Disney and Fox: What’s the Deal? Part 1

Honestly, when I did my little article about the possibility of a deal between Disney and Fox, I didn’t quite expect that we would get definitive news that fast. What I said back then still stands, though, in that it will take some time before the deal comes in full effect. Still, time to discuss what Disney has actually bought. But not in one article, that would be a way too long read. So I will start with movies today, then go into Live Action TV, then into TV animation and finally into everything else in later articles.

Keep in mind though that I am not an expert in this sort of thing. I did basic research, but I can hardly fly to the US in order to look up the relevant sources personally. I need to trust into what is available on the internet. I am basically just laying out information for you other people have researched, and there might be mistakes in my assessment of them. Also, a lot of what I’ll write is pure speculation. There is no way to predict exactly what Disney will do, just some movements which would make more sense than others.

This in mind, what are we actually talking about when it comes to the movies side of things? Well, 20th Century Fox naturally, but not just that. There are also sister companies and subsidiaries. Though some of them are more important than others, and not all of them equal Disney getting their hands on a bunch of properties.


Let’s put three of them aside for the moment: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is simply the home video distribution arm of 20th Century Fox studio, meaning they are not in the business of creating content themselves. Honestly, their whole business will most likely be simply folded into the Disney company. One home video distribution company is enough.  So, if you are wondering if this merger will lead to job losses, this is where most of them will most likely happening. It is mostly the distribution companies which will be hit hard by this.

A second subsidiary I don’t plan to discuss in detail is Fox Studios Australia.  This studio has been involved in a number of movie productions, but that tended to be productions by other companies. Ie the studio worked on the Lego movies, but those are naturally property of Warner Bros. They were also involved in Mad Max Fury Road, but again, not their property. How much what they do translates in revenue and if Disney is interested in keeping them going, I can’t tell. I would need to see the books to make a definitive judgement about it. But considering how much of a hassle it was to lease the former Sydney Showground for the studio, as well as the sheer size of it, my money is on Disney continuing to use the studio one way or another.

And finally there is Fox Star Studios, which actually does produce a lot of content, but for the Indian market. I will get to it when I discuss the acquisition of Star India in a later article. In terms of Hollywood movies, this studio is irrelevant.


That leaves Fox Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios. Meaning the “Oscar bait” and the animation branch of the company.

Let’s be honest here: The whole animation branch is nothing Disney cares about. When it comes to animation they are way ahead of Fox. I am not even sure how to categorize 20th Century Fox Animation, considering that it has only two movies on its name, Anastasia (1997) and Titan A.E (2000), both being Don Bluth movies. As far as I can tell the studio isn’t defunct though, so I assume that it does some sort of animation for Fox. They apparently work with Blue Sky on the regular basis.

And Blue Sky – honestly, this studio might be the biggest question mark in that merger, and of all the production companies it might be in most danger to get shut down. But I have somehow the feeling that Disney will try to resell it instead. Animation has become a huge market – some of the biggest grossing movies in the last years were animated – and while Blue Sky doesn’t have the pedigree Pixar or even DreamWorks has, it has a recognizable mascot in Scrat, and in Ice Age a worldwide successful franchise. Yes, I know, most people feel that this franchise has really overstayed its welcome, and I would agree (hell, I was over it when the first sequel hit the theatres), but studio executives tend to look at the bottom line, and the bottom line is that this franchise made a ton of money, with two instalments easily passing the 850 million mark worldwide. In addition, Blue Sky just managed to produce its first academy award nominated movie with “The Peanuts”.

This in mind both Paramount and Sony might be interesting in purchasing Blue Sky. Paramount because it is the only major studio which doesn’t have its own animation department. Though they used to distribute for DreamWorks and still own the rights to – you know, what, let’s not go into the complicated history of DreamWorks distribution and ownership. Let’s just say that nearly every major studio distributed at one point for DreamWorks and leave it with that. Currently the company is owned by Comcast which also happens to own Universal and Illumination, and whatever rights Paramount has, they are hardly replacing the ownership over an established Animation Studio. If they can afford it and/or plan to branch out in this direction.

Sony naturally already owns an animation studio, but one with a terrible reputation which last year managed the seemingly impossible to get even more tarnished by the Emoji movie. Just like Comcast owns both DreamWorks and Illumination and Disney owns both Pixar and the Disney Animation studios, Sony might have room for an additional studio. Thinking about it, Warner Bros might too. After all their CGI movies are currently still co-productions involving multiple companies. Hell, even Netflix might be interested. They want to produce their own content after all. I just doubt that they have currently access to this kind of money.

But let’s assume that Disney sells Blue Sky with all its IPs (to sweeten the deal). That would leave Anastasia and Titan A.E. with Disney. And no, that doesn’t mean that Anastasia is now a Disney princess. Technically not even Anna or Moana are Disney princesses yet, because there was no coronation ceremony for them. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Disney just buries both properties.


Which means we are now getting to the part Disney was actually interested in, the big movie properties. Let’s discuss Fox Searchlight first though.

