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Could Fox Acquisition Finally Make Disney an Awards Power Player?

Disney has been one of the least awards-focused studios in the game for decades. The Burbank-based company even made a concerted effort to eliminate the specialty side of its movie business, selling off Miramax Films for $660 million in 2010 and only deigning to dabble in awards season fare with a handful of recent prestige productions like “The Help” and “Lincoln” through its distribution pact with DreamWorks.

How ironic, then, that with an acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s film divisions, it could mark a whole new era for Disney on the circuit. Through “Big” Fox and subsidiary Fox Searchlight, the studio would have a whole other silo far more adept at the awards game…if that’s even of interest, that is.

As if to prove that point, Fox blasted out a press release Monday morning in the wake of this year’s Golden Globe nominations announcement, beaming over a field-leading 27 mentions for a slew of films including “The Post,” “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” “It sort of said, ‘This is what we’re good at,'” one studio source said. “It’s important to our filmmakers and the studio. Both divisions have excelled at this.”

In recent years Fox has earned best picture recognition for movies like “Hidden Figures,” “The Revenant,” “The Martian,” “Life of Pi” and “Avatar.” Meanwhile, Searchlight has made the awards circuit a significant part of its business model, landing 14 best picture nominations in the last 20 years and winning the industry’s top prize three times in the last decade, including back-to-back triumphs for “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman.” The distributor even secured multiple slots in the best picture lineup on three separate occasions.

By contrast, outside of DreamWorks and Pixar partnerships, and beyond the Miramax heyday, when Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s shingle was a trophy factory, Disney has simply not been a player. The studio managed to reap best picture bids for Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” in 1994 as well as for M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” and Michael Mann’s “The Insider” in 1999. “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991, meanwhile, was the only animated feature to be recognized in the best picture category prior to the modern era of five-to-10 nominees. But that’s about it.

Some of the exact terms of Disney’s acquisition deal are still largely unknown, but much of the workforce that shepherded Fox and Fox Searchlight’s films to consistent Oscar glory could be shown the door if all Disney is interested in is a library and rights to Marvel and “Star Wars” loose ends (i.e. the ability to produce “X-Men” films and reclaim distribution rights to George Lucas’ original “Star Wars” film, which Fox owned in perpetuity). Nevertheless, there are contenders on the horizon that will need wrangling.

Director Steve McQueen’s “Widows” holds a lot of promise. Written by McQueen and “Gone Girl” scribe Gillian Flynn, and based on a popular British crime drama, the film is packed with talent: Jon Bernthal, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Viola Davis and Jacki Weaver, among others. Fox can thank Searchlight for bringing a talent like McQueen into the fold, though, after the acquisition of his somewhat controversial film “Shame” in 2011. The specialty division made a go at awards for that film, but it was always going to be a tough sell for the Academy, which ignored it completely. Nevertheless, it was clearly shrewd to get into business with McQueen; two years later, “12 Years a Slave” became the toast of the industry, and Searchlight’s first best picture winner since “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Little else from Big Fox looks to be a contender from this vantage point. Who knows what scars the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” will bear in the wake of director Bryan Singer’s dismissal from the project, and filmmaker James Gray certainly doesn’t appear to be interested in the kinds of movies that appeal to Academy voters, so “Ad Astra” is a question mark. The rest of the slate fills out with genre movies and tentpole productions like “Alita: Battle Angel,” “The New Mutants,” “The Predator,” “Red Sparrow” and “X-Men: Dark Phoenix.”

On the Searchlight side, there is more to work with. One possible contender is “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” director Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” On the eve of the Disney deal Wednesday, Searchlight announced that Heller’s film will be released on Oct. 19 next year, right in the thick of the season. Melissa McCarthy stars as biographer Lee Israel in the picture.

Elsewhere there’s Wes Anderson’s animated “Isle of Dogs.” That film — Anderson’s second animated endeavor after “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — features the voice talents of everyone from Greta Gerwig and Scarlett Johansson to Bryan Cranston and F. Murray Abraham. (Interestingly enough, Anderson called Disney home at the start of his career, before hitching his wagon to Searchlight in 2007 with “The Darjeeling Limited.”)

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” director Yorgos Lanthimos’ next project, “The Favourite” — starring Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult and Rachel Weisz — is also set up at Searchlight, as is David Lowery’s “Old Man and the Gun” with Casey Affleck and Robert Redford. Ditto the J.R.R. Tolkien biopic “Tolkien,” with Hoult as the famed “Lord of the Rings” author and “Tom of Finland” helmer Dome Karukoski directing.

And what to make of Blue Sky Studios, the Fox-owned animated division that has struggled on the awards circuit, yet generated plenty of revenue in the marketplace? This year’s “Ferdinand” received a Golden Globe nomination and could be the company’s second animated feature Oscar player (after 2002’s “Ice Age”). But going forward, what use would Disney have for yet another animation shingle?

There are many questions and few answers at the moment. But it’s clearly going to be a disruptive shift in Hollywood, and potentially the awards season, once all the ink is dry.

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