"What we had there was a failure to communicate."
Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Jim Gianopulos paraphrased 1967's Cool Hand Luke when asked Saturday at USC's annual Institute on Entertainment Law and Business why the Stop Online Piracy Act was shot down by Congress. What started out as a very simple bill to combat piracy overseas became a cause celeb in the digital community because Silicon Valley and Hollywood failed to communicate and come to an agreement on a best course of action. All of a sudden, Gianopulous said, tech executives had turned the SOPA debate into a referendum on Hollywood and its supposed effort to shut down the Web. "The Internet was created to withstand nuclear attack, so I don't understand how a movie studio is going to take it down," he quipped.
Gianapulos made his comments during a lunchtime keynote Q&A with talent attorney Bruce Ramer, chair of the annual event that brought 650 entertainment lawyers to USC's downtown Los Angeles campus for a day of panels and presentations on cutting-edge showbiz legal issues. The event was sponsored by USC's Gould School of Law and the Beverly Hills Bar Assn.
During the lively chat, Ramer quizzed Gianapulos on issues ranging from international expansion to 3D (Gianopulos worked in a few plugs for his November release Life of Pi) to the intricacies of the movie greenlight process. The long-tenured Fox executive said that he had been working hard to improve relations between entertainment companies and tech players in the wake of the SOPA standoff. There has been much progress, he said, including improved strategy on how to combat piracy by targeting enablers. "Most of the focus has been on payment sites, cutting off the ability to make payments," he said. "Cutting off the financing flow is a big strategy."
Ramer asked Gianopulos about an article he had written for The Hollywood Reporter after Steve Jobs died last October in which he revealed what he had learned from the late Apple mogul (the two had become friends in the last years of Jobs' life). "I learned a lot from Steve, as many people did," he said, citing Apple's "The Crazy Ones" ad campaign as particularly inspirational. "The legacy of that is to challenge your assumptions, be daring, trust your gut. The legacy of Steve is to ask why and change the status quo and do things that might seem crazy."
One such challenge to the status quo is Fox's decision to make available its June sci-fi hit Prometheus via digital download for $15 three weeks before the typical home video window began — an encroachment into the so-called "Dark Zone" of three months between when a film leaves theaters and when it debuts on home video. Theater owners have objected to studio moves to close the theatrical window, but Gianopulos said such experiments are necessary to the future of all aspects of the business. "Digital downloads of Prometheus outsold Avatar, which was biggest seller ever," he noted.
Asked about the future of 3D filmmaking, Gianopulos noted how international expansion in places like China and India is shaping the kinds of movies being made. "They're building at the rate of something like 9 theaters a day," he said. "They're all digital and they're all 3D."
Ramer asked Gianopulos about the greenlight process and whether it's possible to use an algorythm to determine which films Fox should make (an apparent reference to Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh's statements that he uses such an algorythm.) "I don't think you can do creativity by an algorythm," Gianopulos said. "You can use data," but in the end, he and his team discuss risk level, possible audience and cost structure. "You're making on average a $150 million bet [including production and marketing] with Mr. Murdoch's money, so you then do a P and L. You put all that in hopper and say what's most likely range of performance."
With 10 days to go until the U.S. presidential election, politics also entered the chat. When Gianopulos, a President Obama supporter, made reference to vice president Joe Biden playing a key role in negotiating a new trade treaty with China, Ramer — a noted Hollywood conservative whose clients include Mitt Romney supporter Clint Eastwood — asked facetiously that politics be left out of the discussion."Come on," Gianopulos quipped. "That's why you're sitting on the right and I'm on the left."