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Disney-Fox Deal Unleashes Flood of Free-Agent Executives, Talent

Disney’s $52.4 billion deal to scoop up most of 21st Century Fox marks the beginning of an historic realignment of Hollywood’s Big Six studios. It may also lead to an industry-shaking redistribution of executive and creative talent.

Rarely has such a large number of high-level executives suddenly become free agents, from Stacey Snider and Emma Watts on the 20th Century Fox film side to TV heavyweights John Landgraf, Dana Walden, and Gary Newman — not to mention 21st Century Fox president Peter Rice, who oversees all TV.

Beyond the boldface names, there are ranks of seasoned executives at Fox and Disney/ABC who are nervous about their future, after hearing Disney’s promise of delivering $2 billion in cost savings within two years of the deal’s closing. But this flood is also hitting at a time when Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and other upstarts are beefing up their operations as they launch the push into the content business that drove Disney’s interest bolstering its engines by buying out Fox. The dispatch of a slew of Fox-trained executives could wind up adding fuel to the Great Disruption from digital startups with checkbooks that dwarf traditional TV outlets.

Nonetheless, the agita about job security in Burbank and Century City has been heightened by the lack of specifics about management plans in Disney’s Dec. 14 announcement of the agreement to acquire 20th Century Fox’s film and TV operations, the FX Networks cable group, National Geographic, and 22 regional sports channels, among other assets. Fox’s 30% stake in Hulu is also crucial in the deal as it will give Disney majority control of the streaming service just in time for the company’s dive into the stand-alone streaming content biz.

Iger has sketched out a broad vision of Disney focusing on three distinct content apps, an ESPN-branded sports service, a Disney-branded offering of family-friendly fare from its Marvel, Pixar, and LucasFilm brands, and Hulu as the home for adult-oriented fare from FX, ABC, 20th Century Fox film, and Fox Searchlight.

“We certainly are intent on creating a larger, more unified television production studio for the company,” Iger told Wall Street analysts on Thursday.

“The plan is to take the best of both companies and put them together, people and product. … It’s not going to be an ‘all of us’ and ‘none of them,’ they’ve got a very strong talent pool and a lot of great IP and the ability to create a lot of IP,” Iger said. “So our approach is going to be essentially to field the best team with the best product out there.”

But in terms of specifics, Iger has only said that even 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch has to wait for discussions on his future to be held down the line. Disney and Fox are bracing for a regulatory review of the deal that could last as long as 18 months. A year-plus is a long time for executives to be in limbo, which means the job hunt for many began last Thursday. And that dynamic will likely force Iger to make some timely calls on executives at both shops with employment contracts that expire in the coming months.

Walden, chairman-CEO of Fox Television Group, and 20th Century Fox chairman-CEO Snider are both known to have had discussions with Amazon about filling the top job at Amazon Studios left vacant after the departure of Roy Price in October, following sexual harassment allegations. Those conversations were underway before rumors of the Disney-Fox deal surfaced in early November. They may take on more urgency now.

Industry speculation has Landgraf’s fiefdom potentially enlarging to include programming for Hulu as well as FX Networks. Rice, Walden, and Newman are likely contenders for top studio management jobs at Disney, given their respective track records and experience. How the integration process might affect Disney/ABC TV Group chief Ben Sherwood and business operations president Bruce Rosenblum remains to be seen. Insiders on both sides reported bracing for a “free-for-all” of lobbying and jockeying in the coming weeks.

Rice comes into the picture at the Magic Kingdom as a triple threat, with experience in film, TV and sports. He made his name as an executive on the film side at 20th Century Fox and as the head of Fox Searchlight during its impressive run a decade ago with such hits as “Juno,” “Sideways,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “The Black Swan,” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

But Rice smartly segued to the TV side of Fox in 2009, where he quickly rose to overseeing the Fox broadcast network as well as FX Networks, National Geographic and the international channels. Significantly, Rice has also overseen Fox Sports for the past six years — giving him exposure to leaders of major sports leagues and team owners in a way that can only be of value to the media giant that is home to ESPN and soon, Fox’s regional sports networks.

Iger has been effusive about the strength of Fox’s creative output and management bench in talking up the deal.

“When you think about the management that’s supervised the creation of an unbelievable array of great shows — including ‘This is Us’ and ‘Modern Family’ to name a few — and using that creative oversight and the relationships they have with creators to create directly for our service or our networks, we think that’s very powerful,” Iger told analysts.

The fate of Walden will surely have a big impact on Fox’s long-term relationship with its most prolific producer, Ryan Murphy. The uber-showrunner behind so many FX and Fox series franchises is in the midst of contract renewal negotiations on a massive overall deal with 20th Century Fox TV deal that expires at the end of July. Murphy is personally close with Walden, as well as FX’s John Landgraf. Where those executives end up will play a big role in where the steward of “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story,” “Feud” and other shows takes his future business.

With so many players and positions to sort through, Iger’s holiday season to-do list just got a whole lot longer. Given his focus feeding “high-quality content” through Disney-owned pipelines around the world, Iger’s first call might well go to Murphy.

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