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Searchlight finds Utley

Vet named marketing prexy

In a strategic management shift that highlights the increased importance of marketing in the specialized film world, 20th Century Fox marketing veteran Nancy Utley has been tapped as president of marketing for Fox Searchlight Pictures, the arthouse label of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

Utley, who will serve alongside Searchlight president of production Lindsay Law as the senior-most execs under the banner, has served as executive vice president of marketing for 20th Century Fox since 1995. During that time, Utley has overseen all aspects of media, research and publicity-promotion for Fox’s domestic theatrical releases. Utley begins her latest job immediately.

In the new configuration, Utley and Law will serve as partners, with Law concentrating on the production and acquisitions activities of the banner and Utley overseeing all marketing endeavors. In her new role, Utley will continue to report directly to Bob Harper, president of worldwide marketing for Fox Filmed Entertainment, while Law reports directly to Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Bill Mechanic.

“Nancy’s knowledge, skills, insights, enthusiasm and dedication have been invaluable to our domestic marketing unit,” Harper said.

Focus on marketing

The appointment of Utley is viewed as Fox’s further acknowledgment of the importance marketing holds in the crowded and highly competitive specialized marketplace. While Searchlight, launched in 1994 under current 20th production topper Tom Rothman’s watch, has had success with such releases as “The Brothers McMullen” and the box office hit “The Full Monty,” the banner has struggled in recent years, releasing a slate of pics that, except for an occasional breakthrough like “Waking Ned Devine,” has not caught on with audiences.

Fox brass said they continue to be committed to the specialized arm but want to increase the individual marketing attention of each release as well as create a wider array of films to appeal to all demographics beyond the traditional arthouse attendee.

Miramax model

Miramax Films has set the example for high-powered marketing in the specialized arena, spending large sums (that often dwarf the films’ budgets) on creative campaigns to open and lengthen the runs and widen the audiences of its arthouse fare.

And the recent success of Artisan’s “The Blair Witch Project” served to illustrate that teens can now be considered part of the specialized audience, albeit with different tastes and promotional demands.

For Law, the hiring of Utley means he will focus almost exclusively on Searchlight productions. Since Law came on board as Searchlight topper in 1995, the label has moved away from a balance of acquisitions and productions toward relying almost exclusively on inhouse development and production.

However, the label received strong reviews last week for “Boys Don’t Cry,” Kimberly Peirce’s pic, which Searchlight picked up in Sundance based on 20 minutes of footage, for a reported $5 million. Law said Searchlight will continue to emphasize its own production, but will maintain an acquisitions presence on the festival and market circuits.

Regarding his new partner, Law said: “Definitely we’ll operate more as a partnership — she will be able to carry through and make decisions with full authority, and I’ll be able to spend more time focusing on our productions,” Law said. “Nancy is a good manager who has enormous talents and the ability to finesse and lead a creative staff, who now have just one person to report to.”

Bob Cheren will continue to oversee distribution for Searchlight, reporting to both Law and Utley.

“With the quickly evolving world of specialty films, nothing could be more exciting to me than taking on this challenge and working with a creative talent like Lidsay Law,” said Utley. “I look forward to using a full arsenal of conventional, unconventional and even guerrilla tactics to bring our product to market.”

During her 13 years at Fox, Utley has served in various capacities, including vice president of media, senior VP of media and research and exec VP of marketing, media and research.

She was upped to exec VP of marketing and promotion for Fox films in 1995, following a major management changeover after marketing prexy Andrea Jaffe left and Harper was tapped to head marketing.

Tough decision

At that time, Utley had worked through six marketing administrations, having joined the studio in 1986 as VP of media. Finally finding a regime that worked, Utley has been regarded as Harper “right hand,” and some say it was a tough decision for Harper to make, allowing an essential part of his team to leave.

“She now is a piece of the marketing pie that she has not been involved in before and will have control of a creative point of view and now will do the whole thing,” Harper told Daily Variety. “What is attractive for her is that that this is an ever-changing world … it’s become a different creature than when Searchlight was established five years ago, and it needs to have a more individualized, (more mainstream) focused marketing strategy. … We can no longer assume that the audience that attends specialty films is (the) traditional arthouse audience.”

Searchlight has been looking for a marketing topper since former senior vice president of marketing Valerie Van Galder ankled in May (Daily Variety, May 25) to take the top marketing post at Screen Gems, Sony’s nascent specialized arm.

Van Galder was upped to the top marketing spot after David Dinerstein, who also served as senior vice VP, left in March 1998 to run Paramount Classics with Ruth Vitale. During their tenures, Van Galder and Dinerstein reported directly to Law, who often ran the marketing meetings. Utley will now assume all day-to-day control of marketing with the banner’s staff reporting directly to her.

It’s unclear whether Utley’s former post will be filled or whether those duties will be reassigned to other marketing/promotions staffers.