In Hollywood, it seems, no one ever resigns and no one ever gets fired. People always leave for reasons somewhere in the middle.
On June 22, Twentieth Century Fox announced that Bill Mechanic, the chairman-CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, had stepped down after seven years at the company. Officially, Mechanic — a powerful but genial studio head who oversaw some of the biggest hits (Independence Day, There’s Something About Mary) and most embarrassing flops (Anna and the King) of the ’90s — left voluntarily. As for the truth? That lies somewhere between Mechanic declaring his own independence day and being sent, well, home alone.
”Who knows what’s being pushed and what is jumping?” says Mechanic, 50, who admits he was in talks to renew his contract with his bosses, News Corp. chairman-chief executive Rupert Murdoch and president-COO Peter Chernin. ”I had been in discussions to extend further. But the conflicts were getting too great, and I think then they changed their mind.”
Those conflicts are the cause of one of the most surprising falls in recent Hollywood history. Mechanic, who jumped from Disney to Fox in 1993, certainly enjoyed an enviably friendly relationship with stars and filmmakers. He once delivered a speech to a group of employees wearing a Cameron Diaz Mary wig — complete with hair gel. (A-listers like Drew Barrymore and the Farrelly Brothers were said to be particularly upset over his departure.) For a long while, he was on a financial roll as well. Under Mechanic, Fox boasted the No. 1 films of 1996 (Independence Day), 1997 (the Paramount coproduction Titanic), and 1999 (Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace), as well as the 1998 comedy blockbusters Mary and Dr. Dolittle. In 1998 he ranked No. 10 in EW‘s annual Power Issue. ”We had some extraordinary successes,” Mechanic says, citing Fox’s stake in three of the top four worldwide grossers in history (Titanic, ID4, and Phantom Menace), two Best Pictures (Titanic and Braveheart, also a Paramount coproduction), and the most successful independent film worldwide ever in Fox Searchlight’s The Full Monty. In 1999, the studio’s hit parade resulted in a $2.1 million bonus above the exec’s $2 million annual salary.
But Mechanic’s luck changed abruptly last October with the stinging disappointment of Fight Club, the $63 million, pitch-black Brad Pitt drama that angered the politically conservative Murdoch with its family-unfriendly tone and, more significantly, its $37 million domestic gross. ”He was negative on a lot of things,” Mechanic says now. ”He didn’t like the dark movies, and he didn’t like Entrapment, which did over $200 million worldwide — that was a great piece of mainstream entertainment.”
Two months later, Mechanic was equally red-faced over Jodie Foster’s King and I remake, Anna, which cost an estimated $75 million but grossed only $39 million. And earlier this year, after Mechanic paid $20 million to lock up Leonardo DiCaprio for his first post-Titanic-hysteria role in The Beach, the dark drama also failed to reach $40 million in domestic box office (though DiCaprio’s popularity helped it near $100 million overseas).