STX Film Chief Adam Fogelson on China Money, Ambitious Slate and Universal's "Bittersweet" Success

THR Adam Fogelson - H 2015
Hussein Katz

THR Adam Fogelson - H 2015

Former Universal chairman takes aim at major studios with midbuget, star-driven dramas (like Jason Bateman's new thriller 'The Gift'), talks about spending $1 billion on 15 movies a year, and discloses whether Huayi Brothers have creative input.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

From his office atop a Burbank high-rise, Adam Fogelson has a bird's-eye view of three major Hollywood studio lots: Warner Bros., Disney and, perhaps fittingly, Universal, where he worked for 15 years, including four as chairman, until he abruptly was ousted in September 2013. Now, Fogelson, 48, is trying with STX Entertainment to do what Relativity Media and even the old DreamWorks couldn't: challenge the traditional studios by moving in on an area they largely have abandoned, midbudget ($25 million to $75 million), star-driven dramas rather than superhero pics and prebranded tentpoles. And he's making a lot of them. The 65-employee STX, founded in spring 2014 by industry veteran Robert Simonds and backed by, among others, TPG Capital and China's Hony Capital (with significant film financing coming from China's Huayi Bros.), is planning to spend about $1 billion a year to release 15 movies annually by 2017, starting with the Jason Bateman horror thriller The Gift, out Aug. 7. The challenge of launching those projects with a much smaller staff than at his former employer falls to Fogelson, a married father of two daughters (ages 11 and 9) who grew up in the business (father Andrew ran marketing for several studios, uncle Alan Hirschfield once ran Fox and Columbia Pictures and brother Noah now is the top lawyer at STX) and is known as one of the town's shrewdest marketers. Along with studio president Oren Aviv and production head Cathy Schulman, he has booked movies with Julia Roberts (Secret in Their Eyes, out Nov. 20), Matthew McConaughey (Free State of Jones, March 11) and Mark Wahlberg (the action project Mile 22). He invited THR to his office to talk about STX's relationship with China money, Universal's "bittersweet" success and Hollywood's female director problem.

Is releasing 15 movies a year too many for a company this small?

It's only too many if you can't find good projects to make. Early evidence is that's not a problem. Or if you don't have the capital to properly make them or market and distribute them. That's not a problem. Or if you don't have quality manpower, and that's not a problem. Or if you don't have access to major screens on major studio terms, and that's not a problem.

You've picked a lot of nonprime dates to open movies, yet the studio tentpoles have been moving to year-round releases too. Is there room for smaller films?

The reality is that we've gone from 20 weeks a year that everyone considered to be huge opportunities to 50. So even if blockbusters are being spread out over the entire year, there is a significant audience that is being underserved by virtue of less product in the marketplace than there has been historically. It's not critical to us that we win a weekend with a film. If we can counterprogram against something else and serve an audience, we're happy.

A ceramic golf shoe from Fogelson’s mother: “It perfectly encapsulates my mom’s sense of humor,” he says.

What's your pitch to filmmakers? Why take a project to STX?

From a marketing and distribution standpoint, we are working 100 percent at the level that the other major studios are. We're not trying to market and distribute these movies for 20, 30, 40 percent less. On the production side, however, we have combined the marketing and production disciplines inside the company. The benefit to filmmakers is they know before they start exactly how we're going to sell the film, so there are no surprises down the road. We're also giving filmmakers a huge amount of creative running room.

Do you think the major studios are overstaffed?

For marketing and distributing the tentpoles that have become the core, that does require a level of manpower that significantly exceeds what we're doing. That said, most of the majors continue to trim 2, 3, 4 percent a year or every other year. So probably over time, the majors will continue to look for efficiencies.

If you look at recent companies that have tried to do what you're doing, it's Overture, Relativity and Summit. Two failed, one made it thanks to Twilight. Do you need a huge breakout quickly?

No. Because we have an extraordinary amount of capital at our disposal. More than the amounts that have been published.

STX has taken on the Relativity project Out of This World. Are you looking at more of its movies?

We're not taking on anything else at the moment, no. [But] we'd look at anything that's available that fits our model. For most studios, their slates are being built fairly far out. We have the ability to quickly act now.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis wrote an apology after a combative meeting on the 2000 submarine pic 'U-571.'

You got The Gift from producer Jason Blum because Universal passed. Do you feel second tier?

No. There are also projects like Mile 22 — which a lot of people in town wish they had — that has nothing to do with second tier. That was a project that came out of a relationship and a lot of work over a few months to put together. I would also say that a number of the films at Universal that we were successful with were films that other people didn't want.

How do you and Robert communicate to your backers the risk in making nonprebranded movies?

If you are spending $5 billion, $6 billion, $7 billion a year to run a company, a $30 million movie that makes a $30 million profit — while that's great for a return on an investment — doesn't move the needle that much. But if you could be spending $1 billion a year to run your company and not $4 billion, $5 billion, $6 billion … suddenly those movies can become significantly more meaningful in the overall profile of the company.

Fogelson won a Telly award for marketing 'Fast and Furious.'

At Universal, you greenlighted Pitch Perfect, Ted, the fifth Fast and Furious that rebooted the series and Despicable Me. How do you feel now that those franchises are helping drive the studio's huge 2015?

I'm incredibly proud of what we did when I was there, and I still have lots of friends there, and it's a little bittersweet to not be able to be there to enjoy what was set in motion. But at the same time, 100 percent honestly, this is an opportunity that is a complete dream come true, and I wouldn't trade where I am at this moment for anything.

A Fogelson bobblehead gift from Tom Cruise for 2013’s 'Oblivion.' “Tom is a pro,” says Fogelson.

You lined up all the U.S. theater chains before you launched. What is your plan for international?

We're a work in progress in that area. We have no one model that we're relying on right now. We've got films that we are preselling [to foreign territories]. We have films that we're partnering on with majors. There certainly has been an extraordinary amount of interest globally. Because of the capital we have, we don't have to do anything on any particular film.

Explain the relationship with Huayi Bros. Do they want input on picking movies and marketing?

They don't. They believe in the business plan. I think there is a sense that the traditional, mature, major studio business doesn't totally jibe with their vision of how business should operate. The entrepreneurial aspect of what we're doing is incredibly appealing. No one here is taking a major studio salary. Everyone here is betting on the health and vibrancy of the company over the long term.

“I’ve always been struck by the design and color of these soda bottles."

So there's no mandate to make movies for China?

No, just an opportunity. And when we decide to take advantage of it, we think we can take advantage of it really, really well because our relationships are as strong as they are.

You haven't been a buyer at film festivals. Will you?

I'm absolutely not opposed to buying films at festivals. I don't think it will ever be a primary core aspect of what we're doing. Only because I don't think I've been particularly adept at identifying festival films that have a chance to [perform]. I also don't think there's a long list of festival movies that have gone on to be great box-office performers.

There's a lot of talk about the lack of female directors on studio films. Only one of your first seven movies, Besties, has a woman director in Kelly Craig. Why?

I'm a long-married man with two daughters who has been surrounded by strong female executives throughout my career. I've had the benefit of working with Stacey [Snider], [former Universal distribution head] Nikki Rocco, Donna [Langley at Universal]. What I can tell you is I've never seen or heard anything that made me believe there was even a thinly veiled subconscious effort to give preferential treatment. Now, that having been said, the numbers are the numbers, and that's why I think more questions need to be asked.

The poster of 'U-571' won Fogelson a THR Key Art Award.