Considering the power they wield, it’s surprising that more of us don’t know about the heads of Hollywood studios. But then whereas in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, showmen such as the original Brothers Warner and MGM (no longer a major, really) head, Louis B. Mayer, were larger than life personalities, now it’s of a more corporate culture. As such, the people with the greenlight button on their desk tend to get less publicity. But who are they? Well, glad you asked…
Universal: Jeff Shell
Universal Pictures has been owned by Comcast since 2011, who acquired the studio from General Electric (who, in turn, had bought it from Vivendi in 2004). The current head of the film studio is Jeff Shell, who sits in the role of chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. He took on oversight of Universal’s films from Ron Meyer, who was promoted upwards, and Shell reports in to NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke.
Shell’s watch, thus far, has been a fruitful one. Before he took office, the studio had never had a movie gross $1 billion at the global box office off its original release alone. In 2015, Universal had three: Jurassic World, Furious 7, and Minions. At the time of writing, The Fate of the Furious has also zoomed past that particular flag.
Shell was also instrumental in Universal buying up DreamWorks Animation, in turn positing Chris Meladandri – the head of Illumination – as Universal’s equivalent of John Lasseter.
It’s been a successful run for Shell thus far, with further hits such as Straight Outta Compton, Sing, The Secret Life of Pets, Jason Bourne, Split, Get Out,Fifty Shades Of Grey, and more offsetting the relatively small number of commercial failures the studio has had in recent years.
Shell’s next big bet? A Universal Monsters shared universe. Much hinges on this summer’s The Mummy reboot…
Paramount: Jim Gianopulos
It’s been all-change at Paramount this year, with the firm’s movies now being overseen by new chairman and chief executive officer, Jim Gianopulos. He moved into his new office in March, replacing longtime studio head Brad Grey. Grey had been in that post since 2005, but resigned earlier this year, following a particularly poor performance for the studio in 2016. Films such as Allied, Monster Trucks, Ben-Hur, and Zoolander 2 failed to hit, and even the films that did quite well – Star Trek Beyond, 10 Cloverfield Lane – didn’t offset the losses.
Jim Gianopulos had been heading up 20th Century Fox until last year when he was removed from that position. He had been reportedly in talks to head up Legendary Entertainment when the Paramount job came up,
The change in leadership of Paramount came just months after its parent company, Viacom, also swapped leaders. Bob Bakish became CEO of Viacom at the end of last year, and Brad Grey was out the door in a matter of months.
Disney: Bob Iger
Since succeeding the divisive (and that’s an understatement) Michael Eisner as chairman and chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company in 2005, Iger has had the kind of run that’s the envy of every other studio head.
Iger – who took the job having previously been president of the Disney-owned ABC Television –assumed this postion after Eisner’s departure had been reportedly hastened by boardroom and shareholder unrest (as well as Eisner’s unwise choice to pick a fight with Steve Jobs and Pixar). One of Iger’s very first, and boldest, moves was to repair Disney’s relationship with Pixar. During the last days of Eisner, Pixar was looking elsewhere for a partner. Less than 12 months after he took office, Iger had sanctioned the $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar, which in turn positioned John Lasseter at the heart of Walt Disney Animation Studios. $1 billion hits such as Frozen and Zootopia have followed.
Iger’s taste for big acquisitions continued, and the big bets have paid off, and quickly. In 2009, Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment For $4 billion. In October 2012, another $4 billion was shelled out for Lucasfilm, and the Star Wars franchise. Disney has now streamlined its movie operation to seven or eight big bets a year. Beauty and the Beast already this year has crossed $1 billion at the box office, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t far behind.
The question mark with Iger is how long he’ll continue in the job. Now 66, the problem Disney faces is it can’t find a suitable replacement. There’s no obvious successor, and Iger has hinted that he’s planning his retirement. He’s going to be a tough act to follow.
Sony: Tom Rothman
Sony Pictures’ management team is still in some degree of flux. Back in early 2015, Amy Pascal was confirmed to be leaving her post as chairman of the studio in the aftermath of the cyber-terrorist attack on Sony’s servers, and the furor over the release of The Interview. Pascal set up a production company in the studio, and Rothman was appointed in her place. Pascal, as Deadline reported back in 2015, had “a solid track record as a talent and filmmaker-friendly studio head, and she has lasted longer than most do.”
Rothman had headed up 20th Century Fox’s film unit until 2013, earning a reputation for money management, being hands on, and in Deadline’s words, being “a tough guy who could say no and maybe even took some pleasure in it.” He was appointed to work under chairman and CEO Michael Lynton, although Lynton’s departure later this year is set to destabilize Rothman.
Rothman’s performance in the job is already under scrutiny, although much of his slate he inherited from Pascal (Ghostbusters, Passengers, Spectre, The Angry Birds Movie, Inferno). He’s betting on a Spider-Man movie universe, buoyed by the expected strong performance of this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. That The Dark Tower helps launch a franchise, and that Blade Runner 2049 isn’t too far away may not hurt either. He’s also deep in negotiations for Sony to distribute the next James Bond feature, and has put sequels and franchises such as Bad Boys 3, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Goosebumps 2, and The Equalizer 2 at the heart of his strategy.
