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Bill Mechanic: A Spartan in Hollywood

Bill, who met his wife Carol at MSU, has truly been a Spartan for life.

Bill Mechanic on Oscar panel

A truck selling maps to the “homes of the stars” parks on his corner. He has held the reins for some of the biggest box office hits the world has ever seen. And just last spring, his expertise was tapped to co-produce the biggest annual party known to Hollywood: the Academy Awards Ceremony, more popularly known as the Oscars.

Few movie makers can lay claim to more success than Bill Mechanic (’73 CAL), chairman and CEO of Pandemonium Films. As the former 20th Century Fox studio boss, he brought the beleaguered company from doormat to number one in worldwide box-office gross, ushering in such awarding winning hits as Titanic, Braveheart, Boys Don’t Cry and scores of other commercially successful and critically acclaimed films. Prior to joining Fox, he was a leading executive at Walt Disney Studios, responsible for melding the movie giant to also hold the top spot in international video distribution.          

Yet, it was an MSU journalism class that started it all. The class carried a requirement of getting something published. As an English major, Bill shied away from hard news, focusing instead on something that interested him. He dutifully submitted a movie review to The State News, and was dumbfounded when the film critic called to say: “You’re better than me. How’d you like to take over?” The outgoing critic was none other than Jack Epps (’72, CAL) who would go on to partner with the late MSU Professor Jim Cash in writing the script for the runaway hit Top Gun among others.

Bill supplied the student newspaper’s movie reviews for nearly two years, garnering praise and hate mail alike from fellow Spartans. He vividly recalls a lambasting in English class from a professor who took issue with Bill’s scorn for fake Russian accents. Bill developed a tougher skin, but he didn’t change his opinion on accents. His resilience has served him well.

“When you are running a studio, you have to do things that are unpopular,” Bill said. “If you are concerned with what people think of you, you are already a step behind.”

The essential confidence he gained at MSU led to graduate school at the University of Southern California and on to studio direction.

“Coming from Michigan, Hollywood is such a far off place, not just geographically but conceptually,” Bill recalls. “I didn’t think for quite a while that I could make a living in movies.” 

Bill, who met his wife Carol at MSU, has truly been a Spartan for life. A Detroit native, he funded MSU scholarships for students from Southeast Michigan, hosted MSU receptions in his home and has supported the MSU film studies program. “You don’t know it when you are there, but MSU and the campus is a great place to grow up,” Bill said. “I believe you should always give back to where you got it.”

Bill recently provided a keynote address and critiqued a film project for students in the Michigan Creative Film Alliance, a film training initiative for promising students from Wayne State University, the University of Michigan and Michigan State. “I thought I came from the same place as them, with dreams—even secretly hidden dreams—that you could do something substantial,” Bill said. MSU Professor Bob Albers heralded Bill’s counsel to the students as “unflinching and valuable.”

In 2009, Bill’s company produced the well-received stop-motion animation film Coraline which chronicled a little girl and her parents’ move from Michigan and enjoyed a “green carpet” pre-release showing in East Lansing.  One of the main characters, Coraline’s father, sported a Michigan State sweatshirt thanks to Bill’s attention to fine points. Early in the project, the costume designers had inadvertently knitted a miniature shirt that highlighted another Michigan-based university and were astonished when Bill insisted it be changed despite the costs involved. “People do pay attention to details,” he said. And this was a detail Bill could never have let slide.

Spartans should watch for potentially more MSU details showing up on the big screen, as Bill has several projects being produced in Michigan to take advantage of the state’s new positioning as a filmmaking center.

Author: Lois Furry