Searchlight Co-Chairs Talk Autonomy, Challenges & Opportunities After Disney’s Fox Takeover

Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley Todd Williamson/January Images/Shutterstock

Fox Searchlight co-chairs Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley today stressed the importance of independence and autonomy, during a talk at the BFI London Film Festival.

“We’ve been allowed complete autonomy and the studio [Fox] has never interfered with us. No one at Fox ever said, ‘You have to make this movie, [or] please do us a favour and take this filmmaker or star’s film’,” stated Gilula. “We’ve had great fortune and we don’t take it for granted that we’ve had that level of independence throughout all the different management changes.”

The prestige label – which has won a litany of awards including four Best Picture Oscars for Birdman, The Shape Of Water, Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years A Slave – was brought into the Disney fold when the rival studio completed its game-changing $71.3bn acquisition this year.

There have been major cuts to the Fox movie division since the Disney acquisition, but to date Searchlight has been left largely intact. Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger has said that Searchlight will continue on its current trajectory, producing and releasing high-end features that will target major awards success, and will also begin producing content for Disney streaming services.

Utley noted that there have been “procedural” changes since the Disney takeover but the way the brand works is still “exactly the same”.

“We’ve just put our heads down and done the work, no one has said ‘no’ to us on anything. A big test was [Taika Waititi’s upcoming Nazi satire] Jojo Rabbit. When we screened it for Bob Iger and [Disney Studios co-chairman] Alan Bergman I didn’t know what they’d say, but they really appreciated the message, and what we’re trying to do. I don’t see any material changes,” she added.

Gilula pointed to Disney’s 17-year run owning Miramax as an example of its ability to separate prestige divisions. “People forget Disney owned Miramax for many, many years, they didn’t put their name on it,” he said.

The Disney deal could represent an opportunity for Searchlight, the audience heard. “There isn’t a company that has more breadth of vision and depth of resource than Disney,” said Gilula.

Disney is playing the long game. Searchlight has an output deal with HBO that runs until 2022, but in the future it will pivot its catalogue and library to Hulu, which is being eyed for a global rollout, and will also make films directly for the Disney-owned service, noted Utley.

“Disney is very forward-thinking in the streaming space, whatever the future is they’ll build something for it. Fox was not as highly evolved,” she said. “I’m really glad we’re in a place that’s thinking very far ahead.”

Searchlight will begin making content directly for streaming – and is also now working in television and short form – but the focus remains on theatrical releases. “It’s still our core business,” affirmed Gilula, though he admitted that the bar is continually rising for theatrical releases.

Quizzed about the future of theatrical distribution, Gilula admitted that streamers had created a “dilemma” for exhibitors. He pointed to the example of Netlfix’s upcoming The Irishman, “Netflix really thought The Irishman would break the window, but because it’s a slippery slope [shortening windows] they didn’t win. It’s a dilemma and it’s almost disrespectful to not have that film play in all the biggest theatres in the biggest cities around the world.”

Utley and Gilula have been at Searchlight for the past 20 years, working on 186 movies (and only three sequels, Gilula noted). Reflecting on those two decades, Utley said, “You’re always hurdling towards the next thing and you never take any time to reflect. Milestones give you a chance to look back. Us having been there for 20 of the 25 years means a lot of stability in the company, it’s good to have stability when the industry is going crazy and changing all the time.”

“Searchlight was a genius setup,” she added, pointing to the “rules” that the company was founded on and has maintained, with pay caps in place for talent and filmmakers. “People know when they come to Searchlight they’re not going to get their full pay day no matter who they are – George Clooney, Reese Witherspoon, Denzel Washington – that was really smart.”

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