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Company Town | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Nuts and Bolts, Yes; Creativity? Maybe

November 05, 1996|Claudia Eller

Bill Mechanic, well-regarded as a hard-working, nuts-and-bolts studio executive and strategist who knows how to grow businesses, has for years wanted to prove he has creative chops.

Now the president of Fox Filmed Entertainment may get a chance to do so.

A film buff and onetime movie critic who's dabbled in screenwriting, Mechanic is expected to be promoted this week to chairman and CEO of Fox, assuming the duties of Peter Chernin.

Last week, Chernin was elevated to president and chief operating officer of Fox parent News Corp. to help media mogul Rupert Murdoch run and build his global empire.

Studio insiders are being reassured by Chernin that he'll stay involved in the process of green-lighting movies despite his hefty new responsibilities.

But realistically, just as Murdoch needs someone to help ease his load, so will Chernin need an executive to oversee the movie studio he's headed for the last four years. He has said his second in command, Mechanic, would be taking over the day-to-day operations.

It will be interesting to see just how Mechanic, who came to Fox three years ago from Disney, will fare as a studio head, because he's always operated more behind the scenes and as someone who has shunned the spotlight.

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He once told The Times that he and Chernin like to be "transparent," but studio chiefs usually can't work that way, and Chernin has hardly been invisible these last few years.

A number of sources at Fox and in the Hollywood community wonder whether the 46-year-old executive has the creative instincts needed to be effective at the top job. Since breaking into the studio world in the late '70s, he's worked on the business rather than the creative side.

He's known as a smart strategic thinker who can build businesses--but not as a creative executive. In fact, the main reason he left his former job at Disney as head of international distribution and worldwide video and pay television to join Fox in 1993 was because he had no oversight in production.

"He wanted to have a real active hand in movies," said his former Disney boss and now DreamWorks partner, Jeffrey Katzenberg. "But the opportunity for him to be a creative guy just didn't exist at Disney."

Last week, Chernin stressed that Mechanic has been operating as his partner in helping select the movies Fox makes. He has helped attract some big-talent deals, including producers Arnold and Anne Kopelson, and shepherded such films as "Die Hard With a Vengeance," "Waiting to Exhale" and "Broken Arrow."

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He helped Fox launch multiple movie labels to increase product diversity and production, a concept Disney pioneered years ago under Katzenberg and Michael Eisner. He also supervised the creation and expansion of Fox's animation studio in Phoenix, where more than 200 animators are working on the studio's Thanksgiving release, "Anastasia."

Additionally, he helped revamp the studio's international and home video operations and hired a new team of divisional heads at the firm.

But he's by no means universally liked, and some question whether he has the personality and social skills to deal effectively with problems that invariably arise in putting movies together. He is known to be brusque at times, highly opinionated, bullheaded and someone who too often takes things personally.

"He's cold, very strong-willed and never wrong," says one of his detractors.

An executive who works for him described him as "awkward socially but someone with humanity." Sources say Mechanic has virtually no relationship with Tom Sherak, the widely liked third-ranking executive at the studio.

Many executives who have worked with Mechanic over the years say he's good to those on his team.

"I can't think of anybody who's ever come to me that worked for him and wasn't thrilled," said Katzenberg, for whom Mechanic worked 10 years at Disney and five years before that at Paramount.

Mechanic is known to be straightforward--someone who doesn't mince words--which has helped as well as hurt him. "He doesn't suffer fools lightly, and he's suspicious of corporate types," says a former associate.

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His aggressive and competitive nature has caused friction in the industry. Two years ago, Mechanic thought it'd be fun to sabotage a Disney press junket. While dozens of international journalists, housed at the Four Seasons Hotel, were out at a screening of Disney's holiday release "The Santa Clause," hotel workers snuck into their rooms with cookies and turtleneck shirts emblazoned with Fox's competing holiday film "Miracle on 34th Street" and a card signed "Kris Kringle--the real Santa Claus."

The incident infuriated Disney executives, and even some of Mechanic's colleagues at Fox thought it was inappropriate.

Because he's decisive, Hollywood agents generally find Mechanic easy to do business with even though he may not fit in well socially.

"He's a good guy. He gets back to you with an answer and makes all his own calls," says Jim Wiatt, president of International Creative Management. "We have the utmost respect for his abilities."

Mechanic--who was born in Detroit, has a degree in English from Michigan State and is a graduate of the USC Film School--entered the business in 1978 as head of programming at SelecTV, where he worked until 1981.

He went to Paramount as vice president of pay TV before joining Disney in 1984, where he helped build the studio's international theatrical distribution operation, dramatically increasing its overseas billings. Likewise, he was the chief architect behind Disney's home video and sell-through, building the operation from a $30-million-a-year business to $3 billion by the time he left in 1993.

Now, if he takes on a bigger mantle at Fox, he must be able to build confidence in those who deal with him that he can be as creative as he can be savvy.

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