William Mechanic, who has been Peter Chernin’s right-hand man in restructuring 20th Century Fox, has been named chairman and chief executive officer of Fox Filmed Entertainment. The promotion has been in the offing since Nov. 4, when News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch promoted Chernin to president and chief operating officer of Fox’s parent company, News Corp.
One of the first calls Chernin made after getting his promotion was to Mechanic. The two were in separate cities at the time and Chernin asked Mechanic, “So, do you want to do this?” The two began more formal negotiations several days later, which concluded last week. Per senior executives at the company, Mechanic’s new contract runs for five years.
As the head of the studio, the 46-year-old Detroit native will now oversee all operations including worldwide feature film production, marketing and distribution. All worldwide operations for FoxVideo, Fox Interactive, Fox Music, as well as Licensing and Merchandising, will also fall under his purview.
The reporting structure on the TV side of the studio will remain status quo. Fox Filmed Entertainment senior executive vice president Tom Sherak will continue to report to Mechanic. And the newly minted studio head has no plans to fill his old slot of president and COO, despite speculation in some quarters that one of Fox’s division heads might be getting promoted.
“We’re not filling that slot any time soon,” said Mechanic. “I like the way things are working here right now, and Peter’s not going away.”
The news of Mechanic’s elevation was announced to the executive cadre at the studio during a quick meeting Wednesday morning.
Around town producers and talent agents were sanguine about the promotion, pointing out that while Mechanic is a tough negotiator and can be laconic at times, he does not play games. If there was one concern voiced about Mechanic adapting to the job, it was how he will adapt to the talent-schmoozing component of his new role.
“I’m comfortable letting the creative talent be the stars,” said Mechanic. “My job is to serve up the pictures – not be in the picture or be the story myself .”
“I’m not the kind of guy you picture riding in a limousine with Sharon Stone either,” added Chernin. “Also, Bill has developed first-rate relationships with a lot of stars like Mel Gibson on ‘Braveheart’ and Meg Ryan from her deal here. He is a decent, straight-forward guy and talent really appreciates that. There is this perception held by some superficial people that Bill was ‘the Distribution/Marketing Guy,’ while I was ‘the Creative Guy.’ That’s not the case. We have been partners in the true sense of the word, and Bill was involved in nearly every creative decision just as I was involved in nearly every distribution or marketing decision.”
Many in Hollywood forget that Mechanic is a film buff who came West with the intention of becoming a screenwriter. He was a doctoral candidate in film studies at USC before becoming an executive, and while a grad student his area of expertise was the political comedies of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges.
“I came out here to be a writer and I have always loved movies, but once I took my first real job in the industry I thought either foolhardily or with some foresight that I might run a studio some day,” added the new chairman.
Mechanic has been an effective behind-the-scenes player since joining Fox from Disney in November 1993. At Disney, as president of international distribution and worldwide video, he built the homevideo unit from a minor player into nearly double the size of its nearest competitor. He pioneered the concept of sell-through to mass merchants. Under Mechanic, Buena Vista stopped distributing its movies abroad through Warner Bros. in January 1993 and launched its own international division.
At Fox he took the position vacated by Strauss Zelnick when that exec ankled the studio for Crystal Dynamics. Since then, Mechanic has lived up to his name and streamlined the studio’s international, video and production divisions. And in partnership with Chernin, Mechanic crafted a production strategy for the studio that includes owning worldwide rights on the majority of Fox titles, gambling on emerging talent like Jan De Bont on “Speed” or Baz Luhrmann on “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” and developing event movies like “Independence Day.”
Together with Chernin, Mechanic was also instrumental in the studio’s efforts to beef up its number of releases by establishing Fox 2000 Pictures, Fox Family Films, Fox Searchlight Pictures as well as Fox Animation Studios, a state-of-the-art animation facility based in Phoenix, Ariz., whose first release, “Anastasia,” will hit theaters next Thanksgiving.
“I think there are few executives who have been as well prepared for this job,” said Chernin. “He’s been in the business 15 or 20 years – three years helping me run the studio. If there’s a specific area where there may be a learning curve it will be in figuring out the complicated issues we all are grappling with, like the rising cost and volume of pictures.”
As for Mechanic’s salary and compensation package, Chernin quipped, “We asked him to take a pay cut, and Bill felt that was appropriate.”