Rising from the ashes of the 1929 stock-market crash, Twentieth Century-Fox was forged in a master stroke by ruthless producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who merged Twentieth Century Pictures with William Fox’s ailing studio—and booted out Fox in the process—to create a formidable Hollywood player.
It was the studio that turned Marilyn Monroe into a star, awarded Elizabeth Taylor her first $1 million payday (for the costly Cleopatra, which at $44 million nearly capsized the company), and helped solidify the modern-day blockbuster with George Lucas’s space fantasy, Star Wars. Along the way, Fox experienced all the highs and lows of the burgeoning Hollywood system, from breaking box- office records with the 1965 hit The Sound of Music to earning 14 Oscar nominations for All About Eve, to Zanuck’s 1970 installation of his son, Richard, as the president of production, only to fire him in a move that would lead to his own ousting by a seething board of directors.
And this was all before Rupert Murdoch bought the studio in 1985, launched the Fox Broadcasting Network along with Barry Diller, and doubled down on the Jim Cameron business, green-lighting and supporting the mercurial director through all his production-budget overages on the way to a $2.2 billion worldwide gross for 1997’s Titanic and $2.
8 billion for 2009’s Avatar.
Unfortunately, Cameron can’t save everybody.
The business climate in Hollywood has shifted in recent years, and studios are competing not just with each other but with a handful of ruthless Silicon Valley interlopers. New alliances have been forged out of desperation, none of them bigger than the $71.
3 billion acquisition, which was set to close last month, that saw the Walt Disney Company absorb the once indomitable Fox. The deal could eventually result in the loss of anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 jobs, depending on whom you ask.
The situation has had longtime employees on the Fox lot suffering a kind of prolonged trauma since the merger was announced, in December 2017. To hear them tell it, they are being issued mostly vague, Orwellian-lite guidance that outlines dress codes and explains key-card access, but they have been left wanting in terms of business directives.
In the middle of February, Fox’s marketing and distribution departments gathered with the filmmakers of Dark Phoenix, the latest X-Men installment from producer-director Simon Kinberg, to lay out their plans for the film’s June release. It was a typical meeting.
Ad buys were discussed, and the publicity tour for the film’s stars, including Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jessica Chastain, was laid out. But it was still disconcerting, both because of all the new faces in the room—a handful of high-end consultants have been hired temporarily to fill the jobs recently vacated by long-term employees—and because of the ad hoc approach the Fox marketing team was taking toward the film’s release, four months away.
I would be mad if I were a filmmaker.”
“What’s not normal is the elephant in the room, which is that most people there are not going to be the people that are still in the job when the movie opens,” added another attendee.
“We are not leaving because we didn’t make money for the company or we did a bad job. We are leaving because of pure capitalism.
You know something’s screwy when the marketing department is crying capitalism. But such is life, not just on the Fox lot but all around Hollywood these days—or at least since Netflix dropped the entire first season of House of Cards on its unwitting customers six years ago.
It took a while for Hollywood to figure it out, but when the biggest filmmakers in the world—Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, and nearly everyone this side of Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan—started taking their expensive, theatrical films to the streamers, the town realized the business was in the throes of a disruption so large it would never be the same again. That position was cemented in stone on Oscar Sunday this year when Roma landed three Academy Awards—for best director, cinematography, and foreign-language film.
All the hand-wringing for the past five years over the threat to the sacred theatrical business and the uproar over Netflix’s spending seemed to have found its culmination in the loss of Fox. The big six studios, which have histories that pre-date most mail-room intern’s grandparents, are now down to five—and the consolidation is likely not over yet.
“The new platforms are exploding every day, but the theatrical world is never going to see a new studio emerge,” said one veteran filmmaker with ties to both Disney and Fox. “It’s all going to be moving towards direct-to-consumer.
Says another executive, “Silicon Valley has declared their hostility to the existing order and their desire to replace it. Their point of view is not co-existence.
They think in terms of winner take all.”
Such sentiment isn’t exactly bleeding-edge media theory at this point, but the Fox acquisition is its greatest manifestation yet —even physically.
Take the future of Fox’s lot, 53 acres of perfectly manicured prime Los Angeles real estate, once an even more sprawling 176 acres that included most of what is Century City today. The property still features a giant rendering of Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music alongside Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker dueling with light sabers.
Recently, I spoke to film historian Leonard Maltin, who remembered the days he could take out-of-town friends onto the lot to see the remains of the fantastical elevated train station that served as a background element to Barbra Streisand’s big number “Before the Parade Passes By,” in Hello, Dolly! “You could take them over there, and drive them onto the property and see a bit of Hollywood magic,” he said wistfully. With the deal closed, the Fox lot will soon become a rental space for Disney’s new film labels and the headquarters for New Fox, which will now include Fox Broadcasting, Fox News, and its TV stations.
