Here’s some scary math to go with the giant Disney-Fox merger deal: Disney could raise the number of feature films it will release in 2017 by half, and still distribute less than half as many movies as Fox and its Fox Searchlight unit.
By the generally reliable tally and release schedule on Boxofficemojo.com, Disney’s film distribution arm, which just opened Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is now up to eight feature releases for the year, and there it will stick. But Fox, which will soon be absorbed by Disney in a $50 billion-plus acquisition, is up to 12 films from its big-studio operations with this weekend’s release of Ferdinand, and will add both The Post and The Greatest Showman, for a total of 14, before the year ends. Along with those, the Fox Searchlight specialty unit has released 11 films, for a total of 25 from the corporate units.
Viewed simply in terms of film counts, the Fox output was more than three times that of Disney for the year.
Of course, Disney will swamp Fox in terms of box-office revenue. Even without this weekend’s Star Wars surge, Disney – powered by monsters like Beauty And The Beast and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – has had over $1.8 billion in domestic ticket sales for the year, while the Fox complex took in roughly $950 million, or just over half as much (counting spill-over 2017 sales for 2016 releases from both studios). Through last weekend, those 11 Fox Searchlight films, plus some revenue from 2016’s Jackie, had under $80 million revenue all in – less than the just-released Star Wars will have made by Saturday morning.
So Disney’s film operation generates far more revenue that of Fox, with far fewer movies.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. In all likelihood, Disney, with its effects-heavy blockbusters, creates more jobs and more economic activity than does Fox, with its larger output of smaller films.
More, it remains possible that Disney will keep much of the Fox film apparatus intact, boosting its own film counts, at least for a while. The companies have said it will take between 12 and 18 months to integrate operations; in that time, Disney could easily decide to preserve prestigious Fox Searchlight for its Oscar value, or much of 20th Century Fox for its experience with filmmakers and existing properties. Thus, Fox could boost the Disney film output.
But history suggests a different sort of arithmetic. Since a corporate renaissance under the Michael Eisner-Frank Wells-Jeffrey Katzenberg regime in the mid-1980s, in fact, Disney has repeatedly expanded its feature film output, only to pull back when it became apparent that a small number of large films could be much more profitable than a large number of smaller ones. For a time, it operated two full-blown labels – Hollywood and Touchstone – but the two-studio model quickly withered. Later, it acquired Miramax, and flooded the market with awards-style movies; but that led to divestment. Still later, Disney struck a deal with DreamWorks, promising to add a rich run of live-action comedies and dramas to supplement its super-heroes and animated fantasies. But that, too, ended.
Along the way, Disney occasionally emerged as a veritable film factory, churning out what now looks like a shockingly high number of feature releases each year. In 2000, for instance, it released 21 films from its principal units – including live-action movies as varied as Remember The Titans, High Fidelity, and Coyote Ugly – and another 25 from Miramax and Dimension, for a total of 46.
That’s more than five times as many films as Disney will release in 2017. Five times as many writers. Five times the stars and directors. Five times as many stories told. But the biggest seller among those films, Scary Movie, had only about $157 million in ticket sales, or roughly $260 million if adjusted to today’s prices. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, will do as much in its first week. And that’s very scary math for a film industry that has been watching Disney – soon to own Fox – make more by doing less.