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Fox 2000 Chief’s Latest Challenge: Stealing Audience Attention for ‘The Book Thief’

Elizabeth Gabler runs the only studio division that’s largely devoted to bringing popular and often challenging literary properties to the bigscreen

In Markus Zusak’s bestseller “The Book Thief,” a young orphaned girl in Nazi Germany is advised to put pen to paper as a means of liberation and empowerment.

While the story’s lesson illustrates the power of the written word, the sentiment behind it defines the philosophy of one of Hollywood’s most successful executives, Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000.

“I believe in the power of writing and telling stories,” Gabler tells Variety.

In an era when the Hollywood majors are obsessed with producing prequels, sequels and comicbook adaptations, Gabler has, for the past 14 years, run the only studio division that’s largely devoted to bringing popular and often challenging literary properties such as “Life of Pi,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Water for Elephants” to the bigscreen. “The Book Thief,” which opened Nov. 8 in limited release, and will expand its run in the coming weeks, is Gabler’s latest test.

The 57-year-old executive, known for her sophisticated taste in movie material as well as her close relationships with writers, filmmakers and talent, is a tireless advocate of risky projects.

Defying the naysayers — even those among the brass at her unit’s parent company, 20th Century Fox — who deemed Yann Martel’s 2001 novel “Life of Pi” unfilmable, Gabler championed the project until she found the right director, Ang Lee, and then convinced her bosses to bless a $120 million screen version of the bestselling book. The movie, about a young man stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, became a critical and commercial bonanza for Fox 2000, grossing $611.8 million worldwide and winning four Academy Awards, including best director for Lee.

“The old throwaway phrase has been, ‘You should threaten to burn our car if we don’t make your movie,’ ” says 20th Century Fox chief Jim Gianopulos. “Elizabeth is far too elegant and well mannered a person to actually do it, but we never wanted to take the chance (that she would). That’s the kind of passion she exemplifies.”

Gianopulos says Gabler displayed that kind of zeal and tenacity not only for “Pi” but for “The Book Thief,” an equally tough sell that features a story narrated by Death and told from the perspective of a child (played by newcomer Sophie Nelisse), who finds hope for herself and her family by reading banned literature during World War II.

“I didn’t think necessarily that the film would ever be made,” admits the book’s author Zusak, who has been touring with the cast and crew to promote the film. “I thought it would sink without a trace.”

Gabler, a Long Beach, Calif., native whose mother was an elementary school teacher, and who learned to read when she was 3, says she had an immediate emotional reaction to “The Book Thief” when producer Karen Rosenfelt first brought her the novel.

“Of course, when I read it, there were so many things that I found would be equally exciting for a film project,” says Gabler, an avid equestrian who now lives in Santa Barbara and divides her work week between her home office and the Fox lot in Century City. “But having a young daughter, I immediately felt for this young girl.”

Zusak’s novel became a hit among young adults when it was published in 2005, landing on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 230 weeks. “We realized the readership was catching on in a way we had never seen before,” Gabler says.

The film marks the first platform release for Fox 2000, averaging a solid $26,251 per screen over the Nov. 8-10 weekend from four locations. It’s also the first studio feature for helmer Brian Percival, who won an Emmy in 2011 for directing the debut episode of “Downton Abbey.” Still, Gabler says the personal connection she experienced with “The Book Thief” was the only guarantee she needed to greenlight the picture.

“At the end of the day, we all have to remember that we work in a business,” says Gabler, who is married to former Creative Artists Agency partner Lee Gabler. “I have to make decisions, and I don’t like to lose.”

Nor does she very much.

In 2006, “The Devil Wears Prada” grossed nearly $327 million globally, while the following year, Fox 2000 kickstarted its hugely profitable non-literary franchise “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” whose three films have collected more than $1.1 billion in worldwide ticket sales. Even some of the studio’s less successful efforts like 2011’s “Water for Elephants,” which grossed $117 million globally, were nonetheless profitable, according to Gabler.

That said, the company has had its share of big misses worldwide. “In Her Shoes,” a Curtis Hanson-directed adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s 2002 novel, took in just $83 million in 2005; and the following year, Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year,” based on the Peter Mayle novel, cumed only $42 million. Beverly Cleary’s book-to-screen comedy “Ramona and Beezus” scratched out a mere $27.3 million in 2010.

Gabler admits that dealing with authors can be challenging at times, especially during pre-production if a writer is unhappy with the direction of the intended adaptation. But Zusak says his experience with “The Book Thief ” has been a positive one.

Some authors, however, choose to stay out of the filmmaking process entirely. “We always try to stay true to the readership,” Gabler says, “but there are certain instances when you need to make the book better.”

With “The Devil Wears Prada,” for instance, Gabler tasked screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna with enhancing the story’s third act by enriching the storyline of Miranda Priestly, a role for which Meryl Streep ultimately received an Oscar nomination.

“Having a career at a large corporation, I knew (about) the kind of obstacles that character faced, so just to vilify her and make her a caricature of the mean boss wasn’t going to work in a dimensional movie,” Gabler maintains.

“It was not something (director) David Frankel was interested in doing, and it’s certainly not something Meryl would have done,” she says. “In that regard, I think we made really good use of the word ‘adaptation.’ ”

Percival, who has directed several television miniseries that were based on classic novels, says Zusak’s work provided the perfect blueprint for adapting “The Book Thief,” adding, “I feel dutybound to do the book justice.”

Ultimately, no matter the amount of tinkering that needs to be done, the challenges of adaptation are what draw her most to the work, Gabler says.

“A lot of times when I read a book, it cries out to me in such a visual way,” she says. “I believe in the power of words.”

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