Few specialty distributors approach the record of accomplishment of Fox Searchlight Pictures, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. Formed in 1994 by Tom Rothman and making its debut in theaters in August 1995 with Edward Burns’s The Brothers McMullen, this cutting-edge studio boasts the rare distinction of releasing four Oscar Best Picture winners in the last 12 years: Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, and The Shape of Water. Its first international smash was cheeky Best Picture nominee The Full Monty in 1997, and its many Oscar competitors over the years include a multitude of Best Picture nominees (Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Black Swan, The Tree of Life, The Descendants, 127 Hours, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Brooklyn, The Favourite, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and winning lead actors Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards), and Olivia Colman (The Favourite). Fox Searchlight also found popular success with Bend It Like Beckham (introducing an ingenue named Keira Knightley), the eccentric cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite, and romantic comedy Garden State, and saw two of its sleeper hits, Once and Waitress, become long-running Broadway musicals. Its current releases are A Hidden Life, the acclaimed spiritual drama from leading director Terrence Malick, and Taika Waititi’s daring World War II satire Jojo Rabbit, nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Much of the credit for Fox Searchlight’s remarkable performance must go to Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley, co-chairmen of the studio since July 2018. Twenty-year veterans of the company, they were named presidents in 2009, succeeding Peter Rice, who took the helm in 2000. Now they’ve entered a new era with Disney’s acquisition of Fox this past March. Gilula, a former exhibitor who co-founded Landmark Theatres, recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk about Searchlight’s latest chapter and its highly successful run.
Here we are, nine months into the merger with Disney. Can you give me a status report on how things are going and what has changed?
Well, the status report is all signs are really positive. It’s been really quite good. At a top-line level, as far as the kinds of movies we’re making and acquiring and how we’re releasing them, there’s a hundred percent unequivocal support. What was represented to us in the year-plus before the deal closed has all come true—everything that Disney indicated that they liked about Searchlight they want us to continue. On the practical side, the logistical and organizational side, as with any merger we’re working through all the bureaucratic and administrative things in terms of policies that we operate under. But the core business of the kinds of movies we make, how we release them, and what our campaigns are, we have full support and we continue to have the same independence that we had under Fox. So that’s been fantastic.
And you really threw a wild card at them with Jojo Rabbit.
Yes, we did. But as I’ve explained in other contexts, Disney, even though they have this incredibly strong brand, owned Miramax for 10 or 15 years. And Miramax had a lot of titles that were pretty edgy and different. So they understand different content and are familiar with that. They knew exactly what they were getting into, because from the time they announced this deal with Fox, we had Three Billboards, we had The Shape of Water, we had The Favourite, we had some very high-profile but audacious or challenging movies in terms of content. Jojo is not dissimilar in its originality and its risk-taking. They understood that pretty explicitly.
Are we going to see any subtle differences in the kinds of films you produce or pursue?
I don’t expect any material difference because of the change of ownership. I think the kinds of films we produce are going to be more in response to the changes in the marketplace, the audience tastes and audience behavior that’s being triggered by many other forces, not the least of which is the rise of streaming. Those are affecting people’s interests and behavior. Just the sheer volume, the explosion of content which in some respects started when HBO began doing originals and then everyone else piled on with more originals on the cable networks. So movies are competing with just a lot more narrative content.
So that’s really the bigger factor in all this.
Yes, it really is. We are competing for their attention and the bar has been raised. But we’ve had some notable success with films such as Jojo and The Favourite and Three Billboards, and films like Can You Ever Forgive Me? with Melissa McCarthy and The Old Man & the Gun with Robert Redford. There still are audiences for those kinds of distinctive, character-driven stories.
Can you point to a quality that defines a Fox Searchlight film?
It’s originality. When you have a Taika Waititi with the Jojo idea or Alejandro Iñárritu with the Birdman idea, those are really original. Or Guillermo’s The Shape of Water—yes, it borrows from The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but they’re really original visions. Our most notable and successful films are from visionary filmmakers who have an idea that may have origins from somewhere else, but they’ve made it totally their own.
It’s a great compliment to you and Nancy that filmmakers keep coming back to you.
We have had several films from Alexander Payne, Sideways and The Descendants, and from Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler and Black Swan. We’re small enough to be able to be very attentive to each individual film. And that includes engagement and involvement with Nancy and me from inception all the way through the release, and we even have input into some of the home entertainment aftermarket. It’s unusual, I believe, for a small company like this to be able to have such engagement but at such a global level. That’s the other thing—we distribute these films worldwide and strategize them worldwide. And Nancy and I have been here for 20 years. So of the 25 years, she and I have personally been involved in over 150 of the movies we’ve released. That continuity provides credibility. It’s not like we meet a filmmaker with our heads of creative and then they go off and we see them at the premiere—we’re engaged all the way through the process.
