President of Fox Searchlight and Fox Atomic
Born c. 1967 in United Kingdom. Education: Earned degree from the University of Nottingham, 1989.
Addresses: Office—Fox Searchlight Pictures, 10201 W. Pico Blvd., Bldg. 38, Los Angeles, CA 90035.
Began as intern in the U.S. distribution and marketing office of Fox Filmed Entertainment, 20th Century-Fox, 1985; became executive vice president of production for Fox Filmed Entertainment; president of production, Fox Searchlight, January 2000–; president, Fox Atomic, 2005–.
Though film executive Peter Rice keeps a low profile, Hollywood insiders know him as one of the most influential players in the feature-film industry. Rice heads Fox Searchlight—a specialty-film division of the 20th Century-Fox Studios—which has reaped some immense profits for its parent company by concentrating on mid-budget, critically acclaimed niche pictures. In 2005, he was given responsibility for the newly created Fox Atomic, a division intent on serving the teen market, whom Rice called "still the most avid filmgoers, the most avid purchasers of film and entertainment," he told New York Times film-industry scribe Sharon Waxman. "They are the most potent part of the filmgoing public."
Rice grew up in England and earned a degree from the University of Nottingham in 1989. His father was a business associate of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who had acquired half of the film studio 20th Century-Fox in 1985. That family connection helped Rice land an internship in the office of Tom Sherak, who was head of U.S. distribution and marketing for Fox Filmed Entertainment at the time.
Rice rose through company ranks over the next decade, becoming executive vice president of production at 20th Century-Fox and working on such blockbuster hits as Independence Day, before being named president of production at Fox Searchlight in January of 2000. Launched in 1994, Searchlight was Fox's art-film division. It made modestly budgeted movies that often won critical accolades but rarely dominated the box-office top ten. When Rice came on board, Searchlight's best-received title had been Boys Don't Cry, which won Hilary Swank an Academy Award for her performance of a real-life transgender teenager slain in Nebraska. In addition to producing its own titles, Searchlight also acquired films made by others and used its access to the 20th Century-Fox distribution network to release them. One example of the latter was The Full Monty, a British import that earned $2.9 million on its opening weekend in 1997.
The first film whose production Rice greenlighted was 2001's Kingdom Come, a dysfunctional-family comedy that starred Whoopi Goldberg and LL Cool J. Made for $7 million, it earned $23 million at the box office and on subsequent rentals and sales. The following year proved even better for the company, when the Robin Williams drama One Hour Photo—a rare example of a big-name star attached to a Searchlight project—proved to be a hit, as did Antwone Fisher, Denzel Washington's directorial debut. It also released the science-fiction thriller 28 Days Later, a project from British filmmaker Danny Boyle.
Rice was granted full authority over any project as long as it did not cross the $15 million-mark, and many of his choices went on to prove quite profitable. Examples of this were the British soccer tale Bend It Like Beckham in 2003, and Napoleon Dynamite a year later. Rice bought the latter property for $14 million after seeing it at the Sundance Film Festival, and Napoleon Dynamite earned $45 million—largely via word-of-mouth buzz—which made it one of the most successful teen-oriented releases of 2004. "At a time when nine-figure budgets and 3,000-theater openings dominate Hollywood's business, Fox Searchlight's approach seems almost quaint," wrote Variety's Dave McNary. "But Searchlight's results show there's still room at the table for an operation that nails the elusive niches."
Napoleon Dynamite was part of a trifecta for Rice and Searchlight in 2004, along with two other successful releases, Sideways and Garden State. But Fox's parent company, Murdoch's News Corporation, was eager to tap into the lucrative teen market. In July of 2005, it bought the phenomenally successful social-networking Web site MySpace for $580 million, and later that year launched Fox Atomic, another independent production and distribution division with Rice in charge. Atomic planned to release eight movies a year, most made for under $20 million, and intended to market them via new strategies, including viral-video Web events. Interviewed by Jeff Jensen in Entertainment Weekly, Rice pointed out the advance buzz and even fan involvement in a 2006 thriller made by New Line Cinema, Snakes on a Plane, calling it "a powerful indication of how you can use the Internet to engage the audience and capture their imagination with just a concept."
Rice works closely with two longtime colleagues at Searchlight, head of marketing Nancy Utley and distribution chief Steve Gilula, who serve as co-chief operating officers. All three must agree on a title in order for Searchlight to produce or acquire it. Searchlight promises its filmmakers a relatively high degree of artistic freedom, which helps lure respected directors to their fold though the paycheck offered may be less than those from the major Hollywood players. In the realm of already completed projects, Searchlight and rival Miramax often compete ferociously for film-festival-premiered titles, as they did for the 2006 Sundance standout, Little Miss Sunshine starring Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, and Toni Collette; Searchlight won that battle by anteing up $10 million plus ten percent of the film's gross. "This is what Sundance is all about," Rice enthused after the deal was announced, according to Daily Variety writers Ian Mohr and Pamela McClintock. "The film got a rapturous response. People broke into applause during the movie, and people were crying and laughing."
Rice's upcoming releases at Fox Searchlight include a British import, The History Boys, based on an award-winning London stage play, while Atomic is working on The Comebacks, scheduled for 2007 release. Rice's name is sometimes mentioned as a potential replacement as head of one of the major Hollywood studios; when Paramount Film's Sherry Lansing announced she was stepping down, Rice was rumored to be a possible contender for the job, but industry observers predict he is more likely suited to the Fox Filmed Entertainment group, which includes the 20th Century-Fox property.
Daily Variety, January 23, 2006, p. 1.
Entertainment Weekly, August 4, 2006, p. 24.
New York, July 23, 2003.
New York Observer, November 22, 2004, p. 1.
New York Times, February 19, 2005; December 20, 2005.
Variety, June 25, 2001, p. 9; July 1, 2002, p. 46; April 7, 2003, p. 55.