Fox’s Stacey Snider Gets Candid About Netflix, Diversity and the Future of Wolverine

It’s easy to find Stacey Snider on any given Sunday. The chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox closes out her weekend with a trek to the AMC theater at Century City’s Westfield mall to catch the latest big-screen releases.

“I get the same seat, G13, where I can put my feet over the railing,” says Snider. “I love movies.”

Yet, Snider has no illusions about the health of the movie business. Ticket sales are plummeting, weighed down by a glut of uninspired sequels, as Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms are rapidly ascending. The battle for audience attention has never been more intense and competitive.

“It’s not business as usual at the studios,” Snider says. “We are in a unique time.”

Since taking over as the sole head of Fox’s film studio following Jim Giano­pulos’ ouster in the summer of 2016, Snider has devoted herself to focusing on the kinds of films that are powerful enough to cut through the clutter in a digital world. That’s included a pledge to get Fox better positioned in the highly profitable family film business with a renewed emphasis on the studio’s animation division, as well as a bolder embrace of technology.

Before assuming control of the studio a year ago, Snider struggled with defining her role for the 22 months she worked as co-chairman under Gianopulos, who by most accounts was upset and threatened by her hiring, which had been engineered by Rupert Murdoch and blessed by his sons, James and Lachlan. Consequently, Snider clashed with Gianopulos’ key division heads and devotees, Emma Watts and Elizabeth Gabler, and alienated some of Fox’s biggest filmmakers, who along with other executives questioned her lack of creative initiative. Her supporters argued that she was stifled by her boss, whom she would eventually replace when the younger Murdochs began putting their own stamp on Fox and articulated the need for new leadership and fresh ideas at the film studio.

Jose Mandojana for Variety

A year later, Snider can be credited with sparking several new creative and business initiatives, including striking a multiyear co-financing and distribution deal with “Avengers” directing duo Joe and Anthony Russo (see sidebar), and prompting Fox to acquire Technoprops, a virtual production company that has worked on blockbusters such as “Avatar” and “The Jungle Book.” She believes the company can help revolutionize the films the studio makes. She’s also made peace and has cultivated good working relationships with Watts and Gabler and other initial doubters at Fox.

In a two-hour interview, Snider reflected on her one-year anniversary as head of Fox’s film studio, expounding on her plans to keep the operation competitive at a time when the industry is being roiled by changing consumer behavior and technological advances.

Was it hard to assume power as Jim Gianopulos was being pushed out?
I felt incredible empathy and compassion for all of us. It was an incredibly awkward situation. The only thing that I can do in those moments is be truthful and acknowledge the discomfort.

When you joined the studio, were you at odds with powerful executives like Emma Watts and Elizabeth Gabler?
Whatever issues there were between many of us at Fox in those early days were part of the narrative that was imposed. Within a month of me joining Fox, a journalist from another publication literally said to me, “Wow, there are a lot of blondes there.” It took my breath away, that comment. It made me realize that the narrative was prepackaged.

So you think it was sexism?
I do. I don’t think there’s ever an issue about how many receding-hairline men there are at a company. You’d never make that comment, but the idea of
girls pulling each other’s hair and getting into a catfight is a familiar trope. I resist it. I deny it. I’m a mom of two daughters, and I was raised by a feminist mom. I marched with her for women’s rights. [The media had] a pull-up-a-lawn-chair, grab-a-wine-cooler and watch-the-soap-opera-at-Fox type of glee that was in many ways fabricated.

There’s been a big debate about the lack of films from female directors or directors of color. Are you doing anything to increase diversity?
Studios don’t intend to block access, but the price for a first-time movie is so high that we get conservative in terms of wanting to work with people who have done it before. I went to the woman who manages our diversity programs and said: “We’re getting hoisted on our own petards here. We know the issue is giving someone a reel from which we can judge their suitability to do a big expensive film, so let’s help them get that first job.”

We partnered with AFI and created a competition for female students to pitch projects that were effects-laden adjuncts to our franchise films. What happens is that often first films, because they’re confined by their resources, are about “my life on the farm.” This was a way to break it apart and give these women the opportunity to make action-oriented, short movies. That’s proof they’re ready for a studio picture.

