Peter Bart: In The Calm Before The Merger Storm, It Is All Quiet On The Disney-Fox Front

Disney Fox Louis B Mayer

The 20th Century Fox lot these days is haunted by the sounds of silence. Disney’s annexation of the Fox empire is imminent but the rules of the game provide that no one on either side is allowed to talk about it. Not even the top executives, and not even to one another.

With Hollywood on the brink of historic change, it’s too bad Louis B. Mayer isn’t around to witness it. It was back in 1924 when Mayer summoned every star in town, even the President of the United States, to honor the opening of his heralded new MGM studio.

The pomp and ceremony was as bogus as it was grand. Mayer’s actual assets at that moment totaled a mere $100,000. And the “G” in Metro Goldwyn Mayer (Samuel Goldwyn) had already fled the venture. Alert to all this, President Calvin Coolidge bailed at the last moment. MGM’s biggest star, Will Rogers, also canceled, explaining, “I left my chewing gum in my other suit.”

None of this deterred Mayer, who was determined to change the face of Hollywood. Today even he would be shocked by the magnitude of Disney’s $71.3 billion confiscation of Fox, dramatically underscoring its already dominant position in features and television. Disney’s projected investment in its streaming wars with mega-rivals like WarnerMedia and Netflix alone would make the old studio chief shudder.

All these events, mind you, are frozen in time at the moment. Regulations forbid contact between executives of Disney and Fox, ensuring a Christmas of terror as Fox employees ponder their future. And when plans coalesce early in 2019 there will be no glitzy ceremony. The grateful survivors will move to new offices and assume their marching orders.

20th Century Fox CinemaCon

Some top appointments have been named, to be sure. Emma Watts will run what remains of the Fox film slate, while Stacey Snider hunts for a new gig. Fox Searchlight and Fox 2000 will continue under current management, but they await regular meetings with their Disney overseers and details of The New World Order are still undefined. I asked one top executive how the films would be branded, for example, and he answered, “not worked out yet.” And that was off the record. But it would be to no one’s surprise if the tired old Fox logo disappeared along with the portentous orchestral background – another anachronism from a bygone Hollywood.

There are areas of certitude, however. Sitting atop the Disney-Fox movie pyramid will be an astute and diplomatic veteran of studio wars, Alan Horn. At 76, Horn already presides over the maze of labels including Pixar, Marvel, Disney Animation, Lucasfilm and other formidable fragments of the empire. Horn uniquely understands studio succession. Seven years ago Jeffrey Bewkes, late of Time Warner (remember that company?) decreed that a younger point of view was needed at the Warner Bros studio. He thus bumped Horn, triggering an abrupt studio downturn. Always shrewdly opportunistic, Bob Iger promptly signed Horn at Disney.

He has gloated ever since. Disney today essentially owns the tentpole business as well as its prime release dates. With a new Mary Poppins awaiting release, Disney movies have grossed just under $3 billion domestic and a few million short of $4 billion internationally. Disney has been responsible for 18 of the 36 features in the billion-dollar club, including Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther and Incredibles 2.

Awaiting release next year are such heavyweights as another Avengers, Toy Story 4, Frozen 2, The Lion King, Dumbo, Aladdin, Captain Marvel and Star Wars: Episode IX. For 2020, two Pixars are slated along with two Marvels with an untitled Indiana Jones in the wings. Then come the Fox entries – a few more tentpoles including two Avatar sequels that James Cameron has now finished shooting, aimed at 2020.

Mary Poppins Returns
Walt Disney Studios

To be sure, Disney has encountered bumps in the road. The fantasy drama Nutcracker and the Four Realms never found its own realm. Several medium-budget Disney pictures disappointed at the box office, fueling a corporate decision to re-position mid-budget projects as direct-to-consumer forays. Corporate challenges abound on other levels: While Disney is usually absent at awards time, the company must decide how to channel resources between such disparate and unexpected contenders as Black Panther and Mary Poppins Returns.

And then there is the overriding question: What is the future of the Disney brand? Will its value and uniqueness be compromised by its sheer ubiquity? How will the young demo respond when surrounded by a Disney universe of theme parks, cruise ships, tentpole movies and streaming, etc. – all of them enticing but pricey and, most important, pre-dominant?

Old Walt Disney himself once showed me through his original theme park, taking pride in every “toy,” but letting it slip that he didn’t really welcome all these visitors, especially the screaming kids. He felt that his brother Roy was pushing him too hard to expand and monetize his treasured projects.

Would he be thrilled by the evolution of the New Disney Universe? Or would he, like Louis B. Mayer, find the whole thing a bit intimidating?

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