Inside Moves

Fox launches search for Mechanic successor

After the surprise exit of Fox studio chief Bill Mechanic, observers are weighing the possibilities given the likelihood that the studio will launch a search for outside candidates.

Producers who work with the studio said they understand that Peter Chernin, the president of Fox parent News Corp. who previously held Mechanic’s job as studio chief, will be making the big decisions in the interim period.

Meanwhile, in an interview, Mechanic offered a feisty defense of his 3-1/2 year tenure as chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, arguing that recent box office disappointments like “Anna and the King,” “Fight Club” and last week’s “Titan A.E.” hadn’t prevented overall results from setting records at Fox.

Regarding his future plans, Mechanic said that he would explore setting up his own production house, a la former Disney film topper Joe Roth, but did not flatly deny the possibility that he may land at another studio. Asked about the widespread speculation among Hollywood honchos that he may end up at, say, Universal or Sony, Mechanic said, “I’m getting a lot of calls from a lot of places.” Then, in keeping with his reputation for disarming modesty, he added, “So that I don’t sound like jerk, I better revise that to say, I’ve been flattered that I actually got some phone calls.”

Speculation on successors within Fox continued to focus on Tom Rothman, president of 20th Century Fox Film Group and Mechanic’s No. 2 on the production side, and Tom Sherak, president of 20th Domestic Film Group. But after the rough ride that Mechanic had with the prickly Murdoch, it’s unclear who may actually want the job, and those in the know said the studio will certainly look outside its gates for candidates as well.

Asked in the interview whether he had resigned or had been fired, Mechanic suggested that it was a little of both. “It was clear we were on a collision path,” he said. “How much is a push and how much is a jump is for others to speculate on.”

He added: “I view it as creative differences. I was comfortable with the idea of doing something else.”

Mechanic also delivered a ringing defense of his reign from a bottom-line point of view, asserting that the past three years — marked by the phenomenal success of “Titanic” — had been the best in Fox’s history. He said that even the past year, which saw a number of box office duds, had been the film division’s second best year in total revenues, when video and licensing and other sales are included.

“At the end of the day, the balance sheet is all that matters, and the balance sheet was strong,” he argued.

Assessing his time at the studio, Mechanic said, “We won best picture Oscars for ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Titanic’ (both co-productions with Paramount) and a best actress Oscar this year for ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ We had the most successful low-budget film of all time in ‘The Full Monty.’ Whatever way you want to look at it, the achievement of this group of people — of which I’m only one — is amazing. It would seem to be a great run for the studio.”

“Hopefully, I can go on and achieve the same kind of results but do it with more support and less acrimony,” he said.

And what about the bad PR voodoo of letting his departure hit the press on the same day “Me, Myself & Irene” opened? “You’ll have to ask my (former) bosses” about that, Mechanic said.

Chernin could not be reached for comment.

— Paul F. Duke

Berger will aid Lescure at U

Hollywood could soon be seeing a lot of Alex Berger, who is stepping down from his responsibilities as head of Vivendi Net subsidiary Canal Numedia to concentrate on two roles — his existing co-presidency of Vivendi Net and his new function as chief adviser to Pierre Lescure at Universal.

“He can’t do everything at once, and Alex is so well introduced in Hollywood, it would have been a pity not to take advantage of that,” says one Canal insider, commenting on the first in a likely series of reshuffles at the French company.

As co-president of Vivendi Net, U.S.-born Berger, 37, will also be increasingly occupied with Vizzavi, the portal joint venture between Vivendi and Vodafone that was recently launched in France.

Berger had been chairman of the content provider Canal Numedia since it was set up last August. The company was officially launched earlier this year. Philippe Bismut has been named the new chairman.

— Alison James

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