Twentieth Century Fox chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos doesn’t have an easy job.

It’s hard enough to pick movies that connect with audiences. Today, studio chiefs like Gianopulos must navigate a rapidly shifting landscape where consumer demands, piracy and the collapse of the DVD market, as well as increasing competition from online diversions and quality cable TV shows, are wreaking havoc on the financial underpinnings of the film business. Media companies like Fox’s parent 21st Century Fox are on a quest to grow bigger in order to compete with digital superpowers like Google and pending mergers between cable and telco giants like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and AT&T and DirecTV. Gianopulos’ uberboss, 21st Century Fox chief Rupert Murdoch, made a surprise $80 billion bid to buy Time Warner that was rejected and he subsequently withdrew. But consolidation, it seems, is coming.

Photo by Art Streiber for Variety

“Because of the growing concentration on the distribution side, it’s natural for content companies to seek partnerships and opportunities,” Gianopulos says.

The studio chief appears well-equipped and well-positioned to deal with the massive changes under way in the business, given his background and experience in international distribution, video and pay TV at Fox, Columbia and Paramount, and his current status as an industry leader in the digital revolution and the fight against piracy.

As someone with an eye toward the challenges ahead, which include a stagnating domestic box office and changes in the way movies are consumed and delivered in theaters, in homes and on digital devices, Gianopulos has the confidence of the globally minded Murdoch to guide the studio through the tumult.

“Jim is a great executive who has a unique grasp of all the aspects of the movie business,” Murdoch says. “His skills extend beyond the U.S., and have enabled us to have a solid and respected international presence in both established and emerging markets.”

Before being plucked in 2000 to co-run Fox’s movie operation with Tom Rothman, Gianopulos rebuilt the studio’s moribund international division into a powerhouse that today generates an average of $2 billion a year at the box office. Major films routinely collect 70% of their overall grosses abroad, and new markets like China are growing at a rate of 30% annually.

“In a business that’s been rocked by rapid changes in technology, he’s always had a high ‘gets it’ factor,” says James Cameron, whose Fox releases include “Avatar” and “Titanic.” “He’s got a command of the distribution and the technical side of the business mixed with the artistic side.”

In his former international role, Gianopulos forged close relationships with top filmmakers such as Cameron, George Lucas, Luc Besson and Baz Luhrmann.

Hugh Jackman, who soared to stardom playing Wolverine in Fox’s “X-Men” franchise, says international audiences have always been important to Gianopulos. He remembers smoking a cigar with the studio chief in producer Lauren Shuler Donner’s backyard right after the first “X-Men” came out.

“He told me that careers go through peaks and troughs, so it’s important for an actor to be mindful of their international profile,” recalls Jackman. “He said there have been actors who may no longer pop in America, but who have a big enough international profile to still get movies made. I’ve always been mindful to promote my movies globally.”

Gianopulos aims to keep a wide world view of the business. And given how tough it is to run a studio, the 62-year-old chairman wishes to once again share the creative duties of the job with a partner — as he had done for 12 years before Rothman’s firing in September 2012, after which Gianopulos became the studio’s sole chairman.

Rothman insists that despite his departure there are no ill feelings. “It’s not a secret that the timing wasn’t of my choice,” he says. “But I had an incredible run there, and I have only the best feelings about the company and all the people who work there, including Jim. “We were and are very, very close friends,” Rothman adds.

Gianopulos is expected to bring in DreamWorks partner and CEO Stacey Snider as his top lieutenant after her contract expires at year’s end.

“She’s one of the best executives in the industry, and it would beautifully complement the great talent that we have here,” Gianopulos says. “Historically, when it was Tom and me, we were both very, very busy, and as at every studio, even with the greatest, most talented executives, it’s a massive enterprise.”

Photo by Art Streiber for Variety

Fox’s infrastructure is somewhat unique in Hollywood, in that it consists of a constellation of separate production divisions — Fox Animation, specialty unit Fox Searchlight, Fox 2000, Fox Intl. and the main studio — that focus on dramatically different types of films, but are united by an emphasis on the bottom line.

Gianopulos sees his role as ringleader, but his deputies say he tries not to get too firmly enmeshed in the nitty gritty.

“He’s our North Star as far as deciding which projects we make and advising us on the big decisions, but the day-to-day maintenance of the business, he allows us to have autonomy,” says Vanessa Morrison, president of animation.

Despite their independence, the various fiefdoms have lively discussions and differences.

“Every division head has their strengths, their weaknesses and their own tastes,” says Emma Watts, Fox’s president of production. “What’s unique about the setup is the longevity of the relationships. The quality of the debate is dependent on that history. You understand and know where people are coming from.”

Indeed, all of the division heads have been at the studio in leadership roles for more than a decade, an eternity in a business that ritualistically indulges in housecleaning of the executive suite.

