The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox is finally official, and while the deal suggests a big upheaval in the media industry with rival studios reshuffling, streaming services like Netflix preparing for a subscriber war, and Fox employees refreshing their resumes for the mass-firings to come, there are still plenty of content-related questions to consider. The Fox library of films and television shows is shockingly massive. When you consider things like Avatar, Planet of the Apes, and American Horror Story are all owned by the same company that produced The Omen, Cleopatra, and Die Hard, Disney’s eventual control of those films — and remake rights — is staggering.
Here’s the quick and dirty of the deal, according to Disney’s statement:
In addition, because Disney, which owns ABC, is not allowed to own a second broadcast network under current government regulations, 21st Century Fox will spin off the Fox Broadcasting network and stations to its shareholders in a deal that will also include Fox News, Fox Business, FS1, FS2 and Big Ten Network.
Oh, and there are those bits of Marvel and Star Wars that Fox controlled. But as the deal is so incredibly huge, there are plenty of fun, practical and, frankly, depressing questions to ask about the upcoming Disney acquisition of Fox. The following present just five of the more interesting questions fans of Fox properties are asking this morning.
One absolute certainty of a successful Disney and Fox merger is the return of the X-Men to Marvel and its feature film and television divisions. Usually spoken of in the same breath is Marvel’s first family, the Fantastic Four, who have definitely suffered under Fox stewardship. The first two feature films produced by the studio underperformed, were critically panned (27% and 37% on the Tomatometer, respectively), and are not fondly remembered. The 2015 reboot was widely reviled (just 9% on the Tomatometer) and seemingly ended the career of director Josh Trank.
But in all the excitement, many have overlooked another player in the Fantastic Four saga, namely Constantin Film founder Bernd Eichinger.
Eichinger has been part of the Fantastic Four’s film saga since the unreleased 1994 Roger Corman–produced Fantastic Four. In fact, that film, which has a 29% Tomatometer score, only came about so that Eichinger could hold onto the rights. After the ploy failed to secure him a big budget film in the time allotted, his company, Constantin Film, and Fox approached Marvel about a contract extension in 1999, leading to the 2005 Fantastic Four feature Fox released and its subsequent sequel.
But as Slashfilm noted recently, this is where ownership gets fuzzy. No one is sure how Fox and Constantin shared the rights when they renegotiated with Marvel. The latter is the production company of note for all three of the films made this century, with Fox assuming the distribution role.
If Fox was only the distributor, then Constantin could take their Marvel properties to Sony or Universal, but it is also likely that Fox has exclusive distribution rights to Fantastic Four features. If there is some sort of deadlock between the companies waiting in the not-too-distant future, then a stalemate would eventually mean all FF rights revert to Marvel. It would be in Constantin’s interest to play nice with Disney and get a piece of the pie that seemingly only Marvel Studios can bake.
While there are a lot of potential downsides to the merger, a good Fantastic Four film would definitely be a plus.
This is the big one for Star Wars fans. As part of Lucasfilm’s original deal to produce Star Wars, Fox retained ownership of the 1977 feature film, while George Lucas and his production company owned the characters, worlds, branding, toy rights, and everything else except the actual film and the Fox fanfare that preceded it.
Even now, the absence of the fanfare in the new Disney-produced Star Wars films is difficult to accept.
Fox’s ownership of the original film is one of the reasons the original Star Wars trilogy lacks for a high-definition home video release. Well, that and Lucas’ stated belief that the films no longer exist in their original forms. But with Disney assuming control of the Fox film library, they get ownership of the 1977 Star Wars. So Disney’s home video unit could take advantage of fan interest in the films’ theatrical versions and make a killing on home video — even if that market is a sinking proposition.
One obstacle in this ultimate Life Day wish may be Lucas himself, whose growing myth over the years includes possible contractual stipulations about which versions Disney may re-release and the possibility that he irreparably altered the camera negatives in preparing the late 1990s Special Edition releases and subsequent home video versions.
But if Lucas’ tampering is not an issue, there will be nothing to prevent Disney from releasing the original version of Star Wars or its sequels in their high-def glory.
As mentioned earlier, the return of the X-Men film and TV rights to Marvel is a given. But how will Marvel Studios and the television division proceed with integrating the characters into their established “it’s all connected” world? Since the acquisition is still at least a year from being finalized, Fox must continue to produce X-Men products independently of any Marvel plans; 2018 is already filled with Deadpool 2, The New Mutants, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix, but the 2019 slate becomes unclear as the uncertainty about ownership creeps in.
Before rumors of the merger surfaced, 20th Century Fox CEO Stacey Snider committed to diversifying the studio’s X-Men offerings. The long-in-development Gambit feature found a new director in Pirates of the Caribbean‘s Gore Verbinski, and The Disaster Artist director James Franco signed on to develop a feature based around popular X-Factor character Jamie Maddrox, the Multiple Man.
Disney will presumably honor any contracts signed before they officially take possession of the Fox assets, so Gambit and Multiple Man will happen. But any plan after that leads to a wide-open realm of possibility.
