Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley Leaving Searchlight Pictures

LOS ANGELES — One of corporate Hollywood’s most enduring double acts is calling it quits.

Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley, senior executives at Searchlight Pictures for 21 of its 27 years, who shaped global culture with Oscar-winning hits like “12 Years a Slave,” “Black Swan,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” announced their surprise retirement on Tuesday. They will leave the Disney-owned specialty studio by the end of June, adding to a conspicuous changing of the guard at Walt Disney Company.

“You don’t want to be the show that stays on the air two seasons too long,” Ms. Utley said. “Get out while everything is still going well.”

She was joking — mostly. Searchlight has long been the gold standard of art film studios, packing its slate with diverse offerings long before Hollywood got the memo, and thriving in a changing marketplace — the DVD collapse, the rise of streaming competitors — even as once-formidable competitors like the Weinstein Company imploded. If the latest Searchlight success, “Nomadland,” wins the Academy Award for best picture on Sunday, as many expect, Mr. Gilula, 70, and Ms. Utley, 65, will have taken the top prize in four of the last eight ceremonies. That is a run unmatched by any specialty studio, even Miramax, which at its height won three best-picture Oscars.

The Shape of Water” (2018), “Birdman” (2015) and “12 Years a Slave” (2014). “Slumdog Millionaire” won in 2009.

The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Netflix has been chasing such a victory for years as the ultimate symbol of supremacy in Hollywood.

Searchlight has been rising to the challenge of streaming. “Nomadland,” from the Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao, was released in theaters and on Hulu, a Disney streaming service. But competing with Amazon, Apple and Netflix — and their seemingly bottomless wallets — for talent and material has become harder and harder. That has made the art film market more precarious for traditional studios like Searchlight, which will now be run by David Greenbaum and Matthew Greenfield, the current presidents.

“Every time my contract was up, to be candid, I always questioned whether I had the intestinal fortitude to fight through the next set of changes,” Mr. Gilula said. “Ultimately, pride and loyalty kept me going. And there has always been another fantastic film in the pipeline. Well, maybe after ‘Shape of Water,’ maybe after ‘Three Billboards.’ But this is it. With ‘Nomadland,’ which has shown that we haven’t lost our edge at all, adapting quickly to the pandemic, there is a great feeling of fulfillment.”

Robert A. Iger, executive chairman, is departing in December after 26 years at the company. Alan F. Horn, the top creative executive at Walt Disney Studios, has been edging toward retirement, as has Alan N. Braverman, Disney’s top lawyer. Jayne Parker, Disney’s powerful human resources chief, will step down in June after 33 years at the company.

“The people you mentioned have contributed mightily — myself excluded; I’m not talking about myself in this regard — to the success of the company, and in doing so have groomed people behind them who will take over the mantle,” Mr. Iger said. “I try to ease people’s concerns as much as possible. It’s certainly way too premature to express concern.”

Searchlight was one of the assets that Disney acquired from Rupert Murdoch in 2019. Mr. Iger, who orchestrated the deal, heaped praise on Ms. Utley and Mr. Gilula. “It takes a really deft hand to bring these smaller but extremely high-quality films to market, and they have Ph.D.’s in it,” he said.

Does their retirement signal a change in direction for Searchlight? The mini-studio, which has about 100 employees, is beloved by fans of grown-up cinema, especially as Hollywood has leaned harder toward all-audience franchise films.

“No, not at all,” Mr. Iger said. “We haven’t been particularly vocal about this, but we intend for Searchlight to play a big part in supplying content, not just for theaters but for our streaming platforms. We are going to invest more and more. Expect more output rather than less.”

Summer of Soul,” a documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival from Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove; Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” a comedy-drama-romance; and Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” about a manipulative carnival worker. Searchlight also has six television shows on the way with stars and directors that include Keira Knightley, Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favourite”) and Darren Aronofsky.

Thomas E. Rothman, who is now Sony’s movie chief. At the time, specialty films — auteur-minded cinematic trinkets — were raking in money at the box office. “The Full Monty,” released by Searchlight in 1997, cost $3.5 million to make and took in $258 million worldwide (or nearly $430 million in today’s money). Over the years, market conditions changed markedly, particularly in the late 2000s, when an economic downturn dried up production financing.

As competitors like Rogue Pictures, Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse and Miramax faded away, Ms. Utley and Mr. Gilula kept Searchlight vibrant. Her specialty has been marketing, scripts and casting. He is a distribution ace who co-founded the Landmark Theaters chain in 1974. “There has never been a spreadsheet that Steve didn’t love,” Ms. Utley said dryly.

Aside from exquisite cinematic taste, the two executives, who both hail from the Midwest, are the rarest of species in Hollywood: genuinely nice people. Neither craves the spotlight. They are widely known in the film industry for campaigning for awards with integrity.

“Hopefully, we have set an example,” Mr. Gilula said, “showing that you don’t have to be the other kind of person to be successful in this business.”

