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Fox Layoffs Leave Staffers Stunned and Saddened

Fox employees knew this day was coming. For over a year, the men and women who work at the Century City lot have talked of little else but severance packages and job searches. They knew that when Disney wrapped up its $71.3 billion acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets, thousands of jobs would be eliminated.

But, as they found out on Thursday, there is a difference between anticipating a painful future and watching that feared reality come to pass. The ax fell at the film division with brutal efficiency, wiping away much of the senior leadership at Fox’s marketing, distribution, and consumer products arms. Some staffers, who had been engaging in gallows humor for weeks, burst into tears when they received the word in one-on-one meetings with human resources reps that their positions were being terminated. Others retreated to nearby bars to host impromptu Irish wakes for bosses who had been let go or colleagues who were among those laid off (the Westfield Century City Mall, located just behind the Fox lot, boasts at least a dozen watering holes).

The cuts were small in number, but seismic in impact. Studio veterans such as domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson, president of product strategy and consumer business development Mike Dunn, worldwide theatrical marketing president Pam Levine, and chief content officer Tony Sella, who have decades of experience, were gone in short order, taking with them pieces of the institutional memory of a studio that has made everything from Shirley Temple musicals to “Avatar.”

Much of the top Fox film leadership has been engaged in high-level conversation with Disney for months now, one insider with knowledge of the conversations told Variety. Decisions over job cuts could not be shared until Thursday thanks to regulatory rules surrounding the massive deal, the insider added.

Some of these job losses were expected. Other moves were shocking, such as Disney’s decision to shutter the Fox 2000 label. That move could mean that Elizabeth Gabler, Fox 2000’s head, will be snapped up by a competitor. Her former bosses Jim Gianopulos, now overseeing Paramount, and Tom Rothman, currently running herd at Sony, would dearly love a reunion.

Gabler has options. Others on the lot are looking out at a studio landscape that is shrinking rapidly as digital players such as Netflix upend the distribution world order. If they find jobs, they may be for less money or in startups rather than studio lots. Disney indicated in a late-Thursday announcement that Gabler would stay on through the completion of her film slate, though specifics were not immediately clear.

The mood on the sprawling Century City lot was said to be funereal. One Fox film vice president spent the day holed up in her office, unable to face co-workers until the bad news was stanched. That division was hit first and hit hard — more than a dozen senior executives were cut in a series of meetings that kicked off on the lot at 9 a.m and continued throughout the day.

“It’s quite a day here,” said a longtime Fox television executive, calling the experience “intense” as the hours ticked by.

One bright spot for staffers is generous severance packages. Many of the people cut on Thursday will get between a year and two years of pay, Variety previously reported. They plan to use the time off to reconnect with family and hunt for the next gig.

In some cases, executives had been previously informed to prepare to depart. In others, their hunches were confirmed in Thursday’s sit-down sessions. While emotions ran high, the film offices were unusually silent. Staffers that remained in the building gathered in small clusters to toast co-workers and reminisce.

“We’re talking about people who have brought in billions of dollars for this company,” said one exasperated executive, who is staying under Disney, of a veteran colleague who was laid off.

Sympathy is palpable across Hollywood. It’s a rare occurrence in a town whose signature scent is schadenfreude, and it’s perhaps attributable to the fact that no one feels safe in their position. The Fox sale isn’t expected to be the last studio to be auctioned off in this new era of media consolidation.

“I was in a three-hour meeting at CAA and when I came out, a storm cloud literally rolled over Century City while I read the names,” said one top talent manager, caught in a brief Los Angeles downpour. “I couldn’t have made that up if I tried.”

“We’ve been sitting around my desk, refreshing the articles and waiting for the next head to roll,” said one executive at a rival studio. “It’s morbid, but these are our friends.”

Thursday’s cuts are only a precursor to more job losses. Most of the layoffs were consigned to the film division, but staffers at Fox’s various television properties are bracing for layoffs to begin starting Friday.

“You may think you know what it’s going to be like,” said one departing Fox executive. “But nothing prepares you for when it really happens.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

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