarious Ghostbusters. So, that’s what it is. It’s the all-funny Ghostbusters.

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Friedman: Female directors are obviously something that we all pay attention to, and there are more coming. But if you look at the producing segment, there are a lot of very successful female producers who a lot of times go unheralded just because producers historically go unheralded.

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Horn: We have Kathy Kennedy doing the Star Wars films, and Nina Jacobson produced The Hunger Games series.

Snider: The thing that Jennifer Lawrence did say that struck a chord with me is the techniques of women in terms of being liked and being polite. There was a great thing on the Internet about how women would say great quotes if asked. So instead of, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” the woman’s version would be, “You know, I have this idea and I’m not sure if I should bring it up in this meeting. But it seems that if we all pitched in, we could do a lot for the country.” (Laughter.)

Langely: I think Stacey’s earlier point about mentorship is really important for me because I do see the strength in people coming together around this issue. And just being able to talk a woman through her life-planning. Being a young woman, figuring out how to start a family and maintain her career. They may be more comfortable talking to a female colleague about those things rather than a male. I do a lot of mentoring. I think it’s just about demystifying a lot of it, too. I hate the question: Can you have it all as a woman? No, of course, you can’t. Who has it all? Nobody.

Rothman: Alan does. He’s got it all. He has Pixar. He’s got Star Wars, and he’s got Marvel. (Laughs.)

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Tom just made the perfect transition. On Oct. 18, the final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released as advance tickets went on sale, crashing websites. Alan, how do you manage expectations?

Horn: It would be a shame if our picture went out with — I’ll pick a number, $1.3 billion, $1.4 billion, $1.5 billion [in worldwide gross] — and people are disappointed. That would be a shame because …

Snider: He’s managing expectations right now! (Laughter.)

Moore: No one has opened a film to $100 million over Christmas. Yet I read recently somebody predicting a $300 million opening weekend for Star Wars. It doesn’t make any sense. Now, by the way, they might do that same number three weeks in a row, whatever they do that first week. Then they do it six weeks in a row.

Rothman: It’s certainly wonderful for Alan. It’s great for Disney. And Star Wars is going to be a massively successful movie. The issue for the people at this table isn’t what it does opening weekend. What are the rest of us who are charged with programming for an audience going to do? What does it mean with respect to the rest of the marketplace at Christmas? These are the questions to ask. Will the box office expand so that the Star Wars numbers are on top of the rest of the traditional Christmas box office, or will they take away from other pictures?

Moore: The year Avatar came out [2009], the marketplace was probably the best Christmas ever.

Rothman: Yes, but the difference is the business was entirely different then, and we confront entirely different obstacles now. Avatar was a purely original movie.

Horn: When you think about Star Wars, the facts about the opening weekend are true, and Tom’s comments and Rob’s comments are correct. So what it will translate to is the quality of the movie. And having seen four or five cuts of it, I think J.J. Abrams did a sensational job. I really do. It’s like playing a hand of poker and knowing before you sit down what your cards are. Because I’ve seen it, and the folks at Disney have seen it.

Have the actors and actresses seen it?

Horn: No, not yet.

Friedman: The good news about a movie like Star Wars is it invigorates audiences to go back to the movies. That’s a good thing for us.

Rothman: Disney’s strategy is a purely branded strategy. The real question that keeps me up at night is an audience-based question: Is there room in the modern [movie] business for originality? Or does it need to be entirely planned?

We’ve seen some massive flops this year. Stacey, you had Fantastic Four. Alan, you had Tomorrowland. Jupiter Ascending and Pan failed for Warner Bros. Studios keep doing this thing where they date the movie and back the picture into it. Why?

Snider: I don’t think the pressure on the movie is based on the release date. It really goes to the proximity between greatness and catastrophe, which are very close together. What we’re charged to do is to create an experience for the fans that is unique and exciting even if it’s within the framework of a branded Marvel film. So you reach and you try to approximate what a director’s suitability is to the material. And if you didn’t take those chances, you wouldn’t get Matt Reeves rebooting brilliantly The Planet of the Apes series. Or a young filmmaker like Wes Ball finding his great footing in the Maze Runner series. The disappointment of Fantastic Four wasn’t about its release date. It was that there was a miscalculation. That same reasoning can produce incredible surprises. And that’s what the audience is asking us for.

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Are you going be more careful about vetting directors?

Snider: Whenever you have failure, I feel it’s my responsibility as a leader to put it on the table. Put the cat on the roof. What went right and what went wrong. But at the end of it, once you take away your learnings and you take responsibility for the decision, the worst thing you can do is crouch. The worst thing you can do is duck and cover. You have to dust yourself off and say: “You know what? We’re going to take some swings and try to go through the same vetting process, and it’s going to work more than it’s not going to work.”

