Pam Levine is out, ex-Disney exec Oren Aviv is in at Fox Marketing. Veteran industry watchers know that this means that studio co-chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos are under duress. When a major studio suffers a bad run at the box office and then lets go of a top marketing exec, it’s considered a scapegoat maneuver. It usually signals that if the management team doesn’t produce some hits in the following year, they could be next. (Here’s the LAT.)
Of course Fox management’s fate is in the hands of News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch (especially now that lieutenant Peter Chernin is gone). Murdoch may weigh Rothman and Gianopulos‘s stellar record over time–both execs have been at the studio for decades. Rothman came in as head of Fox Searchlight and moved over to production, while Gianopulos oversaw Fox’s international operation, which is a box-office juggernaut, and along with Avatar, saved the studio’s bacon last year. Needless to say it is good news that two James Cameron Avatar sequels are in the pipeline for 2014 and 2015. But that could be too late if Fox doesn’t turn the ship around soon.
What happened? Fox has pursued a conservative strategy for the past seven years, which chugged along nicely until it ran out of gas. The studio, perhaps distracted by the hugely demanding Avatar, did not change course in time. The results: stale remakes like The A Team, Marmaduke and Gulliver’s Travels, all safe brand-name titles that no one really wanted to see.
Take out Fox’s 2009 carryover grosses on Avatar ($408.4 million in 2010) and Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 ($63.7 million in 2010), which boosted the studio’s domestic total to a fourth-place market share on $1.39 billion (down 4% from 2009), and the studio’s domestic gross was $918 million. Luckily, Fox made up for such U.S. flops as Knight and Day and Percy Jackson & The Olympians: the Lightning Thief abroad, nearly tying Warner Bros.‘s industry record of $2.93 billion. The studio did launch one franchise: Diary of A Wimpy Kid.
Things could look up in 2011. Blue Sky’s animated Rio should perform, as well as the sequel Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules. Tentpoles include Matthew Vaughn’s prequel X-Men: First Class, which has a strong cast led by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence (who aren’t exactly marquee draws) and Rupert Wyatt’s Planet of the Apes prequel Rise of the Apes with rising star James Franco (June 24). Mark Waters’ family film Mr. Popper’s Penguins, starring Jim Carrey, looks expensive and problematic, but there will be fans of Alvin and the Chipmunks 3D (December 11).
The rest of the slate, with the exception of Martin Lawrence sequel Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (February 18), has potential but doesn’t look overtly commercial: Fox 2000’s Rob Pattinson/Reese Witherspoon drama Water for Elephants (April 22), David Gordon Green’s The Sitter, starring Jonah Hill (July 15), Andrew Niccol’s sci-fi thriller Now, starring Justin Timberlake, Cillian Murphy and Olivia Wilde (September 30), dating comedies What’s Your Number?, starring Anna Faris (April 29) and McG’s This Means War, starring Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy and Chris Pine (November 28). One movie I’m looking forward to: the return of Cameron Crowe, directing a script by The Devil Wears Prada scribe Aline Brosh McKenna (We Bought a Zoo), starring Matt Damon as a man who moves his family to England to run a zoo. Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning co-star (December 23).
It’s no longer easy to fool the audience with easy-sell titles and same-old formulas. There is no recipe for success, beyond chasing innovation, experimentation and quality. While most studios hate having to rely on execution, Rothman’s the risk-taker who wooed Peter Weir with a sword to get him to direct Master and Commander, who has championed Baz Luhrmann. These days audiences are flocking to smart films like Fox Searchlight’s own 127 Hours and Black Swan, as well as other risky bets such as True Grit, The Social Network, The King’s Speech and The Fighter. Who knew that westerns would come back? That animation would find its golden age? I’m betting that Rothman and Gianopulos are clever enough to figure out how to get back on the winning track.