Fox Remembered: Guillermo del Toro, Paul Feig, Steve Levitan and More on Studio’s Legacy

20th Century Fox Studio 1962
Harold Filan/AP/REX/Shutterstock

It’s the end of an era. On March 20, the Walt Disney Co. will complete its $71.2 billion acquisition of key assets in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. That marks the final drumbeat for the historic 20th Century Fox as one of Hollywood’s six major studios, as brands such as FX, Fox Searchlight and NatGeo are folded into the Magic Kingdom. To memorialize the passing of a giant in the media space, Variety spoke with the filmmakers and executives responsible for some of Fox’s most memorable movies and shows.

Guillermo del Toro
Director, “The Shape of Water”

“Over more than 25 years since my first film, ‘Cronos,’ began attracting attention, I cannot remember a time that I was not involved with some division of 20th Century Fox.
My good friend Jim Cameron, who has had his own share of successes at Fox, was the first person to recommend me to the studio.

“When I developed a screenplay based on ‘The Legend of Hell House’ at Fox, the young creative executive giving notes on the project was a very tall Englishman named Peter Rice. It’s safe to say that Peter, too, has thrived at Fox and remains a loyal friend and ally.

“My first two actual productions at the studio were ‘The Book of Life’ with Fox Animation and four seasons of ‘The Strain’ with John Landgraf and his wonderful team at FX.

“All of this was a prelude to my own most cherished movie, ‘The Shape of Water’ with Fox Searchlight. From my first meeting with Claudia Lewis and David Greenbaum in 2016 through the release of the film, the process was as pure a joy as moviemaking can be.

“The degree of support from Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula — and from Stacey Snider at the top of the studio — was unparalleled in my experience. The extraordinary publicity campaign and the awards results speak for themselves, as does my close, ongoing relationship with Searchlight. ‘Antlers,’ which David Goyer, Miles Dale and I produced and Scott Cooper directed, coincides with a new chapter for the studio.

“Will I miss 20th Century Fox? No. Because, no matter what name it may now be assigned or shape it may take, the spirit and key people will be the same.”

Chris Meledandri
President, 20th Century Fox Animation, 1999-2007

“My very first job in the industry was working for producer Daniel Melnick, whose offices were on the 20th Century Fox lot in the Stars Building. Every day I drove through those gates I felt like I was traveling back in time to a moment when Darryl Zanuck still reigned, when ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was being filmed and the backlot went on forever. The day I saw my name painted on a parking spot in front of our building I felt like I had won the lottery, even though I was still the runner. I dreamt about the decisions being made behind closed doors in the giant offices in Building 88 where I knew all the assistants and occasionally caught a glimpse of the elegant production chief Sherry Lansing. And years later I was back on the lot, behind those closed doors, adding my small contribution to the storied history of this great motion picture company.”

Roland Emmerich
Director, “Independence Day”

“It means one less buyer. If this keeps going, there will only be two or three studios left, and that affects me as a filmmaker.

“As a consumer it has one of these old logos that you just know and you sort of think, how could this go away? I hope someone else takes it over, but they probably won’t. And it has the fanfare. You could walk up to somebody on the street and hum the first two or three bars and they’d know immediately what you’re singing. Growing up in Germany when the discotheques were closing they’d play that music and you’d know it was time to leave.”

Paul Feig
Director, “The Heat” and “Spy”

“I can’t imagine a world without the Fox logo coming up at the beginning of a movie. That fanfare, the graphic with a spotlight. That got seared into my brain when I was a teenager and I went to see ‘Star Wars’ for the first time. Flash-forward to getting to make ‘The Heat’ and ‘Spy’ for Fox.”

Simon Kinberg
Director, “Dark Phoenix”

“The one I was the most surprised about is, they let us make ‘Deadpool.’ At the time, there was no precedent for R-rated superhero movies, and R-rated comedies were kind of dying. But we were encouraged to do all these innovations. And that’s what you want. You want people to look at your movie and say, ‘I don’t know what the hell that is, but I want it.’ ”

Howard Gordon
Executive producer, “24” and “Homeland”

“My strongest association when I think of the Fox lot is going to the commissary and seeing generations of my idols eating at the next table. You’d see Mel Brooks, Steven Bochco, David Milch. You’d see Rupert Murdoch over in the corner with Peter Chernin. I feel lucky to have been part of that family. Like all families, there was craziness and dysfunction but also a lot of pride and love.”

Jim Gianopulos
Co-chair, Fox Filmed Entertainment, 2000-16

“Think about what an extraordinary transition this is for a place that had been one of the foremost cauldrons of creativity and pop culture for 100 years.

“I remember, Liz Gabler was passionate about making ‘Life of Pi.’ Because of nature of the story, it was challenging as a production and we had pitches from different directors before Ang Lee came on board. This one director who had been developing it said he found a way to do it, to shoot a live tiger and a boy on the same boat. I looked at Liz and said, ‘You’re gonna need more than one boy.’

“There is something extraordinary about driving through the gates of a place like that, parking your car and sitting at your desk. Being a part of that history. Early on, I sat down in the commissary, and to my right there was Mel Brooks. I walked over and said, ‘Hey.’ He said, ‘Sit down, kid. Who are you?’ And I knew this was going to be so much fun.”

