Is Disney having buyer’s remorse? The studio would be forgiven if it were having some regrets after absorbing 20th Century Fox, the company that once generated big box office with the likes of “Avatar,” “Life of Pi,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
After “Dark Phoenix” bombed earlier this summer, Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista’s action comedy “Stuber” did little to instill more confidence in the film slate that Fox handed Disney as part of its $71.3 billion merger. So far, the Magic Kingdom has struggled when it comes to distributing movies that don’t fall under the studio’s squeaky clean umbrella.
“They’ve already taken two hits on two films out of the gate,” said Jeff Bock, a media analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “They’re like horses at the Santa Anita. They’re just dying on them.”
To be fair, the faith-based drama “Breakthrough” did a respectable $50.4 million globally on a $14 million budget, but that kind of modest performance is hardly going to justify one of the splashiest purchases in Hollywood history.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When the historic takeover was first announced, Disney’s looming presence over the box office was expected to grow even stronger. Fox’s film empire meant Disney would have the keys to Marvel’s “X-Men” mutants, James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, and Fox Searchlight’s awards fare. Fast forward through the first six months of the year, and Disney has been jettisoning off a handful of duds. “X-Men” spinoff “Dark Phoenix,” savaged by critics, ran out of steam with $250 million globally, a terrible result for a movie that cost $200 million to produce and millions more in marketing and distribution fees. More worrisome is the fact that its bloodless performance signals that this mutant franchise could be nearing the end of the line. Cue the inevitable reboot?
“Stuber” was also given the brushoff by moviegoers, who have by and large been giving comedies the cold shoulder. Its $8 million domestic debut is a dismal figure in the throes of summer, and the situation isn’t likely to improve once “The Lion King” and “Fast & Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw” hit theaters.
Of course, Disney had little to do with producing this crop of losers. Marketing executives can only do so much to spin audiences on movies that simply aren’t very good. Moreover, Disney is doing just fine when it comes to box office revenues. The studio currently commands almost 35% of the market, more than double its next closest rivals in Universal and Warner Bros. The top grossing movies of 2019 — “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel,” “Toy Story 4” and “Aladdin” — all hail from Disney’s empire. But Fox isn’t offering much in the way of support, and Disney would be casting a shadow over the theatrical landscape even if Rupert Murdoch hadn’t decided to play let’s make a deal with Bob Iger.
As it stands, a lucrative television pact seems to be the redeeming force behind the merger. Disney now has access to 20th Century Fox Television’s expansive dossier, including ABC and Fox. The studio was also thrilled to receive FX, the network behind Emmys darlings like “The Americans,” American Horror Story” and “Atlanta,” which would help put Disney in the business of prestige television. The film side has done less to prove its value to the content giant.
“You hope that for the sake of anybody who likes films, [Fox properties] succeed so we continue to take chances,” said Bock. “It’s a tough place for Disney to be having those Fox rejects. They need bigger opening weekends.”
Box office watchers suggest Disney is more invested in the future of Fox films, one that includes James Mangold’s buzzy “Ford v Ferrari” with Christian Bale and Matt Damon, as well as Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake due out next Christmas. And if James Cameron ever manages to complete his “Avatar” followups — a big if, given the numerous delays the projects have endured — the wisdom of buying the film studio could become clearer. Eventually, Fox could become a complementary asset to Disney’s family-friendly dynasty. Outside of Pixar, Disney has struggled when it comes to making live-action movies that aren’t based on superheroes, branded IP, or come from a galaxy far, far away.
“If they can figure this out and crack this nut about releasing the R-rated [movies], then there really is no stopping Disney,” Bock said.
But before the Sharks and the Jets return to the big screen, Disney has to figure out what to do with a handful of leftovers they are still shifting around on their release calendar. “Ad Astra,” an astronaut drama starring Brad Pitt could appeal to adult audiences, but it looks like the kind of cerebral fare that resonates more strongly with critics than with audiences looking to program the next date night. Other upcoming releases include “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and the Amy Adams thriller “The Woman in the Window,” which was recently pushed after test screenings confused audiences. “Spies in Disguise,” an animated spy comedy with Will Smith, might resonate with younger audiences, but it faces a competitive Christmas season that also sees Sony’s “Jumanji” sequel and Disney’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in theaters.
There’s also widespread skepticism in the industry about Fox Searchlight’s role in the Disney empire. Disney had an unhappy experience in the arthouse space before when it owned Miramax, and while much of the pyrotechnics that characterized that alliance can be attributed to the Weinstein brothers stormy managerial style, the studio also wasn’t besotted with the controversies and low profit margins that auteur-driven fare produces. The indie studio has had recently had success with “The Favourite” and “The Shape of Water.” For the time being, Disney insists that it wants the prestige and Oscars that Searchlight’s movie’s reliably generate, but there are challenges ahead.
Searchlight surprised many when it shelled out $12 million in Cannes for the rights to Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” a lyrical drama about a pacifist who refuses to fight for the Nazis. Some critics liked it and others thought it was a snooze, but the price tag shocked rival studios given that Malick hasn’t made a movie that cracked $1 million at the domestic box office since 2011’s “The Tree of Life.” Searchlight will also release “Jojo Rabbit,” the story of a young German boy whose single mother Rosie hides a Jewish girl from Nazis. In a twist that could be very controversial, his imaginary friend is named Adolf Hitler. Again, the movie could be brilliant and appear on dozens of critics’ best lists, but it could also prove polarizing. And even if it is destined for the Criterion Collection, does it lend luster to the consumer products and parks divisions that make Disney into an entertainment leviathan? After all, there aren’t a lot of Disneyland rides that can be based on “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.”
Analysts point out that should Fox titles continue to sputter at the box office, they could find home at Disney Plus, the studio’s upcoming streaming service. The platform will house plenty of Marvel, Pixar and animated films that should appeal to parents with young children, but it will need an expansive library to compete with the Netflixes of the world.
“A lot of these Fox films feel like they’re Netflix films,” Bock said. “Once Disney Plus launches, they could say say, ‘It’s doing so great we want to give fans some new original content.'”