With last week's hiring of Disney's Bill Mechanic as the new president of 20th Century Fox, studio chairman Peter Chernin has bought himself a much-needed sounding board and strategic ally--someone who can, hopefully, help jump-start a studio whose fortunes have been on the wane.
"Peter has a vast domain, particularly since the departure of Strauss Zelnick," notes one industry analyst, alluding to the former Fox president who left to head a Silicon Valley high-tech company in June.
"He needs a macro-manager like (motion picture group president) Jonathan Dolgen at Sony with a knowledge of those lucrative ancillary areas--pay TV, home video, etc.--that cushion a studio against a bad season or a $40-million flop."
Mechanic's appointment as Chernin's lieutenant--responsible not only for all studio operations overseen by his predecessor but marketing, distribution and production as well--has generated understandable anxiety within the Fox ranks.
Still, hopes are high that next month's arrival of the well-respected newcomer will help stabilize an operation buffeted by ongoing executive change, lift the studio from its current sixth-place market share standing and establish a brand identity still lacking at the company nearly 11 months after Chernin came aboard.
Such problems have generated industry buzz that Chernin, along with his production head, Tom Jacobson, lacks the extensive relationships with the film community that make for effective movie packaging.
However, last Thursday Mechanic is said to have had a phone conversation with Jacobson during which he expressed his support--sentiments echoed by Chernin. "Tom Jacobson has my complete confidence," says the studio chief, addressing industry speculation that Jacobson's job is in jeopardy. "I don't plan on making any changes."
Says Jacobson: "I have no concerns about the arrival of Bill Mechanic. On the contrary, I feel very positive. This is a tough business--the more help the merrier."
Mechanic--who spearheaded Disney's successful home video and international distribution divisions--said his 12-year alliance with Disney top brass Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner made the decision to leave a tough one.
In the end, however, pragmatism won out. Mechanic, 43, knows and likes Chernin, whom he met in the mid-1980s. The prospect of working for News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch was also appealing. And, as a USC Film School graduate with only a smidgen of production experience, Mechanic was eager to flex his creative muscles. Had the Fox offer or a broader-based opportunity at Disney not come along, he says, he would have jumped the executive ranks and tried to produce.
If Chernin, as Mechanic describes him, is a "creative executive with good business sense," the new president perceives himself as Chernin's mirror image. Unlike Chernin, a television veteran, Mechanic rose through the feature film ranks, acquiring experience in a variety of areas, he says, that has been invaluable in an increasingly diversified business.
"My goal is not to change the product," Mechanic says. "Everyone tries to make the best pictures they can. But since I've dabbled, or been involved with, almost every piece of the pie, I can be useful in selling these movies."
Though Chernin and Mechanic differ in their professional skills, the two overlap temperamentally. "Peter and I are both smart guys, pretty down-to-earth without inflated egos," says Mechanic. "Both of us want to succeed but won't kill people to get there. And both of us like to be transparent."
Still, studio insiders refute talk that Chernin might fade into the woodwork. The chairman, they note, retains the right to give projects the go-ahead--the central power of a studio chief. And contractually, Mechanic will be reporting to him.
"Peter wants another player, someone who'll get his hands dirty--particularly in the bottom-line areas," says one industry observer. "Rather than being the 'bad cop' saying 'no' to people, he wants to be more global and creative. Mechanic will give him another mind to mine."
Mechanic, too, foresees a collaboration: "I want to be involved in the process--not \o7 be \f7 the process itself. Peter wants a partner in the operation, not to drop out of it entirely. Still, the studio is in need of revitalization, stability and leadership--qualities I hope I can bring. With all the turmoil, everyone has been into 'survival.' I want to plug up the holes so movies can get made."
Fox's dismal first quarter of 1993 was followed by a more respectable summer with such releases as "Rising Sun" and "Rookie of the Year." Moreover, the recent $12-million opening of "The Good Son" and excellent prospects for Robin Williams' "Mrs. Doubtfire" should give the studio something to smile about.
To pundits claiming that the operation is stalled, Mechanic pleads for time. "You can't write the book on anyone--Peter, myself or Tom--in 60 days or even 180 days," he says. "It takes 18 months to two years before you can see the impact of a new administration. I'd be foolish to go in and expect to change things overnight."