UPDATED: Twentieth Century Fox co-chairman Stacey Snider is succeeding long-time executive Jim Gianopulos as the sole chairman and CEO of the film studio, a move that will take place a year from now, despite misgivings among some at Fox about Snider’s first 17 months on the Century City lot.
Gianopulos, 65, will take on a new strategic role with the company’s 21st Century Fox parent and continue to report to Lachlan Murdoch and James Murdoch, the parent company’s executive chairman, and CEO, respectively. Variety first broke the news of the impending changes.
Also staying on at Fox will be Emma Watts, the studio production chief who sources say has had a rocky relationship with Snider. Watts’s contract runs through 2019. Although Gianopulos is said to have some concerns about the studio’s operations after his June 30, 2017 contract expiration, the Murdochs went out of their way to praise him in their announcement.
“Jim has played an integral role in growing our global film business into the powerhouse it is today,” they said. “We’ve benefited tremendously from his creative insights, his vast knowledge of international markets, and from his unique understanding of the technologies shaping our future. We look forward to continuing to work with Jim in a new strategic capacity after the close of his current contract term.”
Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, praised Gianopulos as a close confidant over 25 years and added: “Jim has delivered year after year, with films that truly soared, spanning ‘Titanic,’ ‘Avatar,’ and most recently the wildly successful ‘Deadpool.’ I’m confident that his passion for movies and the business of film will carry through to our next generation of management and am convinced that his decades-long leadership has positioned us for continued future success. I am so pleased Jim has agreed to stay on in a new role and have the utmost confidence in the future of the studio under Stacey’s leadership.”
Gianopulos also embraced the transition in a statement of his own, saying, in part: “I’m looking forward to this final year of an amazing 25-year journey at the studio, and to exciting new adventures,” said Jim Gianopulos. He praised Snider, 55, and the rest of a “great team” he predicted will continue past successes.
The power shift was not set to be announced until later, but when word began to leak out and Variety published its account of turmoil in the Fox management ranks, the parent company rushed to announce the succession plan Thursday morning.
The long-gestating transition is causing unease among fellow executives who are loyalists to chairman and CEO Gianopulos. Having been hand-picked for the job by Rupert Murdoch, Snider has failed to define a role for herself on the studio’s Century City lot, which left insiders confused, frustrated and in some cases resentful.
Over the years, Snider had built a reputation as a smart executive with creative chops and strong talent relationships. She’s held top posts from TriStar Pictures to Universal Pictures and most recently had an eight-year run at Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio. But Fox sources said Snider has not carved out a significant perch at a studio whose multi-division structure already features strong, decisive leaders: Elizabeth Gabler, who runs Fox 2000; Emma Watts, who heads production at the main studio; and Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley who oversee Fox Searchlight.
Insiders suggest that seasoned executives at the studio have chafed under the prospect of an outsider calling the shots at an operation that was viewed as well-oiled before her arrival at the studio in November, 2014.
Snider’s hire, orchestrated by Fox supreme leader Rupert Murdoch, suffered from awkward timing. She joined Fox at the end of a year when the studio had won the box office wars for the first time in three decades with a record $3 billion in global ticket sales. Although Gianopulos announced Snider’s hiring and publicly embraced it, he and his lieutenants privately were mystified by her appointment, believing that the studio was running smoothly, sources said.
Even as she was brought on board, a press account quoted an unnamed studio executive asking “Why do we need her?” If more evidence was needed that not everyone wanted a spot on Team Stacey, it came with the revelation that Fox veteran Gabler had no intention of changing the terms of her contract that stipulated she reported directly to Gianopulos.
Snider told people that she would take a year to study the Fox system and ease her way into leadership. She didn’t want to threaten “the finest group of executives and filmmakers in the business,” as she described the Fox incumbents.
Snider has since been scrambling to find an open seat at the Fox table. From the get-go and into recent weeks, Snider has complained to agents and business associates that her role at Fox was undefined and that her underlings have made it difficult for her to assert herself. But, some insiders view that as Snider unfairly playing the victim rather than being more proactive in landing big projects and making her own mark. Some suggest that perhaps Snider’s lack of assertiveness is a function of her simply biding her time and choosing not to step on her colleagues’ toes, believing that she was poised to replace Gianopulos as head of the studio.
“She was hired by Rupert Murdoch and brought here without a mandate,” said one Fox executive, who declined to be named discussing corporate intrigue that he described as “a minefield.” “She has certain allies who support her. But there is speculation and great fear within this organization that the Murdochs may be unaware (that) she (was) able to sell them a bill of goods that she cannot deliver.”
Rupert Murdoch and his sons and heirs James and Lachlan, who now oversee Fox, declined interview requests.
People at Fox said Gianopulos loves his job and has mixed feelings about being replaced. Some found a parallel in Warner Bros. president Alan Horn’s departure as head of the studio, in favor of a younger generation of managers when Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes pulled the cord on his highly successful 12-year run. (Warner’s has bogged down since the 2011 change, while Horn has soared in his new job atop Disney’s film studio, which consistently finishes at, or near, the top of the box office standings.
Gianopulos has been a strong leader from his earlier days building the studio’s international business into the industry gold standard to his 16 years at the helm of Fox and the studio has scored big with hits like “Avatar,” “Deadpool,” “The Martian” and the “X-Men” films. He has guided Fox amidst massive industry changes and technological disruption as the studio’s conduit to Silicon Valley.
