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Fox focus is filmmaker-friendly

Beefy director deals encourage edgy projects

Taking a lesson from Hollywood’s past, the majors are realizing that it’s good to be different.

In their heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, each studio had a distinctive personality: MGM boasted musicals, Warner Bros. was identified with social-realist dramas.

But for the past few decades, studios’ output has been interchangeable: An Adam Sandler comedy or a Marvel-inspired adventure could have come from Sony, Universal, Paramount or anyone else. This made life difficult for them — and for suppliers, who had little idea where to bring their particular projects.

Nowadays studio chiefs are once again asserting their individuality.

WB is focusing on tentpoles and star vehicles; MGM is doing urban comedies and teen pics. (Paramount is charging into $100 million films at a time when other studios are getting to the $200 million threshold.)

Meanwhile, Twentieth Century Fox is learning to zig where other studios zag.

The studio kicks off the summer season with Memorial Day opener “The Day After Tomorrow.” Like most studios, Fox is putting its energy and marketing bucks into its summer tentpoles — but in its own way: “Tomorrow,” with a $125 million pricetag, has no A-list stars.

Fox’s gameplan, in a nutshell:

  • Fewer star vehicles. Most of this year’s crop of Fox movies — from summer pics “Dodgeball,” “Garfield” and “Alien vs. Predator” to holiday fare like “Flight of the Phoenix” and “Fat Albert” — avoid pricey gross players.

  • More director deals. Fox has more helmers based on its lot than any other studio — and they actually make their pictures at the studio, which is rarer than it sounds. (Paramount chief Sherry Lansing used to joke that the best way to get rid of an unpleasant director is to give him a first-look deal: It guarantees he’ll make his movies elsewhere.)

  • In an era when tentpoles are edging past pricetags of $200 million, Fox sticks to its mantra that “You have to be risky creatively, but prudent financially,” says co-chairman Tom Rothman of his risk-sharing strategy.

  • It’s fostering family films. Rothman says that means pics with “a little attitude: You can go with your kids, but you can enjoy it as an adult.” Examples include the “Dr. Dolittle” duo, “Big Momma’s House,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” and “Ice Age” — all of which were relatively inexpensive and which each earned $100 million plus.

The net result: Fox is savoring “two back-to-back historic years in earnings,” says co-chairman Jim Gianopulos, and this year is likely to do so again.

This is not to say deal-making at Fox has become easier.

Privately, agents grouse that Fox is the hardest place in town to make a deal, and give its business affairs execs low marks for civility.

“They act like they’re doing you a favor,” says one top agent who recently made a deal for a helmer client there — even as he concedes that, in a way, they are.

Fox is remarkably loyal to its adopted director family. For example, helmer Ed Burns, who first scored with the Fox Searchlight pic “The Brothers McMullen” was hired to rewrite both “Flight of the Phoenix” and another upcoming Fox tentpole, WWII epic “Escape of the Pacific Clipper.”

While acknowledging that the studio has had some money-losers, like “Mooseport” “we’ve had no expensive misses,” Rothman says.

Part of the reason is that on big films like “Master and Commander,” the studio will share the risk. Even though “Master” (shared with Miramax and Universal) and the less-pricey “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” didn’t live up to their blockbuster-franchise potential, Fox ended up making modest profits on both films.

Fox has had a tougher time at the box office recently. At a cost of $30 million, “Welcome to Mooseport” generated barely $14 million domestically; “Girl Next Door,” even though a disappointment at $14 million domestically, was wholly financed by Regency Enterprises.

Still, DVD sales this quarter have been strong for “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Master and Commander.”

While there have been no big losers, there have been occasional big winners.

In all, Fox will release 13 pics this year. The summer slate of five movies reps the studio’s plan to “either make movies for broad audiences or defined audiences. We always ask ‘Who are the movies for?’ ”

The other summer tentpole, aside from “Day After Tomorrow,” is the Alex Proyas-helmed “I, Robot,” starring Will Smith (the rare star vehicle on the sked; Fox 2000 has two of its own. Denzel Washington-starrer “Man on Fire” and Cameron Diaz pic “In Her Shoes”).

