Paramount Pictures CEO Jim Gianopulos | The Backlot | NYFA

Tova: Hi, and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we’re not just bringing you a man who ran one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. We’re bringing a man who ran two of them, an executive who helped shepherd countless movies to fortune and glory, including Life of Pi, 12 Years a Slave, Deadpool, multiple Mission Impossibles, and a little indie film called Avatar. We’re talking about the former head of Fox Studios and the current head of Paramount Pictures, Jim Gianopulos. Mr. Gianopulos shared his experience with our students when he was still at Fox. So let’s start with a simple question. How does one take their first step on the road to running a studio? 

Jim Gianopulos: But people say, well, how did you get to this position? I sometimes how did you get to this position? So it depends on your perception. I started out planning to be a blues musician, but I wasn’t very good. I mean, I was OK, but I wasn’t good enough. So then I decided, well, OK, I’ll go to law school and I’ll be – this is by the way true – I’ll go to law school and I’ll be the lawyer for the Rolling Stones. And I realized they don’t want someone who knows everything about their music. They just want the biggest, best lawyer, straightest, greatest. So I thought that’s not going to work. So I finally got out of law school and then I got a job running business affairs for ASKAP, which is a music publishing house. And so I got to, it didn’t pay very much, but what it did was I could go to any concert I want. But more importantly, I got to know all the record companies and all the representatives, all the biggest songwriters and publishers and musicians and artists everywhere. And it was a fantastic, fantastic opportunity and fantastic job. And then as luck would have it, the video industry developed. And the thing about video when it first emerged was that the studios didn’t own the rights. The first time that anyone had ever sold a movie -prior to that, movies were always leased, they’re licensed. They would be given for a period of time to a theater or given for a period of time to a television network. But nobody ever sold a movie because there was no way to do it. So they realized they didn’t have the music rights. So they said, well, who do we know? Let’s get somebody who can talk to all these music people and get all the rights we need. And they said, how about this guy? And that was me. So I got lucky.

So I started working originally for the video division of RCA, which was right at the very beginning of the video business. And RCA had this joint venture with Columbia Pictures. And so my first job was setting up all the deals for all the studios to acquire the rights, to distribute all these movies and to finance all these movies and to make some movies. In fact, we did finance a lot of early movies and then to go around the world and set up all the operations to distribute all these films around the world on video because none of that ever existed. So that was at Columbia and that worked for a while and stayed there for a few years. And then Paramount invited me to come out here. And I came out here and I got involved in paid television and some other aspects of that business and that business affairs for a while. So I spent a little part of my early career becoming a lawyer and then a little bit of the second part of my career becoming not a lawyer, which was a second kind of challenge because, you know, once you’re perceived as a lawyer, they don’t think of you as someone who can do marketing or creative enterprise of any kind. And so that worked for a while. And then and then I came here and for a while I ran all the international operations at a time when that part of the industry was was booming and then the person running the studio hit a bad patch and left. And they had a choice between me and a colleague of mine and a really good friend of mine, Tom Rothman. And they couldn’t choose between the two of us. So they gave the job to both of us. And and we did it together for 12 years. And then Tom left. And for the past three years, I’ve been doing it myself, well, myself, with a lot of very talented colleagues. 

Eric: Part of his success at Fox can be attributed to his appreciation of the global market. For big budget movies to succeed, they can’t just be big in the states. They need to connect with the entire world. 

Jim Gianopulos: There was a point at which. The international box office surpassed the domestic box office and everybody who was working in international in those days thought that was a big deal. And here at Fox particularly, you know, we had a focus on the international business for quite some time. And just the way my career developed, I had been involved in it for a long time. For us, it was like, OK, well, there are 300 million people here and six billion people there. So if it’s 50 50, you’re not doing your job. This should be a whole lot more business to be made and a lot more people to see movies and to be entertained and a lot more opportunity in the international markets than there are here. So, yeah, there’s more wealth here and there are more theaters here. But when you’re five percent of the world’s population, you shouldn’t be 50 percent of its entertainment. So that was pretty obvious to us. I always felt like that was the great wide open field. You know? 

Eric: Despite this open field, Mr. Gianopulos still stressed that Hollywood remains the city to get these films produced on a large scale. 