Steve Levitan
Creator, “Modern Family”

“The Fox lot is where we thought of the idea for ‘Modern Family’ and where we’ve written, produced and filmed it these past 10 years, so I will always have wonderful feelings for this place. I’ve also gotten to know so many smart, quirky and hilarious people here, many of whom have become good friends. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s the closest lot to my house.”

Sherry Lansing
President of production, 20th Century Fox, 1980-82

“It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and I did an interview with The New York Times with Aljean Harmetz [about Lansing’s hire as the first female studio chief in history]. It ran the second of January, and I drove onto the lot, and the security guard wouldn’t let me go through. He said, ‘I don’t have you on the list.’ He was only doing his job, but I had no idea who to ask — I didn’t know anyone at the studio! Clearly he hadn’t seen that day’s Times. I had to report to work, so I drove through — I blew right past him and drove down to the building I knew I would work in. By the time I got there, there were three lot policemen in their cars behind me.”

Tom Rothman
Co-chair, Fox Filmed Entertainment, 2000-12

“It’s very sad. I think it’s bad for consumers and anti-competitive — deeply anti-competitive. And consumers will ultimately suffer. What I think the loss to consumers is, is a tremendous loss of originality. That’s the greatest threat the movie business faces.

“I do not share his politics at all, but you cannot underestimate Rupert Murdoch’s effectiveness and his stewardship. He created an entrepreneurial culture. There was no way there would be the level of investment on ‘Titanic’ or ‘Avatar’ without Rupert being able and willing to take big creative risks. I always found him to be a manager of executives, and he understood that ours was a business of risk. A lot of corporate overseers try to believe they can take the risk out of a creative business. Rupert understood that you cannot, and that’s why the company made the vast array of films that it made.”

Jonnie Davis
President of creative affairs, 20th Century Fox Television

“There is such a sense of camaraderie on the lot. You just feel this great energy when you’re working around so many great creative people. When the sun’s going down on a summer night, and you look up and see the palm trees all around — it’s breathtaking and you feel very lucky to be here.”

Lucy Fisher
VP of production, 20th Century Fox, 1978-80

“They had a very legendary third floor; it was all filmmakers. The executives sat on the first floor, and the filmmakers were on the third. I was so junior that they sent me to an office on the third, where I chose to stay. The hope was all these filmmakers would cross-pollinate, which of course they did. Mel Brooks was there making ‘Young Frankenstein’; Jane Fonda was doing ‘9 to 5’; Larry Kasdan was doing ‘Body Heat’; Walter Hill was doing ‘Alien’; Barry Levinson was around. A typical day was running into all of these people.”

Chris Columbus
Director, “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Home Alone”

“‘Home Alone’ was a big turning point for me. It had been developed by another studio, and they decided to put it in turnaround over $1 million. We wanted to make it for $19 million, and they said it had to be $18 million. Joe Roth, who was running 20th at the time, called and said, ‘We’ll make the movie.’

“We knew it played well with an audience, and we hoped it would be a nice little word-of-mouth hit, but its success was a total surprise. We were No. 1 at the box office 13 or 14 weeks. That’s unheard of. If Fox hadn’t come to the rescue when it did, I might not have had my career.”

Hutch Parker
Producer, “Logan”

“It’s not unlike the nostalgia you feel for a college campus. I’ve been working here close to 30 years. I have a lot of unique and wonderful memories that I will always cherish about things that happened in editing suites and conference rooms and in the commissary.

“It always strove to be a filmmaker friendly place. My personal high-water marks were films like ‘There’s Something About Mary’ or ‘Logan’ or ‘Master & Commander’ that were defined by directors who had a real point-of-view and a unique way of tackling material. Fox was a bold place and that was reflected in the diversity of the movies it made.

“The first blush reaction is sadness. It’s a studio with a tremendous amount of history and it’s sad to see that distinguished existence go away. It speaks to a business that’s changing in profound and fundamental ways. It’s a business that’s moving towards a streaming more than theatrical model, so there’s a sort of loss and sadness that goes with that. But on the flip side it’s a natural evolution and you can’t fear the future.”

Cindy Ronzoni
Publicity Executive, Fox Broadcasting Co., 1986-2000

“When I started at the network the PR team was working out of a trailer. When I think back I’m amazed at how everything we were doing was so ground-breaking and game-changing. Barry Diller was a great leader. I’m glad to have been brought up with the spirit of the Fox attitude to just try things.”

Shawn Levy
Director, “Night at the Museum” franchise

“Fox, of course, has been defined by franchises and sequels but it’s also the studio that bet on a sinking boat movie. And a VFX comedy about museum exhibits that come to life. Frankly, I hope that continues under Disney.

“I have four daughters, and every one of them, their absolute favorite way to play hooky from school has been to come with Dad to work, hop in a golf cart and drive around finding shrubbery shaped like animals and creatures. This is not a famous aspect of the Fox lot, but there are about a dozen pieces of shrubbery that have been manicured for years to look like animals — penguins, coyotes and even a dragon.”

Chris Alexander
EVP of Corporate Communications and Publicity, 20th Century Fox Television

“One of my first days at Fox I went to the ‘Judging Amy’ writer’s room that was this little school house-looking building. And then I learned that Shirley Temple and Roddy McDowall had gone to school in that building way back when. Walking around this lot can be like a time-travel experience.”

Michael Gruskoff
Producer, “Young Frankenstein”

“They made movies with good stories from good directors. They made films that dealt with reality. They liked filmmakers, and they gave them a lot of rope.”

Daniel Holloway contributed to this report.