The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Studio Report Card, Part 5: 20th Century Fox

January 23, 2009 | 11:01 am

For several years now, 20th Century Fox has earned the unenviable reputation of being the least talent-friendly studio in town, avoiding strong producers, rarely working with A-list directors and keeping an uncomfortably short leash on the filmmakers that do manage to get projects going on the lot. In the past, Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman (who takes the lead on production decisions) had such a good instinct for mass-appeal ideas that the studio could crank out box-office hits with mediocre talent. But in 2008, the chickens came home to roost, with the studio failing for the first time in years to place even one film in the Top 10 highest-grossing films around the world. As a comparison: Paramount released four movies that all easily outperformed "Horton Hears a Who," Fox's top-grossing film of the year.

AustraliaTo make matters worse, Baz Luhrmann's "Australia," the one film that was supposed to appeal to both the cognoscenti and the popcorn crowd, failed to do either, staggering to a lackluster $46.9 million in the U.S., barely half of what Fox executives had predicted for the film. The reviews weren't pretty, with the New Yorker's David Denby capturing the critical tone: "The movie joins a 1939 plot to contemporary technology--old Hollywood cheesiness meets new Hollywood cheesiness." The studio had a few other modest success stories, most notably the thriller "Jumper" (co-produced with Regency), the broad comedy "What Happens in Vegas," the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (which has done well internationally) and M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening," which ended up making a tidy profit thanks to its strong overseas performance. (All our box-office figures, provided by Media By Numbers, are through Jan 4.) But the numbers for those hits paled in comparison to the performance of Fox pictures in years past.

The studio's classiest fare came from Elizabeth Gabler's Fox 2000 unit, which delivered the year-end hit "Marley & Me" (though the studio hedged it bets by sharing the financing with Regency) and the year's first film, the low-budget success "27 Dresses." Unfortunately, much of the remainder of the slate was populated with movies that aimed low--and missed, including a tired "X-Files" sequel and the hapless Eddie Murphy comedy "Meet Dave." Many of Fox's other failures were films that were financed by outside investors, including "Space Chimps," "Mirrors," "Shutter" and "Deception," but even if the studio had little or no money in the films, its willingness to gum up its release schedule with such forgettable product only reinforced the studio's reputation as a schlock factory.

Having scared away most top talent with its tough dealmaking and rigidly controlled production process, Fox rarely seems to nourish any original ideas, leaving it stuck in a formulaic rut. When its summer films faltered badly, the top brass pointed to its potent 2009 summer lineup, which is just as lacking in originality--the three big films are all sequels. Co-Chairman Jim Gianopulos acknowledges that the studio got a good punch in the nose last summer, but he defends its filmmaking process. "We believe our business strategies and our studio management are sound," he told me. "We had a great streak--seven years of record profits--and every streak comes to an end. But we'd call it a disappointment, hardly a tragedy. We expect to be back on top again this year."   

Performance: C-plus.  Quality: D-plus.    Overall: C-minus.