Fox Searchlight’s Nancy Utley Recalls Her Early Days in Film Biz

Nancy Utley Recalls Her Early Days
illustration: michael Hoeweler; reference: Dave Allocca/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

Nancy Utley has been a studio powerhouse for 30 years. She started at 20th Century Fox in 1986, then moved to Fox Searchlight in 1999. She became president of the specialty arm in 2009, overseeing all aspects of the films alongside fellow prez Stephen Gilula. Their box office has been successful, and their awards track record is terrific, including 117 Oscar nominations and best picture wins for “Slumdog Millionaire,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman.” This season they have a strong awards lineup that includes “The Shape of Water,” “Battle of the Sexes,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Goodbye Christopher Robin.”

Utley is also a big proponent of mentoring, working with such programs as Fox’s high potential employee program, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Step Up Women’s Network, Film Independent’s Project Involve and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Gold Program. She is on the boards of AMPAS, Lupus LA and Film Independent.

What were your goals in college?

I wanted to be a journalist. I graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. As part of our curriculum, we all took an advertising class. I enjoyed the puzzle-solving of trying to match a campaign with an audience. So in graduate school, I started to concentrate more on advertising, and then was hired by Grey Advertising in New York.

What did you do there?

I was in media planning and buying. I liked it because you needed to be up on popular culture, to see what people were watching and listening to. I cycled through a bunch of accounts, like Canon and Canada Dry ginger ale, then eventually got put on the Warner Bros. account. That’s when I got hooked on the entertainment business. Products are pretty stable, but the movie business changes every few weeks. “Purple Rain” was a huge hit, and nobody saw that coming. That’s part of the fun, that it’s not predictable.

And then you started at a studio?

I came in 1986, at what we call Big Fox; I was head of media planning. You’re working on the marketing budget, how much to spend and where to spend it — and then shepherding it to make sure things get properly done. It was fascinating to see behind the curtain. In the agency world, a lot of rethinking comes to you, like, “They decided to change the target audience” or “They want to double the budget,” and you don’t know who decided or why. At a studio, I had access to decision making, and it was fascinating.

Did you have any mentors?

I’ve had a lot of mentors. One was Bob Harper at Fox in the late 1990s. He was president of marketing. I could literally sit at his desk and watch him in high-pressure situations. Bob allowed me a terrific amount of access to his decision making, and I could ask a lot of questions. Watching somebody do a job is a tremendous way to learn. I also learned from Peter Rice and Peter Chernin, who were big influences. Both are still people I can go to when I’m in a jam.

Now you’re a mentor?

I do a lot of mentoring, in a number of programs. I love to hear what young people think about media and how they make decisions. And to give somebody a hand up makes a big impact.

What’s you biggest surprise in the job?

I had heard it was a shark-infested industry. I was very happy to find how many people are nice human beings just working hard and trying to do a job. There are people who are like the bad stereotypes, but they’re not the majority.

What’s the best advice you received?

My father was an insurance contractor, and when I was very young, he told me,  “Don’t put your name on your paper until it’s your best work.” It’s about not taking shortcuts — doing the hard work and making it your best effort.