A lot of people seem to work under the assumption that Fox searchlight is a production company. That isn’t quite correct. It is a distributer specialised in independent and foreign film productions, with a focus on dramedy, horror and especially art-house movies. But it is the kind of distributor which is also often involved in the financing of said movies.

Currently it releases ten movies every year and the track record is frankly impressive. Part of the catalogue are three best picture winners (Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave and Birdman), as well as eleven movies which got nominated (The Full Monty, Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Black Swan, 127 Hours, The Tree of Life, The Descendants, Beast of the Southern Wild, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Brooklyn). In 2017 it released A United Kingdom, Table 19, Wilson, Gifted, My Cousin Rachel, STEP, Patti Cake$, Battle of the Sexes, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water. I am not in the business of predicting the award season, but as far as I can tell, there is some buzz around the last two movies.

And this track record is the reason that even though Fox Searchlight is mainly a distribution company, I do think that Disney will not only keep it running, but capitalize on its ability to pick projects which resonate with the critics. Disney has its share of academy awards (in fact, Walt Disney alone won 26, more than anyone else in history), but only four best picture nominations (Mary Poppins, Beauty and Beast, Up and Toy Story 3) and not one single win. Being the only animation studio which ever got nominated in this category at all is a huge deal, but if Disney wants to appeal to the film fan demographic with its streaming service, it needs to drop a share of academy award nominees and winners on a regular basis. Fox turns up on the nomination list nearly every year, often with multiple productions, and in the last ten years it was especially Fox Searchlight which provided the Oscar bait. Disney would be a fool not to capitalize on this.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney mostly keeps the company as it is, except for the marketing. If there is something Disney does really, really well, it is convincing their audience that their name (or Pixar or Marvel) stands for a particular kind of movie in a specific quality. Rebrand the whole business as “Searchlight” or even “Disney Searchlight”, and market it as THE studio/distributor of sophisticated movies, and they might be able to get the target group into the habit of at least checking out a movie released under the “Searchlight”  label, the same way animation fans automatically check out Disney and Pixar movies and Comic book fans won’t ever miss out on a Marvel Studios movie. Simultaneously to letting “Searchlight” be on the look-out for worthwhile productions and perhaps giving it a bigger budget to finance more or the projects they are interested in themselves, they could release all Fox studios productions which seem academy award worthy under this label.

If they do manage to establish “Searchlight” as a brand, they would have the additional advantage of being able to release Oscar bait movie the whole year. Currently most movies of this kind are released close to award season, because the studios expect to make more money if the movie gets award buzz. This results in a shortage of more serious-minded movies for the majority of the year. If Disney manages to convince the audience that a critically acclaimed “Searchlight” movie is a Oscar contender by default, they could start to release those movies whenever they want and, at least regarding this particular demographic, without any direct competition.

Granted, the downside of those more high-minded movies is that they are rarely franchise fodder. Fox has a long library of critically acclaimed movies, many of them seen as true movie classics. They are great to bolster up the library of your streaming service, but they will hardly be enough of an incentive to get people to subscribe in the first place. For that you need the big money makers, the movies everyone wants to see.


Fox has its share of blockbuster movies. Ignoring DreamWorks releases, Star Wars and their more successful Marvel movies, the highest grossing movies include Avatar, Titanic, Independence Day, The Martian, Life of Pie, Night at the Museum, The Day After Tomorrow, The Revenant,  Home Alone, Castaway and Mrs. Doubtfire. Notable Franchises include Alien, Predator, Die Hard, Planet of the Apes, The Omen Film Series and The Kingsman movies. The latter is interesting because Kingsman is a release of Icon Comics, an imprint of Marvel for creator owned work.  But then, I don’t think that there will be another sequel anyway. The last one already made considerable less than the first movie.

Which is something to keep in mind. A few of those Franchises aren’t exactly posed to make profit through additional instalments in the future. Die Hard, Alien and Predator are all pretty much on their last leg, and I am not sure how much the audience is still interested in Planet of the Apes after the last movie underperformed. Home Alone and its sequel will always be holyday classics, but the later instalments better stay forgotten. The Omen series seems to be pretty much dead already, while the remake was a modest success, there was no follow up and the TV show Fox launched based on the franchise was cancelled after one season. Independence Day thoroughly botched its attempt at becoming a franchise with the sequel.

That doesn’t mean that Disney won’t find a way to squeeze money of those franchises down the line, maybe through a remake or by exploring a new angle, but currently the only ones of those properties which look like they could produce a string of blockbusters down the line are Avatar and the Marvel IPs. And I am not even sure about Avatar. Maybe I shouldn’t doubt James Cameron after topping the highest grossing movie of all time list twice, but I am not quite sure if the interest in Avatar is really that big anymore. Avatar is the kind of movie people saw for the spectacle, not for the characters or even overall quality. But then, that is exactly what Jurassic World was about, too, the spectacle. If Cameron can dib into the concept again, Avatar could become a huge deal. And, to be honest, I believe that Avatar has a bigger chance of impressing the audience if Cameron has the experts at Disney to back him up. Which they will, they didn’t invest in theme park rights for Avatar to see the franchise fail.

