Creative Space

Elizabeth Gabler Breaks Silence on Sony Move, Disney Exit, HarperCollins and Streaming Plans (Exclusive)

Victoria Stevens
"The days when we opened 'Devil Wears Prada' on Fourth of July weekend and it worked because it was counterprogramming — that’s really hard to do now," says Elizabeth Gabler. “You have to have a very special property, a very special film to do that." She was photographed Sept. 6 on the Sony lot in L.A.

The book-smart film executive behind 'The Devil Wears Prada' and 'Hidden Figures' opens up about the abrupt shuttering of Fox 2000, her new division’s name, reuniting with Tom Rothman and her next chapter.

It was a bolt from the blue when Disney film studio co-chairmen Alan Horn and Alan Bergman summoned Elizabeth Gabler into a conference room on the Fox lot in May and told her that despite previous assurances to the contrary, her highly regarded division, Fox 2000, would be shuttered in the wake of the Disney-Fox merger.

Gabler wasn't the only one caught by surprise: The industry was stunned that the executive behind so many diverse, often moderately priced hits had no place in Disney's plans. She had made influential, awards-worthy fare such as The Devil Wears Prada, Life of Pi and Hidden Figures as well as family-friendly movies including Alvin and the Chipmunks and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And Gabler was on the all-too-shortlist of women in the top ranks of the movie business — while Disney was (and is) a bit short of women in high-level jobs.

But no one imagined that Gabler would be at loose ends for long. Indeed, her phone started ringing at once, with Steven Spielberg among the earliest callers. And there was a quick email from HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray, who says he wrote: "Let me know when you're ready to talk. I have a crazy idea." He was well acquainted with Gabler from her films and because his publishing house remains part of the Murdoch media empire. Initially, Murray had a notion to start a production company, but Gabler considered and ultimately told him the better plan was to launch something with a studio behind it.

It was obvious that the two studio chiefs likely to compete to land Gabler were those who had been her bosses at Fox: Jim Gianopulos, who now runs Paramount, and Tom Rothman, now head of Sony Pictures. Some expected Gianopulos, less inclined to micromanage than Rothman, would emerge the winner, but with the Viacom-CBS merger pending, Gianopulos was operating under constraints. Additionally, Gabler would not have been able to make a deal with HarperCollins had she gone to Paramount since the Viacom-CBS merger would put her division under the same corporate roof as Simon & Schuster.

So Gabler took three execs from Fox 2000 with her and is in the process of adding two or three more to set up her division, 3000 Pictures, at Sony. Murray says HarperCollins is putting up "very significant" money to cover half of Gabler's overhead and development. Would the publishing company co-finance movies? "Anything's possible," he says. "We're big spenders, and if we get something that really works, we'd love to follow it all the way through."

Gabler, who is married to former CAA co-chairman Lee Gabler (they have one teenaged daughter), long was the envy of many in Hollywood because she generally went to the office two days a week, spending most of her time on her horse farm north of Santa Barbara. She says her schedule will change in her new role. Her airy offices, in two buildings that formerly housed studio chief turned producer Amy Pascal, are still a work in progress, but it's clear she will stick with a traditional, casual-but-elegant look.

Gabler sat down in early September to talk about the end of Fox 2000, her next chapter and how she'll figure out which movies are still viable theatrically and which work better for a streamer or premium cable — platforms she hadn't attempted in the past.

When news broke about your move to Sony, you initially weren’t happy with the way the story was reported. Why not?

Well, the original reports [based on leaks], which just seemed to proliferate on each other, were that we were a production company. And we're not. We're a division here at Sony. We're employees of Sony Pictures — our whole staff, as we were at Fox. I will be in senior staff meetings. We will be using the Sony business affairs team, marketing team, publicity team, production team, the same way we did at Fox.

Are you still going to do the two days here and three days at the ranch?

No, no. Right now, my daughter's a junior in high school so she's driving herself, and she knows I'm there for her a million percent but it's not like I have to be packing her lunch. We have an amazing staff in Santa Barbara and I have a house in Malibu. I need to be here. The most important thing is the company. I want everybody to feel that I'm accessible and that I'm here. 

What about the horses?

The horses have people to take care of them. 

This was your idea, not Tom's? He didn’t say he wanted you to be here more days?

No.

He doesn’t care?

He would never.

The whole time the Disney acquisition was pending, of course, you were thinking you were going be part of the merged company. 

Oh, it was in The New York Times business section the Sunday before [they said they were shuttering Fox 2000]. They had all the little divisions and you could see--there it was.

And out of the blue they called you in and said, actually, cancel?

Yeah.

I'm assuming the two Alans were very apologetic about how you had been misled.

No. We didn’t really get into that.

Really? I would've thought they'd be like, “Sorry--we told you you’re staying but we're not keeping you.”

No. There wasn't looking back. 

You must have been gob-smacked.

My first instinct was to protect the filmmakers and the projects. I went into this weird survival mode. Like, OK, well, you know, we have this movie called News of the World that Paul Greengrass is gonna direct, and Tom Hanks wants to star in it, and they're saving their slot for September for this movie, and you guys need to either make it or tell them they can have it back because these are people you respect, and you need to treat them right, and it's a wonderful script. And so that's what I did. [Disney released a number of projects, including News of the World, now at Universal.]

