Yes is the most powerful word in Hollywood.
No matter how hard a writer labors over a script or how big a star signs on for a movie, you still need the approval of higher-ups — the greenlight — to enter production.
With studios making more expensive movies and their corporate parents demanding quarterly profits, every decision is fraught. Long gone are the days when a hotshot director could waltz into an executive’s office, pitch a movie, and walk out with $100 million.
Well, unless you’re Christopher Nolan.
So who decides what does and does not get made? With all the recent changes in studio executive suites, TheWrap revisited this question by querying a wide range of knowledgeable insiders across Hollywood. What we found: Greenlight power is more diffuse than ever before.
“It’s become a lot more inclusive and expansive over the years,” a high-ranking studio executive told TheWrap. “What used to happen was films were greenlit before the committee even met; it wasn’t a collaborative process. Now you have three or four meetings. We beat it up quite a bit before we greenlight it.”
In previous eras studio executives could greenlight one-third of their movies based on gut reaction to the project, Producers Guild Co-chief Hawk Koch recalled at a guild event last week. No more. “There’s not anybody who makes movies because their gut tells them to do it anymore,” Koch said. “It’s a focus group.”
Based on conversations with more than a dozen past and present executives, representatives from marketing, production, international, distribution and other divisions huddle with studio chiefs to decide which movies have the best shot of connecting with audiences.
Executives pore over business plans with projections for home entertainment and international markets. Some studios even monitor which executives have the best track record with those projections.
Relationships and story matter, but numbers trump all.
“You can’t greenlight based on relationships and promises,” the executive said. “It rarely happens anymore.”
That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t a select club of top film executives who wield disproportionate influence over what pitches make their way to the screen and which ones end up on the dust heap.
Here’s a studio-by-studio breakdown of the town’s pivotal decision makers:
Universal is one of those studios where the process has become far more collaborative. While executives have always gathered to take part in conversations about projects in development, the conversations did not used to be as expansive.
They now vet every aspect of a movie’s potential business — from DVD sales to its marketing plan — before approving the start of production.
Though a group debates the movies, true power lies with one or two people. That used to be Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson. Universal Studios President Ron Meyer was on the greenlight committee (and still is), but Fogelson made the final decisions.
Since Comcast ousted Fogelson and bumped Meyer up to Vice Chairman of NBCUniversal, Jeff Shell assumed greenlight authority along with Donna Langley.
Shell is the chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group while Langley, Fogelson’s former co-chair, is now the sole chairman of Universal Pictures, reporting to Shell.
Jeff Robinov had the cherished greenlight power before he left the studio this summer. While Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer had “red light” authority – the ability to halt any production – Robinov was making most decisions as studio president.
“When Robinov was here it only came down to him saying yes or no – no matter what anybody else said,” one executive on the lot told TheWrap. “Even though Jeff would say he had a greenlight committee, ultimately it was his decision,” another added. “Those guys who can do that are a dying breed.”
Movies with budgets of more than $125 million were the one exception to Robinov’s uninhibited command. As one former executive told TheWrap, “over that you’d want someone to sign off.”
Most producers and executives are left wondering who has the final say now that Robinov has been pushed off the lot. “Now that he’s gone it will be interesting to see,” one of the executives said. “There is a defined committee, but it’s never that simple.”
Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara has the authority of both Robinov and Meyer, but marketing chief Sue Kroll and production Greg Silverman are more involved than average greenlight committee members. So is New Line chief Toby Emmerich, though he has more sway on projects coming out under the New Line banner.
“There’s seven of them; it’s a committee,” one executive on the lot told TheWrap. “I’ve been at Paramount over 10 years and it’s always been that way.”
Though both Goodman and Moore have a big say in the matter, Chairman and CEO Grey makes the decisions.
“He’s the only one who can fully greenlight something,” one individual close to Paramount told TheWrap.
That individual also noted Paramount was a place where relationships still matter — to a point. The studio has deals with several high-profile producers and directors, including J.J. Abrams, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Michael Bay, and passion projects for those producers stand a better chance.
In the case of “Pain & Gain,” Bay’s last film, Paramount would not have made that film had some random producer or director approached them. Because it was Bay, they listened, but they only agreed to make it provided he would direct and deliver it at a fraction of the cost of his other movies.
One quirk at Paramount: the greenlighting process never ends.
“Once they greenlight a movie, they meet afterwards to see if the assumptions are still true when they’re actually going to make it,” the individual said. “Movies under production still have a greenlight team talking about it.”
The Walt Disney Co. remains the most opaque of the movie studios when it comes to the process of how pictures get made. Even producers and executives who have been part of the Disney orbit for years profess ignorance about who makes the decisions on many of the Mouse House’s bigger pictures.
That impenetrability has to do with the structure of Disney, which operates as a series of separate fiefdoms run by high-profile executives — Pixar and Disney Animation Studios is overseen by John Lasseter, Marvel Studios’ creative direction is primarily charted by Kevin Feige, LucasFilm and its “Star Wars” brands are maintained by Kathleen Kennedy and Disney live action is headed up by President of Production Sean Bailey. Alan Horn, Walt Disney Studios chairman, serves as a ringmaster of sorts.
