This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
There’s been an understandable level of enthusiasm surrounding news that 21st Century Fox is considering selling its film business, and that Disney is in the box seat to snap it all up. From a fan point of view, that means that the film rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters would revert back to Marvel, thus offering even more options for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Furthermore, one lesser-known side effect: Fox still holds the home entertainment rights to Star Wars: A New Hope. That would become Disney property, too. Just imagine the boxset. Perhaps we’d finally get those original theatrical cuts?
But while in the case of Fantastic Four – and possibly Star Wars – at least, I can see the upside of this, I can’t help wondering if a major studio being swallowed by another would leave us losing more than we win. Not least if Disney won the battle.
Facts are fairly light on the ground about the potential deal at the moment, but what seems clear is that Rupert Murdoch, that well-known lover of films, seems to be done with the movie business. His company has owned Fox for nearly three decades, and the transformation in the film world over the last five years in particular (as well as changes at Fox, as Murdoch Sr. takes a lesser role) has seen it become a higher stakes game than ever before. Particularly at the blockbuster end of the market.
As such, Fox has made some recent expensive, nine-figure gambles – Fantastic Four, Independence Day: Resurgence, Assassin’s Creed, even the excellent War for the Planet of the Apes – that haven’t returned the expected cash to the coffers. Furthermore, it’s also got investments tied up in four Avatar sequels, four more X-Men films, and a host of standalone risks. That amounts to a good billion dollars or so in exposure. It’s a lot for an Excel spreadsheet to handle.
At the same time, Disney is looking to directly take on Netflix for its next big battle. Appreciating it already has the Disney Life service in the UK, it’s now looking to corral its top brands – Star Wars and Marvel – into shows for its own streaming service that presumably will ultimately launch worldwide.
As part of the assets that Fox is selling, Disney would reportedly get its paws on Sky TV in the UK, and Star TV in India. This may be the big appeal for the firm. It would certainly help with its focus on big budget TV operations. Conversely, on the film side, Disney has been aggressive in reducing the number of feature films it makes, and loading its chips onto fewer bets. Disney, whicg back in the 1990s was pushing 50 films a year into cinemas, now averages ten or fewer.
It means that the number of slots for blockbuster movies has been reducing in recent times. Ironically, Fox is one of the few studios willing to take chances. It backed The Martian, for instance, along with expensive bets like The Greatest Showman, Logan, Joy, and Murder on the Orient Express. Whatever you think of those films, Fox – for its faults – was willing to give them a try. And back them. Its Fox Searchlight arm, too, deserves real credit.
Realistically, how many of those bets would have got through the more careful Disney system? Can you imagine Disney having the chutzpah, for all its successes, to ultimately roll the dice on something like Deadpool, even? Fox was barely willing to, of course. But Disney? If it ain’t got a PG-13 rating on it, the chances of it getting a greenlight appear close to zero.
As an aside, it might not be a popular opinion, but I’ve always admired the way Fox has handled the X-Men films. Not all of them have succeeded, and not all of them have been good. But it’s taken gambles, broke ground that others were reluctant to try, and come up with a bunch of films I’ve very much enjoyed watching.
Furthermore, going back to its Searchlight arm, Fox still supports smaller productions such as Hidden Figures, Eddie the Eagle, Florence Foster Jenkins, and The Fault in Our Stars. Disney, for its many merits, has no boutique arm to do so. The occasional project, such as Queen of Katwe, might get through its system, but there tends to be one slot at best a year for such a venture.
Disney isn’t the only horse in the race for Fox, it just happens to be the running favourite (and the one known to have been in talks). Comcast, which owns Universal, is said to be interested as well, and would have the necessary clout to fund a deal, too. Comcast arguably needs Fox more on the film side, now that its Dark Universe project seems to be in shambles.
One factor being overlooked, though: I’m no expert on American monopoly law, but I can’t help but wonder if either new parent would at least trigger some kind of investigation. It’s little secret that the current head of state is very big business-friendly, though, so I’d imagine if such a deal were to happen, it’d get smoother passage under a Trump presidency. Still, is a bigger monopoly a good thing?
All that notwithstanding, the bottom line seems to be that if Murdoch doesn’t want a film studio anymore, then it seems a case of when rather than if Fox gets sold. And such is the scale of the company and its assets that it’s going to get sold to someone big who can afford to buy the business and back its investments. Consequently, it seems inevitable that a major investor in film – for better or worse, depending on the film – is about to drop out of the market. Personally, I remain unsure, outside of fans’ desire for comic book movie unity, if Disney is really the best home from a film lover’s perspective for Fox to go to. I suspect Disney is more interested in the “digital content” than the “films.”
One other point worth considering, though. The flipside to what’s been chatted about so far is, if there’s one less major studio competing, that it does open the door for someone else.
Granted, a reduction in movie output would take time to enact, given Fox’s existing commitments, but when it does inevitably happen – there’s barely a press release after a major merger/takeover that doesn’t make use of words such as “consolidation,” “consultation,” and “synergies” (translation: staff cuts) – does that open things up for a Lionsgate or Annapurna to expand its operations?
Annapurna, for one, is looking to expand into distribution after all, and is one of the potential suitors for the next James Bond movie (as well as investing in the Terminator franchise). Taking six or seven major Fox releases off the schedule would give it some space in the long term. The likes of STX, A24, Entertainment One, and Bleecker Street are surely watching with interest. And perhaps more likely, Netflix and Amazon too. Amazon in particular has the bank balance to immediately take advantage of new spots on the calendar.
And that in itself demonstrates that it’s a transitional time for blockbuster cinema, where a near $100m Will Smith movie – Bright – is premiering on the streaming service that’s paid for it. It’s also clearly a high stakes game that the Murdochs seem fed up of playing (Rupert, you might recall, was aghast at Fight Club, and wanted more films like Titanic instead).
But still: I’d suggest the sale of Fox (a very longstanding name in the film business, long before the Murdochs got interested), and its screen assets, has real ramifications for filmgoers beyond comic book properties. Notwithstanding the fact that hundreds, even thousands of jobs are in the balance, it threatens to narrow the choice of big movies and cement the franchise and sequel mentality that’s dominating cinema.
Is that a price worth paying for a better Fantastic Four movie?