Avengers: Age of Ultron grossed a little bit less than some expected. Do you worry about superhero fatigue?

Horn: The issue of superhero fatigue or event-movie fatigue is a valid discussion. We are very happy with the more than $1.4 billion for Avengers 2. (Laughter.)

During the worst of the Sony hack, the other studios stayed largely quiet. Does anybody regret not coming to Sony’s defense and expressing public support or pushing for more government help?

Friedman: They were assaulted. We all dug in and started checking our stuff to make sure we were not vulnerable. Everybody was working together. The Sony people were working with all the other studios. Exchanging information with the FBI, etc., to try to understand what happened and how to prevent it.

Rothman: The lesson of that is when something like this happens to you, you’re going be alone in the fight. And I certainly would not wish it on anybody.

Was it a mistake to make The Interview about a sitting head of state, especially a paranoid one with nuclear weapons?

Rothman: The minute you begin to second-guess what is political satire is the day that the basic fabric of our society is undermined.

Snider: You can’t blame the studio. [The hackers] broke the law, and it was an aggressive act.

They did break the law. But do you think Rupert Murdoch would have allowed Fox to release a movie with that type of material in it?

Snider: Nothing is speculated about that. I don’t know.

Did anyone discover any vulnerable areas that were fixed quickly?

Snider: Imagine that what you write is going to be sent, seen, read, broadcast.

Langley: That’s right.

Rothman: That is not the issue. It’s not your emails. Every company in every industry is vulnerable. It was state-sponsored terrorism. From an email point of view, pick up the phone. But it’s much, much more profound than that.

Tom, what was it like to see your emails revealed?

Rothman: Oh, it’s fun. (Sarcastic.) I enjoyed it. And I really admired the self-restraint and the dignity of the press. Gee, I just thought they behaved impeccably given the fact that all that private communication was stolen.

Rob, let me ask you about the Benghazi movie that Michael Bay is directing. Everybody’s seen the hearings on Capitol Hill and the criticism of Hillary Clinton. Have you been contacted by any political people trying to dissuade you or persuade you to hold this movie until after the election?

Moore: No. We’ve had an amazing relationship with Michael Bay. And this is a story he was excited to tell. It is based on the book [13 Hours]. And it is about the guys on the ground and what happens. Nothing takes place in Washington. There’s no conversation about that. And so, yeah, there are going to be some people who are sensitive to any topic where somebody may not have done what they hoped they might have otherwise done in a situation. But these guys actually did what you hoped they would do. And so, that is the story.

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It was recently revealed that Lionsgate isn’t going to make the Hillary Clinton biopic anymore.

Friedman: We never were going to. A script was presented to us, which we took in, reviewed, debated and discussed and just felt the commercial viability of it was not something that we wanted to do.

Rob, is Paramount looking to take the James Bond franchise away from Sony when it becomes available after Spectre? And Tom, what can you do to keep Bond at Sony, or do you even want to? It’s very expensive.

Friedman: Who at this table doesn’t want to take him?

Rothman: Everybody would. And we’re very pleased that we’re the incumbent. We have done very well by the franchise. The last one [Skyfall] did over $1 billion, which was greater than anything before. We have high hopes for the new one and for the future, so we shall see.

Moore: As Tom said, they did a spectacular performance on the last movie. But it also becomes about economics. So, what that means in terms of the future, it’s hard to tell.

Donna, you’ve had a historic year with Jurassic World, Furious 7, Minions and Fifty Shades of Grey. Do you worry about how you keep that momentum going?

Rothman: Now they’re going to tell you, Donna, that your comps next year are vectored.

Langley: Obviously, this year has been extraordinary, and we are very grateful for it. And we can be objective about it and say it was part strategy, part timing and a lot of luck. We don’t have a magic bullet. We didn’t all of a sudden invent a formula for the movie business. And Stacey was just talking about failure. Out of failure does come a lot of self-reflection, and our studio was beleaguered for a very long time. And the last three years have been good for us. So, that’s great. What do we have as we sit here today? Part of the success comes largely down to a good, strong operating rhythm. And looking at our ownership, looking at our management, it’s the best it’s been in a very, very long time. I reflect back on when the product wasn’t so great. It’s not about an individual, but I could look at the ownership. For many, many years, we didn’t have these built-in franchises. And for a long time we didn’t quite understand what “franchise” meant. One of the things we’ve been able to do is say that franchises for us don’t necessarily need to look like a Marvel movie. It can look like Pitch Perfect. It can look like Fifty Shades of Grey — movies that are made for a modest amount of money with a high profitability.