Both insisted that Disney’s takeover of Searchlight (called Fox Searchlight while owned by Mr. Murdoch) played no role in their decision to retire.

“We were frustrated at Fox because Fox just didn’t have a streaming strategy and was very slow to react to marketplace changes,” Ms. Utley said, adding, “I think the transition to Disney has gone really smoothly, which is one reason I have all the faith in the world about the future of Searchlight.”

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‘Nomadland’ Wins Big at Diverse BAFTAs

LONDON — “Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao’s film about a woman forced to join the rising numbers of Americans living out of vans as they search for work, was the big winner at the EE British Academy Film Awards in London on Sunday.

It was named best film at Britain’s equivalent of the Oscars, better known as the BAFTAs, beating the likes of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and the much-hyped “Promising Young Woman,” starring Carey Mulligan.

Zhao was also named best director, while Frances McDormand, the star of “Nomadland,” won best actress. The film, which has been heavily praised by British critics for its “delicate, incisive portrait of a life lived on the road,” also took the award for best cinematography.

notable for their diversity, in stark contrast to last year’s awards when no people of color were nominated in the main acting categories, and no women were nominated for best director, prompting a social media outcry.

In response, BAFTA made a host of rule changes, including requiring its members to undergo unconscious bias training before voting and involving juries in several categories.

The Father,” where he plays a man struggling with dementia, beating the likes of Riz Ahmed for his portrayal of a musician losing his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” and Chadwick Boseman for his starring role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

But Daniel Kaluuya was named best supporting actor for his role as Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” repeating his success at the Golden Globes. Yuh-Jung Youn, the veteran Korean actress, won best supporting actress for her role in “Minari.”

British people “are known as very snobbish” Youn said in her acceptance speech, saying the award meant more because of that.

The success of “Nomadland” is likely to increase hype around the film ahead of this year’s Oscars, scheduled for April 25, where it is nominated for six awards.

The BAFTAs are normally seen as a bellwether for the Academy Awards because there is some overlap between the 7,000-strong membership of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, which organizes the BAFTAs, and the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Although four of the movies contending for the best picture Oscar — “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” “Minari” and “Sound of Metal” — were not nominated in the BAFTAs best film category.

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BAFTA Nominations: ‘Nomadland’ and ‘Rocks’ Lead Diverse List

LONDON — “Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao’s drama about a middle-aged woman who travels across the United States in a van seeking itinerant work, scored the biggest number of high-profile nominations for this year’s EE British Academy Film Awards, Britain’s equivalent of the Oscars.

On Tuesday, the film, which stars Frances McDormand and won the Golden Globe for best drama in February, picked up seven nominations for the awards, commonly known as the BAFTAs.

It will compete for best film against “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Promising Young Woman,” “The Father” and “The Mauritanian.”

The best-film nominees are almost the same as the titles that competed for best drama at this year’s Golden Globes. (Only “Mank,” David Fincher’s revisiting of “Citizen Kane,” is missing, replaced by “The Mauritanian.”) But in the talent categories for this year’s BAFTAs, the nominees are more diverse than the Golden Globe lists. Many come from low-budget, independent films, such as “Rocks,” a British coming-of-age tale about a Black teenager in London, that also received seven nominations.

overhaul of BAFTA’s voting rules to increase the diversity of the nominees after recent criticism. Last year, no people of color were nominated in the BAFTAs’ main acting categories, and no women were nominated for best director. Those omissions prompted a social media furor and criticism from the stage at the award ceremony. “I think that we sent a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here,” Joaquin Phoenix said when accepting the best-actor award for his performance in “Joker.”

BAFTA required all of its 6,700 voting members to undergo unconscious bias training before voting on this year’s nominees, as well as requiring them to watch a selection of 15 films to stretch the range of titles viewed. Among dozens of other changes to the voting procedures to increase the diversity of the nominees, they were selected for the first time from “longlists” prepared by BAFTA, with the input of specialist juries.

In contrast to the male-skewed nominee lists of previous years, four of the best-director nominees announced on Tuesday are women; four of the six nominees in both leading actor categories are people of color.

In the best-director category, for example, Chloé Zhao has been nominated for “Nomadland” and will compete against Lee Isaac Chung for “Minari”; Sarah Gavron for “Rocks”; Shannon Murphy for “Babyteeth”; Jasmila Zbanic for “Quo Vadis, Aida?” a retelling of a massacre in the Bosnian War of the 1990s; and Thomas Vinterberg for “Another Round,” a dark comedy about Danish attitudes to alcohol.

In the best-actress category, Frances McDormand, the star of “Nomadland,” will compete against Radha Blank for her role in “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” Wunmi Mosaku for the horror film “His House,” and Bukky Bakray, the teenage star of “Rocks.” That list includes fewer recognizable star names than previous years: Rosamund Pike and Andra Day, who won the main actress awards at this year’s Golden Globes, are missing.

not allowed in England until May 17 at the earliest.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is scheduled next Monday to announce nominations for this year’s Oscars.

