Today marks the end of an era in the Australian screen industry with the departures of Jo Bladen, Disney’s general manager, studios and live entertainment, and Marc Wooldridge, Fox Film Distributors MD for Australasia.
Exhibitors, distributors, filmmakers and former colleagues are lamenting the loss of two highly experienced executives resulting from the Walt Disney Company’s $US71.3 billion takeover of most of 21st Century Fox’s prized assets.
In this area of consolidation and downsizing among majors and independents alike, some question the capacity of studios to release small-to-medium budget movies without the expertise and experience of executives like Wooldridge and Bladen.
Former Paramount Pictures Australia MD Mike Selwyn observes: “The distribution/exhibition industry seems to be going through a period of real uncertainty. At the heart of this is the steady erosion of income from post-theatrical exploitation.
“This is eating away at the economics of films to the point where the theatrical market risks being segregated into blockbusters and small, low-cost features. A whole middle range of product might disappear straight to the streaming services and be lost to exhibition.
“It is a shame and a real loss to the industry if some of the most experienced and successful executives are passed over. It does raise the question of how companies will deal with the more unusual releases without the knowledge and experience of seasoned campaigners.”
Robert Slaviero was Fox MD for five years and is now head of theatrical sales at Umbrella Entertainment, an executive producer and is partnered with Richard Becker in distributor R & R Films. “I fear that people like Marc and Jo will be lost to our industry, particularly at a time when we really need ‘film’ people in our business,” he says.
“Marc is a great leader and has overseen some of the most remarkable results seen in Australia over the past years. A credit to him and the entire Fox team.”
The departure of Wooldridge after 27 years with Fox, the last 10 as MD, was not a surprise to many execs as they did not see room for him in the merged Disney-Fox businesses, despite his stellar track record.
But the abolition of Bladen’s post after 21 years with Disney was a shock. As IF reported, Bladen’s duties are being shared between Josh Brigham, Disney’s director of studio sales, and Andrea McMillan, head of studio and franchise marketing.
Kylie Watson-Wheeler continues to run the territory as Disney’s senior VP and MD, Australia and New Zealand. There is no clarity yet over the future of the Fox sales and marketing team in Sydney, who are working on the July 11 release of Fox’s action comedy Stuber. They expect to learn their fates at the end of July.
Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia executive director Lori Flekser says: “Marc and Jo are passionate advocates of cinema and the business of cinema, and both have been powerful, positive agents for change.
“They’ve questioned existing business practices, championed research to find better ways to distribute films and started industry-wide conversations to foster a viable cinema industry in a changing and challenging eco-system.”
Village Cinemas chief operating officer Gino Munari agrees: “Marc and Jo’s contribution to the film industry over many decades has been exceptional. In my opinion, the industry will be the poorer without them both, though hopefully it’s only momentarily.”
Wallis Cinemas programming manager Sasha Close says: “Marc led the team at Fox with passion for film, integrity and charisma. He was always open to ideas from exhibition and truly saw cinemas as a partner in the distribution of film.”
Close got to know Bladen well through the Natalie Miller Fellowship and serving with her on Screen Australia’s Gender Matters task force.
“Jo’s motivation and drive to support and mentor women across the screen industry is to be admired. I truly valued her insights and encouragement to me,” Sasha says.
Selwyn found that competing with both executives was a constant challenge, crediting Bladen with bringing a fresh approach to distribution and Wooldridge for preparing to take risks and achieving unexpected success with such movies as The Greatest Showman and Bohemian Rhapsody.
Cinema Nova general manager Kristian Connelly says Marc’s marketing skill and passion for cinema elevated a diverse slate that included Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hostel, which broke the house record at the Carlton cinema, and idiosyncratic fare such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Favourite, Isle Of Dogs, The Shape Of Water, The Revenant and Birdman.
Former Fox sales director Russell Anderson, who had five MDs in his 40-year Fox career, lauds Wooldridge’s data-driven, analytical ability combined with his appreciation of the “romance” of cinema. “He was highly motivated and his door was always open,” Anderson says.
Majestic Cinemas CEO Kieren Dell was grateful for Wooldridge and Fox’s support of Independent Cinemas Australia and for his flexible and forward-thinking approach to the business.
“He was, in many cases, the go-to MD to discuss new or lateral ideas that would benefit both distributors and exhibitors,” Dell says.
Filmmaker Marion Pilowsky, whose debut feature The Flip Side was released by Fox, says: “Marc was never anything less than a top shelf collaborator and a uniquely creative executive.”
Wallis Cinemas consultant Bob Parr rated Marc as a talented MD and brilliant marketer who was always accessible.
“The motion picture industry has survived everything thrown at it for decades but losing executives like Jo and Marc is disappointing,” Parr concludes.