Coincidentally, and not intentionally, two of the first deals I made were with Kenya Barris, who writes “Blackish” and wrote “Girls Trip,” and DeVon Franklin, who besides being an incredibly smart and successful studio executive is also an ordained minister, or pastor, I don’t know what word I’m supposed to use. I only know rabbi. DeVon has this unique talent, which is to bridge Hollywood showmanship with stories that authentically resonate with the faith-based audience. He did “Heaven is for Real” and “Miracles from Heaven.” I thought it was incumbent upon all of us to get out of our comfort zones and the last thing I would know how to do, not that I’m a heathen, is how to make movies for under-served faith-based audiences. By recruiting producers like DeVon and Kenya, who will by their nature and contact lists recruit new voices and new filmmakers, we’ll start to see more representation.

Fox is banking on franchises like “Kingsman” (above) and “Deadpool” (top right), as it considers a replacement for the retiring Hugh Jackman in the “Wolverine” series.

The summer box office hit its lowest levels in two decades. What happened?
It’s product driven, but I think it’s threatening. It has to do with the familiarity of the product, the abundance of sequels. When I go and I sit in a theater and I see this film, part two; this rebooted; I’m uncomfortable, because nothing is differentiated. How does anything feel worthy if everything feels like a paler iteration of what came before?

How are you building franchises?
The franchises we make still need to be original. “Deadpool” was part of a cinematic universe, but it felt unique. We’ve got a “Predator” film coming out that is unexpected and utterly fresh. I just imagined that it would take 500 hours to read the script — that it would be interior jungle, exterior more jungle and then fighting happens, but Emma [Watts] went out and recruited Shane Black. From the first page, it didn’t read like a “Predator” film. It’s set in suburbia. There’s a little boy and his dad at the center of the action. The “X-Men” is a franchise we intend to vigorously mine, but with an eye toward great variety. “Kings-man” can be a franchise. It’s based on a graphic novel but it’s really the creation of Matthew Vaughn and his wild imagination.

Will you reboot “Wolverine” with another actor now that Hugh Jackman has said he’s retiring?
Anything’s possible.

Should “Logan” be in the Oscar race?
Absolutely. The way it combines classic storytelling with superhero lore is brilliant.

There are so many comic-book movies. Do you worry about superhero fatigue?
If we’re going to make a superhero movie, we have to ask ourselves: “What’s our version? What’s a Fox Marvel film? When you look at films like “Deadpool” or “Logan” or the upcoming “New Mutants,” you’ll see they have their own personality. Great effort has been put into making sure they’re differentiated. “New Mutants” is about these teenagers who are just coming into their powers. It’s like watching mutants go through adolescence and they have no impulse control, so they’re dangerous. The only solution is to put them in a “Breakfast Club” detention/“Cuckoo’s Nest” institutional setting. It protects the people on the outside, but it’s strange and combustible inside. The genre is like a haunted-house movie with a bunch of hormonal teenagers. We haven’t seen a superhero movie whose genre is more like “The Shining” than “we’re teenagers let’s save the world.”

“Alien: Covenant” stumbled at the box office. Is that franchise over?
It was a disappointment, but I trust Ridley [Scott] and Emma [Watts] to know the right story when they find it. When universes are as rich as “Alien,” they can stay in a too familiar groove — in which case you’re in trouble — but they can also find a planet or a storyline or a villain that also lives in that universe that can be groundbreaking.

Is there a film that you would point that’s the first project initiated after you took over from Jim Gianopulos?
“The Post” is probably the movie that I would say signals the before and after. It was a spec script that went out by a young writer named Liz Hannah who did all the original research on Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee’s involvement with the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers after the New York Times had scooped the story but had been enjoined from further publication by the Nixon administration.

Emma [Watts] and I talked a lot about not only the excitement of the story and how it entertaining it was, but how fitting it was that one of the first movies we might do together would be about women stepping forward. Kay Graham assumed the role of publisher of the Post at the age of 53 after her husband died. She was older and was thrust into this pressure-filled historic situation where she had to either back her editor [Bradlee] or succumb to the pressure of the board which was telling her, ‘don’t do this you could face charges of treason while we’re in the midst of an IPO.’ Tom Hanks read it first, Tom is on a first name basis with Steven [Spielberg] who’s on a first name basis with Meryl [Streep]. It came together really quickly.

