Twentieth Century Fox’s CinemaCon presentation powerfully illustrated that there are casualties in this current era of media mergers and corporate consolidation. Typically these occasions, intended to highlight the impermeable bond between studios and theater owners, are celebratory in nature. This one was different.
Fox, the studio behind “The Sound of Music” and “Avatar,” is being sold by the Murdoch family to Disney in a $52.4 billion pact. That pending merger hung over the hour-long presentation, giving it the feel of an Irish wake — albeit one with dancing Deadpools in place of whiskey.
“We put our chips on vision,” Fox film chief Stacey Snider said during an emotional series of remarks to exhibitors.
“We’ve been making movies and memories for nearly 85 years,” she said. “We took chances, pushed boundaries, and forged the future of the film business… Going forward, let’s stay committed to the vision of cinema. Let’s wear our hearts on our sleeves and aim to please.”
The studio head made it clear that Fox will continue to greenlight and produce movies, both big and small, while awaiting the arrival of its new corporate leaders. To that end, Fox screened footage from the sci-fi thriller “Alita: Battle Angel,” the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the blood-drenched thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale.” All of these films are the kind of gritty, puckish, often R-rated fare that Disney does not typically manufacture. Save for a trailer for “Deadpool 2,” it was a presentation that was devoid of spandex-wearing superheroes. The X-Men franchise, a big part of the reason Disney wants to get its paws on Fox, barely warranted a mention.
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The presentation wasn’t entirely elegiac. Fox did poke fun at the impending mega-transaction. An opening video montage found distribution chief Chris Aronson waking up in a Vegas hotel room with a hungover Pluto, a bathrobe-wearing Hugh Jackman, and Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool gear. As Aronson tried to shake off the after-effects of a night on the town so he could make it to the presentation, Reynolds as Deadpool quipped, “Looks like Comcast really dodged a bullet.”
The Fox group may have been using humor to hide hurt. Snider and much of her film team’s jobs remain in question (though painful rounds of layoffs and staffing cuts seem inevitable). It’s also unclear how Disney will integrate the studio’s various labels and divisions into its operations. Will it continue to back indie arm Fox Searchlight? Will it find a place for politically charged Fox dramas such as “The Hate U Give” on its soon-to-launch streaming service? Will Deadpool be allowed to drop F-bombs when he’s part of the Magic Kingdom?
Those questions should haunt exhibitors. Right now, theater owners adore Disney, and with good reason. The studio has released a dozen $1 billion-grossing movies over the past six years, enriching all of them. Disney controls the Marvel, Pixar, and LucasFilm brands, ensuring that theater owners’ multiplexes will be well stocked with comic book movies, Star Wars sequels, and animated fare during the summer popcorn season and the holidays.
Disney has also endeared itself to exhibitors by opposing the kind of early video-on-demand plans that would see movies premiere in the home within weeks of their theatrical release — a proposal that a Murdoch-controlled Fox once pushed. By taking Fox out of these talks, Disney has slowed the momentum behind that effort. No studio chief got louder applause than Disney film czar Alan Horn when he told the CinemaCon crowd during his studio’s presentation that “The Walt Disney Company is committed to the theatrical window. Period.”
That’s well and good. However, by buying Fox and presumably paring down the number of films it makes, Disney is ensuring that there will be fewer big studio movies to screen in exhibitors’ theaters. Some of those movies are the kinds of artistically challenging, emotionally stirring, big, bold artistic bets that the film business needs if it wants to keep inspiring new generations of artists to pick up a camera and add to the tapestry of cinematic voices that have made this such a rich medium for roughly a century.
That couldn’t come at a more perilous time. Domestic attendance has flatlined in recent years and the film business has had trouble consistently attracting younger crowds. In her remarks, Snider alluded to the challenges facing the film business from streaming services and new media disruptors. In this climate, Snider urged the crowd to “stay dedicated to the future of cinema and passionate about the future to come.”
In the short-term that future will have one fewer major studio spinning dreams out of celluloid. Fox’s presentation ended with a marching band playing the familiar strains of its iconic opening logo fanfare. Usually the crashing symbols and banging drums give off a triumphant air. This time the music sounded like military taps.