This year saw long-term planning payoff

HIGH POINTS: The force was with Fox in early 1997, as the studio flew at warp speed into the year with the re-release of “Star Wars” in January. Twenty years after its initial release, George Lucas’ sci-fi classic garnered more than $138 million. The re-release of the entire “Star Wars” trilogy was the story of early ’97, as the industry took note of the franchise’s enduring appeal — the three films together grossed $250 million — and Fox’s ability to market the films to a new generation of moviegoers.

The year also saw fruition of the restructuring plans begun nearly five years ago by News Corp. chief operating officer/president Peter Chernin and Fox chairman/CEO Bill Mechanic. All four divisions — Tom Rothman’s 20th Century Fox, Laura Ziskin’s Fox 2000, Chris Meledandri’s Fox Family Films and Lindsay Law’s Fox Searchlight — were fully up and running, with the three 20th divisions releasing 13 films during the year.

“This was a year that everything we put in motion four years ago has started to mature and is beginning to pay off,” said Mechanic. “While we’ll always be adjusting things, we’ve proven that the four divisions work and make for better control of the creative process.”

By the fall, each of the divisions had released films it considered “signature” pics: Fox Searchlight with “The Full Monty” and “The Ice Storm”; Fox Family with “Anastasia”; Fox 2000 with “Soul Food”; and 20th with “Alien Resurrection” and “Titanic” (in the overseas market).

In November, “Anastasia,” the studio’s first venture into the Disney-dominated theatrical animation arena, opened to a robust $14.2 million, despite Disney’s overloading the market with the re-release of “The Little Mermaid” the week before. “Anastasia” has brought in more than $53 million worldwide to date, with a wider international rollout planned for the spring. More important, the film quieted skeptics and established Fox’s presence in the animation field for the long haul.

December held the release of Fox’s much-ballyhooed “Titanic,” which despite budget woes, fighting between Fox and domestic distributor Paramount and the film’s 3ΒΌ-hour running time, became the “must-see” pic of the season. Although the arrangement with Paramount drew some bad blood during the summer, in the weeks preceding its release, sniping had subsided and both studios — who will split the overall pot — rode James Cameron’s $200 million-plus epic to a $28.6 million launch and an $112 million gross by the end of the year.

Though he is breathing a little easier as “Titanic” grosses roll in, Mechanic said that if he had to do it all over again he would have insisted on more prep time for the film, and although “we’re done with the pissing match and both companies are selling it well, I would not have split the rights — and I would have brought my own life preserver.”

In a change of direction, Fox, which has been a stalwart defender of owning worldwide rights to its films, yielded to the increased costs of filmmaking and inked a $250 million, 15-year deal with Arnon Milchan’s New Regency, wooing the company from Warner Bros. The deal, which takes effect in June, provides Fox with a deep-pocketed co-producer with a track record of critical and box office successes.

After the addition of New Regency, Fox began streamlining its producer ranks, focusing on only the most productive of the studio’s full-service filmmakers while cutting back on costly housekeeping deals. Since January, the studio has added such filmmakers as Mike Newell, Harold Ramis, Ben Stiller, Arnold Kopelson, George Tillman and Bob Teitel and Tracey and Kenneth (Babyface) Edmunds to an it ranks.

LOW POINTS: “It was the best of times and the middle of times,” remarked Fox domestic film group chairman Tom Sherak. “In a business of peaks and valleys, overall it was a good year.”

Coming off its most profitable year ever in 1996, Fox learned that fortunes can be lost as easily as they’re won when playing event pic roulette. The studio fell to earth with a thud after Fox 2000’s $90 million “Volcano,” which brought in only $47.5 million. The studio also endured a long summer marked by the gloomy showing of the $150 million-plus “Speed 2: Cruise Control.”

Fox also found itself struggling to keep the very execs and filmmakers who had helped institute its restructuring. The studio has not been able to come to terms on a new pact with Fox 2000’s Ziskin, whose contract expired in November. Fox lost the services of highly respected executive vice president Jorge Saralegui, who left his employer of eight years to move over the hill for a Warner Bros. production deal.