Sources said he has been very supportive of Snider’s desire to step up in areas in which she thought the studio was deficient, including franchise development and animation. “She’s been testing the fence throughout the organization to try to find a hole she can get through,” said one Fox insider. Three other executives close to the studio independently offered the same commentary on Snider’s tenure, saying, “I don’t know what she does.”
Some initially viewed Snider as moving slowly and deliberately, like a diplomat navigating a new land, but many of those people say she remains an ambassador largely without portfolio. She has not produced a signature project, acquired significant intellectual property or changed Fox’s world view – as might have been expected for the executive once described as the entertainment business’s “next Sherry Lansing.”
After their own period of becoming more acquainted with the empire built by their father, James and Lachlan Murdoch are now seen as beginning to assert themselves. They pushed for a buyback program at Fox’s film and television units that shed as many as 400 jobs, and recently ousted Greg Gelfan, the studio’s longtime head of the studio’s business affairs, over Gianopulos’ objections, sources say.
The removal of Gelfan was viewed by many as a major break with the old guard. The tough-talking lawyer negotiated many deals with film talent and kept costs low – making him a hero to his overseers inside Fox and an enemy to agents and others who struggled to get top dollar from Fox for their clients. “Nobody knew the business better than Greg,” said one executive intimately familiar with the studio’s operations.
Supporters of Snider say that Fox executives have not done enough to integrate her into the studio’s hierarchy. There are reports that other executives have tried to keep her on the periphery.
“I have utmost respect for her. I think she is a really great manager and leader,” said an executive who has worked with Snider before and has followed the saga closely. “I get the feeling they didn’t want her and they have made it clear they didn’t want her.”
But those arguments cut no ice with other studio veterans.
“She started in an era when just having the chairman’s title meant that everyone rolled out the red carpet. But now you have to be a little more entrepreneurial,” said the executive, who declined to be named. “The chairman’s title, alone, gives you the wherewithal to get things done.”
One agent described his excitement in November, 2014 when Snider arrived at Fox, hoping that the new boss would open avenues for his clients. But he contrasted that with a recent meeting in which Snider agreed he had a good talent prospect but declined to find a project at Fox that suited the newcomer. Instead, Snider told the agent he should work through production chief Watts. The agent remains hopeful that Snider’s powers will expand. “It’s sad in that it’s been a year and half and there is not one movie that has been a ‘Stacey movie…at least that I know of,’” he said.
“That is so frustrating,” he added. “If Stacey can’t drive something forward herself and has to work through Emma then she seems like a lame duck at the studio. And she has been.”
There has been no love lost between the two executives, according to multiple sources at the studio. Watts’ future prospects at the studio under a Snider regime remain unclear. Speculation among insiders ranges from Snider promoting her and bringing in her own production chief to showing her the door.
Snider’s style has also irked people on and off the lot. Even as she tried to delegate decision-making to staffers, her notes to filmmakers and her constant invocation of Spielberg (“Steven would have done it this way”) have rubbed some top directors the wrong way, according to two insiders. Those sources said there was a lot of tension between Snider and “Independence Day” director Roland Emmerich, which he denies.
“It’s not accurate,” Emmerich told Variety. “Me and Stacey are a lot in sync.” He added that he’s known her for 25 years and considered her a friend.
Emmerich credited Snider with helping him remain calm during a difficult “Independence Day: Resurgence” shoot. The film scrambled to make its summer 2016 release date, requiring crew members to spend the final month of production completing a massive 1,000 visual effects shots.
“We got greenlit a little bit too late,” said Emmerich, adding, “I looked at the schedule and went ‘my god we’re missing two months.”
Snider, Emmerich said, was “my cheerleader,” and kept telling him, “you’re going to make it. You can do this.”
Director Ridley Scott’s publicist Simon Halls refuted a rumor that his director client had a run in with Snider over “The Martian.”
“Stacey, in my opinion, is one of the brightest, most talented executives in the business,” said Halls. “I have known and admired her for years. She worked very closely with us on ‘The Martian’ and she was extremely effective in her efforts to help the studio mount a robust and, ultimately effective, Oscar campaign for the film.”
To be sure, Snider has many fans in the creative and business circles, not the least of which are her former bosses, Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.
“I have no idea about the gossip in town but I can tell you it’s not very valuable,” said Geffen by phone Thursday from Italy. “It’s laced with envy or jealousy or whatever. She is an extraordinarily talented executive. I worked with her for years and I can tell you, she is as good as it gets.”
He said that DreamWorks suffered financial challenges, like many companies, during the recession but that the studio’s principal, Spielberg, remained so high on Snider that he would not let her out of her contract, when Fox came calling. “I don’t know if these other people talk to Rupert Murdoch and Jim Gianopulos, but I do frequently,” added Geffen. “and I only get great reports about Stacey from them.”
Any recriminations would have been hard to imagine at the storybook opening of Snider’s Hollywood career. She was the rare executive who managed to be both a canny player of studio politics and a favorite in the creative community. The combination helped her, while still in her early 30s, to drive Universal from an also-ran to near the top of the box office heap.
However, her years as the top executive at DreamWorks were much shakier. Snider had a decidedly mixed track record with her movie slates. Films such as “Lincoln” and “The Help” — which had notable partners including Fox and Participant Media — connected with audiences, but they were weighed down by laggards such as “Delivery Man,” “Need for Speed,” and “The Fifth Estate,” all of which hemorrhaged millions.
Time will tell what Snider’s ultimate measure of success will be during her tenure at Fox. What does seem certain is that her ascension to No. 1 will not be without a lot of tumult and further executive changes before the dust settles.