LOS ANGELES – For the last 16 years Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Jim Gianopulos’ innovative leadership has been instrumental in producing Oscar-winning movies such as Avatar, Titanic, Sideways, and The Martian.
In 2000, he became co-Chairman of Fox Film (formerly 20th Century Fox and 21st Century Fox) along with Tom Rothman, and he is now sole chair.
With the distinction of having served so long at such a large and influential movie studio, Gianopulos has enjoyed an extensive and illustrious career in the film industry, and shared his thoughts in an interview with The National Herald.
The Gianopulos family story is one of survival and success. His father, Nikos, came to the United States as an illegal alien right after the end of WWII and the Greek Civil War.
But for Nikos even to arrive here, he had first to miraculously survive the sinking of the Greek Navy cruiser Elli that was hit by an Italian submarine in August 1940 while anchored on the island of Tinos.
His survival was solely a matter of luck and timing, as he was on a higher part of the vessel when the torpedo hit the Elli’s bottom. A few months later, Italy invaded Greece after Ioannis Metaxas refused to surrender.
When Nikos Gianopulos arrived in the United States in 1951, he created the American Ship Repair Co. that provided replacement parts to international commercial fleets. The company has remained a family owned business ever since.
HELLENISM AND THE HERALD
Nikos created the company even though he did not speak English at the time. He received all his news, in Greek, from this newspaper’s sister publication Ethnikos Kyrix-National Herald.
”My father anxiously awaited for the evening edition of the National Herald, every day,” Jim Gianopulos said. He remembers that they always spoke Greek in the house.
”It was not until I went to Kindergarten that I spoke English on a regular basis.” His father had an interesting approach. He told Gianopulos that “you will always be an American but you have to be Greek first.” Gianopulos’ mother, Maria, hailed from Constantinople.
Gianopulos went to law school and his first inclination was to specialize in admiralty law, relevant to the family business. But he did not find it exciting and turned his attention to entertainment law, as he had great interest in music and film.
Was Gianopulos’ career goal to become a CEO of a major studio? ”I think that goal is a little too ambitious for anyone, it is a gigantic feat to become a studio head of one of the 6 historic studios in Hollywood.”
His first international position came as part of the joint venture between Columbia Pictures and RCA. ”The video business was growing and they needed someone to set up offices around the world.” Then came the Paramount Business affairs position with responsibilities on Pay TV and film financing.
BRAVEHEART AND TITANIC
His next career step was with International Distribution Department for Fox Studios. It was at this position that Gianopulos distinguished himself as an visionary leader, and he is associated with two Academy Award-winning films, Braveheart and Titanic, during his tenure there.
Braveheart was based on the story of the Scottish rebel William Wallace. The decision to make the film about an unknown hero was based on Mel Gibson’s involvement, ”he said.
“Most people did not know the story of Wallace, but because they knew Mel Gibson we decided to proceed.” The risk paid off with five Academy Awards.
Titanic was an even bigger risk. Not only had the movie been done before, but also everyone knew the story’s ending. Again, one of the main reasons Gianopulos decided to proceed with the movie was talent. This time, in filmmaker/director James Cameron. The two knew each other since Cameron’s Terminator film.
Titanic’s estimated budget of $75 million, the highest at the time, was another obstacle and they decided to bring in Paramount as a partner to reduce the risk.
But an unusual arrangement was made. Gianopulos said that ”when you brought in a partner it was customary to offer them the film’s foreign rights. At the time the majority of the revenue was originating from the United States.
But we made a strategic decision in 1992 that we needed to expand to foreign markets. Had we given away the foreign rights it would had been contrary to the strategy we were trying to establish. Thus Paramount got domestic and we retained foreign rights.”
The gamble paid off as Titanic was the number one movie in every country, grossing $1.2 billion in foreign receipts.
It also won 11 Academy Awards tying for the most awards won by a single film.
That shift in strategy has been validated in a big way. Today almost 75% of box office receipts come from abroad, up from 66% in 2010. Meanwhile the U.S. market has remained stagnant the last 10 years. Titanic was recently re-released in 3D and collected $200 million of which $140 million came from the Chinese market.
Another incredible success at Fox is the epic science fiction film Avatar, praised for its groundbreaking special effects. Exceeding $2 billion in gross receipts, it became the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Following Avatar’s success, Cameron signed a deal for three sequels, with Avatar 2 expected to be released next year. “In order for a sequel to be successful you need to take the elements that worked from the original movie, but you have to take it to a different place. Introducing new characters and new ideas will give a fresh perspective,” Gianopulos said.”
Regarding Greece’s financial crisis, which is on Gianopulos’ mind, he told TNH that: “Greece’s entrance in the EU presented a tremendous opportunity, but at the same time it was its Achilles’ heel. The availability of funds gave opportunities for investment, and at the same time consumer loans became available very easily and people used it them improve their living conditions. But they borrowed at much higher levels, that they were not sustainable in the long run. The Greek crisis shares a lot of similarities with the mortgage crisis in the United States.”
The film industry in Greece is going through a crisis as well, and the lack of tax incentives is deterring foreign production companies from filming there.
The lack of facilities’ infrastructure it is also problematic. Should Greece invest in building infrastructure? Gianopulos’ opinion is ”That the capital needed to attract film productions on a regular basis is probably not feasible for Greece. Greek filmmakers are very talented and with the proper support they can definitely increase their productivity significantly. My recommendation is for Greece to invest in technology startups. Video games, special effects, and computer science are all areas that do not need the huge capital needed for traditional filmmaking. And some of the technologies can be adopted by other industries.”
SECRETS OF SUCCESS
What qualities does Gianopulos believe are needed to achieve and sustain great success? ”A leader has to have the humility to recognize that he cannot achieve greatness by himself and that he needs to assemble a very talented team of executives around him. Also very important is to have great relations with talent in front and behind the camera. And as a leader, you should set an example to your employees with your work ethic. It is essential that your employees embrace the company’s vision.”
Because there is no formula to create a great movie, it is essential to ”take risks and not to be afraid to fail. But do not make the same mistake too often.”
Where does Jim Gianopulos go from here? “”I want to keep creating great movies and follow honorable business practices doing so.”