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In a stunning development on the eve of the Academy Awards, Disney announced Tuesday that longtime Searchlight Pictures chairmen Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula will be retiring from the specialty division, home of numerous Oscars.
At Sunday’s Oscar telecast, for example, Searchlight’s Nomadland is considered a frontrunner for best picture, among other top awards. Utley and Gilula told staffers of their looming exit in the coming weeks during a lunchtime town hall.
Searchlight veterans Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum, Searchlight’s longtime heads of production, have both been promoted to president, Searchlight, and will jointly run the company.
News of the leadership transition comes two years after Fox Searchlight became part of the Disney empire as a result of the Disney-21st Century Fox merger. Then-Disney CEO Bob Iger repeatedly extolled the value of Fox Searchlight, which gave his movie studio a greater foothold in the awards business.
Since then, the landscape has changed dramatically, between the ongoing pandemic and leadership changes at Disney. Gilula and Utley actually decided to leave last year, but put off their departure until awards season was over.
Upon arriving at Disney, Fox Searchlight received a slight name change and is now known as Searchlight Pictures.
Greenbaum and Greenfield will report to Disney Studios Content chairman Alan Bergman and Disney Studios Content chief creative officer Alan Horn.
“Thanks to the stewardship and pitch-perfect creative instincts of Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley, Searchlight has cemented itself as one of the finest film studios in history, and we commend and thank them for their incredible leadership, especially throughout the integration of Searchlight at Disney,” said Bergman and Horn, who also praised Greenfield and Greenbaum for being a critical part of Searchlight’s success. “We’re confident they will continue to set a course that keeps Searchlight on the industry’s leading edge.”
“Our time at Searchlight has been the kind of career highlight one can only dream of in this business,” said Utley and Gilula. “Over the past 21 years, we’ve had the privilege to build and lead an incredible team, and work with brilliant artists, to take creative risks, champion stories we’re passionate about, and, along the way, make iconic films that will stand the test of time. We’re so proud of how this studio has grown and evolved over the years, and we’re ready to pass the torch to carry on the Searchlight legacy.”
Disney itself has undergone dramatic leadership changes. In February 2020, Bob Chapek succeeded Iger as CEO, with Iger focusing solely on his role as chief creative officer. And late last year, Bergman succeeded Horn as chief of the film studio (Horn continues in his role as chief creative officer).
Among other changes at Searchlight: In an expanded role, Rebecca Kearey will head business operations and international marketing. Creative executives Katie Goodson-Thomas and DanTram Nguyen will continue in their film development and production roles. All three will report to Greenbaum and Greenfield alongside marketing heads Michelle Hooper and Larry Baldauf, acquisitions lead Chan Phung, and Searchlight Television leads Gina Kwon and Jennifer Gonsky.
Founded in 1994 as Fox Searchlight Pictures, the company’s titles have grossed over $5 billion at the worldwide box office, amassing 28 Golden Globe Awards, 49 BAFTA awards and 40 Academy Awards including four best picture winners since 2009: Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman and The Shape of Water.
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