Because so many of the studio’s films like “The Avengers” and the upcoming “Star Wars” sequels carry budgets that are north of $200 million, they require the blessing of Walt Disney Co. Chairman and CEO Bob Iger. They also necessitate the input of the sprawling media company’s other divisions, from its theme park arm to its consumer products operations.
“The definition of a Hollywood green light isn’t applicable at the Walt Disney Studios due to the fact that it comprises multiple brands that are integrated within the Walt Disney Company,” a Disney spokesman said in a statement to TheWrap.
Sony will reveal some of its process at an investors’ day this week, as part of the film division’s push toward greater transparency.
Pascal, a film person at heart, is chairman of Sony’s motion picture group but Lynton, her boss, has ultimate authority.
Sources stress that while Lynton is the chieftain, the studio has never made a movie Lynton and Pascal didn’t agree upon. If they both agree, they make the movie. If they disagree, they don’t.
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Jim Gianopulos, Chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Film, is one of those Hollywood unicorns — he still has the greenlight authority. He has been on the lot long enough to inspire corporate trust, which gives him a rare amount of independence. Gianopulos still consults with various division heads, but he decides whether or not a picture will get made.
But even for him there are exceptions. Take the case of “Avatar.”
With a budget that hovered around $200 million and a plot that pitted a race of blue people against miners, the leaders of 20th Century Fox were divided about whether or not to give director James Cameron the go-ahead. Tom Rothman, then-CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, didn’t want to back the picture, because he remembered the budget over-runs on Cameron’s “Titanic” and was skittish about the amount of technological innovation the new project required, according to two individuals with knowledge of the situation. Yet Gianopulos, who was the co-head of the studio at the time and has since gone on to run Fox’s movie division in his own right, was all for it. He believed that Cameron’s track record justified the risk.
Ultimately, it fell to Peter Chernin, who was serving News Corp. Chief Operating Officer at the time, to approve the picture — a bold bet that paid off with the highest grossing film of all time.
Updated: Another individual privy to the negotiations, insists that the dispute was purely over budget. Both executives wanted to make the picture, but Rothman believed that the budget that Cameron submitted was too low, and needed to be revised upwards, while Gianopulos disagreed that the price tag needed to be higher. Chernin was brought in to adjudicate the issue.
Collegiality is the operating spirit at the studio behind “The Hunger Games” franchise. Before deciding whether or not to take on a particular film project, six or seven top executives — including Lionsgate Films co-chairmen Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger, Production President Erik Feig, President and Co-Chief Operating Officer Steve Beeks — all weigh in. Often, members of the teams from marketing, international distribution and other divisions are consulted.
However, final greenlight authority rests with Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer.
Relativity thrives on discussion and data. The studio behind “Out of the Furnace” and “The Immortals” has only been an independent distributor for three years and given founder and CEO Ryan Kavanaugh‘s background in the financial sector, there’s a particular emphasis on getting the numbers right. That means the studio works with market research company NRG to test possible projects among roughly 1,500 people before a single frame is filmed. That helps them figure out what demographic — minorities, women, teenage boys — is interested in a pitch and is most likely to turn up on opening night.
As for decision-making, Relativity tries to get as close to a consensus as possible in greenlight meetings that typically involve more than a dozen executives. Present around the table are President Tucker Tooley, Production President Robbie Brenner, Worldwide Distribution President Kyle Davies, and the heads of various divisions like theatrical marketing and physical and post-production. Final sign-off on a particular project rests with Kavanuagh.
THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
At a studio best known for reliably producing Best Picture winners and arthouse hits like “The Butler,” “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech,” Harvey Weinstein is an old-time mogul with old-time greenlight power. His brother Bob, who also heads the company, makes final decisions with his brother, but focuses mainly on commercially aimed action and horror genre films. Like most modern-day studios, however, COO David Glasser weighs in on greenlight decisions along with international, home entertainment and digital divisions of the company, before the brothers make a final call.
The development of animated movies differs from that of live-action movies, which can earn a greenlight as soon as a prominent actor or director signs on (assuming the price is right).
“You’re not at the mercy of who will be in it or who will direct it,” an individual familiar with the process told TheWrap. “It’s about the story being great and character design being great. Character design becomes casting.”
Animators work up those character designs and storyboards well in advance, and the process of developing and a producing a project is protracted. An animated movie takes four years to make after it enters pre-production, and once it enters pre-production the chances of it being made are very high.
“You get to see it come into shape,” the person told TheWrap. “It’s not as if you start shooting, look at dailies and say, ‘Holy shit.’ It’s not that immediate.”
Decisions about the merits of a movie and the broader corporate plan around it are debated by a group of executives spanning the company’s many divisions, from marketing head Dawn Taubin to brand officer Michael Francis.
True decisionmaking power rests with two — CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Chief Creative Officer Bill Damaschke — though sources said COO Ann Daly has has a seat at that table.
Damaschke’s main focus is the creative side of the company, overseeing the development and production of all films. His track record and familiarity with the projects balances Katzenberg, whose attention is divided between the company’s many businesses.
As CEO, Katzenberg has the final say, but few could imagine him greenlighting a project Damaschke doesn’t also want to make.