It’s been a grueling 11 months for Stacey Snider.
The 20th Century Fox Film chairman and CEO was just putting her imprint on the studio when Rupert Murdoch decided to sell the bulk of his media empire to Disney. That’s left Snider with the unenviable task of having to keep Fox running smoothly even as her employees brace for layoffs that could result in thousands of lost jobs.
Worse yet, Snider will be among those getting pink-slipped. Although several of her top lieutenants, including vice chairman Emma Watts, Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler and Fox Searchlight co-heads Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley, have gotten new jobs at Disney, Snider will not make the move. During a recent talk at her sleekly modern Beverly Hills home, she is clearly stung by being passed over by Disney. However, she’s focused on finding new opportunities to keep making movies, television shows and other forms of content. In the meantime, she’s been burying herself in books to distract from the drama on the lot (Jill Lepore’s “These Truths” and Walt Whitman’s “Specimen Days” are current favorites).
There is a symmetry to our conversation. Snider spoke to me roughly a year ago as part of a free-flowing interview in which she outlined her plans to keep Fox competitive with the Netflixes of the world. She made progress on some of those goals, revitalizing Fox’s slate of animated films, for instance, and buying Technoprops, a visionary VFX company that is working on the studio’s upcoming “Call of the Wild.” But other plans have been put on indefinite hold as Fox prepares to be absorbed into Disney.
When did you find out about the sale?
I was in a Monday-morning distribution meeting, or it might have been a Friday senior staff meeting. Everyone started looking down at their phones, which isn’t super rare except they’re not usually choreographed. No one really said anything. They were startled and unsure about its accuracy. Then I was called down to either take a call or see [21st Century Fox co-chairman] Lachlan [Murdoch] — I honestly can’t remember.
But by the time I walked back up, we knew it was true.
Had there been any hint this was coming?
It was a perfect surprise.
What was your reaction?
At that moment I actually felt excited and hopeful. It was a big shock. I’d always expected that Rupert would be a buyer and not a seller, but I had been privy to the challenges we were facing in terms of competing with streaming services. I thought it was the right thing to do then, and I think it’s the right thing now.
But there’s a human cost. Thousands of people will lose their jobs.
It’s been really challenging to manage a company for almost a whole year knowing that these cuts are coming. Most of the employees at Fox have been there for decades. They’ve given most of their careers to Fox. Many of them are hanging on to see if there will be an opportunity at Disney. My job for the last year has also been chairman of human emotions and resident shoulder to cry on. There’s going to be a lot of job loss. However, and this is not to diminish the pain people will go through, but time waits for no one. This will not be the first or last consolidation the industry sees.
It is true that you won’t be going to Disney?
I’ve been told that. Everyone was righteous and straightforward about it.
Did it hurt to be told you weren’t included?
I definitely felt bruised, but I’m a right brain/left brain person. I can feel bruised, ruminate and feel sorry for myself — trust me, that side of me is very active. The other side of my brain, which contains my analytical skills, is just as active. It helps to run down the facts. Are there a plenitude of other executives to choose from? Yes. Has anyone hip checked or undermined me to prevent me from having an opportunity? No. Is it punishment? No. Is it a condemnation of my work? No. So who am I going to get mad at?
There’s speculation you’ll go to Apple or Amazon. Is that accurate?
I love that there’s rumors. Everyone likes when their name is out there, but I don’t have any plans that are formed right now.
But you want to keep working. You don’t seem like someone who is ready to retire.
I would drive myself and anybody that cares about me crazy if I wasn’t working.
What kinds of jobs interest you?
I’m open to any and all. I really am. For almost a year people have been saying, “What do you want to do?” For a person like me who is as analytical and ruminating and dutiful, I want to answer people’s questions, but I have been genuinely stumped. About a month ago I had this epiphany. I realized it’s the wrong question that people have been asking me and that I have been asking myself. It’s not what do I want to do. It’s who do I want to do it with. I want to work with great artists. I don’t care if I’m an employee or a producer. I don’t care if I’m at a streaming service or at a traditional media company. I want to work with people that are excited about the future, that want to do things differently, and that have a subversive approach.
“My job for the last year has also been chairman of human emotions and resident shoulder to cry on.”
What has it been like to work at Fox these past 11 months?
There definitely are days when I’ve closed my door or days when I’ve left early, but for the most part it was really important to me to show up and be there and do what was expected of me. I’ve tried to just have it be business as usual, and we’ve actually gotten a lot of great movies greenlit.
