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Disney and Fox Film Merger Could Be Heavy on Drama (Analysis)

Now comes the hard part.

On Thursday, the Walt Disney Company unveiled the list of 20th Century Fox film executives who scored a visa to the Magic Kingdom. Once Disney wraps up its $71.3 billion acquisition of much of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, Fox film vice-chairman Emma Watts, Fox 2000 head Elizabeth Gabler, Fox Searchlight co-heads Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley, Fox animation co-heads Andrea Miloro and Robert Baird, and Fox Family president Vanessa Morrison will all be making the move. Their new gigs have been among the worst kept secrets in Hollywood (though woe to the entertainment journalist who wrote they had deals in place!), making the news something of a meh moment.

What was interesting was how little information there was in the Disney release about what Watts, Gabler, and the rest of the Fox team would be doing under their new leaders. There were a few hints buried between the list of executives and statements that were heavy on superlatives, namely some indications that Watts will be tasked with running herd over some of the new transplants. While she will report to Disney studio chief Alan Horn along with Gabler and the Fox Searchlight team, she will share Miloro, Baird, and Morrison as direct reports with Horn. Horn’s statement may have also answered questions about what will happen to the 20th Century Fox brand. He mentioned that the film groups will exist “under the umbrella of The Walt Disney Studios,” a sign perhaps that the label may be joining Time Warner in the land of unloved corporate monikers.

It seems as though Disney is still trying to determine exactly how these new film assets will be integrated into its studio. There are also a number of cultural questions to be raised about the Fox integration. Disney, at least in recent years, has had a buttoned-up style. For the most part, its kept the internal disagreements under wraps, with executives on the film side appearing to work well with one another. For the past decade, Fox has had a different, more sharp-elbowed and unruly reputation. In fact, it was a studio lot that could appear downright Darwinian at times. When Horn took the job at Disney in 2012, he vowed to “keep the waters calm.” That kind of diplomacy may come in handy in the coming months as inevitable turf wars flare up.

And while much of Disney’s current box office hot streak is attributable to a series of mega-mergers, the company has never faced such a knotty assimilation. When Disney bought Pixar, Marvel, and to a lesser degree LucasFilm it more or less left them alone, giving them the independence to run their own shops with minimal interference or, in the case of Pixar’s Emeryville campus, at a geographic remove. With the possible exception of Searchlight, which Disney CEO Bob Iger has hinted will keep churning out awards bait, that doesn’t seem to be the plan with Fox. Moreover, Disney will be doing all of this while simultaneously launching a streaming service that it hopes can rival Netflix. Keeping that service supplied with compelling content will be one of the tasks of the film team, and what exactly that process will look like is still being determined.

Disney inherited a lot of executive talent with its multi-billion purchase and a boatload of promising film franchises that include everything from “Avatar” to “Kingsmen.” Fanboys are already salivating about the potential for an X-Men and Avengers crossover. Its rivals are understandably concerned about being out-manned and out-gunned. But corporate integrations are notoriously difficult things to pull off, and it remains to be seen how letting a Fox in a Mouse House will change the climate at the most successful studio in the movie business.

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