Media coverage of Disney’s $71.3 billion purchase of 21st Century Fox’s film and TV assets has focused on the historic union of two titans, and the changes in the media landscape that inspired the big bet. But there is a human cost to this era of consolidation that is frequently ignored.
For the past 10 months, the employees who make up 20th Century Fox, the company’s film division and one of Hollywood’s busiest studios, have been painfully aware that they will likely be laid off. One staffer likened life on the Century City lot to death row — without much hope of achieving a pardon or even a stay of execution.
“We’re working blind,” said another senior employee in the digital sector.
Nor has there been much clarity about what life will be like when the sale officially closes, which is expected to happen in early January. A few executives and filmmakers, such as Matthew Vaughn, have received reassuring phone calls from Disney chief Bob Iger, relaying his desire to get to know them better. For the most part, Disney has remained mum on its post-merger film plans, though it did appoint top Fox executives Peter Rice and Dana Walden to lead the conglomerate’s non-sports television operations.
After bonuses were given out last August, several executives and staffers rushed for the exit. “It’s hard to ignore that people are dropping like flies,” said one alum who recently departed for greener pastures.
Executives on both the film and TV sides who elected to leave after the sale was announced have successfully found new homes at companies like Netflix and Viacom, the alum noted, but one day soon the jobs might not be so easy to come by.
“There’s going to be a lot of people out on the street,” a top film-packaging agent told Variety.
A few top film executives are expected to make the move. People familiar with Disney’s plans say Emma Watts, 20th Century Fox Film’s vice chairman, will likely get the call, though the position has not been defined and formal offers on the movie side have yet to be made. Watts has relationships with key Fox filmmakers such as Vaughn and James Cameron.
Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler, an executive skilled at turning literary properties into box office gold, is being courted by Iger. She’s under contract, but she may have other options. Her former Fox bosses, Sony chief Tom Rothman and Paramount head Jim Gianopulos, might welcome a reunion.
Iger has been effusive in praising Fox Searchlight, the Oscar-winning division behind indie favorites like “The Shape of Water.” He believes awards translate into streaming subscriptions — a critical factor as the company prepares to launch its challenger, known around town as the “Netflix killer.”
That means Searchlight heads Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula are safe, as are the division’s presidents of production for film and television, David Greenbaum and Matthew Greenfield. If they are retained by Disney, these executives will report to Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios.
Stacey Snider, Fox’s film chief, is not getting hired by Disney but has yet to decide on her future moves. She’s been primarily devoted to overseeing the release of the studio’s major fall movies, which include the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Snider has also extended several staffers’ contracts when they have come up for renewal, potentially giving them better exit packages.
There are also questions about what Disney will do with Fox’s animation business. The studio has three films in production — “Spies in Disguise,” “Nimona” and “Ron’s Gone Wrong” — and a fourth, a musical from “La La Land” team Pasek & Paul, is close to being greenlit. Because those movies will need to be completed, there is some thought that the division’s co-heads, Andrea Miloro and Robert Baird, may be retained for at least a certain period of time. What’s unclear, however, is if Disney will keep Fox’s animation unit, Blue Sky Studios.
Since Labor Day, a committee of employees from Fox and a contingent of Disney staffers have been meeting to take a hard look at positions that will be eliminated due to redundancies. The cuts are expected to be devastating, with some analysts projecting that the merger could cause thousands of layoffs. Fox’s film unit is expected to be harder hit than its television operation. Last week, the company offered a service to help employees brush up their résumés, a gesture greeted with gallows humor.
That wasn’t the only corporate move that raised eyebrows. News that Rupert, Lachlan and James Murdoch more than doubled their salaries in 2018 as much of their staff was bracing for pink slips went over, in the words of one executive, “like a lead balloon.” Disney plans to lease the Fox lot for seven years, but the Murdochs are likely to remain on the property, as well. The company’s new, as yet untitled venture, which will center around Fox broadcasting and Fox News, will have a presence in Los Angeles. There are mutterings that Lachlan Murdoch wants to use Building 88, currently home to senior film executive offices and one of the most historic buildings on campus, as the location for his own offices. That would displace the film staffers who keep their jobs after Disney takes control.
Even as the close of the deal looms, Fox has been busy making movies. The studio has 10 films in post-production and four or five expected to begin shooting in the coming weeks. The question is, What will happen to all these projects? Will Disney preserve Fox as its own label? Will it give the movies a theatrical release or consign them to its streaming service?
For months, Fox employees hoped Disney would unveil its plans for the studio. But they are still anxiously awaiting that day. At this point, many fear the uncertainty won’t end until Murdoch officially turns over the keys to Iger.
Here’s where some coveted Fox names figure to land:
Current: 20th Century Fox vice chairman of film and president of production
Projected: Senior film
exec, reporting to Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn
Current: 20th Century Fox chairman-CEO
Projected: Free agent and highly qualified
Nancy Utley/Steve Gilula
Current: Fox Searchlight co-chairs
Projected: Prestige unit expected to remain unchanged under new owner
Current: Fox 2000 president
Projected: Specialty label honcho’s literary ties make her a good fit for Disney