The rhythm of the day is you have your standard meetings, and at some point someone will make some gallows humor comment about the impending deal. Then like little cats we all pounce on that statement, and we give it a good 20 minutes of speculation: I heard, she heard, this is true, what about this, and on and on. And then my job is to bring it back to a conversation about where we are in terms of “The Favourite” and its festival schedule.
Have you had any interactions with Disney?
Two or three with [Disney CEO Bob] Iger and with [film chief] Alan Horn. They’ve been supportive. There’s very little that they can offer or say under the limitations imposed by the Department of Justice. I know that there’s a lot of frustration at Fox for what’s perceived to be a kind of vacuum of communication, but they can’t say, “Here’s your office. This is what you’re going to do. Here’s your parking spot.” Short of that kind of specificity, frustration comes with the territory.
There are rumors about who is getting laid off and who is going to Disney. Does that create tension? Are people stabbing each other in the back?
There’s definitely been some jockeying for positions, and I think everyone at the company has had a combination of good days and bad days. There are days when they are being consoled, and then they’re the ones consoling someone else. When you have a bad day, I’ve said to people, either throw yourself into your work or if that’s not working, leave, go work out. This is an extraordinary situation, and no one is going to be docked for missing an hour or two. Do the best you can, and be kind to each other. That advice is followed by some people some days and other people other days, and sometimes it just gets completely flushed down the f–king toilet.
Because of Rupert Murdoch’s personal politics and the fact that he owns Fox News, people think of Fox as a conservative company. But you used the Murdochs’ money to make movies about gay teens (“Love, Simon”), police shootings (“The Hate U Give”), and the free press (“The Post”). Was there ever pushback?
That’s a credit to Rupert. He and Lachlan and [Fox chairman] James [Murdoch] don’t censor any of our choices. I never felt I had to answer to them. If the movies didn’t make money, then I might have heard more from them. Movies that illuminate the human experience and bring people together are part of a healthy film program as long as they’re entertaining and not didactic.
What will happen to the films that you’re making now? Will they get a theatrical release, or will they be put on Disney’s upcoming streaming service?
I have no sense of it, but I know with Emma and Elizabeth Gabler and Steve and Nancy that the possibility for continuity is greater than if they weren’t there. They’re in very capable hands. You’d have to ask the folks at Disney about what their ultimate plans are, but my sense is that they want these movies to be great, and our team is working to make sure that they are.
Will the 20th Century Fox brand still exist after the sale?
I don’t know. One thing that I did was call Dave Karger at TCM, and I asked him if he could put me in touch with the people that do their film festivals and to see if we could make their spring film festival about Fox. I put together a little working team at the company, since I won’t be there then, and they’re making sure that TCM is going to have access to the archives. That’s my gift and my contribution to remembering the Fox logo and fanfare and history.
You gave a speech at CinemaCon where you seemed to choke up when you were paying tribute to Fox’s legacy. So clearly this is an emotional time.
I did choke up because I think this is a moment of real seismic change. The pioneers of the studio, their vision, was something that I wanted to celebrate before it was absorbed. It wasn’t meant to be maudlin. I wanted to take a moment to recall all of the great films that the studio has made and the memories it has given us. But I don’t think there’s any use for permanent nostalgia. A look back can make you wistful. You don’t live there. You live looking forward.
You were talking about the need for scale. I don’t entirely understand its importance because companies are basically trying to keep up with consumer behavior, and consumers don’t want to pay for content they can stream. How does getting bigger help?
There’s one grounding assumption that you either buy into or you don’t, and that is that the over-the-top method of delivering content is the future. It doesn’t mean that television, theatrical distribution, theme parks, consumer products won’t all be important. But if you believe that Netflix, Amazon and maybe Apple will be able to control the bulk of the market and that you need to compete with them, then you need to have enough product. That requires a lot of content in order to make any rival subscription service you launch worthwhile.
You left a job as head of DreamWorks to come to Fox. Do you feel like the Murdochs let you down?
I have been very mindful my whole career that I am an employee, and there are certain perks that come from being an employee. I get benefits. I have a pension plan. I have an expense account. The flip side is that this isn’t yours, and you’re not owed anything past your paycheck.
Knowing what you know now, would you take the job again?
Without a doubt. It’s a privilege to do what we do. Also don’t cry for me, Argentina. I get to make movies, and I’m paid well, and I work with super creative people. I’ve been a very lucky person.