One clue may exist in the form of Dark Phoenix director Simon Kinberg. Rumors recently surfaced that he is developing a standalone Star Wars movie featuring Boba Fett. He is also one of the producers of the Disney XD program Star Wars Rebels. With these roots in Burbank already established, he may be able to carve out territory for himself as the creative steward of the brand.
Then again, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has already indicated his excitement at getting control of the X-Men. If he does so, then a total reboot of the brand seems more likely, as it gives Marvel Studios complete freedom to integrate mutants into MCU history or introduce them as new elements following Avengers: Infinity War. It also means they will supervise the search for a new Wolverine — that is, barring a change of heart by beloved X-Men franchise actor Hugh Jackman and a Disney stamp of approval on his return. Jackman has said “the ship has sailed” about the likelihood of his return to the role, however.
One thing is certain though: Deadpool will not be affected by any reboots or restructuring, as he and Disney CEO Bob Iger are already pals.
The Disney corporate culture is one of brand synergy and tight control across their spectrum of media and consumer products. Without a tight company direction, 20th Century Fox is often a filmmaker haven. This loose attitude toward creative control is no better exemplified than with Ridley Scott’s recent additions to the Alien franchise — a series of films which used to be known as “The Franchise” within Fox’s offices. Despite its importance to the studio in the 1990s, Alien was dead after the third and fourth installments led to mixed results (46% and 56% on the Tomatometer) and the infamous Alien vs. Predator films (also Rotten at 20% and 11%) seemingly killed any hope of further outings. Scott’s return to that universe was greeted with much anticipation until Prometheus (73% fresh) proved he was not interested in rebuilding the brand. Alien: Covenant (68% fresh) only further underscored Scott’s real fascination in these newer works: androids.
Both films arguably could have been more interesting and, perhaps, better received if they were not framed as parts of the Alien world. Scott himself has already said the next Alien film will focus more on his android passion than his waning interest in the Xenomorphs. Considering Prometheus and Covenant, that is probably for the best, but Disney will want to maximize its investment by producing Alien films that actually feature the Alien.
Will Scott be amenable to that or step aside?
This also leads to a broader question, as Fox’s level of creator freedom may disappear under Disney leadership: will notoriously headstrong directors like James Cameron chafe when the Disney managers try to employ the “Disney Way” on their projects? Under his current deal with Fox, Cameron is poised to make four sequels to Avatar. And despite his intent to film as much of them as he can at once, production, marketing, and distribution decisions will still need to be made after the merger.
Cameron may have an easier go than Scott, as he has already worked with Disney in creating Pandora — The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. But Scott and other filmmakers may face tougher transitions unless Disney decides to use Fox as a director’s showcase brand punctuated by occasional Alien, Predator, and Planet of the Apes films to bolster the performance of the division.
As organizations like the Writer’s Guild of America are already declaring the acquisition to be harmful to creative output, giving filmmakers freedom at Fox may be the best use of the resources and branding.
Decades ago, when Disney was known for the aggressive business tactics of its then-CEO Michael Eisner, The Simpsons made a joke about Fox becoming a Disney subsidiary. While the show’s jokes often demonstrate an eerie prescience, the program itself represents one of the more difficult aspects of the deal: the overall family-friendly image of the Walt Disney Company and how that might affect the typically edgier content Fox Television has produced for Fox networks.
Since the founding of the Fox broadcast network in 1986, Fox’s television offerings have always been a little, well, crude. The network itself was built on shows like Married With Children, The Simpsons, In Living Color, and Melrose Place. Those programs pushed the envelope with regards to broadcast standards and all featured content Disney’s ABC would never air. (Well, not outside of the 10 p.m. slot anyway. Disney never had a problem with NYPD Blue after they bought the network in 1995.)
In fact, Disney’s image is not as squeaky clean as it seems. When Eisner joined the studio, outgoing Disney boss Ron Miller created Touchstone Films — later Touchstone Pictures — with the express purpose of creating film and television that did not fit the Disney image. The results were films like Splash and Armageddon and television programs like The Golden Girls and Lost. Another Disney film division, Hollywood Pictures, pushed the boundaries even further, though few of their films are fondly remembered, with the possible exceptions of The Joy Luck Club and Encino Man. Later, Disney bought Miramax from the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein to bolster its reach into the edgy, indie film market. There is a value in owning non-Disney products, in other words, and the company, historically, is aware of that.
To be clear, Disney is taking over Fox’s television production studio, but not its Fox Broadcasting network. That said, Disney welcomed The Simpsons into its portfolio in its statement and will have some leverage over other Fox Television productions that may be out of step with Disney’s wholesome image.
These are only a few of the geekier questions facing the company, consumers and the various people employed by Disney and Fox as the merger process begins. Some of them are more fun to consider than others — seriously, the extent of the layoffs is likely to be as staggering as the amount of content Disney is buying — but they all point to a 2020s with a very different media landscape. And it’s only just beginning.