Bill Mechanic abruptly resigned Thursday as chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, sending shock waves through the studio and Hollywood at large.
Studio chief since December 1996, Mechanic said in a news release that he had resigned and was planning to start his own independently financed film company. He had been in the midst of renegotiating his contract with Peter Chernin, president of Fox parent News Corp., when negotiations were broken off. The relationship between the two men is understood to have become frosty in recent weeks.
The timing of the move was nothing less than shocking to many in the entertainment industry, particularly because Fox is just about to roll out its most anticipated films of the year. One of them, the Jim Carrey comedy “Me, Myself & Irene,” opens today and is expected to be Fox’s strongest box office performer since “Star Wars: Episode I –The Phantom Menace.” Fox also has the high-profile sci-fi actioner “X-Men” opening July 14.
Perhaps more tellingly, Mechanic’s departure came a week after the highly disappointing opening of Fox’s “Titan A.E.,” which took in only $9.4 million last weekend. Mechanic recently told reporters that the film, an ambitious and risky attempt to expand the animation audience to teenagers, cost about $85 million, but observers believe it must have cost as much as $100 million. The weak opening may well have added an unpleasant edge to Mechanic’s contract talks.
Mechanic’s sudden departure abruptly ended a rough period in recent months marked by many releases that didn’t click with audiences. During his tenure he’s ridden a rollercoaster from the high of “Titanic” to the low of “Titan.”
Execs and insiders at Fox were scrambling to understand what was happening at their studio when news of the exit surfaced late Thursday.
“Bill’s been incredibly supportive, and I haven’t noticed anything different. I am completely surprised,” said a top studio exec at Fox.
Mechanic’s exit comes right after the near departure of top exec Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Domestic Film Group. Sherak had indicated a desire to join Joe Roth’s new company, Revolution, but Chernin is understood to have informed Sherak that he would not let him out of his contract.
Sherak is one of two key executives within Fox who immediately became the focus of industry speculation as possible successors to Mechanic. The other is Tom Rothman, who’s currently president of 20th Century Fox Film Group and started the studio’s art film division, Fox Searchlight, in 1994.
Candid and outspoken, Mechanic’s unusually direct style won him many friends on the lot and off, but also some key enemies. Colleagues report his relations with Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns 20th Century Fox, were especially prickly. At a press briefing several weeks ago introducing Fox’s slate of pictures, Mechanic himself kidded about the reputation for chilly relations.
“If any of you see Mr. Murdoch, tell him we’re out of our dark period,” said Mechanic, referring to such pics as “Fight Club” and “The Beach.” “We actually have some comedies now.”
In a prepared statement released late Thursday, Mechanic said, “The studio is in excellent shape with a strong summer lineup and terrific product into next summer, and so I feel now is the time to pursue other personal ambitions. Although these plans are not yet firm enough to discuss, I am pretty far along a track that will grant me creative freedom.
“I came to Fox seven years ago with the idea of building a stable, vibrant company, and I am satisfied that I have fulfilled these goals. I leave my friends at Fox with tremendous affection and appreciation for the hard work and passion they have brought to the filmmaking and distribution process.”
In the release, Chernin commented, “We are grateful for the films, experience and innovation that Bill has brought to Fox over the past seven years. While we are sorry to see him go, we respect his desire to tackle new endeavors in an industry that is constantly changing. Bill leaves the studio well positioned with an outstanding lineup of films through the rest of this year and into 2001. … In addition, he has assembled one of the best management teams in the business and the studio is in excellent hands until we name a successor, which we expect to do in the weeks ahead.”
The departure caught most of top-level Hollywood by surprise; many were quick to offer strong words of praise for Mechanic.
“In 25 years in this business I have never worked with a more talented or gifted executive,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-principal of DreamWorks. “He is the best,” he added.
“I thought Bill did really great job at Fox,” said Art Linson, who had a producer deal for two years at Fox and while there produced “The Edge” and “Fight Club.” “If he is leaving, it might be as simple as he wasn’t having a very good time. Any other studio would be lucky to have him,” he emphasized.
“He has integrity — it goes beyond being a stand-up guy,” said one top agent. “He speaks his mind and is not afraid to say no. He understands distribution and international, has great talent relationships — what’s not to like?”
Under Mechanic, the studio also released three of the top four pictures in worldwide box office: “Titanic,” “Star Wars: Episode I” and “Independence Day.”
But in 1998, Mechanic endured an especially trying period at Fox while “Titanic” was in production. With budget overages mounting, Mechanic found himself fighting a two-front war: on the one hand, he was desperately negotiating with Paramount, Fox’s partner on the project, to step up its investment; Paramount declined to do so. On the other, he faced an intractable filmmaker, director James Cameron, who simply would not compromise his vision.
“I got beat up pretty bad during that period,” Mechanic later said. “It was a terrible period of trial by fire.”
But Mechanic ultimately had the last laugh with the most financially successful film in history. Fox grossed $1.21 billion in world markets.Another high point of Mechanic’s tenure was “Braveheart,” which, like “Titanic,” grabbed the best picture Oscar.
As with so many studio toppers, though, those successes don’t seem to have saved Mechanic from vulnerability when a string of weaker films came along. In recent months, the studio suffered with poor results from the pics “Pushing Tin,” “Anna and the King” and “The Beach.” Some, like “The Beach,” did strong business overseas, however, in keeping with Mechanic’s international focus.
“These jobs aren’t supposed to last forever,” lamented one ex-studio chief.
Mechanic joined Fox in 1993 as president and chief operating officer from Disney, where he was president of international distribution and worldwide video. At Disney, he built the homevideo unit from a minor player into one nearly double the size of its nearest competitor. He pioneered the business of video sell-through to mass merchants and also established the Buena Vista Intl. distribution system.
Mechanic is also one of the rare film execs in town with a deep knowledge of film history. A former film grad student himself, Mechanic is as easily engaged in a debate about Preston Sturges or Frank Capra as he is in the details of dealmaking.
(Claude Brodesser, Dana Harris and Charles Lyons contributed to this report.)