Disney’s hookup with 21st Century Fox will create not just an American behemoth but a global one, with powerful film and television assets throughout Asia and Europe in particular. That kind of reach is all the more important as international revenue increasingly becomes a sine qua non for Hollywood.
Across the Atlantic, the marriage will create an entertainment giant that owns a raft of channels and premium content, plus a partial – and potentially full – stake in pan-European pay-TV service Sky. Across the Pacific, the new entity will no doubt seek to exploit the two companies’ complementary strengths – Disney in film and Fox in TV – and minimize the areas where they currently compete.
Disney is significantly stronger than Fox with regard to feature films in the region. Its Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm franchises have delivered time and again with Asian audiences who love large-scale, action-filled and fantasy-heavy tentpoles, and its family fare seems tailor-made for the Chinese market. At the CineAsia convention in Hong Kong this week, Disney executives boasted that the company reaped its second-highest international theatrical take of all time in 2017, behind only that of 2016.
“Thor: Ragnarok,” “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” have all been $100 million-plus hits in China this year. “Coco,” currently on release, is now hitting $130 million, making it Pixar’s biggest success in the Middle Kingdom. And the top-grossing Indian film of all time in China, “Dangal,” with $193 million, is Disney-produced.
Fox’s “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and “Logan” each exceeded $100 million this year. That’s an improvement on 2016, when “X-Men Apocalypse” was the studio’s top film in China, with $120 million, and its Marvel-related “Deadpool” was considered too risqué and was denied a release permit.
With a well-developed consumer goods business and the roaring success of Shanghai Disneyland, Disney’s wider China strategy has proven much more effective than Fox’s, and would logically prevail in a merged group.
The biggest area of duplication for the two companies in Asia appears to be in theatrical releasing. “It is going to be a bloodbath,” one former Fox employee told Variety. “This time next year there will be a lot of Fox staff on gardening leave.”
On the TV side, the positions are reversed. Fox is a dominant force in Asia, except in mainland China, which is a challenge for all Western media companies. Fox’s channels business was divided nearly a decade ago into the Star India cluster and a rest-of-Asia operation based in Hong Kong.
Star is India’s s leading pay-TV player, offering a bouquet of general entertainment, film, and sports channels. That strength was parlayed into the establishment of Fox Star Studios, a film production and releasing unit that has become a key local film investor and opened the door to the successful distribution of Hollywood movies in a market where local films dominate.
Star once boasted Chinese-language channels, and Murdoch assiduously courted Beijing. He reversed course in 2005 after Chinese authorities refused to grant him the broadcast rights he wanted. Between 2008 and 2014, Murdoch sold off some of Star’s Chinese channels and its huge Fortune Star film library to mainland media mogul Li Ruigang’s China Media Capital.
But with Star, Fox and National Geographic channels all doing well, Fox Networks boasts that its Asian profits are greater than the revenues of its nearest Western competitor. It is now pushing further into original production and launching VoD service Fox+ on a country-by-country basis.
Disney paid more than $700 million to acquire India’s UTV, a leading film studio and TV channels business. However, last year it announced a halt to local film-making there, preferring instead to keep UTV’s channels and to concentrate on distribution of Hollywood movies. “Dangal” was its penultimate local Indian movie.
The Fox-Disney deal will give rise to an entertainment giant stocked with TV channels and premium content in both film and television. It also positions Disney as a major platforms player, through the 39% share of satcaster Sky that it will own through Fox.
Disney operates its core Disney Channel and XD services in Europe, while Fox brings blue-ribbon networks Fox and Nat Geo to the party from its 151-channel portfolio. Both Disney and Fox have extensive distribution for their channels on Sky, the largest pay-TV operator in each of its key markets: Britain, Germany, and Italy.
Fox’s $15 billion bid for full ownership of Sky – a long-held dream of Rupert Murdoch’s – is currently under review by Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority. Fox says it is “fully committed” to continuing with the bid and expects it to go through by the end of next June, before the Disney-Fox deal closes, which would then make Disney the ultimate owner.
If the competition authority rejects the Fox-Sky takeover, which some analysts say is possible, then the question is whether Disney mounts a new bid for 100% ownership under its own banner. If it does, it would likely have an easier time getting a deal past British regulators than Fox, though anti-Murdoch activists will wait and see where Rupert, Lachlan and James land in Disney-Fox’s corporate structure. “If Fox is owned by Disney and still pursued a deal, we will look hard at what role the Murdochs are promised,” one prominent opponent of the Fox-Sky merger told Variety.
Disney becoming a major shareholder in Sky, if not the outright owner, is likely to unsettle other major channel operators that want carriage on the platform, such as Turner and its kids’ channels, and Discovery, a rival to Fox’s Nat Geo. The boss of one major channel operator told Variety that his company would seek renewed assurances that there would be fair access to Sky.
As in Asia, Disney and Fox overlap widely in distribution in Europe. The two entertainment behemoths will have to decide whether to maintain or consolidate separate sales arms such as FNG Content Distribution, Sky Vision, 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, and Disney’s own EMEA distribution unit. Fox also part-owns Endemol Shine Group, one of the biggest non-studio production and distribution groups in the world. Together, the sales houses are Europe’s major movie, premium-TV, and factual-programming distributors.
On the digital front, up against big beasts such as Netflix and Amazon, the Disney-Fox marriage would bring together a selection of non-linear and streaming services in Europe. Fox has been rolling out Fox+ and, more recently, National Geographic+ in association with pay-TV operators, while Disney has the direct-to-consumer DisneyLife SVOD service in the U.K. and Ireland.
The Fox and the Mouse may be different animals culturally, but in London they are close to one another physically: Disney and Fox Networks Group’s international headquarters sit within feet of each other in the western part of the British capital. Across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Disney employs almost 6,000 people (excluding Disneyland Paris) and has bases in 24 countries, while Fox has 24 regional offices in Europe and Africa.
Beyond Asia and Europe, Disney’s acquisition of Fox channels in Latin America will accelerate its status as one of the region’s dominant TV players and spur original series production, an area in which Fox Networks Group has been ahead of Disney. As broadband speeds quicken, Latin America offers huge potential for Disney’s streaming service, although Netflix is currently the market leader. According to one estimate, SVOD services will double their subscribers in Latin America by 2021.