Jim Gianopulos: If someone wants a career here or in the global film industry and you’re here, I would stay here. The enormous amount of talent comes from many parts of the world, and there are incredibly talented filmmakers everywhere in the world but Hollywood has, you know – it’s not an accident that Hollywood developed the way it did. And I could talk a little about that. But no, I think unless you’re going to spend a career in some part of the world, if you are here, I would make movies here and bring them home and translate them rather than, you know, try and start in some smaller markets just because the opportunities are fewer and they’re more difficult in smaller markets. The reason everybody says that Hollywood developed this dominance of the world film industry, part of it is because the US is the singular in terms of homogeneous population and especially the reach of the English speaking world. The US is a massive market that has an established entertainment base. Forget about Hollywood. We actually don’t make movies here. There’s one movie shooting here on the lot, but we don’t actually make a lot of movies in Hollywood itself. Right. And in Los Angeles for this very expensive and there are better opportunities in Vancouver and other parts of the country. But coming back to that, one of the reasons was that the US never really made movies about its culture, about the US culture. And in part, that’s because when the movie industry started at the turn of the 20th century, you could say there wasn’t really an American culture. There was certainly great literature and great plays and all that. But it really was culture based on all of the various cultures of the world which created the melting pot that was the United States. And the movies that were being shown had an audience very much like this, people from various countries in different parts of the world that all wanted to enjoy entertainment at the same time. And so it wasn’t based as it was in many other parts of the world on some famous book or an opera or a play or something that was based on a particular cultural preexisting element. And so naturally, movies from the US developed for the global culture. I mean, that was a long time ago. But that sort of ethos, that sensibility remained with Hollywood, even though many times we make movies that are domestically oriented, Hollywood tends to make movies for a global audience, for many different people to enjoy at the same time and in their own way, despite the fact that there are movies that are made that are very domestically based, whether they’re social or political or thematically local, combining that with the fact that you have three hundred plus million people that can enjoy them and allowing you to make them for one hundred and fifty million dollars with confidence, that’s why Hollywood dominates the world. So the now opportunity to be able to export them to these international markets, that’s where the business is. 

Eric: As you can already tell Mr. Gianopulos’ instincts, helped him rise through the ranks of Hollywood. But sometimes he greenlight projects not based on his own gut reaction, but rather the passion of the filmmaker. Such was the case with Deadpool.

Jim Gianopulos: Tim Miller who had been really avid about making Deadpool for quite some time. He’s not shy about saying it. I was less reticent about it. It was partly because Tim was a first time director, some of the earlier drafts were pretty out there. But also because, you know, so many of these movies, superhero movies were broad, PG 13, that’s where the real audience opportunity was. A lot of kids enjoy them, families enjoy them. And so it becomes more limiting when you go R, and then one day we were talking about it. And Emma Watts, who runs the 20th Century Fox, said, you know, the one thing nobody has done and some of the studios can’t do is an R rated movie. And I thought, well, that’s true. And I also realized, well, it’s not a superhero movie, it’s actually an anti-hero movie. So when people say, well, there are so many of these superhero movies, what you really want to do is give some people something different. And one thing Tim Miller is capable of doing, and certainly Ryan Reynolds was desperate to do it and a great, great talent, enormous talent – but we said, OK, well, let’s do it. But we have to do it for what is, relatively speaking, a price compared to the cost of some of these things. So we said, OK, so, yeah, you know, I won’t deny there was some hesitation. I think anybody else would have hesitated. But no, they definitely talked me into it. 

Eric: Another filmmaker who was able to talk them into making a risky project was James Cameron. Today we know Avatar as a critically acclaimed $2.8 billion dollar grossing game changer, but at the time. 

Jim Gianopulos: It was a time when I felt that it didn’t make any sense. I mean, it was twelve foot blue people with tails and and what made sense was Jim Cameron and the simple faith in what he would do because the cost was crazy. The technology didn’t really exist. He thought it did. And he really believed sincerely that it did. It did. But it became very ambitious during the process of it to create this world. And I mean, I don’t know. People know people say, where was the film shot? There wasn’t a single blade of grass in Avatar that was real. Everything was done CG. That entire world was created in a computer. So, you know, embarking on that was incredibly ambitious. Yeah, I’m proud that we did that. And I’m proud that when it became doubtful, we stayed with it. Life of Pi was another one that we definitely didn’t make any sense. You know, we had a lot of people were saying, well, one director, very serious director, because we were trying to figure out how to do it for a budget. We didn’t know how to do it. And part of the problem was we had a young boy and a tiger. So one director seriously said, well, I can do it practically. So what do you mean? So we just get a tiger, but we’ll just keep the tiger away from the boy. I said, we’re going to need a lot of lookalike boys. So anyway, we finally figured out how to do it, but it cost a lot of money. And so, you know, you trust in people like Ang Lee anyway. So, yeah, I guess those are two of the films, very ambitious ones that you say, yeah, I’m glad we made those movies, proud of those movies. 

