Emma Watts has resigned as president of production at Twentieth Century Studios, ending a two decade-long run at the film company. The move comes after mutterings that Watts was unhappy about not being given more to do at Twentieth after the company was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2019. In her resignation letter, Watts cited a need to “pursue new opportunities.”
It hasn’t helped that many of the films that Twentieth was slated to release, such as “Dark Phoenix” and “Stuber,” bombed at the box office. She is the latest in a long line of Fox veterans and top executives to leave the company following the sale, joining the likes of studio chairman Stacey Snider (with whom Watts previously clashed, and who is now leading the production outfit Sister), domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson (now at Paramount), and Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler (safely ensconced at Sony in a deal that will have her develop movies based on Harper Collins properties). Some long-time Fox executives remain, including the Searchlight team of Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley, as well as Fox Family head Vanessa Morrison.
Watts’ existing creative team will stay in place and a new leader is expected to be named in the coming weeks. Watts was seen as a key ally to many veteran Fox filmmakers such as Ridley Scott, Matt Reeves, Ryan Reynolds, James Mangold, James Cameron, and Simon Kinberg, and was also credited with helping turn “Bohemian Rhapsody” into a hit after the original director Bryan Singer was fired and replaced by Dexter Fletcher.
In a note to staff, Watts reflected on joining Fox 22 years ago. “‘Titanic’ was in theaters, George Lucas had just announced his second ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, and ‘X-Men’ was in development,” she wrote. “I was a young creative executive eager to learn the business, and from day one I was welcomed. Who knew that together we would add ‘Night at the Museum,’ ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ ‘The Martian,’ ‘Deadpool,’ ‘Logan,’ Steven Spielberg’s upcoming ‘West Side Story’ and, of course, Jim Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ to the studio’s already storied legacy. It was a front-row seat to an incredible evolution culminating in Fox becoming a part of one of the greatest media companies that continues to shape our industry on a global scale.”
One of those filmmakers, Spielberg, was effusive in his praise for Watts.
“Emma is a studio executive in title, but a filmmaker at heart,” Spielberg said. “Her support and willingness to take risks is what this business has always thrived on. I can’t wait to see what Emma does next and I’ll work with her again on anything at any time.”
Watts originally was led to believe that she would continue to have broad authority over creative decision making after Disney assumed control. In July, Watts extended her contract to oversee the studio’s film division. However, last fall there were indications that Watts had begun to feel that she was not being empowered to find and back new films that would released under the Twentieth banner. Disney has publicly and privately expressed its disappointment at the slate of films it inherited and seems to be less interested in investing in making the broad array of films, from adult dramas to comedies, that Twentieth produced when it was owned by 21st Century Fox.
Despite those tensions, Disney’s brass wished Watts well on Thursday.
“Emma has made many wonderful contributions to Fox over the past two decades, shepherding a number of memorable films to the screen,” said Alan Horn, co-chairman and chief creative officer, of the Walt Disney Studios and Alan Bergman, co-chairman of the Walt Disney Studios. “We truly appreciate and thank her for her commitment and partnership in overseeing the transition in this past year and wish her the best.”
Watts has yet to decide on her next landing spot, but a source with knowledge of her thinking says she would like to remain in the movie business. Her decision to leave stunned many staffers when she shared it at a morning meeting on Thursday.
Below is the full text of the email that Watts sent her team:
I am writing to you today to share that, after much reflection, I’ve made the difficult decision to step away from Twentieth Century.
Over the past many months, it has been my top priority to continue to foster great filmmaking while leading this team successfully through the integration period with Disney. After reaching this point, I approached Alan and Alan, realizing that it was now time for me to pursue new opportunities.
I started at Fox 22 years ago — Titanic was in theaters, George Lucas had just announced his second Star Wars trilogy, and X-Men was in development. I was a young creative executive eager to learn the business, and from day one I was welcomed. Who knew that together we would add Night at the Museum, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Martian, Deadpool, Logan, Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story and, of course, Jim Cameron’s Avatar to the studio’s already storied legacy. It was a front-row seat to an incredible evolution culminating in Fox becoming a part of one of the greatest media companies that continues to shape our industry on a global scale.
Disney has an immensely gifted and creative leadership team, and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to be a part of the expanded company. Even more so, I am deeply grateful for the time I’ve spent with all of you. Thank you for your dedication to supporting great talent and storytelling, and above all, for your friendship.
I’ll be here and available for the next few weeks to support the transition process.
All the best,