What are your hopes for the positive impact of the Disney acquisition?
I think that over time our ability to maximize the exposure of the films with Hulu and other elements of streaming is going to be a real plus for us. We’ve been very fortunate—we’ve never been constrained by resources in terms of the ability to make a movie or market it properly. That will continue. And it’s not just the Disney company—don’t forget that they have the ABC network and they [now] have all the television divisions from FX, which does some pretty adventuresome stuff. And obviously Marvel and Lucasfilm. There’s such an incredible reservoir of talent and ability there. There’s a lot we can learn from and support we can get. So that’s all been incredibly encouraging. The sheer volume and breadth and depth of talent in the marketing, distribution, and creative areas is quite exciting. And they’re doing things in technology as well. Some of the things that they developed in creating ‘The Mandalorian’…we don’t do a lot of special effects, but the ability to do some of the things they did digitally may apply when we get involved with films that need various visual or special effects. They bring a lot of experience and expertise to us, which will only enhance our ability to tell great original stories.
I was saddened by the loss of Fox 2000 and the midrange films it produced. Will you be filling a gap now that it’s gone?
Not by design, but by default. There are stories that might have been done by Fox 2000 that we would seriously get involved with. If you go back and look at films like Life of Pi they’re at a scale and a budget that wouldn’t really come our way. But I think some of the smaller stories would be very appropriate for us. I don’t know that we would be doing some of the YA movies that they did. They had a very interesting and eclectic mix of movies. We will fill parts of that based on opportunistic situations where a filmmaker that might have gone to Fox 2000 has a story that fits with what we’re doing.
Has winning four Best Picture Oscars had an impact on your clout as a company?
Yes, that combined with the knowledge that this is an organization that’s been here for 25 years, and Nancy and I have been here for 20 of those with a continuity of management. Those successes help our credibility and enhance the odds of films of quality getting recognition. That being said, we’ve had intense competition over the 20 years. First it was Miramax, and then there was Paramount Vantage and then The Weinstein Company, and now we’ve got the streamers, which are changing the economics. So we’ve never had any extended period when there wasn’t significant competitive pressure. Our track record helps a little bit, and the fact that we are still committed to doing theatrical distribution worldwide. So filmmakers look at successes like The Shape of Water or Black Swan, which was nominated for Best Picture and was also a huge financial and critical success. And the talent has back ends that are actually quite lucrative. We’ve done a little over 180 movies since Searchlight’s inception. Seventeen of those have gotten Best Picture nominations and four have won. And I think over 30 of the films have gotten various Academy Award nominations. So it’s a relatively high batting average. That track record is appealing to a lot of filmmakers. We don’t make movies strictly for awards, because that’s a shortsighted fool’s errand, but when we have great ideas that are executed at the highest level, they do get recognition.
So many companies have gotten burned with high-priced acquisitions at festivals. Talk a little bit about the change in your strategy toward more in-house productions.
We have shifted more to in-house productions. Probably we’ve shifted from a 50-50 to 75-25 ratio. The acquisitions market is very volatile, probably because of the new money that came in, whether it was Netflix for a few years, then Amazon last year. But also, indie film is having a harder time thriving theatrically. We’ve had great theatrical acquisitions, whether it was Little Miss Sunshine, the original Super Troopers, or Beasts of the Southern Wild and recently Brooklyn. But we’re just being more careful now in terms of whether or not we think we can connect with an audience. Some of the independent filmmakers are making very interesting films, but they may not meet our criteria for what we need to be successful theatrically. … Being an indie film is not necessarily a sales point anymore. There are so many of them. So there has to be some level of distinction, like Beasts of the Southern Wild or Brooklyn.
Working from the ground up originating films, do you feel that you have more of a handle on what might work in the marketplace?
Yes, because we do a tremendous amount of development. We have a full team of development and creative executives producing movies, whether it’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye or Next Goal Wins shooting right now. And we have international partners on films like The Favourite and the new Guillermo del Toro film. Those filmmakers have a highly developed eye. That doesn’t mean we won’t be at Sundance in full force looking and being open to acquiring films that we feel we can be successful with. But we’ve seen, even with films we didn’t acquire, that the number that are successful theatrically at a level we would be seeking are just fewer year by year. Buying an indie film that’s going to do a million or $2 million, we just can’t justify that for our infrastructure. It doesn’t mean the films aren’t worthy; it’s just at a scale where we’re not able to operate successfully.
