Fox's cruel summer: Not a $100-million hit in the bunch
When News Corp. President Peter Chernin was taking a victory lap last week after the company reported a 27% jump in its fiscal fourth-quarter net income, he took pains to credit the 20th Century Fox Film Group for much of the good news. He also predicted healthy earnings in the future, pointing to such upcoming summer 2009 films as "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "Night at the Museum II: Escape from the Smithsonian." For Hollywood insiders, it was telling that Chernin--perhaps the savviest showbiz mogul of our era--somehow failed to mention any of his studio's movies from this summer.
And with good reason. This is the first summer since 1997 that Fox hasn't had a $100-million box-office hit. For 10 straight summers, the Fox assembly line has churned out every kind of hit imaginable, from "X-Men" movies to "Dr. Dolittle" and "Big Momma's House" family comedies to last year's "Simpsons Movie." Even more impressively, in three of the last four summers, the studio had three $100-million-plus hits each year (perhaps its best summer being 2005, when it had "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith," "The Fantastic Four" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," which all topped $150 million in the U.S. alone).
The remarkable consistency of the Fox movie machine has made this summer's series of disappointments and flops even more of a surprising stumble. It's a shock to the system--like the New York Yankees not making the playoffs. Built around intense fiscal discipline and tight creative control, Fox has been a studio that rarely made a false move. But this summer has been different. Without a true tentpole film, the results have been dispiriting. The studio's biggest hit was "What Happens in Vegas," a forgettable comedy that grossed $80 million in the U.S. and roughly $215 million around the world. "The Happening," a poorly reviewed thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, topped out at $64 million (though it's performed better overseas). The other films have been embarrassments, especially by Fox standards.
"Meet Dave," a costly Eddie Murphy comedy, was a big bomb; "The X Files: I Want to Believe" had a weak opening and dropped off precipitously afterward, and "Space Chimps" barely made a ripple (though it wasn't financed by Fox). This coming weekend's entry, "Mirrors," is another film Fox is simply distributing (it was financed by New Regency), but it's still eating up time and money on the release schedule. According to tracking numbers, it's on course to be another loser.
Fox executives say that after 10 straight summers of success it was inevitable that they'd have an off year. Fair enough. But I say the cruel summer numbers are also the result of a rigidly constructed system that has driven away nearly all of the creative filmmakers and producers who once worked on the lot, putting the studio's movies in the hands of hacks, newcomers and nonentities who largely execute the wishes of the Fox production team led by studio Co-Chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos.
Rothman and Gianopulos (who would not speak to me for this story) have been running the studio since 2000 and they've run it as well as anyone else in the business. But by Hollywood standards, nine years is the equivalent of a couple of centuries. Is it time for some new blood--or at least a new approach?
When it comes to Fox's movie management skills, I've always been of two minds. The part of me who has to balance a checkbook every month is always impressed, since the studio rarely wastes any money, avoids colossal blunders and shrewdly steers all its risky art-house projects to Fox Searchlight, its specialty film division. But the part of me who loves movies questions whether a studio can go to such lengths to manage risk that it bleeds all the joy, spontaneity and art out of the business.
With the exception of James Cameron and Baz Luhrmann, who make movies once every millennium, Fox rarely hires a filmmaker with contractual rights to final cut or any strong creative point of view. With the exception of Shyamalan, whose career has been in a downhill slide ever since "The Sixth Sense," this summer's films were directed by guys who will only get invited to the Oscars as someone else's date. "Meet Dave's" Brian Robbins did "Norbit." "Vegas' " Tom Vaughan did "Starter for 10." "Space Chimps' " Kirk De Micco is a first-time director. This weekend's "Mirrors" director Alexander Aja did the horror film "The Hills Have Eyes."
It wasn't always this way. In the early years of Fox's $100-million streak, the studio still occasionally had the appetite for classy summer fare made by A-list filmmakers. In 1998, both Warren Beatty's "Bulworth" and Forest Whitaker's "Hope Floats" were summer films. In 2001, the studio released Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" and Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" in the summer. Even as late as 2002, it put out summer films directed by such distinctive filmmakers as Adrian Lyne ("Unfaithful") and Steven Spielberg ("Minority Report").
But having suffered through years of having their chain yanked by the studio's business affairs department and having seen virtually every creative decision approved by Rothman, top talent learned to avoid Fox like the plague. After making an "X-Man" movie there, Brett Ratner complained that Rothman even had approval of releasing key photo images from the film. Innumerable agents have complained to me that Fox doesn't want filmmakers--it wants no-name traffic cops to direct its movies. Here're the people who directed the studio's 2007 summer films: James Wan, Tom Brady, David Silverman, Len Wiseman, Tim Story and Carlos Fresnadillo. I bet some of them are genuinely nice guys, but there's not a Warren Beatty or Tim Burton in the bunch.
Fox also doesn't have any A-list producers, because the real producers of Fox movies are its executives. Other studios have deals with Oscar-winning producers like Brian Grazer and Scott Rudin, box-office behemoths like Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver and a host of knowledgeable veterans, including Neal Moritz and Laura Ziskin (at Sony), Lorenzo diBonaventura and J.J. Abrams (at Paramount) and Kennedy/Marshall and Scott Stuber at Universal. Fox's biggest producer is John Davis, the man behind the "Garfield" and "Dr. Dolittle" franchises.
The executive with the most influence on filmmaking is Rothman, who is a fascinating jumble of contradictions. He got his start as an executive in the specialty film world, running Goldwyn Films and launching Fox Searchlight, yet he's now the epitome of a commercial-minded studio boss. Rothman also writes his own thoughtful monologues as the host of "Fox Legacy," a Fox Movie Channel show devoted to the history of great films from the studio library. Of course the irony is that the program celebrates films like "MASH," "Wall Street" and "Phantom of the Paradise," all pictures made by prickly, hard-to-control directors that today's Rothman-run Fox wouldn't dream of hiring.
Fox does have a powerhouse lineup of movies for next summer, so I'm certainly not predicting any precipitous fall from grace. But if the studio really believes it can continue to compete, year in and year out, without regularly working with top-flight artists, I think it will eventually find itself in decline. For decades, studios have tried, in one way or another, to take the risk out of filmmaking, either by laying off financing to outside entities or employing various sorts of quality-control formulas.
But art is elusive. It rarely responds to or can be regulated by any sort of formula. When Fox made "MASH" nearly 40 years ago, it thought the film was a disaster because it felt so far out of the mainstream. It turned out the film was more plugged into the emerging new culture than any of the studio executives. The same could be said about George Lucas' "Star Wars," or James Cameron's "Titanic," which was written off as an epic blunder before anyone saw a foot of footage. Great films come from great filmmakers.
If Fox continues to hire pliable, easy-to-control talent, it may discover that today's youthful audience, always on the prowl for something exciting and new and strangely different, will have the studio behind. Investors love predictable quarterly earnings, but moviegoers enjoy surprises. An immensely bright if sometimes overbearing man, I think Rothman still has some of that maverick, movie-loving spirit inside him. It's time he embraced it.
Photo of Eddie Murphy in "Meet Dave" from 20th Century Fox