Jill Gwen is Senior Vice President of Finance and Operations at Fox Searchlight Pictures and has worked for Fox for the last 17 years. Jill recently visited CSUF to speak to Kim Tarantino’s Entertainment Accounting class about working in the movie business. Fox Searchlight is a part of 20th Century Fox that focuses on specialty art-house films. The company is comprised of around 65 employees who all share a strong passion for film. Gwen got her degree in finance and started her career working at a bank. She then worked for Disney, while earning her MBA in the evenings, and later moved on to Fox Searchlight. She loves working in the movie business, especially at Fox. She says that Fox really supports the entrepreneurial spirit among its employees; they love creative people that are willing to take risks. Internships in the entertainment industry are highly competitive, but Gwen says that they are an excellent way to get your foot in the door and gain valuable experience and insight into how the industry really works.
Fox Searchlight releases two types of films, productions and acquisitions. A production consists of overseeing the development, production, and post-production of a new story. This involves finding the script, hiring the talent, shooting the film, editing, marketing, and distribution. Of course, marketing and distribution would also apply to acquisitions. Some key advantages of producing a film from scratch is that the company is assured worldwide rights and they get to be involved in the entire creative process. Acquisitions, on the other hand, are when Fox Searchlight buys the rights to a film that has already been completed. They can buy either worldwide or partial rights, depending upon what is available at the time of the sale, and Fox Searchlight would always prefer global rights. For example, Fox Searchlight only has domestic and Indian rights to Slumdog Millionaire.
There are numerous film festivals all around the world where studios can screen and possibly buy films produced by independent companies and film makers. Acquisitions allow Fox Searchlight to protect some downside risk by seeing the completed product before spending any money on the production. Acquisitions can, however, end up being quite expensive, especially if a bidding war develops with another company. Fox Searchlight ended up spending $10 million for Little Miss Sunshine, which was one of the highest priced acquisitions ever out of Sundance (in 2006), but ended up being a huge success for them. Gwen says that talent tends to like working with Fox Searchlight because the company has a lot of passion and supports all of their films as best they can.
Whether it is an original production or acquisition, Fox Searchlight tends to use “slow-roll” distribution to release its art-house films. This means that the film may open in only a few theaters at first, possibly two in New York and two in Los Angeles. Then, if the film has a successful opening, it will slowly expand into other markets. This releasing strategy enables them to control media spending and effectively manage the rollout based upon critical reviews and word-of-mouth. This strategy is quite different from major studios’ wide releases, where most of their marketing budgets can be spent on opening weekend. Conversely, Searchlight’s slow-roll method allows them to support a film gradually, as its success improves week-to-week.