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

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.

More Biz

  • Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) social critic and

    Paul Krassner Recalls Lenny Bruce, Cavalier Magazine 50 Years Later

    Men’s magazine Cavalier was launched by Fawcett Publications in 1952 (motto: “For the American Male”). It was published the year before Playboy, to which it has often been compared. Imagine that this was a bastion of cutting-edge comic literature. Back in the day, Cavalier tried to be seen as slightly hipper, more youthful and considered [...]

  • LiveXLive Names AOL and MTV Vet

    LiveXLive Names AOL and MTV Vet Dermot McCormack President

    Live entertainment digital media company LiveXLive Media today announced that AOL and MTV veteran Dermot McCormack has been named president of the company. According to the announcement, McCormack will lead the business and creative operations of LiveXLive, effective immediately. McCormack previously served as AOL’s Global President of Video and Studios, where he oversaw the video [...]

  • R Kelly Sexual Assult Accusations Mugshot

    R. Kelly Ordered Held Without Bail

    R. Kelly has been ordered held without bond at a hearing Tuesday in federal court in Chicago, according to the Chicago Sun Times. The singer entered a not-guilty plea. The hearing, which follows the singer being hit Friday with a total of 18 counts of serious sexual misconduct and other charges in Chicago and New York, [...]

  • Woodstock co-producer and co-founder, Michael Lang,

    Woodstock 50 Organizers Are Optimistic but Vague Before Town Meeting

    Woodstock organizers Michael Lang and Richard Peck were optimistic but vague when speaking with reporters at a hastily announced open house for the festival held in Vernon, New York on Monday night. The town’s Vernon Downs is the most recent proposed site for the trouble festival, which has been dogged by financial and organizational problems [...]

  • What Is Equity, Roc Nation’s Indie

    What Is Equity, Roc Nation’s Indie Distribution Company?

    When news broke earlier this year that Jaz-O, Jay-Z’s longtime friend-turned-foe-turned-friend-again from Marcy Projects, had signed with Roc Nation, most reports glossed over exactly which company the rapper had signed with. His deal, for his Kingz Kounty Media Group, is actually with Equity Distribution, the independent distribution arm of the Roc Nation family of companies, [...]

  • Andhadhun

    Booming Digital Lifts Eros Indian Film Distribution Giant

    Eros International, India’s largest and most controversial film distributor, says that its digital revenues now outstrip conventional theatrical and syndication revenues. Its Eros Now streaming platform claims 18.8 million paying subscribers. The New York-listed company reported annual results that were distorted by multiple adjustments to presentation. Reported revenues in the year to end of March [...]

  • The dark Manhatten skyline, seen from

    StubHub Refunds $500,000 to Customers Shut Out by New York Blackout

    Saturday’s blackout in New York had an outsized effect on the city’s nightlife, with Madison Square Garden and the entire Broadway district seeing multiple shows cancelled due to the the power outage. As a result, StubHub has refunded more than $500,000 worth of tickets for cancelled events. According to a statement from the company, the StubHub [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content