And while Fox has the inside track on their next project after “Godzilla,” the studio is no closer to signing “Independence Day” creators Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich for the sequel than they were earlier in the year when the studio failed to lock the duo into a long-term production pact.

And despite the huge success of the “Star Wars” trilogy re-release, George Lucas has not yet announced whether Fox will distribute his upcoming prequels.

OUTLOOK FOR 1998: Fox enters the year with a resolution to practice fiscal responsibility. According to Mechanic, Fox is committed to making more films under $25 million. It has only three films (“Dr. Dolittle,” “X-Files” and “Thin Red Line”) with budgets greater than $50 million slated for release this year.

Tom Rothman’s division begins the year with the less-than-$20-million actioner “Firestorm,” starring Howie Long, then follows with Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of “Great Expectations,” toplining Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke. The late winter and early spring are highlighted by Warren Beatty’s long-awaited political satire “Bulworth,” Richard Linklater’s “The Newton Boys” and the Forest Whitaker-helmed “Hope Floats,” starring Sandra Bullock.

While some have noted Fox’s “lean lineup” for summer ’98, the studio is hanging its box office hopes on three films from Rothman’s division: the Eddie Murphy starrer “Dr. Dolittle,” the feature version of Fox TV’s hugely successful “X-Files” series and Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s comedy “Something About Mary,” starring Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz.

Rothman points out that Fox will have approximately 15 production starts in ’98, including Ed Zwick’s “Martial Law,” starring Denzel Washington (which could be ready for a holiday release); the James Cameron-scripted and produced “Planet of the Apes”; Bryan Singer’s “X-Men”; “Entrapment,” starring Sean Connery; “Highboys and Lowboys,” with Chris Rock and Rupert Everett; “King’s Ransom,” helmed by John Woo; and the Chris Columbus-produced “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

Fox 2000 is slated to release at least five of its character-driven pics in 1998, including John Smith’s “Cool, Dry Place,” Mike Newell’s “Pushing Tin” and Terence Malick’s war epic “Thin Red Line.”

Ziskin is planning a holiday release for Jonathan Kaplan’s “Brokedown Palace,” starring Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale, as well as “Ravenous” with Robert Carlisle and Guy Pearce starring for director Milcho Manchevski.

Seeing much of its hardy development slate maturing, Fox 2000 plans an early 1998 start on David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton expected to star; and Ziskin is confident that the sci-fi Western “Ghost Riders” will go before the cameras this year under Jan De Bont’s helm.

While the industry has speculated for months that Ziskin wanted out of her Fox 2000 post so she might hang her own production shingle, Ziskin said that even though she has not renewed her deal, “I’m still there and as far as I know I’m not going anywhere.”

Fox Family’s Chris Meledandri points out that with the success of “Anastasia,” the studio’s commitment to animation will expand.

“We’re looking forward to increasing the number of pictures that will be run through the Phoenix studio, as well as lower-budgeted independent projects,” said Meledandri. “We will be stretching into areas where there’s no pre-existing templates because we’re confident in the audiences’ acceptance of animation and believe that their tastes are not limited to the movies that have been produced.”

Fox Family already is under way with its second animated feature, “Planet Ice,” which is slated for a 1999 release. Family also is producing a homevideo prequel of “Anastasia,” which has Hank Azaria returning to voice Bartok the bat in the release scheduled for next year.

The division also has lower-budgeted animated, CGI and stop-motion feature projects in development with such creative forces as “The Simpsons” Matt Groening, comic writer Berkeley Breathed (“Outland,” “Bloom County”), Henry Selick, Chris Columbus and Steve Oederkirk.

Meledandri added that while the division is focused on animation, his “mandate for live action fare is left wide open.”

In addition to the remake of “Fantastic Voyage,” with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin producing, Fox Family is packaging other live-actioners, including “Disaster Area,” “Silver Surfer,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Wing Commander.” Family also recently pacted with Tim Burton to produce the first of what it hopes will be a longrunning, live-action “Goosebumps” franchise.

– Chris Petrikin

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