“When you work with the same people over and over, there is a shorthand and there is a trust, because you learn each other’s habits,” says Simon Kinberg, producer of “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”

Gianopulos and Fox are riding high right now. Fox became the first studio to cross $3 billion in global box office revenue this year, and is tops in market share. It achieved those lofty heights on the success of a combination of well-received sequels, such as “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which were initiated under Rothman and Gianopulos, and breakout hits such as “The Fault in Our Stars.” The results are more pronounced, because they come after a 2013 that saw Fox lag behind many of its competitors, weighed down by misses such as “The Internship” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

The studio’s fall lineup also looks strong, boasting the likes of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and a third “Night at the Museum.”

Bringing Snider in would not only help fill the hole on the creative side that Rothman left, it would enable Gianopulos to focus more on the bigger picture. And, his cohorts say, he is uniquely positioned to play the role of movie-business elder statesman.

“He’s been an incredible voice for the industry,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose DreamWorks Animation distributes its films through Fox. “He’s someone who’s managed to crack the door open in the Valley. They hold him in high regard because he tries to see both sides of an issue.”

Of course, Silicon Valley also has been the source of one of Gianopulos’ greatest disappointments. The Fox chief was one of the primary movers behind the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, two pieces of legislation that wilted under the heat of grassroots protests. Digital companies said that the proposed laws were too far-reaching, and would crack down on piracy at the expense of the First Amendment. The failures of SOPA and PIPA still sting, although Gianopulos says pro­gress has been made in repairing the relationships with tech firms. 
“(SOPA) was misperceived, and eventually became vulnerable to a campaign of disinformation, which completely distorted its intention, but also eliminated its possibility,” Gianopulos says. “We’re stepping back now, and saying what was the core of it. The core of it is people taking advantage of technology to engage in theft. I don’t think anybody is going to stand up and say, ‘Well I’m for that.’ ”

The Fox chief seems more at peace with some aspects of the digital economy than he was during the SOPA and PIPA fights.

“We have to separate the digital opportunities presented by the Internet in terms of production, distribution and marketing from the fact that it facilitates a great deal of piracy,” Gianopulos says. “We’re going to live with piracy. We’re going to do everything we can to ameliorate it and prevent it, but it will always be a cost of doing business.”

The rise of the digital market has been double-edged for studios. Streaming services such as Netflix have accelerated the collapse of the DVD market, but Fox and others have had success in recent years encouraging buyers to own rather than rent digital copies of films. Part of the appeal has been offering copies for release electronically three to four weeks before they hit store shelves.

Most studios would like to see that window get shorter. Their efforts have been received frostily by theater owners. Two years ago, when Fox, Time Warner, Sony and Universal unveiled a plan to premiere films on-demand 60 days after they opened in theaters, as opposed to the standard 90 days, exhibitors were
apoplectic. Since then, tensions have cooled and studios have been reticent to push the issue, but it’s clearly something that intrigues Gianopulos.

“We tried to convey to exhibition that after a certain period of time, when a movie was no longer available in the theater, people’s choice was not to say, ‘Oh that’s not available, I’ll go back to that theater and see something else,’ ” Gianopulos says. “It was to steal it or stay home and watch something else.”

The studio chief says he understands exhibitors’ worries that movies available for sell-through just one or two weeks after they screen in theaters might afford a reason for some viewers to wait to own a pic, but adds, “No one’s advocating that (window), at least at this stage.” Moreover, he maintains, viewing a film at home and in a theater aren’t really comparable experiences. “They’re unique,” he says, “and I think they can co-exist far more closely in time.”.

Ultimately, Gianopulos sees the concentration of distribution as a challenge, but says the relationship between content-makers and distribs is a symbiotic one. “You try to keep harmony in the ecosystem,” he says, adding that content is still what draws audiences to a venue. “There’s only one ‘Planet of the Apes. There’s only one ‘Avatar.’ There’s only one ‘X-Men,’ he notes. “Sooner or later they’re going to need that.”

He is affable, even avuncular, and maintains a warm relationship with filmmakers, who credit him with being protective.

“He was always the one saying, ‘Oh don’t worry, just believe in your art,’ ” recounts director Ang Lee, whose “Life of Pi” was a notoriously risky and difficult project that became a $612 million worldwide hit. “It was only after it was a success that he admitted to me that he had told Rupert it was going to lose a lot of money,” Lee adds.

Ridley Scott argues that despite his reputation for being more business oriented, Gianopulos has a creative side, as well.

“He gets very involved,” Scott says. “He wants to discuss in depth what’s in my head, and how are we going to manage it all. He’s very specific with his opinions about a screenplay or a project.”

Friends describe him as a renaissance man. He’s a passionate guitarist who rocked out with Keith Urban’s band during a company retreat at Pebble Beach and with the Beach Boys at his house, as well as a sports car enthusiast who once co-piloted an antique Jaguar with Daniel Day-Lewis in Italy’s Mille Miglia race.

