"My story started at Nottingham"
Working in the United States during the year abroad of his American Studies degree, a young Nottingham intern found himself sitting in the marketing office of 20th Century Fox in Hollywood.
“Suddenly, in walked Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jess ‘The Body’ Ventura and Carl Weathers, all smoking cigars. Arnold pointed at me with his cigar and intoned: ‘You! Go see my new film – Pree-day-tor’. I can still remember exactly the way he said it, slowly emphasizing each syllable.”
Certainly not the average first day on a new job but the young man sat in the office, Peter Rice (American Studies, 1989), was anything but your average intern.
This talented Nottingham graduate has risen rapidly through the ranks of the iconic American entertainment powerhouse, 21st Century Fox, serving as Executive Vice President at 20th Century Fox before becoming President at Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Under his tenure, Fox Searchlight released some of the most critically acclaimed films of the past decade, including Slumdog Millionaire, Juno and The Last King of Scotland. Films released under his leadership have generated an impressive 51 Academy Award and 42 Golden Globe Award nominations.
Praised for being a rare combination – a shrewd businessman with the heart of an artist – Peter is now Chairman and CEO for the Fox Networks Group, overseeing the company’s broadcast and cable channels, TV studio, sports networks and international TV operations. It is no wonder that the Hollywood Reporter recently listed him as the eighth ‘Most Powerful Person in Entertainment’.
Getting the best, from the best
The first time Peter looked at film with a critical eye was studying the subject under Professor Brian Lee (now Emeritus Professor) in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at Nottingham.
“I’ve lived my life in the world of story-telling surrounded by some of the greatest masters of the craft around today,” said Peter. “I’ve worked with them to unearth their stories, to shape them and, occasionally, to help them improve their creations. The University of Nottingham has certainly played a huge role in my life story.
“When I picked my degree I wasn’t particularly an Americanophile but it offered me the opportunity to study in the United States. It felt like an ambitious choice for a middle-class, suburban school boy from South London but it opened the door to an extraordinary life.”
When we think Hollywood, bright lights, breathtakingly beautiful people and big egos often spring to mind. But what is it really like to work within this close-knit, exclusive and imaginative community?
If Peter had not stood up for the bold risk we were taking with Romeo + Juliet, the course of film history could have been quite different
“The entertainment business is all about engaging people with a heightened view of the world, therefore it does have an artificial nature to it. It’s intense making a TV show or a film with hundreds of artists working together but it doesn’t matter how big the name is, because each project is a creative collaboration. Everyone wants the end result to be something brilliant.
“We all have egos. Creative people shut down very quickly if you say you don’t like what they’ve done. I’m clear that writing, acting and directing is their skillset, not mine, but I speak to people truthfully and openly. It is all about developing a relationship built on trust, formed from the idea that you’re trying to accomplish the same thing. Once you’ve made the decision to move forward on a project, if you start off headed in the same direction it can be a joyful experience.”
With a relaxed, affable yet direct style, Peter clearly has a talent for inspiring confidence, influencing people and nurturing success. As his creative colleague and close friend, the director Danny Boyle said: “Peter has a purity and innocence about him that appeals to people. He was the only one who wanted Slumdog in Hollywood – other executives saw the torture and child poverty and Hindi with subtitles and said ‘you’ve got to be ****ing joking!’ Peter just watched the film and thought it was full of heart. He didn’t care what language it was in because great stories, ideas and performances reach across all barriers.”
Peter's top tips to break into Hollywood
1. Explore the different ways into the business
"When I first started in the industry, I was struck by the sheer variety of jobs that existed. You don't have to be an actor, director or writer. There are so many jobs and careers you can have inside this business – from marketing to distribution, publicity to statistical analysis. And outside of it there is a vast connected industry of agencies and management companies. Hollywood is an idea more than a place – opportunities exist across the world and you can very much be part of the Hollywood system without living there."
2. Show your enthusiasm and curiosity
"One of the most important qualities I look for in a person is genuine curiosity for our business. The questions asked, the content and the thoughtfulness of them, gives you an insight into that person. We're looking for the most talented people – personality and enthusiasm are much more important than the specifics of your degree."
3. Write me a letter
“I’m shocked at how few letters I get. If you take the time to write me a letter, tell me you’re interested in working in the business and are looking for help and advice. People like to help other people and if you ask them, more often than not they’ll answer your questions and try and help you. The more thoughtful and better the letter is, the more likely there’s a role for you.”
4. Do your own thing
“You are the protagonists of your own story – the choices you make and the relationships you create will define you.”
Though the FOX brand undeniably has its critics, TV programming under Peter’s leadership has pushed social and cultural attitudinal change.
Peter was the only one who wanted Slumdog in Hollywood. He didn't care what language it was in because great stories, ideas and performances reach across all barriers
“I think shows like Glee and Modern Family have had a tremendous effect on American culture and I’m really proud of that,” said Peter. “We have a sitcom where gay marriage is on the same level as the straight marriage of their siblings. Through our shows, we can encourage parents and their children to talk about social issues – about how we relate to each other. But for our stories to work they have to be reflective of the world around us. Nothing is made in isolation – the power is in the authenticity of the story-teller.”
“Not everything we make is a success but the only movies and TV shows I regret making are the ones which are cynical in some way – those made for an imagined audience rather than being something we truly liked ourselves. My experience of the public is that they are incredibly smart and will instantly tell if your show is not authentic and will reject it. That’s when we find out that we were the fools.”
Knowing your audience is clearly key to success and Peter’s establishment of a Nottingham student internship scheme with Fox Studios is one way he helps keep his finger on the pulse.
“My whole career started with my internship so I think industry placements are incredibly important. They offer an instant insight into whether or not it is a career that interests you, and provides the opportunity to build relationships and develop contacts for the future. It’s great for us having new interns around – these young people are our audience, and having your future audience in your offices every summer to bounce ideas off is really valuable.”
Staying ahead of the game
Smartphones, the internet and immersive games like Pokémon Go are rapidly changing how and when we access entertainment content. So how does Fox Networks keep their viewers coming back?
“If you aired a show at 8pm on a Thursday night, your competition used to be everything else airing at 8pm. Today technology has broken down the advantage of the big companies because anyone can distribute content. Now your show has to compete with everything that has ever been made which drives us to work harder – to tell better stories.
With movies there’s also a knock-on effect from globalisation. Films now have to be so big globally that the storylines have become more simplistic with visual effects playing a much bigger role than complex verbal character interactions. TV roles are therefore appealing to actors – serialised yet cinematic shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men offer them a greater chance to explore complex characterisation. Their performances are the special effect.”
“For me the most important part of any good story is the element of surprise and the creation of memorable moments,” said Peter. “The author should take you on a journey and capture your imagination. Stories need protagonists. They need villains. Just look at what Leicester City achieved in the Premiership this year – overcoming adversity makes a great story.”
“In my honorary degree speech, I encouraged all Nottingham students and alumni to embrace the power that you have as the author of your own story to make choices. Recognise the possibilities that lie before you and, when presented with a choice, be brave, be ambitious, and be aspirational for your own future. Above all, embrace the unexpected and celebrate the surprises because when I think about my own life and how I get up every day to do the greatest job in the world, I see that truth really is strangely than fiction.”