Claudia Lewis has long been Fox Searchlight’s ace in the hole, leading their production team since 2006, chasing projects and searching out talent at festivals, assembling productions all over the world. Now after two decades, she’s stepping down on May 23, accepting a studio buyout.
Decision-making is a group activity at Searchlight, led by co-presidents Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, who will rely on experienced EVP’s of Production Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum, who will serve as interim department heads. Searchlight suffered a lackluster 2015 at the box office, along with everyone else in the studio specialty sector, which has seen audience erosion of late. In the face of challenges to its business, there are pressures on Searchlight to reduce its overhead.
Meanwhile the Fox studio has started offering lucrative buyouts to long-tenured employees like Lewis. Searchlight also recently lost longtime acquisitions head Tony Safford. Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features are also trying to address a dwindling market.
Emerging at Sundance 2015 and playing later fall fests was Searchlight’s period romance "Brooklyn"(November 4), elegantly adapted from the Colm Toibin novel by Oscar nominee Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley, and starring glowing Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant juggling two swains. With "Birdman"’s haul last year, industry Oscar leader Searchlight has notched 13 Best Picture nominations in the past 11 years, more than any other company.
Lewis had admired and followed Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu since the first Critic’s Week screening in Cannes of “Amores Perros.” She landed the "Birdman" script, then Searchlight brought in financier New Regency. The two companies also collaborated on Oscar-winner "12 Years a Slave." She knew "Birdman" carried risks. "The script was terrific," she told me. "It went through some changes in the development process. He described it, in an Alejandro-esque way, as being the high-wire act that it turned out to be. But he knew he wanted the one-take style. He had it all in his head."
Lewis was also closely involved with "Wild," "Black Swan," "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," and "Juno," working with artists like Alexander Payne, Danny Boyle, Darren Aronofsky, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Jason Reitman, Jim Sheridan, Marc Webb, Jean-Marc Vallée and countless other global filmmakers. "I’m now excited to make a change, and to challenge myself and my creative instincts with a new chapter in my career," she stated.
Lewis’ most recent productions include Marc Webb’s "Gifted," Craig Johnson’s "Wilson," and "Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie" as well as pre-production on Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ "Battle of the Sexes" and Martin McDonagh’s "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri."
Lewis was part of the original Searchlight team, working with Tom Rothman. Their first release was Sundance pickup “The Brothers McMullen,” and their first big success, “The Full Monty." She’s been there for every film since.
Sometimes Searchlight gets involved with a movie from the beginning. But there are other cases where they monitor things for a long time, advise people, and then wait until the movie gets made before they pick it up. "Little Miss Sunshine" was such a movie, which eventually was acquired at Sundance. Lewis loved to nurture and advise filmmakers, even when a project didn’t quite fit the Searchlight mold.
I’m curious to see where Lewis’s love of movies takes her now.