Tell me about your upcoming slate and some of the films you’re especially excited about.
We’re excited about all of them in different ways. Some have a greater potential than others, but I’m not going to handicap them. A Hidden Life is a smaller film, but it’s arguably Terry Malick’s most significant film since The Tree of Life. And then we have Wendy and Downhill both premiering at Sundance. Wendy is Benh Zeitlin’s first film since Beasts of the Southern Wild. He’s a unique storyteller, and this one certainly follows in that tradition. Downhill is very exciting because it unites Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in a film that’s inspired by Force Majeure. It’s somewhat different, but the basic setup is similar. The directors won the Academy Award jointly with Alexander Payne for writing The Descendants, and it has that blend of drama and comedy. Then we have Antlers, Scott Cooper’s horror film produced by Guillermo del Toro, in the spring. We have the North American rights to The Personal History of David Copperfield from Armando Iannucci, which is getting a really good response. And we have The French Dispatch, the next Wes Anderson film. He’s doing something very different from what he’s done before, very adventurous, with a different kind of story structure. He went from The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was a big surprise, to Isle of Dogs, and he’s done another one. He continues to grow and evolve as a storyteller, and it’s kind of astonishing.
We also have a film that’s been slow in post-production because Chloé Zhao is doing the Marvel film [Eternals]: Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, which is going to be a very, very interesting film. We’re currently shooting The Eyes of Tammy Faye, with Michael Showalter directing Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield. That’s a very exciting project. And Taika Waititi is shooting his new film, Next Goal Wins, in Hawaii. He’s just a prodigious talent. His energy and enthusiasm to work is phenomenal. He’s quite inspiring. That’s a great, fun true story based on the  documentary [about the American Samoa soccer team].
I can’t pick favorites—it’s like asking a parent which is the favorite child. It’s very hard to make that pick. The gratifying thing is we’re able to find these original projects that justify theatrical releases, and Disney is supporting that. That was another element of gossip: Was Searchlight going to be relegated to doing streaming? And that was never, ever a discussion. That was just gossip and speculation generated by the press and the industry because of the merger. But the kinds of films I’ve been talking about are the kinds of films that Disney doesn’t make and that deserve the big screen. I’ve spent over 40 years in the industry, and I believe in the culture of cinema—storytelling on a big screen with a crowd of people, often strangers, sharing in the experience. I still see it over and over—Jojo was fantastic in the theater. Going from the laughter to the tears and the surprises is just different than sitting in someone’s living room. It’s a whole different experience. And it’s true for all these films. … I do not believe watching movies on a television or a cell phone or a laptop or a tablet is the same experience. Whether TV movies or streaming movies, we’ve always had other kinds of movies, but cinema is different.
Does the consumer get that message? Do you think they still have a belief in the theatrical experience?
I think that they do. I think what happens is they are more selective, clearly when you have franchise movies and not just the Disney movies. The Disney machine is awesome and incredible, but look at Joker too. Warner’s has done a really good job. Those are [preexisting properties], but there are still original movies. What Knives Out is doing is fantastic. What Tarantino did with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is fantastic. Ford v Ferrari is fantastic. Downton Abbey making $98 million was fantastic. So I do believe that there is absolutely an eager, avid audience. The cinema experience is alive and well. The dilemma is that the historic structure, the studio release slate, has to evolve to be more in sync with what public taste is expecting and demanding—to spend the money and the time to go to theaters.
But the fact that things like Knives Out and Ford v Ferrari [are doing well] means it’s not that people aren’t willing to go to the theaters. The challenge is that the bar has been raised, and clearly for event movies, these Disney records are kind of extraordinary—even Joker doing $1 billion is phenomenal. I don’t think it’s an unwillingness to go out to the theaters. It’s the sheer volume of competition. People have so many more choices. It’s not just three networks or the movies. There is great content on all these different platforms, whether it’s HBO or FX or Netflix or Showtime or Amazon. It’s just a really competitive marketplace for people’s time, people who want to consume narrative storytelling, putting aside all the competition from reality TV and sports and all the other things that they can spend their leisure time doing.
It’s such a relief when a movie like Knives Out does well.
Yes, it’s fantastic. And I must say even though it’s competitive to us, the embrace of Parasite also shows that there’s an intellectual vitality in the moviegoing audience. When a film connects, that audience can grow a lot.