But then, how many blockbusters can Disney actually release each year? Currently they do two, rarely three animated movies (ideally one Pixar and one from the animation studio, but the schedule got kind of messed up by the delay of The Good Dinosaur and Zootopia), one live action remake, one Star War movie and the schedule for Marvel is currently up to three movies a year (counting the Sony releases in the MCU). There is the possibility that they step it up to four Marvel movies each year and I guess they will squeeze in Avatar for the years in which they don’t have a live action remake scheduled. Meaning we end up with at least eight nearly sure money makers each year.

Is there still room for other blockbusters? Sure there is. The good thing about those truly big franchises, at least from a scheduling point of view, is that they tend to make most of their money within the first two weeks. Plus, those animated movies aren’t quite addressing the same demographic. Nor does the majority of Fox other productions. This is exactly why Disney bought the company in the first place, to cover the kind of movies they aren’t known for already.


Which includes r-rated material. To be very clear about this, even though it ended badly in the case of Miramax, Disney has dabbled in r-rated material before. Even in some X-rated stuff. And they could easily continue to do so and just release it under some brand name which allows Disney to stay invisible. But I don’t think that this is in Disney’s interest. They want everyone to know that they are the master of all possible movie genres, not just of family entertainment. And while the so called “edgy” approach of Miramax (as well as some other aspects of the company) were a bad fit for Disney, Fox’s kind of risk taking is more up the alley of what Disney has tested out with Touchstone.

Thus said, a lot depends on if the deal includes the Fox name. If Disney purchased the studio including name, fanfare and everything else, and it will be the Fox TV channels which will change their name eventually, Disney will most likely just allow Fox Studios to continue on its path with a few adjustments to improve revenue. Honestly, after all the scandals in the last year which resulted in Fox news getting hit hard in advertising revenue, they might want a fresh start anyway, and 20th Century Fox is certainly more worth with the tradition-laden name, even if the association to Rupert Murdoch has tarnished it. Otherwise though, Disney will have to rebrand in a way which clarifies “this is our level of quality but in a different style than you are used to”. Maybe by reviving the Touchstone brand, maybe by coming up with something new.


To summon up what I said so far: I think that once the deal has gone through properly, Disney will do some serious rebranding. In the end, the movie division of Disney will look like this:

  1. The Disney Animation Studios and Disney Pixar will cover family friendly animation, with Pixar continuing to create originals and franchises based on said originals, while Disney Animation focusses on loose adaptations and the Disney Princess Franchise, with an occasional original along the line of Zootopia or Wreck-it Ralph thrown in. I hope though that with Disney Animation sequels will become the exception, not the rule.
  2. Walt Disney Pictures for family friendly entertainment. That covers the live action remakes, the Park Ride based movies and the occasional children’s book adaptation.
  3. Lucasfilm for Star Wars. And maybe Indiana Jones. Let’s be honest here, outside of those two franchises Lucasfilm is responsible for maybe a dozen movies, and it doesn’t look like they intend to do anything original anytime soon. It is worth to keep it as a separate entity, not just because of Star Wars but also because of the technical expertise assembled at Lucasfilm
  4. Marvel Studios for Comic book movies. Maybe even comic book movies in general, but I’ll address the future of Marvel in another article once we know a little bit more about their plans.
  5. Searchlight for Oscar Bait.
  6. Fox studios as a big umbrella for everything else, from more adult themed movies to some more experimental stuff.
  7. Maybe – just maybe – they will also take Fox’s various horror franchises and built a brand around them. Recently horror movies have proofed to be low-risk money makers, so it might be worth to establish a horror brand or franchise. Maybe something along the line of what Paramount is currently doing with the Cloverfield movies, doing movies under a familiar label without them necessarily having to connect too tightly with each other aside from a familiar theme.

The Bottom line here is: I don’t think that 20th Century Fox has much to worry about when it comes to the production division of the company. Disney didn’t buy the movie studio to shut it down, but because it was honestly interested in the kind of content it produces, the kind of content which is a perfect addition to what Disney is already doing. There might be a little bit reshuffling and renaming in the future, but at the end of the day, Disney isn’t in the habit of meddling in a working concept. With one exception: Disney will most likely put the Marvel rights under the control of Marvel Studios. This means that 20th Century Fox will loose some of their most reliable franchises. But this might actually a win for the audience in the end, because (even if Comic book movie fans don’t like to hear it) it will ensure that the Comic book movie market doesn’t end too oversaturated each year, and it will push Fox to look for other alternatives instead of focussing on a Gambit movie next to nobody cares about or a Fantastic 4 movie nobody wants to see outside of the MCU.

There is also the possibility that Disney will release the Avatar Franchise under the proper Disney name. After all, there will be a park ride based on it and Disney has earned a reputation of providing great blockbusters in a way Fox does not. Fox on the other hand has a reputation of providing great low to middle budget movies, making it the perfect match for Disney.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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