Investor Jeffrey Ubben on Putting Money in Fox, UTA and Sundance Movies

Barbara Vaughn/Courtesy of Route One Entertainment; Eric Charbonneau/Courtesy of Route One Entertainment
Jeffrey Ubben, Russell Levine

"It's going to be civil war," Ubben tells THR of the effect the Trump administration may have on content. "The arts will probably revel in it."

Jeffrey Ubben, the activist hedge fund manager, increasingly is turning his attention to Hollywood. He sits on the board of 21st Century Fox — his $11 billion, San Francisco-based ValueAct owns 7 percent of Fox's voting shares — and in 2015 he bought a 17 percent stake in UTA. Ubben, 55, and producer Russell Levine, 63, also run the boutique film shingle Route One Entertainment, which heads to Sundance with the comedy Landline and Anne Hathaway's monster pic Colossal. It is the third year in a row that Route One has had a film at Sundance after A Walk in the Woods and Tallulah. Route One also put money into the upcoming film, The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.

You have kept your involvement in Route One quiet. Why?

UBBEN I have a day job running ValueAct. But I've been doing more and more in Los Angeles. Frankly, I think content is king. I love character-driven literature, movies and TV shows.

Why did you decide to invest in Fox?

UBBEN The key for us is that [CEO] James Murdoch is in his early 40s, and everybody else running a media company — whether Les Moonves, Bob Iger or Jeff Bewkes — are in their mid-60s. I felt very good about James and Lachlan [Murdoch]. We've worked aggressively to form a direct relationship with customers and move away from affiliate fees and … linear cable.

What's the strategy behind investing in UTA?

UBBEN I knew [CEO] Jeremy Zimmer from my nonprofit work, and he was having partner succession issues, so I wrote a personal check to help him with some of those issues.

You sold your last film, Tallulah, to Netflix. Is not getting a significant theatrical release a problem for directors?

LEVINE All directors want to see their movies on the big screen. At the same time, they understand the reality of the situation.
UBBEN In the end, I think more people will have seen Tallulah the way it was done by Netflix than had it played in theaters. The goal is to have people see your movie.

How did you two meet?

LEVINE We met on the soccer field in San Francisco about 10 years ago. Our daughters played together for many years. I moved to Los Angles a few years ago and was working with a couple of producers who were trying to raise money and Jeff was the only person I asked.

What have found most challenging about the film business?

UBBEN Appointment viewing isn't interesting to the millennials. They don’t want to be told what time they have to show up at a theater at a certain time. I've also found the P&A model [marketing] very inefficient in terms of finding viewers. There is a carpet-bombing mentality. The P&A on top of the equity makes it very high-risk without the sort of reward I can find in my day job. So we’ve adapted to be more careful and reduce our budgets.

Are you worried the Trump administration will have a chilling effect on content?

UBBEN It's going to be civil war. The arts will probably revel in it.

As a business person, are you worried?

UBBEN  I do feel the malaise lifting because of the promise of deregulation. It’s a strange time. Something bad could happen with this guy. It is sickening to watch these businessmen kowtow to him all of a sudden. The almighty dollar is what drives these people and they are going to Washington — or New York — with their hat in their hand and that doesn’t appeal to me.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.