Clockwise from top left: Vanessa Morrison, Fox Animation president; Sanford Panitch, Fox Intl. Prods. president; Emma Watts, 20th Century Fox Prod. president; Elizabeth Gabler, Fox 2000 president (photos by Art Streiber for Variety)

There are also his occasional flashes of volcanic temper — hence the playful nickname Mt. Gianopulos. “For everyone, there are moments of emotion in this industry, and hopefully they pass very quickly, but frustrations can rise from time to time,” he says.

His roots as the first-generation son of Greek immigrants help ground him and also provided the genesis for his early interest in movies. He would go to the cinema with his grandfather, who frequented films in order to learn English.

“He took me to some of the strangest movies,” Gianopulos says. “We went geographically,” he adds, “because we happened to be in that part of town or this was playing over here at Radio City.”

The pictures he saw growing up and in his formative years, including “Mean Streets” and “La Dolce Vita,” aren’t the kinds of films that drive studios to greater heights of profitability. Like its compatriots, Fox will continue to lean heavily in the coming years on sequels to or reboots of its most popular franchises, such as “X-Men,” “The Fantastic Four” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

Gianopulos disputes the notion that the reliance on sequels is a sign that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt.

“One of the things that makes sequels so successful is that they start from a place where people already like what you did before. But part of what they liked, and part of the appeal of the first film, was its originality,” he says. “You have to give them a new story. You have to give them new characters. You have to take (a sequel) to a place that restores its freshness and originality.”

No bigger challenge looms for Fox and for Gianopulos’ tenure than the three “Avatar” films that Cameron has promised to deliver, beginning in 2016. Reports have pegged their cost at $1 billion, but Gianopulos says a final production budget hasn’t been set.

“We know it’s going to be a long journey,” says the Fox leader. “We know it’s not going to be cheap. We know it’s not going to be without new discoveries and new challenges in the process of producing something that is so beyond the normal form of filmmaking and technology, but what could be more exciting than that.”

Cameron says there’s a lot more story left to tell.

“There’s nothing I need to say as an artist about the state of the world and human affairs that I can’t do through the lens of the ‘Avatar’ universe,” he says. “We’ve had a couple of years to think through the story arc of the next three films, and every day that goes by, I believe in the stories I’m telling more and more. We’re not coming out of the block fast to capitalize on the last film.”

The “Avatar” movies represent a huge investment, but also offer an unprecedented opportunity to unlock a global audience attracted to spectacle and special effects.

Beyond the popularity of big-event American movies overseas, the emphasis on emerging markets has led Fox to invest heavily in its local-language division. Partnering with talent in countries such as India, China and South Korea has lifted the unit to box office of $750 million since it launched in 2008. It’s also helped strengthen key relationships with foreign talent, such as directors Timur Bekmambetov and Tony Chan.

Says Sanford Panitch, president of Fox Intl. Prods.: “We’re no longer a business that only hires guys from USC film school. As globalization is so in your face, you need people with perspectives who aren’t necessarily about going to the Grill for lunch.”

One of Fox’s long-ago studio chiefs, Spyros Skouras looms large in his mind. Though Skouras led Fox more than 40 years before Gianopulos took the reins, some of the challenges he faced were similar to the ones that threaten today’s movie business.

“This was a time when all the theaters were closing,” Gianopulos says, “when television had decimated the theatergoing audience numbers. There was a retrenchment across the entire industry. Before that, people had been going to the movies two or three times a week.”

The answer for Skouras was to go bigger. He invested in CinemaScope, an ultra-widescreen format that helped differentiate the theatrical experience from the home entertainment one. He introduced it to the masses in the 1950s.

Gianopulos likes to buck the trends, but acknowledges that it also can be wise to go with the flow. “While technology provides headwinds, it also provides great opportunities to see past them and say, ‘OK, I can get on the other side of this and use it to my advantage,’ ” he says.

Though Skouras was ultimately forced out of Fox amid cost overruns on “Cleopatra” — a film designed in part to be so lavish and grand that it had to be seen in theaters — Gianopulos sees a silver lining there, as well.

“Where everybody else was afraid of television, he was one of the first to say we’ve got to embrace this, and as a result, just a few years after its theatrical release, ‘Cleopatra’ was sold to television and broke even. The financial cataclysm was there, the complete runaway, out-of-control train was real, but in the end, the studio survived.”

And so too it seems Gianopulos will survive the tumultuous times he is now living through as one of Hollywood’s most influential leaders. “At this point,” says Peter Chernin, the former News Corp. president and chief operating officer who back in 2000 tapped Gianopulos to help run the studio that he himself once headed, “I would argue he has as much if not more knowledge about the overall movie business than almost anyone around.”