This year sees Sony with its strongest slate in recent years. With some debate continuing over Sony’s intentions for Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures, fingers are being crossed – and it’ll be interesting to see if Rothman is around to enjoy the success or otherwise.
20th Century Fox: Stacey Snider
Currently the only woman who’s the chief of a Hollywood studio, Stacey Snider succeed Jim Gianopulos as head of 20th Century Fox film the summer of 2016, and she’s moved quickly to back the studio’s big franchises. Three X-Men films, for instance, are scheduled for release next year, further Planet of the Apes movies are planned, and Snider is gambling hard by backing four Avatar sequels. She’s also overseeing The Predator and more Alien films, and Fox’s change in animation strategy now that its deal with DreamWorks Animation is done. Expect this Christmas’ Ferdinand to begin a heavier reliance on Blue Sky Studios, in turn facing fresh challenges following the fizzling out of the Ice Age series.
Still, Snider’s taste is broader than just blockbusters. She’s greenlit the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Steven Spielberg directed The Post, that’s being fast-tracked for release this Christmas. That’d extend Fox’s relationship with Spielberg. Attracting key filmmakers seems key to Snider’s strategy.
She’s inherited a strong summer of films from her predecessor, and after a few years of musical chairs, Fox seems in its most confident position in years.
Warner Brothers: Kevin Tsujihara
Well, the pressure’s really on here with Tsujihara’s tenure at the top of Warner Bros. Entertainment commencing in 2013. Since then, the studio has been having a really choppy time, and the spotlight is firmly on Tsujihara in 2017.
After all, the strong performance of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them helped paper over cracks in what was a difficult 2016 for Warner Bros. The commercial performance of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad – both grossing over $750 million worldwide – certainly offset in the short-term the feeling that WB and its DC Extended Universe was a little lacking (it’s regularly cited that whereas Marvel announced its last slate of movies via a fan event, Tsujihara used a phone call with investors to do so). Much hinges on this year’s Wonder Woman and Justice League, which will give a better feeling as to how audiences feel about Warner Bothers’ DC movies right now, and whether it really is a case of critics be damned.
Away from DC, though, WB’s bets – some of which Tsujihara inherited in his defense – have spluttered. Jupiter Ascending, Pan, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Point Break, In the Heart of the Sea, and Live By Night to name but a few of them – have failed more than hit. Perhaps unsurprising, Tsujihara is now pursuing the kind of tentpole strategy that Bob Iger introduced at Disney, with Warner Bros. set to make fewer films, and base them around Lego (where the two Lego films to date have been hugely successful), Harry Potter (with at least four more Fantastic Beasts films to come), and DC.
What’s overlooked though is around the sides, there are successes. Warner Bros., for a long time, has been the studio that worked off filmmaker relationships, and Clint Eastwood for one continues to deliver successes. Furthermore, it’s a studio willing to take punts on the likes of Lights Out, The Nice Guys, War Dogs, and Creed, to varying degrees of success. This year has also seen it effectively launch its monsterverse in conjunction with Legendary, thanks to the relative success of Kong: Skull Island. There are certainly signs that Tsujihara is slowly turning WB’s fortunes around.
The big bets coming up will be interesting. Dunkirk (again, Warner Brothers’ tight relationship with Christopher Nolan helped land it the project), King Arthur, It, and U.S. distribution of Blade Runner 2049 lie ahead. Tsujihara is also gambling on resurrecting the Ocean’s and Tomb Raidermovie franchises too. Plus, there are those DC films.
Lionsgate: Jon Feltheimer
Finally, even though it’s not a traditional Hollywood major, it’s worth factoring in the fast-growing Lionsgate, not least because it’s now further emboldened by its multi-billion dollar acquisition of the Starz network. Lionsgate gambled pretty much its entire business on The Hunger Games franchise, and was richly rewarded. Now it straddles the line between chasing franchises – Now You See Me, Power Rangers, the upcoming Robin Hood – and more boutique features, such as La La Land.
It’s also nurturing relationships with filmmakers – Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg made their last two films together here, through their deals with EuropaCorp they have Luc Besson helming Valerian – and honoring their horror roots. The Saw series comes back to cinemas later this year.
This has all happened under the watch of Jon Feltheimer, who has been CEO of Lionsgate since 2000 and has overseen its transformation into a major film company. Steve Beeks also oversees the motion picture group with Feltheimer.
The challenge ahead is an interesting one for Lionsgate, one of the few studios actively seeking out mid-budget material. It’s got, for instance, the first adaptation of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp books, American Assassin, landing later this year, as well as more possible awards bait with the movie take on R.J. Palacio’s superb book, Wonder. Will it compete heavily on blockbusters? Valerian’s box office performance may yet be pivotal there. They can always dig back into The Hunger Games in they’re stuck, though.
As for Feltheimer, Lionsgate extended his contract through to 2023 at the end of last year. Whatever challenges lie ahead, Feltheimer will be steering Lionsgate through them.