Tom Jacobson was named yesterday to succeed 20th Century Fox worldwide production prexy Roger Birnbaum, who is leaving to join his former boss Joe Roth as a producing partner in the latter’s new production concern at Disney.
Jacobson has been serving as executive VP of production at Fox for the past 3 1/2 years and previously headed John Hughes’ indie company, Hughes Entertainment.
He was one of Roth’s first key executive appointments shortly after he took over as chairman of 20th Century Fox in 1989.
Birnbaum, who’s headed production at Fox since Oct. 1988 and been executive VP since Sept. 1991, was granted early release from his contract during a morning meeting yesterday with Fox’s newly named movie chairman Peter Chernin.
While Birnbaum officially begins his new job Jan. 1, he’s expected to make the transition much sooner. Roth’s last day at Fox is tomorrow and he will be hanging his shingle at Disney, with additional office space at Cinergi Prods., by the end of next week.
The simultaneous departure of Birnbaum and Roth, who resigned his post last week, has caused some trepidations among some executives and producers at Fox, who fear their absence may at least temporarily destabilize the studio’s motion picture unit.
Chernin, formerly Fox Entertainment Group prexy in the company’s television side, is busy getting up to speed, according to Fox sources. Chernin’s prior motion picture experience is limited to having run Lorimar.
Fox exec VP Tom Sherak, who’s been at the studio since 1983 and lived through six regime changes, observes: “I think that anytime you lose executives like Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum there will always be a bump in the road, but I believe the studio and the logo is bigger than any of the individuals.
“Although it might continue to be bumpy for a while, the studio will go on and prosper and have good movies and movies that don’t work and the new people in charge will have the opportunity to make their own name.”
Sherak added, “the positive news is we have a slate of 23 pictures that Joe and Roger have left us and that will help ease the bump.”
Still uncertain is the future status of another key Roth-appointed executive, Fox prexy Strauss Zelnick, who is currently working without a contract.
Of Jacobson’s new appointment, Zelnick said yesterday: “I think Tom is a superior motion picture executive and we are fortunate to have him as head of production. We all have great faith that he will make an enormous success of the job.” Zelnick would not comment about his own status.
Jacobson said he does not anticipate any major restructuring of the movie division, which comprises four senior VPs of production–Susan Cartsonis, Elizabeth Gabler, Riley Ellis and Michael London, and other lower level creative exex. Also, senior VP John Landau heads up physical production and reports to Jacobson.
“This is a solidly successful department which has turned out some great movies and I’m proud of my involvement in them,” Jacobson noted.
Five ready to go
Fox has five movies poised for production in the next five months: “The Good Son,””The Ghost in the Machine,””Beverly Hillbillies,” Mel Brooks’ spoof “Men in Tights” and Chris Columbus directing Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire.””I’ve been involved in all these movies in a supervisory capacity so it’s easy to pick up the baton,” Jacobson said. “Then, what’s most important is continuing the relationships with filmmakers we’re in business with and building on that successful base.”
Noting that he and Chernin are just starting to strategize, the executive said, “We’re very active and intend to possibly increase our development a little bit–my mandate is to keep making movies.”
Like Roth and Birnbaum, Jacobson has strong relationships with filmmakers such as John Hughes and Jim Abrahams.
In an phone interview from his Chicago base yesterday, Hughes expressed elation at Jacobson’s promotion.
“I’ve known Tom for a long time and I trust him personally and professionally ,” Hughes said. “We’ve made movies together, he ran my company and he brought me over to Fox” in early 1991.
Ties to Hughes
Jacobson coproduced with Hughes “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” for Paramount amd during the two years he headed the indie company prior to coming to Fox, he coproduced “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” for Warner Bros. and “Uncle Buck” for Universal and executive produced “The Great Outdoors.”
Jacobson began his career in 1986, working in a variety of capacities for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and went on to become production manager on Paul Schrader’s “Cat People” and the comedy “Best Friends.”
“Tom’s not a schmoozer, he’s real tenacious,” Hughes said. “What a filmmaker needs most from a studio is an answer and he’s always gotten them to me quick. … He’s real smart and he works very, very hard. He’s not one of those guys you call on Friday and he’s gone.”
Hughes credited Jacobson’s involvement in “Home Alone 2,” which the filmmaker said “was not an easy picture to make in New York, but he’s great in production and gets everything on the screen.”
While Hughes conceded that it may be a “shock” for there to be a studio regime change weeks before his picture opens (Nov. 20), he added, “Peter and Tom are going to be an interesting team and I’m going to continue to camp at Fox.”
Roth, with whom Jacobson has a close personal as well as professional relationship, said of the executive’s new appointment: “I think Tom’s a wonderfully skilled executive and I have all the confidence in the world he can do the job between his skills as a working producer and his relationships in the filmmaking communities.”
As for his new endeavor with Birnbaum, Roth said, “We’ve known each other’s taste and … he’s as talented an executive as there is in town.”
While he would not detail Birnbaum’s deal, Roth did acknowledge that he is guaranteed an annual salary (in the form of a producer’s fee) and a big piece of the backend: “He’ll have the opportunity to work with me on five pictures a year and if they do well, he’ll do really well.”
Birnbaum is not a partner in Roth’s company and, like other exex there, will not carry a title. In that way, Roth is modeling his company after Ted Field and Robert Cort’s Interscope Prods.
Roth said he plans to keep his company very small and his intention is to hire maybe one more person in development.
Soon after the first of the year, Roth said he hopes to announce his first two movies for Disney.
Birnbaum said joining Roth is “like a dream come true.”
When he was partnered with Henry Winkler in Monument Pictures from 1980 to 1985, Birnbaum produced Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy “The Sure Thing” and presented with Amblin Films Barry Levinson’s “Young Sherlock Holmes.”
During his tenure at Fox, Birnbaum oversaw the development and production of such films as “Home Alone” and its upcoming sequel, “Hoffa,””Toys,””Die Hard 2, “”Hot Shots!,””Sleeping With The Enemy,””My Cousin Vinny,’ “White Men Can’t Jump ,””Grand Canyon,””For The Boys” and “Shining Through.”
Birnbaum served as production prexy at United Artists from 1987 to 1988 and supervised such productions as “Rain Man” and “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka.”
For the two years previous, he was president of Guber-Peters Entertainment Co., where he developed “Rain Man,””Batman” and “Gorillas in the Mist.”
Birnbaum embarked on his industry career in music as VP of artists & repertoire for A&M Records, where he worked from 1973-1976. He served as VP of A&R at Arista Records from 1976 to ’78.
In 1978 he became special assistant to the chairman of the board of the Robert Stigwood Organization, working on the hit “Saturday Night Fever,” the long-running Broadway musical “Evita” and records by such artists as the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton.