Disney is poised to swallow up Fox’s film and television assets, a move that will dramatically reshape the landscape of Hollywood, while making it increasingly difficult for producers and directors to find a home for movies that don’t fit into a comic book box or fantasy mold.
Creative types are looking at the $60 billion-plus deal with dread, dismayed that Fox, a studio that has backed a number of risky dramas and comedies for adults in recent years, is about to be absorbed into the Magic Kingdom — a creative fiefdom that scrubs movies of their edge. In recent years, Disney has been almost exclusively interested in making superhero films, animated adventures, and Star Wars sequels and spin-offs. In particular, the company is no longer interested in releasing anything rated R. Disney will most likely allow Fox’s film studio to continue to operate with some autonomy and to continue making movies for adults. But most industry observers believe that no matter what happens, Fox’s film division will exist in diminished form.
“There’s always anxiety about the possibility of one less buyer,” said “Gladiator” and “The Great Gatsby” producer Doug Wick.
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Other producers said that the sale was a sign that the old way of doing business was vanishing. Fewer people are going to the movies, theatrical revenues are down, and media companies making more money from television. The film industry is looking tired and passé.
“The current model cannot sustain itself,” said Mike Medavoy, CEO of Phoenix Pictures. He notes, however, that despite the turbulence, Disney has managed to thrive because it has such a deep bench of brands like Marvel, LucasFilm and Pixar.
“Disney has been the best positioned and [most] successfully run company in the past few years,” he said.
Matt Baer, the producer of “Unbroken,” said that a decade ago it would have been inconceivable to drive by Fox’s Pico Boulevard headquarters and think of it existing as an empty shell of itself. However, the business has changed so much in recent years that he’s not sure the impact will be as seismic as it once would have been. Gone are the days when big studios handed out production deals to producers and filmmakers, helping offset their overhead and subsidizing the projects they developed.
“The unfortunate reality is the way that producers were able to make movies at studios is so much a part of the past,” he said. “Most of the films are being made outside of the studio system with independent financing.”
Not everyone is mournful. John Sloss, a sales agent and founder of Cinetic Media, doesn’t expect that the merger will greatly affect the media landscape.
The rise of companies like Netflix, Amazon and others have increased the number of overall buyers, he contends. These companies have helped fill a void, backing films such as “Mudbound” and “The Big Sick” that are too idiosyncratic to get a greenlight at more traditional studios. Moreover, both companies have money to burn and a thirst for content to help attract subscribers. Anxiety by some in Hollywood, Sloss said, is likely based on the usual uncertainty that surrounds a major media consolidation, but he thinks it’s unfounded.
Hollywood creatives have a plethora of available buyers, Sloss said. “It’s still a sellers market,” he said. “There’s so much capital in this industry. The scarce resource here isn’t delivery mechanisms — it’s creative talent.”
Others are less certain. Fox boasts a number of top-shelf franchises, including the likes of “Avatar” and “X-Men,” which is likely a major reason that Disney is comfortable shelling out billions for access to its vaults. Yet, the studio also fields Oscar-bait such as “The Post,” and offers a robust slate of indie releases through its art house division Fox Searchlight. Will Disney really want to make “The Shape of Water,” an odd love story about a mute janitor and fish man? Even if that Fox Searchlight offering is a hit, it will be lucky to make what “Thor: Ragnarok” can pull in over the course of its opening day.
Disney, of course, has shown an unmatched ability to anticipate what moviegoers want. It successfully revived the Star Wars franchise after George Lucas squandered goodwill towards a galaxy far, far away with his misbegotten previews. It created the concept of interconnected cinematic universes with its Avengers films. And it pushed the boundaries of what animated films could deliver in terms of heart and narrative complexity with its Pixar delights. It stands to reason it can be a good steward of Fox.
On a conference call with analysts shortly after the sale was announced, Disney chief Bob Iger sought to reassure worried Fox employees. He noted that the company has tried to integrate the companies it acquires into the Disney fold without losing their unique qualities.
“As we’ve demonstrated in our acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm, we have not only respected the culture of those organizations but respected and appreciated the talent that came with those acquisitions,” Iger said.
As the mega-deal looms, that track record isn’t silencing all the anxiety.
“It feels like there will be one less chance of a place to discover some movie magic that isn’t built by formula,” said a producer who declined to be named. “The fear is just that it’s going to become more cookie cutter.”
Dave McNary contributed to this report