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This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When producer Robert Simonds tapped former Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson in late September to run his new studio, the last of three studio heads to fall from his perch during a tumultuous year in Hollywood had found a chance to reinvent himself.
Fogelson, a 15-year Universal veteran who was abruptly ousted in September 2013, followed Tom Rothman, who exited Fox after 18 years in September 2012. In June 2013, Jeff Robinov departed Warner Bros. after 16 years. Now Hollywood is anxious to see what Fogelson’s still-nameless company, Robinov’s Studio 8 and Rothman’s TriStar Productions can produce with three very different business plans overseen by three very distinct personalities.
All face the perennial risks intrinsic to the movie business, in which success depends on stories, relationships with talent and a feel for the zeitgeist. But there are dangers particular to the current state of the industry. All three new businesses — especially TriStar and the Simonds company — will aim to make movies to fill a space largely abandoned by the studios as they pursue big-event franchise films. But there still is plenty of competition for audiences from big-swing studio films and myriad other distractions. And the new companies also will have to go up against such smaller competitors as Lionsgate, Focus Features and MGM.
For Robinov, 55, and, to a lesser degree, Fogelson, 47, there is the additional risk of relying on money from Chinese backers, who often prove to be mercurial. (Ask Jeff Berg about his Resolution agency, which foundered this week after a prolongued standoff with Chinese investor Bison Capital.) In Robinov’s case, after talks broke down with Huayi Brothers, he finally has at least secured about $200 million from Fosun Group (banks are providing the bulk of up to $1 billion in available funds, and Sony Pictures, which will release Robinov’s films, is putting $50 million into the venture). Simonds’ company primarily is financed by giant hedge fund TPG, but there is said to be an unspecified amount of Chinese money coming from Hony Capital.
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Still, it isn’t the vagaries of Chinese financing that lead industry observers to see Simonds’ company as the riskiest of the new ventures. Its top management — Fogelson and president and chief content officer Oren Aviv, formerly head of the Disney film studio — made their names in marketing, but neither fared as well in a top studio job. And with plans to spend more than $1 billion over five years to hire a staff of more than 60 and make and release as many as 10 movies a year, the company will run by far the biggest overhead. Unlike Studio 8 and Rothman’s Sony-based TriStar, it will shoulder the heavy expense of marketing and distributing its own films without a library to generate cash. A prominent producer points out that even the formidable David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg could not sustain a company launched from scratch with twice the financing.
And given its expenses, the Simonds company will be under pressure to put out product fast, notes a top producer. That raises the risk, especially as he doubts the company is going to get a shot at the most promising projects. “No one is going to them first, second, third, fourth or fifth,” he says.
Rothman, 59, who was the first to land in his new position, would appear to have a much clearer path to success with far less ambitious plans. His goal is to make up to four movies a year. Sony supplies the money (he never has said how much) and will market and distribute his films. Rothman has not announced budget parameters, though he has suggested he’s not aiming to make franchise plays.
So far, he has announced three projects that boast name talent: Jonathan Demme‘s Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep; Robert Zemeckis‘ film about high-wire artist Philippe Petit; and Ang Lee‘s drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a group of soldiers on leave from duty in Iraq. The Demme and Zemeckis projects already are dated for 2015.
Robinov, also setting his sights on far fewer movies than the Simonds company, plans to make up to six movies a year. Sony will release his films, so Studio 8, like TriStar, has no need to build up costly infrastructure.
Still, the risks are clear: Robinov appears ready to lay relatively big bets, with budgets ranging from $45 million to north of $100 million. But if successful, he could emerge as a dominant player at Sony, boasting relationships with Christopher Nolan, Ben Affleck and Todd Phillips. “In a world of analytical thinkers, he is one of the few gut players around,” says one veteran exec. But can Robinov, Rothman or Fogelson be judged based on their previous performance? “All three of these guys had an incredible support system around them. When you get them alone, they’re not necessarily the same person.”
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Jamie Lee Curtis