The summer’s other three films are for divergent auds.

” ‘Garfield’ won’t lure the 19-year-old boys; that’s OK, we didn’t make it for them. But they’ll have ‘Dodgeball,’ ” says Rothman.

And then there’s horror pic “Alien vs. Predator,” a followup to the videogame that’s sold 700,000 units in the last three years.

Gianopulos and Rothman are proud of the studio’s consistency in the last few years. But they admit they have an advantage over many of their counterparts: Both execs say Rupert Murdoch has been very supportive, and it’s a big relief for the exec team — and on-lot filmmakers — that they don’t have to worry about a sale of the studio or an exec shuffle.

“We have tremendous stability above us, and great stability among the ranks, so we’re able to concentrate on our work,” says Rothman.

Fox leaves riskier adult fare like “The Dreamers” to Peter Rice’s specialized division Fox Searchlight, or splits them with other studios, as it did with “Master and Commander,” a three way co-production with Miramax and Universal.

Like most studio execs, Rothman talks dollars, but he also uses words like “creative” and “aesthetics” a lot.

Compared to other studios, “We take a different approach,” he says. “We’re pretty director-centric: We invest in them.”

Consider: Peter & Bobby Farrelly are producing “The Ringer” at Fox Searchlight, and just made “Stuck on You” last winter. Mel Gibson’s Icon shingle will release “Paparazzi” in the fall; Ridley Scott is shooting “Kingdom of Heaven.” Bryan Singer will likely do a third “X-Men” pic, while John Moore and Forest Whitaker have pictures coming out in the next 12 months. And all of them hang their production shingles on the Fox lot.

Only Jay Roach has yet to make a movie there; most Fox-based helmers are on their second or third pics.

Why?

“All our director deals have a defined picture component to them,” explains Rothman.

That means that instead of making a first-look deal and then attempting to find a movie for that helmer, when Fox makes a picture with a directors it often simultaneously gets commitments from them to make more.

The resulting movies might seem like arranged marriages, but at least they are marriages between attractive and trusting families.

Says Rothman, “When I had lunch with John Moore last week, who directed ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ for us, we didn’t even talk about that movie. We talked about his next one.”

It also means the Fox doesn’t spend as much time developing projects that won’t get made.

“Our directors are all very selective in what they want to do next,” says Hutch Parker, prexy of production at Fox. “And so we carry significantly fewer projects in development,” close to 90. “When you make 15 movies a year, that’s a very tight ratio.”

How do filmmakers like it?

“They’re very hands-off,” says Peter Farrelly, who is making his first movie outside Fox this year: “The Three Stooges” at Warner Bros. “Quite honestly, it scares the shit out of me to go someplace else.”

But Farrelly admits that the Fox credo of frugality creeps into his pictures as well.

“They’re very conservative with casting,” Farrelly says of Fox’s brass, “They have very strong opinions on it. They cut deals with you: ‘You can have Joe Schmoe, but then we want John Smith in the other part.’ ”

Forgoing major stars to sell most of your films means maximizing marketing and merchandising — things that were until recently a foreign territory to director Joel Zwick, who last helmed surprise indie smash “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

For his second picture, Zwick is directing Fox’s “Fat Albert,” which started lensing April 20 for a Christmas release.

“We’re not dealing with high-end salary stars,” says Zwick of his $35 million comedy, “and yet we still have to compete with the big boys at Christmas. I was surprised at how many bright young people are involved in my movie, focusing on results. Soundtracks. Merchandise. And their agenda isn’t my agenda. There’s a struggle between ‘results’ and ‘process,’ and I am fighting to hold on to process.”

In the meanwhile, Fox is holding on to profitability.

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