Studios are working with theater owners on a deal that would allow them to release movies on demand for higher prices within weeks of their debuts. Where do negotiations stand?
The conversations have been productive and honest. Everyone recognizes the need to be more flexible and to provide opportunities for people to see movies at home earlier than when they’re offered now, but we’re not at the point of signing a term sheet.

“I don’t think there’s ever an issue about how many receding-hairline men there are at a company. But the idea of girls getting into a catfight is a familiar trope.”
Stacey snider

At a recent investor conference you said, “There’s nothing better about watching a film on Netflix.” What did you mean?
I don’t see any advantage that Netflix has in the area of filmmaking. It’s not to say that they can’t do it, shouldn’t do it well or make some good movies. But unlike their inroads with television, where they created this brand-new television watching experience — binge-watching — there’s nothing unique or better about watching a film on Netflix. In fact, when I think about what matters to the audience and to filmmakers, it’s hard to point to any advantages that Netflix offers.

It takes two years to make a movie. The idea that you’re one of 50 [Netflix films] in a year would be troubling. At Fox, the total from all our divisions is half of what Netflix is looking to put out, and the curation is more discrete and more thoughtful. I didn’t intend it to be a throw-down, but I did feel that there are times when I don’t defend my own position. Movies are magical, and the theatrical experience is special.

What tools are you using to get a better sense of your customer?
There was a long-gestating plan for a data program. For a really long time, we have been disintermediated from our customer base, because we sell to exhibitors. We had been flying blind. We had to bite the bullet and spend the money for us to know what kind of movies people want to see, how to market to them, how to create a relationship with them and thank them for their patronage. The woman who undertook the main responsibility for starting [the project] has affectionately called [it] Blind Al. That’s a reference to “Deadpool’s” roommate. I’m hoping it yields better results than how not to put together an Ikea cabinet.

Fox Searchlight has struggled with the performance of some of its Sundance acquisitions, with “Patti Cake$” and “The Birth of a Nation” failing at the box office. Is it changing its strategy?
Yes. We started about a year ago, seeing pressures that manifest themselves in different ways. One was the acquisitions market was drying up and the films that remained were subject to an incredible feeding frenzy because of the entry of new buyers like Netflix and Amazon. What was robust were the prices.

[Fox Searchlight heads] Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula came to me and said we need to control our destiny more and produce more than we acquire. They’re not going crazy with budgets, but they’re making more commercial art house films. “Battle of the Sexes,” “The Shape of Water, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and “Christopher Robin” are all part of the new initiative they’re undertaking. They were all produced in-house. They’re all really fine films and really entertaining. They’re not obscure, navel-gazing festival films.

Why did you buy Technoprops?
A film that I envied — and envy is always a great motivator for me — was “Jungle Book.” It reminded me of films pioneered at Fox just a few years earlier, like “Life of Pi” and “Avatar.” That led me to a company run by Glenn Derry, who built Technoprops and this technology that gives filmmakers the ability to pre-visualize the entire film, so that before the cameras are turned on, before actors are assembled, you can watch your entire film on reels and make changes to things that aren’t working. We can use this technology to make these films more wondrous.

Are you using the technology on any films?
We’re pre-visualizing a project based on the Jack London book “Call of the Wild.” We’re using it to see how you tell a story from the dog’s point of view.

What are you doing to prop up Fox’s animation division?
We’re ramping up the number of films we make. At the same time, we were thinking about putting our foot on the gas with our animation business. There was a lot of dislocation at other animation companies. When DreamWorks was bought by Comcast, their output was reevaluated, and there were artists and directors that became available. We were able to go out and recruit them.

We made a deal with Locksmith Animation. We have three projects with them, and the first is in production. Between the amped-up volume of projects and the influx of new talent, combined with the augmented capacity from Locksmith, we’re hoping to have an animated film every year and not miss a season.

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