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Fox Searchlight Co-Chiefs: It’s ‘Business as Usual’ Despite Disney Takeover

Chairman of Fox Searchlight Steve Gilula
Todd Williamson/January Images/S

It’s “business as usual” at Fox Searchlight Pictures, despite the change in corporate parent, co-chairmen Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula told an industry audience at the BFI London Film Festival Friday.

The execs said that Disney CEO Bob Iger’s commitment to leave Fox Searchlight alone was reaffirmed when Iger and Walt Disney Studios co-chairmen Alan Horn and Alan Bergman watched Taika Waititi’s Adolf Hitler satire “Jojo Rabbit.” Utley, who described it as “a big test for me,” said: “They really appreciated it and the message it is having, and what we are trying to do. So I don’t see any material changes in the way we work.”

Gilula added: “In some of the press there has been all this concern, but people forget that Disney owned Miramax for many, many years and released all kinds of movies. I think their issue [with Miramax] was not the movies but the management.”

He said that Disney had “embraced” Fox Searchlight’s movies released following the purchase of Fox, such as “Three Billboards,” “The Shape of Water” and “The Favourite.” “Those aren’t Disney movies,” he said. “They embraced all those movies. So any kind of editorial concerns – they are non-existent. In terms of what we are developing and what we are buying, we are business as usual.”

Despite Fox Searchlight’s unwavering commitment to theatrical, the execs value the enhanced opportunities in the streaming realm Disney provides, including distribution for its films on Hulu. “We are very grateful to be part of a company – now with Disney – that is very forward thinking in the streaming space, and is building for the future,” Utley said.

This dovetailed nicely with its moves into television production and a shorts program, which is helping to develop the company’s relationships with talent, both established and emerging, said Utley.

The Fox Searchlight co-heads lamented the market inflation caused by the move of streaming platforms into the independent movie world.

Gilula, who has headed the company with Utley for almost 20 years, said the film industry was undergoing the biggest “inflection” since the birth of television. Technological development had led to a change in audience behavior, and Fox Searchlight had had to adapt to that the best it could.

He compared today’s situation with the rise of Miramax in a previous period of price inflation. “In some cases they messed our business up by spending a tremendous amount of money. Now we have streamers doing the same thing … They are distorting value, distorting the cost. It’s a great windfall for people in production because their fees can go up.”

He added: “There is enough of a commitment on our part and enough filmmakers and producers that want the theatrical experience and then when it works – whether it is ‘The Favourite,’ ‘Three Billboards’ or ‘The Shape of Water’ – there is huge cultural impact and there’s great [economic] benefit as well, and those films live on forever as opposed to being locked away on some streaming platform.”

Gilula said that Fox Searchlight’s business model was still viable, but “we have to change.” He said the bar for a film to get a theatrical release had been “raised a lot.”

Utley added: “One of the ways we’ve adapted is to pivot toward more home-grown productions.” Whereas in the past the split between acquisitions, mainly from film festivals, and inhouse productions was 50:50, since the streamers came in with “seemingly unlimited wallets,” Searchlight had favored inhouse movies more. Much of that had been developed with British and Irish partners such as DNA, Element, Blueprint, BBC and Film4.

“If we own the IP and it’s our project no one can come in and take it away from us so it gives us much more control over our destiny,” she said.

Key to its inhouse output is its ongoing relationships with filmmakers. In the next calendar year, Utley said, the company has films with Guillermo del Toro, Scott Cooper, Wes Anderson and Taika Waititi. “That’s brilliant because the shorthand and the trust is already established on the first film and so then you don’t have to go through all that again,” she said.

The company benefited from having its own global distribution in place, heading by Rebecca Kearey, which gave it “complete autonomy” when it came to the worldwide release strategy, the execs said.

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