Fox 2000 tries to outrun rumors

Lack of niche proves no hitch as division finally flashes wallet

Elizabeth Gabler boosted her stock in executive circles by shepherding Twentieth Century Fox “Cast Away,” which grossed more than $400 million worldwide.

When she was installed two years ago atop Fox 2000, however, many showbizzers thought landing at the studio’s secondary live-action division was akin to being shipwrecked on an inhospitable island.

That perception stems from the fact that the original vision for 2000 has never been realized, as Gabler and other Foxers readily concede.

But the unit’s acquisition late last week of rights to Walter Kirn’s hotly pursued novel “Up in the Air” — the first project picked up for director Jay Roach and his Everyman Pictures in its deal with the studio — is the latest sign that the division is well on its way in becoming a significant force within Fox.

Original architects

Originally headed by Laura Ziskin, Fox 2000 was created as one of the four production units in a major studio overhaul in 1994. Its main architects were former studio topper Bill Mechanic and News Corp. prexy and chief operating officer Peter Chernin.

Fox 2000 was to produce eight to 12 pics a year specifically targeting a female demo.

Instead, the division released a slate that varied wildly in theme, quality and quantity each year. Many observers soon questioned the viability of a multi-divisionstructure — Fox Searchlight, Fox 2000, TCF and Fox Animation — particularly in light of Fox 2000’s substantial losses.

When Gabler came on board in 1999, Fox 2000 seemed like a leftover from an outdated strategy. Many thought the division would suffer a fate similar to Fox Animation and be phased out completely, or at least be left to languish alone.

However, instead of isolation, Gabler, a former Fox exec production veep, has found a great degree of autonomy at Fox 2000.

According to TCF co-topper Tom Rothman, Fox 2000 long ago abandoned its original mandate and now makes the movies “Gabler wants to make,” such as upcoming high profile pics “Unfaithful,” which stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane from helmer Adrian Lyne; and “Phone Booth,” from director Joel Schumacher.

“Elizabeth is one of the best production executives in town,” Rothman says. “She is responsible for developing from scratch two $200 million-plus movies (“Cast Away” and “What Lies Beneath”). So she is encouraged to pursue her aesthetic interests.”

No ID

Even with the ability to act on her interests, Gabler still finds herself fighting to carve out an identity for the division, which has a staff of seven execs including Gabler — similar in size to Searchlight, Fox’s specialty division.

“I’ve never understood the trademark Fox 2000 because no one really ever explained it to me,” admits Gabler. While Fox 2000 still seems to lack a specific niche, Gabler, a former ICM agent and spouse of CAA’s co-chair Lee Gabler, sees her responsibility at the studio very clearly: Fox 2000 will produce between four and eight pics a year that have the commercial ability to open wide any week of the year.

Despite recent high-profile acquistions, speculation about Fox 2000’s demise, has continued unabated, passed on as fact by agents and managers. Even studio staffers and Fox-based producers have spread the doomsday hearsay.

The bad buzz is likely a residual of a number of factors, including Gabler’s reaction to the threat of a summer strike.

“I felt we were facing a situation with the impending strikes that never happened,” Gabler says. “I made a conscious decision last March not to rush any of the movies. By the time I felt that the scripts were ready to put the movies together, a lot of the actors weren’t available.”

In part as a result, only two pics sport the Fox 2000 label this year: Last spring’s romantic comedy “Somebody Like You” with Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman and drama “Joe Somebody” starring Tim Allen, which bows this winter.

Still going

Regardless of the rumors, Gabler says Fox 2000 is here to stay, an assertion bolstered by a recent flurry of activity including acquisitions such as “Truck 44” from Peter Berg that has piqued the interest of Will Smith.

Others not in the immediate Fox family find the loose definitions of the division liberating. One example is director George Tillman Jr., whose State Street Pictures has had a deal with Fox 2000 since 1996, and whose “Soul Food” is one of the division’s biggest successes to date.

“We can’t define what exactly Fox 2000 does,” Tillman allows, “and that’s part of the pleasure of working there.”

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