Will it be tough meeting the 2018 release date for Jurassic World 2?

Langley: There’s no reason why we should [have trouble]. [Director] Colin Trevorrow is busy working on an outline. He’s been working with Steven [Spielberg]. And they have an idea for the next two movies actually. It was designed as a trilogy, unbeknown to us. It’s a happy surprise.

Alan, Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige recently managed to break free of Marvel’s controlling CEO Ike Perlmutter and will report to you. How did that come about?

Horn: We moved Marvel onto the studio lot. So, they are with us in Burbank and …

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But that move was a bit ago.

Horn: It was a couple of years ago. Now, this is just an organic assimilation of Marvel into the rest of the company, and it operates exactly the way the folks operate at Pixar, Lucasfilm, in Sean Bailey’s group [at Disney Studios] and at Disney Animation. Each of the groups has a lot of autonomy. And they have earned the right to make a lot of decisions on their own. But Kevin’s 50 feet away or 150 feet away [from me]. It just made more sense to have everything organically under us. But beyond that, I wouldn’t discuss it.

Marvel is known for very tight fiscal constraints. Do you think it will ease a bit without Ike in the picture?

Horn: First of all, we are going to continue to run it very much as a business. I know we got a lot of calls from agents that said, “OK, can we just double …”

And you said, “Sure,” right?

Horn: Ike is a superb businessman, which is why he’s worth so much money. And he’s a good guy. I get a kick out of him.

Rob, with the final Hunger Games out Nov. 20, what does the future look like for Lionsgate without that franchise or Twilight?

Friedman: They’re never really over. They live on with audiences. We’ve taken a small idea out of the Disney and Universal lexicon. We have the location-based entertainment that we have been growing now for the last couple of years, we have theme parks that we are working on, and that will come to fruition in the very near future. We have a stage play based on The Hunger Games coming out shortly.

Could you do what Warners is trying to do with J.K. Rowling and Fantastic Beasts and restart a franchise?

Friedman: We did a movie at Warner Bros. called Never Say Never. (Laughs.)

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Speaking of Twilight, the first one was directed by a woman, then the rest were made by men. But if a guy directs a tiny movie, no matter how miniscule it is, suddenly he’s on a tentpole. Why is it that nobody takes the chance on the woman for the big tentpole movie?

Langley: I can say if female director X walked in and says, “I want to be considered for the next Fast & Furious,” we would have a conversation. I don’t have all of the answers as to why it is. But [Jurassic World‘s] Colin Trevorrow wasn’t just a guy who directed a movie that was in Sundance and he was discovered in Starbucks. He was sitting in the chair next to Brad Bird and talking to Steven Spielberg and out there — and almost interning with [producers] Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy. He was somebody who directed Safety Not Guaranteed almost as a way of proving that he had a certain tone and a certain sensibility that could then enable him to have conversations about what would be next. Mind you, I don’t think he imagined in a million years that Jurassic World would be the next step for him. That is certainly not to suggest that there are not female directors who also equally want to go and direct big tentpole films. Elizabeth Banks [of Pitch Perfect 2], by the way, is somebody who …

Rothman: We just hired Elizabeth Banks to direct Charlie’s Angels!

Langley: There you go …

Rothman: … And that is a big kick-ass action tentpole. It’s tonally not at all like the show was. It’s a pure, very visceral action film.

Langley: And her directing Pitch Perfect was very much a step toward her being able to go and put herself up for a film like that.

What is the first movie each of you remembers seeing in a theater?

Horn: I think it was Bambi.

Snider: I remember The Sound of Music and Oliver! I don’t know if they were the earliest, but they were the most vivid.

Friedman: The Ten Commandments. I lived in a small Southern town where the theater was only open on weekends. But they opened it up on a Wednesday. So the school went and saw The Ten Commandments.

Langley: Before I moved to the Isle of Wight, I lived in the suburbs of London and saw Fantasia, and it scared the living daylights out of me. And I didn’t go back to the movies until many years later to see a Lasse Hallstrom film.

Rothman: I don’t remember the first movie I saw, but I remember the first movie I saw twice back-to-back, and that was Lawrence of Arabia, and that changed my life.

Moore: I was going to say the first one I remember seeing twice was Star Wars. So, I’ll continue to help Alan’s business.

Tune in for this season of Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter beginning Sunday, Dec. 13, at 11 a.m. ET on Sundance TV.

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