Last summer, 20th Century Fox studio executives were touting Tom Arnold’s performance in “True Lies” and wearing buzzcuts in homage to the Keanu Reeves hit “Speed.” This summer, however, no one at Fox asked his barber to copy Daniel Stern’s coiffure from “Bushwhacked.”

Over the last year, a series of underperforming pictures and plain, bad luck – like Hugh Grant’s arrest two weeks before the opening of “Nine Months” – threw cold water on the sizzling News Corp. film division. Although the studio has a $100 million hit in “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” some high-profile projects didn’t even get a chance at the box office: The Jodie Foster-Robert Redford pic “Crisis in the Hot Zone” was aborted, while the big-budget meller “Higgins and Beech” was pulled from pre-production and tucked back in development.

Whether or not the poor performance constituted a crisis or a hiccup, events came to a head with the Sept. 18 exit of Fox president of worldwide production Tom Jacobson, who will return to indie production. He was replaced a day later by Tom Rothman, the founder of the studio’s specialized division, Fox Searchlight Pictures, and the executive responsible for Fox’s recent arthouse hit “The Brothers McMullen.”

Rothman, a former entertainment attorney and president of worldwide production for the Samuel Goldwyn Co., must demonstrate an immediate affinity for developing big-budget commercial films, with which he has little experience.

At the same time, the studio must further define and coordinate Fox’s various film divisions, which have been a source of confusion for Hollywood agents and some producers. Besides Fox proper, the studio releases films under Laura Ziskin’s Fox 2000 banner and Chris Meledandri’s Fox Family Films, not to mention Rothman’s Searchlight division.

“I think the lines between the divisions are pretty clear,” says Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Peter Chernin. “What Searchlight does is clear, and the lines are pretty clear between the other divisions and Family Films. There are not clear lines between the other two (20th Century Fox and Fox 2000), because there are not supposed to be. Those divisions are defined by the taste and personalities of the individuals who work there.”

Translating his talent

At Searchlight, Rothman distinguished himself by quickly cobbling together a slate of films from worldly directors Stephen Frears, Bernardo Bertolucci and Spike Lee. The true test for Fox will be whether his talent for wooing arthouse wunderkinder can be translated into producing commercial blockbusters.

“If I was afraid of big-budget movies, I wouldn’t have taken this job,” Rothman says. “It’s going to be fun to have some money to spend for a change. But if the big-budget movie was Waterworld’ I’d be afraid of it, as well I should be.”

Sink or swim, Rothman becomes head of production at a time when other studios are intensifying their financial and perk-intensive courtship of key stars. Chairman of Columbia-Tristar Motion Pictures Mark Canton has loosened the purse strings and offered Jim Carrey $20 million for “The Cable Guy,” paid Robin Williams $15 million for “Jumanji,” and he most recently locked newcomer Alicia Silverstone into a three-picture, $10 million deal.

Star courtship

“You have to be an idiot to be paying these rates for stars day in and day out,” says Fox Filmed Entertainment president and chief operating officer Bill Mechanic. “We are willing to pay for the right star in the right movie.”

Chernin and Mechanic are quick to point out that overpaying for talent does not equate to a talent-friendly studio. After all, the studio is in business with box office powerhouses like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Denzel Washington and Reeves.

One key player that Fox has paid well for is writer-producer-director Chris Columbus, who worked closely with Jacobson and whose 1492 Productions is based on the lot. “I have a great relationship with Peter Chernin and Bill Mechanic,” says the director of “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Nine Months.” “We’re in business for the long haul.”

One high-profile production on the lot is “Courage Under Fire,” the $50 million wartime drama from Fox 2000. The film, starring Washington and Meg Ryan, is slated to go before the cameras next month for director Ed Zwick. Washington will be paid $10 million for his role, and Ryan $6 million.

Those star salaries, however, did not come easily. Sources familiar with Ryan’s negotiations say Fox initially offered $2.5 million for the supporting role, at a time when the deal for her production company was up for renegotiation. The salary was raised; Ryan reupped her Prufrock Productions deal at Fox.

Steve Dontanville, Ryan’s agent at International Creative Management, says Chernin and Mechanic ultimately paid Ryan the same amount they did for “French Kiss.” Dontanville says: “In our case, they’ve been nothing but really smart and cooperative in dealing with Meg and her production company.”

But the studio hasn’t forgotten how to say no. Last week, an internal memo from business affairs made it clear that the studio would not honor Ryan’s request for a private jet from the film’s Austin location to New York City, where Ryan is slated to speak at a UNICEF affair.

New tact

When it comes to Rothman, a question being asked around town is whether he can shift from making pre-buys and acquisitions to being a producer who builds a movie from the script – or better yet, a pitch – up.

“Tom Rothman makes director-dependent movies; no one tells Spike Lee or Bernardo Bertolucci what to do,” says one senior exec at a rival studio. “He doesn’t have to be creative. All he has to know is who he wants to be in business with.”

Responds Rothman, “Good movies are good movies. While people know me for what I am now, I actually have a varied background. I worked for Columbia for two years and represented big, big stars when I was an attorney.”

Perhaps a more significant force than Rothman in determining Fox’s future will be Mechanic. Already the former Disney executive has lived up to his name by trouble-shooting and tinkering with the studio’s efforts in homevideo, animation and foreign co-production.

While Fox had summer hits with 1994’s “True Lies” and this summer’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” the foreign rights to those films were sold to other studios. Fox has since sought to retain foreign distribution rights and even acquire some from other studios, including Paramount Pictures’ “Braveheart.”

Fresh start

Fox’s slate through the rest of the year certainly looks more promising, with the upcoming Ralph Fiennes-Angela Bassett starrer “Strange Days,” next month’s release of the bigscreen version of Terry McMillan’s bestselling novel, “Waiting To Exhale” and the Christmas actioner “Broken Arrow,” helmed by John Woo.

While some producers and talent agents blame Fox’s internecine competition as a cause for the studio’s fallow period, execs there believe the four different development pipelines are poised to hum.

“The big story of this studio will come over the next 12 months,” Chernin said. “The divisions are all up and running. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go.”

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