You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Q&A: The Executives Behind Fox Searchlight’s Long Run of Success

It’s hard to survive as an independent label at a major studio. Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent are gone; Universal Pictures’ Focus Features has been retooled. Miramax is a shell of its former self. But Fox Searchlight, now in its 20th year, endures. The division that has backed such critical and commercial hits as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has had a particularly enviable past few months, picking up the best picture Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” and scoring an arthouse breakout with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” ($171 million global gross, and counting). Fox Searchlight co-presidents Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley and president of production Claudia Lewis sat down with Variety to talk about their film strategy, the rise of video-on-demand, and how they keep top movies running through the pipeline without the division spinning off the financial rails.

Do you try to find movies that appeal to Oscar voters?
Nancy Utley: We look at box office first, and we look at awards as gravy. We feel that if you make a movie thinking solely that it’s an awards movie, it’s very hard to get in the race.
Steve Gilula: The first evaluation is if there is going to be an audience for it. We see movies that we think are really well-made, but we scratch our heads and think, ‘Geez, how are we going to get people to show up to the theater?’

Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” is a hit, but by scheduling it in March, were you waving the white flag on an Oscar race?
NU: The DVD will be coming out, so that will create a secondary advertising campaign. It’s never easy to keep up momentum when you start earlier in the year, but you just make sure that people see the movie.
SG: There was a debate — should we rush it into the end of last year, which was already very crowded, or should we hold it until the end of 2014, or should we put it where it will stand out? We said, ‘Hey, the audience is No. 1.’

Fox has a reputation for tight budgets, and most Searchlight films cost less than $20 million. Is being economical part of your philosophy?
SG: You take creative gambles under pretty rigorous budget guidelines. The constraints on the budgets allows us a lot of freedom on how we can distribute the movie, so it is liberating in a lot of ways. The irony is, the bigger the budget, the more narrow your options are in terms of what you can do with the movie.
Claudia Lewis: We know where the money should go and what we can do to stretch a dollar. It’s about putting as much money on screen as possible, and working together to find ways to make that happen, so we never cheap out on the film.

Unlike other indie companies, you haven’t released your films simultaneously in theaters and on-demand. Will that change?
SG: We look at it a lot, but we’re always shooting for the upside. We have “Wild” coming up. We have “Birdman” coming up. We have “Far From the Madding Crowd” coming up. These are big theatrical movies that can reap great rewards in the theaters.

How independent are you?
NU: Jim (Gianopulos) has the greenlight authority, but we’re given a lot of latitude based on our track record. It’s our success or our failure.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Game of Thrones Season 6

    British Directors Guild Issues Guidelines for Filming Nudity and Simulated Sex

    Directors UK, the professional guild for screen directors in Britain, has launched guidelines for directing nude and simulated sex scenes to prevent unprofessional conduct in film and TV. Described as the “first of their kind in the U.K.,” the new guidelines “are born of the need to set clear and shared professional expectations that apply [...]

  • People attend the opening ceremony of

    Korean Festival Selectors Resign Over Programming Independence Complaint

    Three programmers who have headed the Jeonju International Film Festival, South Korea’s second largest festival, resigned en masse on Tuesday. They say they are protesting the encroachment on their independence by the board of directors and city authorities. The three – Kim Young-jin, Lee Sang-yong and Jang Byeong-won – have led the Jeonju film festival [...]

  • Yuni Hadi

    Singapore Film Festival to Reflect South East Asian Spirit of Cooperation

    Yuni Hadi, executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival, says South East Asian cinema contains exciting talent. And that the way forward involves cooperation with the video streaming platforms. What have been the high and low points of the cinematic year for Southeast Asian cinema? “There are some amazing short films and documentaries that [...]

  • Adele Haenel Adèle Haenel

    Accusations Against Roman Polanski, Other Filmmakers Propel #MeToo in France

    When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke two years ago, the news was mostly met in France with a Gallic shrug. Screen icon Catherine Deneuve even denounced the #MeToo movement as creating a “totalitarian” environment. But bombshell accusations this month from actors Adèle Haenel and Valentine Monnier may finally have turned the tide in the local film [...]

  • Peppa Pig

    U.K. Competition Watchdog to Examine Hasbro's $4 Billion Deal for Entertainment One

    Britain’s competition watchdog will investigate Hasbro’s $4 billion takeover of Entertainment One. The Competition and Markets Authority said Thursday that it would examine whether the intended acquisition of eOne would result in a “substantial lessening of competition” under U.K. rules. The CMA was deeply involved in scrutinizing the sale of Sky, which was ultimately bought [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content