Eric: So part of running a studio is trusting the right people’s visions as well as trusting your own and searching far and wide to find those talented storytellers. 

Jim Gianopulos: You know, we’ve worked with filmmakers from all over the world. I’ll give you an example. I went to – about 15 years ago I went to Moscow for the first time and someone said, well, you should meet this guy. He’s got this little film studio of his own and he’s made this movie. So I go to this studio and there’s this guy, he’s Russian because right away he puts out vodka, and I like this guy already. And he shows me about 10 minutes of this movie called Nightwatch. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. It’s a three and a half million dollar movie, which looks like a 40 million dollar Hollywood movie. It was absolutely phenomenal. And that was Timur Bekmambetov. Timur Bekmambetov later did Wanted with Angelina Jolie. He was hired by Universal. We missed out on hiring because they had the script and they had – they own the comic, so they hired him. We released Nightwatch here and it did OK. It was in Russian, but it was a phenomenal film. And then we hired them to do Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, which did OK, but it wasn’t great. But my point is that that was a random encounter and would have hired Timur on the spot. So it’s just about discovery and finding talent. 

Eric: And maybe having a little bit of vodka too. This desire to find fresh voices is also about helping diverse artists get their opportunities to truly show what they can do. 

Jim Gianopulos: Well, I don’t know if we’re a big supporter of Ghetto Film School. We go to cast the movie, you know, diversity is reflective of our culture, reflective of our audience, reflective of our population, reflective of the country we live in. So we’re always looking to cast with diversity. Casting with diversity is easy, relatively speaking, and we do that because it’s the right thing to do, but also it’s the right thing to do for our audience. People want to see people that look like them, feel like them, you know, that they relate to. So that part’s not very difficult. What’s more difficult is to find diversity in directing roles and in some of those roles. And the reason for that is that those opportunities haven’t been provided at the earlier stages. So when I mentioned Ghetto Film School, that’s a very early stage. That’s high school. But what that does is it gets kids at an early age into film school. And by getting into film school and getting those at that that education and getting those skill sets, that pool of diverse candidates becomes the director that we’re going to hire five or 10 years later. Those opportunities don’t start with us sitting in some room here in the lot and saying, OK, who are we going to get to direct this movie that is of color or gender or ethnicity? It’s what are the choices? And those choices begin from early opportunities. And I think we’ve got to lay that track and it’s going to take some time. But we’re on the job. 

Eric: Despite Mr. Gianopulos’ extensive work history and efforts to promote inclusiveness and diversity, there’s still one question that even he has a hard time answering. How does someone new to the industry get their work seen? 

Jim Gianopulos: We don’t take unsolicited material. I know nobody wants to hear that. It does get complicated because people just send in things randomly. I mean, it’s not that you would do anything inappropriate or untoward, but the reality is that a lot of stuff comes in here. Then three years later, somebody says, well, I wrote that or I sent that or I saw that. So when we get stuff, we can’t accept it. A couple of ways are the easy way to say we’ll get an agent and then we say, well, how do I get an agent? Well, that’s like saying, how do I break into a job as an actor or as a director? You know, you keep working at it and keep networking. I think the best way to do it is, other than finding representation eventually, is keep making films. Now, the good news is it’s a lot easier to do than it used to be because all you need is a camera and some editing equipment and there you go. So keep making stuff until you get noticed and keep networking with people until somebody’s willing to say, hey, come here, let me show you something. Eventually it works. Somebody once asked me in an interview, how did you get there? And the best answer I could think of was I worked my ass off in between the lucky breaks. So that’s always been my advice about anything. Keep making movies, keep doing the best work you can, keep getting as many jobs or volunteering if you have to for working with smart people and keep meeting as many people as you can and waiting for that lucky break. 

Eric: Even a man who’s run two movie studios doesn’t have the magic formula for breaking in, but it’s clear hard work can only help. And if you have a script you want to get seen, be ready to ask a lot of questions about your own material. 

Jim Gianopulos:  You know, is it well written? Is it original? Is it something I haven’t seen before, hasn’t been done before, as well before? Is it a good story? Is it something that you can identify an audience for? I think something that is original and has an identifiable audience and tells a good story is where you start. And after that you start to put the pieces together. You know, who can you get to direct it? Who can you get to star in it? How do you put it together? What will it cost? Is it feasible? It can be done for a budget? Those things come later. But you start with originality, the quality of the story and identifying an audience. And those are the things that get you to those next steps. 

