Hollywood endured a big setback this month, and it had nothing to do with the Oscars. A major studio, 20th Century Fox, officially disappeared into the mist, instantly transforming a once robustly competitive industry into a Disney oligopoly. The ultimate cost in jobs could range as high as 10,000, but the real cost will be in opportunity and competitive zeal.
I took the demise of Fox personally because it was the second studio loss I had witnessed. Years ago I had been a production chief at MGM when Kirk Kerkorian decided to pull the plug. Ironically, he and Rupert Murdoch had been trading offers for years for Fox and MGM, with Kerkorian foolishly snubbing him (MGM continued to stagger along for some years without serious funding commitments).
Fox’s history, like MGM’s, has wallowed in melodramatic triumphs and scandals –the corporate intrigues of Warner Bros and its corporate parents (AT&T) or Universal (now a child of Comcast) seem pedestrian compared with Fox’s operatic struggles: Marilyn Monroe’s mysterious demise in the middle of Something’s Got to Give; Elizabeth Taylor’s over-the-top theatrics in Cleopatra; Darryl F. Zanuck’s eight-hour stockholder speeches and stormy battles with his son and successor, Richard (fired in 1971); the eleventh-hour brink-of-disaster deal for Star Wars; the fierce tug of war over Titanic and its overages.
Given its history, it’s fitting that this is the only studio immortalized in a rock ‘n’ roll classic (‘Twentieth Century Fox’), performed with drugged-out vigor by Jim Morrison and The Doors.
Even Fox’s beginnings are cloudy: It may, or may not, date back to 1915 with the birth of Fox films, but also to 1935 when the mysterious Spyros Skouras orchestrated the first of several mergers. Darryl Zanuck, who felt he was a bigger star than his actors, gave sizzle to the studio with signings of Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Alice Faye and Bette Grable but also gave it gravitas with such well-intentioned movies as Gentleman’s Agreement, The Razor’s Edge and Wilson. Production of The Longest Day in 1962 was the ultimate Zanuck epic — a long, lugubrious account of the D-Day Invasion with just about every star in the world popping up in bit roles (John Wayne and Kirk Douglas among them).
Control of Fox in the post-Zanuck years was a study in confusion. Oil tycoon Marvin Davis has no feel for the movie business and his partner, Marc Rich, prudently fled to Switzerland amid a maze of litigation. After complex negotiations, Murdoch acquired Fox in 1984 and, under Jim Gianopulos’ leadership, celebrated 20 years of growth, accentuated by dramatic episodes starring the voluble Tom Rothman and the tempestuous Jim Cameron.
I remember sitting in front of Murdoch at an early screening of Titanic, when he remarked, “You really need to love movies to go through all this.” His executives never felt that Murdoch loved movies that much, but he was stalwart in his pledge never to let his extremist political positions intrude upon filmmaking decisions.
There’s a perverse irony to the fact that Fox’s last film release is also from Cameron – he has executive producer credit for Alita: Battle Angel, a $170 million sci-fi epic that experienced an unpromising opening last weekend. Alita followed on the stellar success of Bohemian Rhapsody, a Fox co-production that proved to be one of history’s most successful non-auteur pictures (its director Bryan Singer was famously fired mid-production).
True to studio tradition, it remains unclear how much of the Fox identity may emerge following Disney’s $71.3 billion seizure. Key Fox executives like Peter Rice already are arraying themselves at the top of the corporate pyramid. Dana Walden will preside over key TV labels; film players such as Emma Watts, Elizabeth Gabler and the Fox Searchlight team will report to Disney’s veteran film boss Alan Horn. At this point mystery surrounds who will handle the release strategy for the 12 Fox films already set for release in 2019 that include Cameron’s Avatar franchise. They must, in any case, fight for attention against Disney’s 10 movies already in its imposing pipeline including such franchises as The Lion King and Avengers: Endgame, not to mention its Star Wars releases.
If Fox filmmakers feel angst, it is understandable. Disney accounted for 26% of the box office last year and that could rise to 40% this year. “The combined Disney resources are in near-total command of the release dates and the marketing muscle,” observes one important exhibitor. Rivals may justifiably feel enfeebled as they wield their aspiring tentpoles. In the specialty arena, there is inevitable skepticism whether Disney will continue to nurture Fox Searchlight product. But the company’s new appetite for awards, underscored during the past Oscar season, may heighten its incentives.
Darryl Zanuck is no longer around to bark, and no one seems to be mounting a new Cleopatra, but somewhere on the emptying Fox lot fragments of history still reside.