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Chloé Zhao, ‘Nomadland’ Director, Encounters a Backlash in China

When Chloé Zhao won the Golden Globe for best director for her film “Nomadland” last Sunday, becoming the first Asian woman to receive that prize, Chinese state news outlets were jubilant. “The Pride of China!” read one headline, referring to Ms. Zhao, who was born in Beijing.

But the mood quickly shifted. Chinese online sleuths dug up a 2013 interview with an American film magazine in which Ms. Zhao criticized her native country, calling it a place “where there are lies everywhere.” And they zeroed in on another, more recent interview with an Australian website in which Ms. Zhao, who received much of her education in the United States and now lives there, was quoted as saying: “The U.S. is now my country, ultimately.”

The Australian site later added a note saying that it had misquoted Ms. Zhao, and that she had actually said “not my country.” But the damage was done.

Chinese nationalists pounced online. What was her nationality, they wanted to know. Was she Chinese or American? Why should China celebrate her success if she’s American?

increasingly complex political minefield that companies must navigate there.

only major gatekeeper for films in China, determining which foreign movies got the official stamp of approval and, ultimately, access to the country’s booming box office. Now, more and more, China’s online patriots can also influence the fate of a film or a company.

little pinks,” has become another crucial consideration for companies seeking to enter the Chinese market.

“There is much more space to punch figures like Chloé Zhao,” said Aynne Kokas, the author of “Hollywood Made in China.”

The backlash against “Nomadland” was somewhat unexpected. Aside from Ms. Zhao, the film, which stars Frances McDormand in a sensitive portrait of the lives of itinerant Americans, has little if any connection to China. Though it is said to be a strong contender for the Academy Awards, it was not expected to bring in big Chinese audiences, given its limited theatrical release and its slow pacing.

But the patriotic frenzy could become a significant issue for another film directed by Ms. Zhao, “The Eternals,” a big-budget superhero movie for Disney’s Marvel Studios starring Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani and Salma Hayek. It is scheduled to debut in the United States in November, but a China release date has not been publicly announced.

Experts say that while Ms. Zhao’s background would likely have been a major selling point for “The Eternals” in China, it could now become an Achilles’ heel — a potentially devastating blow for the film and for Marvel, which has reaped huge rewards in the Chinese market with movies like “Avengers: Endgame.”

Such a scenario would be especially damaging this year, with the pandemic having decimated box offices in almost all major markets but China, where the virus is largely under control and the domestic film industry is thriving.

previously reported by Variety. “As the world’s largest market, there is much less need to bring Hollywood studio films into the market.”

Until recently, few in China had heard of Ms. Zhao, 38.

Born in Beijing, she went to boarding school in London, to high school in California and ultimately to film school at New York University. Before “Nomadland,” Ms. Zhao gained recognition for the critically acclaimed art films “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015) and “The Rider” (2017).

In China, though, she was best known as the stepdaughter of the popular comic actress Song Dandan, who in 1997 married Ms. Zhao’s father, the former head of a Chinese state-owned steel company.

Ms. Zhao has spoken about what she sees as her shifting identity, a product, she said, of years spent moving around the world. She has described her Chinese heritage as part of that identity.

In a recent profile in New York magazine, Ms. Zhao referred to northerners in China as “my own people” and described herself as being “from China.” Global Times, a Chinese state-backed nationalist tabloid, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that Disney had said that Ms. Zhao was a Chinese national.

archived versions of the webpage. But by mid-February, the quote had been removed and a note added, saying that the article had been “edited and condensed after publication.” The quote is not in the latest version of the article, though it appears elsewhere on the magazine’s website.

Filmmaker Magazine did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Disney. Ms. Zhao could not be reached for comment.

Amid the nationalist-tinged outcry, many Chinese rushed to defend Ms. Zhao and heap scorn on the “little pinks” for being overly sensitive. “Nomadland” was a beautiful movie, many said, one that rose above the ugliness of politics and national borders.

Nothing comparable to its unflinching portrayal of the struggles of gig workers and America’s fraying social safety net could have been made in China, others said. On Douban, a review website popular with relatively liberal-minded Chinese, the film has nearly 66,000 reviews and a strong rating of 8.4 out of 10.

Some commenters also pointed out the irony that Chinese nationalists would want to clamp down on a film that seemed to fit so well with the narrative that official propaganda organs had recently been touting, of a rising China and a United States in decline.

“Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ deeply reveals the crisis of America’s lower-class citizens and the difficult lives of its people,” Qiao Mu, a former professor of communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, wrote on Weibo. “This should strengthen our pride in socialism and our self-confidence in the Chinese way.”

“She is the pride of the Chinese people,” he added, “not someone who insults China.”

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