Eric: Once the movie is made, there are still so many questions which need to be answered by Mr. Gianopulos and his team with exhibition, for instance, only becoming trickier in the era of digital downloads and video on demand. 

Jim Gianopulos: One of the things that we as studios and distributors have been concerned about is the fact that because there are now so many theaters, movies tend to burn off, so to speak, very quickly. I mean, you know, movies like The Revenant or Deadpool will be in the theaters for weeks, you know, five, six, seven, eight weeks. But the average duration of a movie in the multiplex, you know, of course, all films about three and a half, four weeks and theaters have typically required that we not put the movie into home entertainment video download until four months, which means that you have a period of about almost three months, what I call the dark zone, where the movie doesn’t exist for anybody and nobody can get at it, which is a real disadvantage to the audience and a disadvantage to us and certainly a disadvantage to the filmmakers and the participants in the movie. And that tends to lend itself to piracy, because if you think about it, that’s 30 days right after we’ve spent millions, if not tens of millions of dollars telling people to go see it. So that’s not good. Same time movie theaters are the one place that do require bricks and mortar and people making popcorn and taking tickets and air conditioning and all of the stuff that makes that theatrical experience so great for all of us. And we have to be respectful of the fact that that costs a lot of money. You know every theater in every mall, I mean, it’s not free to create and to build.

So somewhere in there, we’ve got to find some some way to deal with that. One of the thing that I think Shawn has done, and he’s very bright guy, is he’s tried to look at the stakeholders in the ecosystem and say, OK, what is everybody’s interest in this thing and how do I do my best to make everybody happy? And people say that in a good negotiation, everybody leaves a little happy and a little unhappy. So far, he’s right. Everybody’s a little happy and a little unhappy, mostly a little unhappy. And from our point of view, something that deals with the dark zone is interesting. The extent to which they’ve tried to deal with the piracy issue is commendable. It still doesn’t deal with the reality that somebody could put even an iPhone in front of that screen and capture it and it’ll know who did it. But it doesn’t stop. You go chase that person. OK, so now you know who did it. Sometimes you might not know who did it. That’s one problem. And the biggest problem so far is that we think that the theaters are sometimes a little too strident about how long they make us wait before they’re OK with it going to home entertainment. But they’re our partners in this thing. And unless they get more flexible about coming along and coming on board, if they’re desperately against it, they’re going to have to sort that out with screening room before this thing moves forward. So we’re open to kind of keeping an open mind, but so far it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to get everybody to a happy place. 

Eric: Warner Brothers’ recent decision to distribute their 2021 lineup in both theaters and HBO Max has made this topic even more complicated. But despite the immense amount of money at stake and the stress of running a studio, Mr. Gianopulos never loses sight of his love of cinema. 

Jim Gianopulos: That’s part of how I got into this mess. When I was in college, I had to pick electives and they said cinema studies and criticism and the description of the course was screen films and discuss and critique them. And I said, that’s a college course? You mean you get credit for that? So I took every course I could take. So I’ve been doing it ever since. Now, how much time you have? I mean, I watch as many movies as I can. Now, part of it is I kind of need to. I need to understand why Zootopia, which is a talking animal movie, did so well when people are saying animation is getting old, audience is decreasing and you can’t do talking animal movies anymore because kids are tired of them and they’ve been done so many times. And you see this film and it’s just brilliant. So you do it for that reason. You see 10 Cloverfield because you want to understand what is it about this film that captured everybody’s imagination, didn’t do that much business, but people were talking about it. Why is Ex Machina something that everybody’s talking about in my little circle of people, even though that only did 15, 20 million dollars, something like that? So some of it is for that. And some of it is to just remember – I showed my daughter just now she’s getting older, but I showed her Rain Man. And, you know, you realize that you can share some of these movies. I hadn’t seen it in probably 10 years or more, probably not since long after it came out. And I was driving her to school the other day. I don’t know how many you seen this movie. You’re all young. I keep forgetting that. And I said I’m an excellent driver. And she said, slow in the driveway. So you realize that, you know, part of it is also the sharing, but I remembered how much I really loved that film, how great a film that was. So some of it is for the enjoyment. Some of it is to know what the hell’s going on. And some of it’s just for the pure joy of remembering great filmmaking. 

Eric: If that attitude has helped him successfully run two movie studios, well then maybe it can help you too. We want to thank Jim Gianopulos for taking time out of what must be an insane schedule to talk with our students. And thanks, of course, to all of you for listening. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A. Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon Helen Kantilaftis and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter and the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

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