Q&A: Producer John Davis

Fox-based producer thriving at studio his dad once owned

Illustration by Chris Moore
In January, producer John Davis signed a four-year renewal that keeps his company at Fox, where he's been since 1984, around the time his father, Marvin Davis, sold the studio to Rupert Murdoch. The Harvard Business School grad has proven one of the most reliable producers in town, with hits as diverse as "Predator," "The Firm" and "Garfield." This year he has a full slate including June's "Marmaduke" as well as "Earthbound," starring Kate Hudson, the animated "The Legend of Spyro" and the 3D "Gulliver's Travels."

The Hollywood Reporter: You say studios have a third as many producing deals today as when you began 25 years ago. Do the studios still need producers?

John Davis: The studios are great at picking from what we place in front of them, but somebody has to put the food on the plate to pick from. Producers, I would say, generate 75% of the ideas for movies that get made. That's my gut. That said, it is more difficult in this business. It's kind of "produce or perish."

: Fox's top managers adhere to the bottom line more than some studio execs. How has that affected what you do?

: I both love and admire Tom Rothman. He's got a distinctive business plan, and he sticks to it. The studio is the most profitable in the business; you can't even argue that. And he's been able to do great with a cost-effective and conceptual approach: presold titles, pre-awareness, event movies that feel like events and all that. I think a lot of the studios have copied that model. I find a lot of people at the other studios I work with kind of gravitating toward the Fox model. So, at least for now, that has set the standard.

THR: As budgets are tightened, are producers being disrespected?

: I can't imagine anyone disrespects Jerry Bruckheimer. I can't imagine anybody disrespects Brian Grazer. I can't imagine anyone disrespects Scott Stuber. You know what I mean?

THR: But what about everyone else?

Davis: Writer deals have been cut. Director deals have been cut. Overall deals. What you're seeing is a pruning of costs in our business. A lot of mid-level writers aren't being employed anymore. A lot of mid-level actors have been cut to a percentage of what they used to make. This has gone on throughout the entire business.

THR: How long is the 3D phenomenon going to last?

: This is the third wave of 3D I've lived through, and I think it's just like visual effects. Initially, it's really exciting, and it's a different way of experiencing a movie. However, once you become familiar with the technology, then it comes back to the same thing: telling a great story. It's hard for me on some level not to think it's a bit of a gimmick right now and it will not sustain itself unless the movies made in 3D are great stories.

: "Gulliver's Travels" was shot in 2D and is being converted. But many have criticized the look of conversions like "Clash of the Titans."

Davis: Look at the technology; I think it looks pretty good. I think it's going to enhance the movie. I actually do. Because it's a big visual effects movie and it's got a lot of cool action in it.

THR: You've had a unique view of the studio business from when your dad sold Fox to Murdoch to now. How has the business evolved?

Davis: I guess it's really hard to kill a studio. Unfortunately, they might have killed MGM, but other than that, the original studios from the '20s are still there. And I don't know if there are going to be any new ones.

: What's your development strategy?

Davis: I've got like 20 really great projects at Fox, and I'm doing what any great producer does: working hard to make sure the storytelling is good enough to get the studio to make it. You've got this little stone, and you keep polishing it and polishing it and hope that someday it becomes a diamond. And hopefully, other people will realize what you have is a diamond.

THR: It sounds like being a parent.

Davis: It is. You fall in love with it during the development process. You become bonded. It becomes part of you, and that's why I think producers are so passionate and have a hard time letting go. Because they may sit 20 years with something and fall in love with the process and the idea. Then it becomes less yours and more the director's and the actors'. They're going to fuse it and change it, so you kind of have to let your baby go and let it walk.