I was trying to be respectful, and we had three movies still that were in post, so I needed to be professional. And I have to say that Alan Horn and Alan Bergman were incredibly gracious and kind in everything that I've dealt with them on. 

And when I told my staff, I was not crying. I said, “You guys, you know what? We're holding our heads high. We're professionals. That's what we always have been.” 

Everybody came to our bungalow. Like, the Searchlight guys were there, the main division guys were there, the marketing people were there, the distribution people were there. Everybody came. Producers came. Everybody just came and hung out with us. 

A lot of people thought it would be Paramount that would bring you in.

Well, I love Jim and I consider him a dear friend. Words can barely speak my admiration for him and for everything that he's achieved in his career and the way he treats people, the way he cares about people. It was a really difficult decision but this particular configuration only worked here. 

Is it because of HarperCollins?

HarperCollins was a lot of it, yeah. . . I just knew the depth of that company because we had been part of the same company. But it doesn’t mean that I don't have the same relationships with Penguin and Putnam because we do. We have properties from all those places. And this deal allows us to buy material from any publishing house. Fiction, non-fiction, magazine articles--anything we want. We're not limited to HarperCollins and we're not limited to books, either. We can do a musical that's based on nothing tomorrow. We can do anything. 

We also have the ability to do things for streaming services and television, which I haven’t even begun to explore yet. That's part of this deal and that was really exciting to all of us and essential for HarperCollins, also. I think any publishing house would say the same thing, because today's world is different.

Very different.

A lot of the material that we would've thought without question could be a theatrical feature--I mean, this is old news but sometimes things will have a bigger and better life if they're on a streaming service. You have a lot less pressure to have an opening weekend against a monster movie.

The days when we opened Devil Wears Prada on Fourth of July weekend and it worked because it was counterprogramming--that's really hard to do now. You have to have a very special property, a very special film to do that. And it’s hard to get a young adult audience to go out to theaters the way it didn’t used to be.  

Is there some sort of analysis you’d use, like this should be streaming, this should be a movie?

I guess it's kind of a weird sixth sense that I have. One question is, is it able to be translated into a cinematic medium despite the fact that it doesn’t necessarily seem like it would be because of its concept? Life of Pi is a perfect example of that. There are many people who said there's no way--I don't know how you could ever turn this into a movie. But if you look at it as a boy who's orphaned, who's gone through terrible tragedy and is marooned on a boat with a tiger … everything was in images. His facial expressions, his anguish. It translated into every language because it wasn’t in a language.

Then, there are some that just literally translate themselves beautifully to a movie story. And then there are some that are the tricky, tricky, tricky ones where you go in with a screenwriter and you say, "Okay, how do you take this big story and turn it into something that's 120 minutes-ish, okay?" And sometimes you can do it and sometimes you can't. One of the ones that I tried really hard with years ago was Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True, which ultimately we could never crack as a two-hour movie. There was too much backstory. 

Look at Handmaid's Tale. How many years was that tried and tried? And [Hulu] found a way to do it that was the right way--the home run hit out of the park. 

Is there a guarantee you will get a certain number of movies greenlighted?

No.

In this environment where it's hard to find a space on the calendar for a movie, especially a scripted, not-superhero movie, you're going on faith that you can get this thing done?

Well, that's what I've always done. 

But the climate hasn’t been like this.

No, it's true. It has gotten harder, but I think one of the things Tom is so brilliant with and one of the reasons that I wanted to work for him again is because he's such a strategist. And he never stops working. He will sit there and chew a pencil until he comes up with what he thinks is a good solution, whether it's for a release date or marketing campaign or -- there's just so many little things that he did that made such big differences in the movies over the years. Like using the first two minutes of Devil Wears Prada as the trailer. Every trailer they did looked like a rom-com and it wasn't a romantic comedy at all.  

Let’s say you go to Tom and say, “I want to make this movie” and Tom says, “I want to do it.” Do you have to talk to Brian as well?

Well, I tell Brian.

Does he get to vote?

He absolutely would get to vote but they just want our company to be productive.

He's not going to say, “Don't make that movie”?

I don't think he would.

But he could?

That's much more the Sony part of it. Because HarperCollins is getting a lot of other benefits of having this company that Sony doesn’t participate in. For example, let's say they have a long-standing author who's written numerous books, and they say to that prestigious author, “We now have this great situation with Elizabeth Gabler and her colleagues. They love your books. Would you like to meet with them to talk about developing something--a movie, a [potential] franchise? That would be exciting for them to be able to do and to be part of the process.  

What about authors who want to try to go out an auction the hell out of their book?

There could be a person that says, “I don't want a movie at Sony. I don't want Elizabeth Gabler and her band of merry people. No. I want to go to Warner Bros. I like that place.” Then HarperCollins will say, “OK, fine.” They're not going to limit their ability to publish books that they want.

So hypothetically, Tom says no to a pitch. You then go call Jim at Paramount, or wherever?

I could, if it's a HarperCollins book. If it's a non-HarperCollins property and Sony does not want to make it in any area, then we say to the producers--as we would have at Fox--”They don't want to do it here, we love you guys, we wish you the best. Go take it and get it made.” 

So do you have a target of how many movies you hope to make a year?

I had six as a target at Fox. But I'm thinking if we make four movies, one limited series and one streaming movie or two, it would be great. That would be really productive for us and everybody would be happy. 

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.