Employees, some of whom have been there since the days of the Dolly set, are watching their beloved logos and ephemera disappear from sides of buildings all around the lot. “They are whitewashing the place of everything Fox,” said one rueful longtime executive.
Fox may have never been the largest studio, but it took some big swings on films that Disney would have been unlikely to back, even recently. There’s Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Ridley Scott’s The Martian, and James Mangold’s Logan.
The biggest source of Hollywood’s anxiety around the deal lies in that cold reality: the industry has just lost itself a big buyer of traditional content, and one that took chances on films to the left of center. Or at least occasionally in a very non-Disney marketing vector.
Hugh Jackman as P. T.
Barnum in The Greatest Showman comes to mind; so does the profane, and essentially anti-Disney, Deadpool franchise, which has now grossed $1.5 billion worldwide and was initially a huge risk anchored by Ryan Reynolds, a lead who had previously bombed with Green Lantern.
Twentieth Century Fox once produced between 12 and 20 movies a year—2018 highlights included Bohemian Rhapsody and Deadpool 2. It will now be reduced to a label inside Disney, run by Fox Film’s vice-chairman, Emma Watts, and will make a fraction of that.
Bob Iger told audiences at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in October that he “likes taking big risks.” To date, his biggest risks easily tie into Disney’s theme parks and massive merchandising operations.
“That’s a scary thing for sellers,” said one top veteran agent. “You used to have two really significant buyers.
But Disney just narrowed their lane [in regard to the type of content it produces]. Will Fox do that too? Everyone is asking if Disney would have made Deadpool 2.
I want to know if they would still make Walk the Line or Romeo and Juliet. I don’t know.
In the near term, Disney, already with 26 percent of the theatrical box office, will rely on Fox’s larger-budgeted projects to fill out its slate, movies like the follow-up to Murder on the Orient Express, which is set to start filming in the fall—and Cameron’s Avatar sequel, set to bow in December 2020. (Disney has the largest market share, but it doesn’t release as many films as, say, Warner Bros.
One likely casualty, observers guess, will be Josh Boone’s Marvel spin-off, The New Mutants, starring Game of Thrones heroine Maisie Williams. Its moderate budget, younger cast, and smaller spectacle make it the perfect title to send directly to consumers.
It’s a proposition filmmakers all over town need to start getting used to.
Said the filmmaker, “The notion of something being for the big screen versus a streaming platform, when you have something like Roma out there, it’s hard to be a filmmaker and to still believe that your nostalgia for a theatrical experience is somehow superior to the way people want to watch movies today.
Disney’s quest to re-invent its streaming services means a handful of the specialty brands at Fox are receiving a much-coveted lifeline. Fox Searchlight, the makers of such Oscar fare as The Favourite and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, will be getting a seat at the Disney table, as will Fox 2000, the home of book-to-film adaptations such as Love, Simon and The Hate U Give, and cable channels like FX Networks (The Americans, Atlanta) and Nat Geo, which just landed a best-documentary Oscar for Free Solo.
While those at Big Fox are crying in their cornflakes, wondering just how numbered their days are at the freewheeling studio, the execs at the chosen divisions are practically giddy with excitement for what’s to come. “Streaming services are growing, and if you are going to be a best-in-class company you have to address the realities of the market.
I’m excited to be a part of that,” said FX C.E.
All of this, of course, only portends more change and further questions. Will the exhibition business do its own consolidating? Are there any plans to shutter some of the 41,000 screens that make up the nationwide theater business? Some around town are lamenting how much sway Disney will have over those exhibitors once it controls between 35 and 40 percent of the market share.
The theater chains are already fighting with Netflix, which has zero interest in putting movies in theaters ahead of its platform. “Disney will control a massive amount of the films that go through the theaters and will be able to dictate terms to exhibitors,” said one content provider.
“That’s probably bad for the exhibitors.”
John Fithian, the head of the National Association of Theater Owners, is much more bullish about his constituents’ future at the hands of Iger and Co.
“For that reason alone it couldn’t be a better company to grow,” he said.
“That’s even more apparent when you contrast them with Netflix.”
With all this change, it’s no wonder anxiety is running high on the Fox lot.
But this wouldn’t be Hollywood without the opportunist angle. “If you want to stay relevant, you have to have product that people want to see that’s easily accessible when and where they want to see it,” said the agent.
“This Disney deal is forcing Netflix to build up its own content. The same can be said for Amazon.
It’s good for everybody except those that only want to make movies with the five studios. It’s just not going to be that way.
If you are stuck in that mentality, it’s going to be very lonely.”