Under Gabler, Fox 2000 assumes studio's Oscar pole position

“I needed more creative opportunity, a conceptual change. I needed to follow my heart.”

This might conjure up thoughts of Paul Gauguin explaining why he left job and family to spend the rest of his life painting Tahitians. But a film executive looking back on a decision not to leave a studio, but to join one? A literature major surrendering all for the nail-biting whirlwind of distribution and weekend grosses?

But that’s just what Elizabeth Gabler did, after graduating from UC Santa Barbara and taking a job as a literary agent at ICM, where she soon realized that a piece of the action was nothing compared to seeing a book find new life onscreen. “It became clear that I was missing out on that marvelous process,” she recalls.

Now, as president of Fox 2000, with a reputation for making movies that are smartly done and generally well-received, Gabler is bringing focus to a division that heretofore has fallen somewhere between the tentpole extravaganzas and broad comedies associated with the studio’s main 20th Century Fox imprint and the specialty fare of Fox Searchlight. She is also drawing attention for a roster of films that many feel portend Oscar recognition come fall.

Titles include “Walk the Line,” a Johnny Cash biopic with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon that is being viewed by the studio as this year’s potential “Ray,” as well as “In Her Shoes,” a sibling rivalry drama with Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”).

Also in the pipeline are “The Devil Wears Prada,” with Meryl Streep; “The Family Stone,” with Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes and Diane Keaton; and the much anticipated fantasy feature “Eragon.”

“When it comes to making classy films that are also commercial, no one does it better,” says Tom Rothman, co-chairman with Jim Gianopulos of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

Still, Hollywood history is littered with the bodies of job transfers, Sammy Glick spawn and one-shot wonders, crumpled by an unforgiving studio system whose unofficial mantra is “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” Certainly it would have seemed likely that a young woman, recently out of college, inexperienced and with no proven relevant skills, would quickly join the body count.

But Gabler aligned herself with quality from the get-go — as a junior exec at Columbia she worked on “Rain Man,” among other A-list films — and she quickly acclimated herself to the corporate world.

“A lot of creative people prefer to be free-wheeling and independent,” Gabler says, “but I felt at home in a structured environment, where there’s hierarchy and organization. I like to acquire good material, I have a fabulous staff, and I’m not afraid to delegate. I like to create the environment of freedom that lets people be the best they can be.”

It also means you get to share in the highs and lows of a fickle marketplace. As Fox 2000 nears its 10th anniversary, its production history reveals choices that are more often than not compelling, if not occasionally provocative. Still, for every “Courage Under Fire,” “Thin Red Line” and “Fight Club” there have been such misfires as “Sunset Strip,” “Someone Like You” and “Down With Love.”

“I have a nurturing personality, but there are times when Jim (Gianopulos) and Tom (Rothman) have nurtured me when I’m upset,” she says. “It’s a sharing experience. And it’s amazing as an exec to see the permutations of an experience filter through an entire organization. When we have a success, everyone feels it.”

Gabler’s career has taken her from Columbia to United Artists to Fox, where she’s been for 17 years. Her signature hands-on effort is 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which she developed from British writer Anne Fine’s “Madame Doubtfire.” A comedy and family classic, the project initially met with a lot of resistance.

“People thought it was a ‘Tootsie’ clone,” she says. “When you tried to get people to join they said the character was too unbelievable. But Robin Williams was wonderful. I’m convinced that if you do something well enough, people will believe it.”

If revenge is best served cold, the returns tell the story, as in cold, hard cash: “Mrs. Doubtfire” has grossed more than $450 million worldwide; it cost $32 million to make. By the time Gabler shepherded 2000’s “Cast Away” from start to finish, no one doubted her ability to deliver.

Gabler’s role model is Sherry Lansing, not just for Lansing’s tenure as an exec, but for her subsequent role in philanthropy.

“It’s a long way away, but someday I’d like to work with people who are less fortunate, whether it’s children who are handicapped, or places that use horses for therapy,” says Gabler. “I’d like to give back.”

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