The Inside Drama: How Stacey Snider Pulled Off a Coup at Fox

Illustration by: Jason Raish

Courting the Murdochs, David Geffen helps her land the top studio job as a rushed announcement leaves many lingering questions.

Insiders at 21st Century Fox portray the surprise June 16 upending of its film studio management as an example of responsible succession planning, and certainly the current drama at Viacom — on a more macro level — is a vivid illustration of what can go awry when a plan is faulty. It's clear succession issues are at play here as Rupert Murdoch's sons, Lachlan and James, begin to put their stamp on Fox's film and television assets.

But what is baffling to so many in Hollywood is that in naming Stacey Snider as the future chairman of the 20th Century Fox film studio, the Murdoch sons — deferring to their father's 2014 decision to hire Snider in the first place — have upended the exceptionally successful management at one of the industry's few stable movie companies. Rather than ascending when the studio has been so broken that change seemed inevitable — as happened at Sony Pictures with Tom Rothman replacing Amy Pascal post-hack — Snider, 55, rises when Fox has been on an enviable roll with gutsy hits including Gone Girl, The Martian and Deadpool. Now, overnight, the studio has a major morale problem; the question that remains is what battles will be fought and how wholesale the executive changes ultimately will be.

It doesn't help that Snider — perhaps, as supporters argue, because of challenges beyond her control — cannot cite many big successes in her previous tenure as co-chairman and CEO of DreamWorks or in her 18 months as vice chairman of the Fox studio. Rather, she appears to have risen through an old-school strategy, tenaciously courting and winning the backing of some of the industry's most senior power players.

Sources at Fox admit the announcement of the changing of the guard, which theoretically takes effect in a year, was rushed out ahead of schedule and the situation is "awkward." The timing was dictated by questions that had started to surface in the media — a May 31 Hollywood Reporter column noted "it's unclear, moving forward, what Snider's portfolio will be" — as to whether Snider had found a place in a studio that seemed to be running well.

After initially winning over Rupert, 85, Snider is said to have found a key ally in Lachlan, 21st Century Fox's 44-year-old executive chairman. She also is said to have befriended Lachlan's wife, Sarah, opening the door to social opportunities with the family on occasions when Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos was not part of the picture.

Meanwhile, sources say Gianopulos, 64, may have lost ground with Lachlan when he pushed back hard against a recent buyout plan that saw as many as 400 studio employees depart as well as against the recent ouster of longtime business affairs chief Greg Gelfan. In retrospect, insiders see Gelfan's departure as a sign institutional change was in the works.

Now, even though Snider officially won't take the reins as chairman until next summer, she must manage the fallout of the management shift both internally and externally. "Fox had become one of three places — Disney, Universal and Fox — where you could feel as though you were going to be supported and the movies turned out to be successful," says one top filmmaker. "It feels as though Jim is being punished for success."

Longtime Snider ally and DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg sees it differently, describing this as "one of the best examples of successful succession of a studio in decades." Katzenberg, whose company has a deal to release its films through Fox until the end of 2017, says Snider has been on the job at the studio long enough to be "deeply embedded" in its affairs. As for Gianopulos, he says: "Jim is as accomplished, effective and just plain liked an executive as any in our industry today, and he is moving on in success. For sure, he will do something new and great."

Gianopulos, who, like the other Fox execs, declined comment beyond the flowery statements announcing the transition, hasn't said he's going anywhere, yet. His contract runs through June 2017, and the company said he then would take on "a new strategic role" at the parent. Many in the industry doubt that will happen. But the most intense speculation now is focused on the fate of production president Emma Watts, 46, who has two years remaining on her contract.

An insider says Lachlan and CEO James Murdoch, 43, have every intention of keeping Watts, and Snider is sending signals that she wants to make the relationship work. The question is whether that's possible now, given Watts and Snider probably have very little mutual trust and their styles could not be more different. (Snider is an astute politician, while Watts has a reputation for not returning calls and generally being prickly.)

The reasons for holding on to Watts seem obvious. Over the past few years, she has won respect from filmmakers — among them Fox's 800-pound gorilla, James Cameron, who is at work on four Avatar sequels. Sources say Cameron pointedly has made it known at the very highest corporate levels that his loyalties are with Gianopulos and Watts. Asked for comment, Cameron's producer, Jon Landau, says, "We have a great relationship with Jim, and we look forward, in the years to come, to saying we have a great relationship with Stacey."

From the beginning of Snider's tenure at Fox, the timing and the optics have been a problem. THR first revealed in February 2014 that she had a deal for a top job at the studio. The decision surprised many industry veterans, though at the time there seemed to be an opening because it was known — following the removal of Rothman as Fox co-chairman in 2012 — that Rupert Murdoch wanted Gianopulos to hire a strong creative second-in-command. But Snider's recent run at DreamWorks had not gone well. (Misses included Delivery Man and The Fifth Estate.)

Sources said then that David Geffen and Katzenberg had lobbied Rupert — approaching through then-wife Wendi Murdoch — and helped Snider overcome those issues. After all, Snider had strong experience at the helm of Universal for 10 years ending in 2006, a run that included such hits as the Bourne movies. "She can manage franchises, do a slate, run marketing, run business affairs and make a creative strategy for the next five years," a top executive at another studio said of Snider.

But Steven Spielberg would not release Snider from her contract, which ran to the end of 2014. So her difficult tenure at DreamWorks dragged on for months. Meanwhile, Fox began to soar. By now, says one important filmmaker with ties to Fox: "Emma has completely transformed the identity of the place. Filmmakers like her, and agents are OK with her because she's honest and up front with them."

Snider arrived at Fox in late 2014, and the Murdoch sons began to take the reins the following year. But insiders say Snider has had no signature projects and seemingly no important allies inside the studio. In fairness, no one probably saw any reason to cut her in on the action. Elizabeth Gabler, who runs Fox's successful Fox 2000 label with hits including The Fault in Our Stars, outright refused to report to Snider. (What Gabler will do when Snider takes over remains one of many unanswered questions of the transition.)

What brought matters to a head were murmurings in the press: THR's column was followed by Variety pursuing a story raising the same issue. Then THR, doing research for the industry power list published today, began interviewing top executives and asking about Snider's murky role at Fox. It isn't hard to imagine Snider, who likely already was pressing her bosses to clarify her situation, could have recognized she might be permanently damaged by such articles. And Geffen arrived, by phone, to finish a job undertaken in 2014. Taking the unusual step of speaking for the record (from Italy), the reclusive 73-year-old DreamWorks co-founder dismissed "the gossip in town" and defended Snider as "an extraordinarily talented executive."

With that, 21st Century Fox expedited the succession announcement. At the time, Lachlan and James Murdoch — who haven't made their presence much felt at the film studio — said in a joint statement, "Succession planning is hard, and in a creative enterprise like 20th Century Fox Film, we are very cognizant of how tricky this can be." One veteran Fox executive agrees with that sentiment. The alchemy of a studio is a delicate thing, observes this person, and once upset, "it takes years to get it back." For anyone who doubts that some in the Fox orbit are upset, consider the appraisal of one important filmmaking talent. "While Jim and Emma were making the movies," says this person unhappily, "Stacey was making the moves."

This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.