Fox Film Team Faces Rocky Disney Future; Paul Feig Moves Label To Universal

Paul Feig

EXCLUSIVE: The beleaguered film staff of the various divisions of Fox had to know they would be in for a hellish Thursday when they walked through the gold doors of Building 88 to their offices and noticed something different. The 20th Century Fox logo stenciled on the doors was gone. It was replaced by the blue Fox logo that signifies the part of the company that was kept by Rupert Murdoch and led by his son Lachlan. Talk about an omen.

Now, the Murdochs own the lot and they control the space even if they did lease office space to Disney because the Mouse House isn’t big enough to absorb those film and TV staffers who will be left after the bloodletting that began today. And Fox execs couldn’t help but notice that lady who came to those offices awhile ago with a tape measure, sizing up the place. I’m told that Lachlan and James Murdoch feel sentimental toward Building 88 because that was where they played when their father Rupert had offices there when he was in town.

But for movie purists, Building 88 also has some serious film roots that go all the way back to Daryl Zanuck and David O. Selznick. Like with everything else today, it was hard to get definitive answers on anything, but many felt that Fox film execs might well be shunted elsewhere on the lot.

The day would only get worse, especially when Fox 2000 surprisingly was shuttered, this after Disney previously affirmed that Elizabeth Gabler was going to continue to run her tastemaker label, whose output ranged from The Devil Wears Prada to The Fault In Our Stars and Hidden Figures. Throw in the layoffs of well-respected distribution head Chris Aronson, consumer products head Jim Fielding and several others, and this was on course to become an exceptionally shitty day at the studio.

There has to be some solace, that the bad news started to be delivered so soon after this week’s lot visits by Disney’s Alan Horn and Alan Bergman. But it has been awful for those who run or are part of the film staffs of the 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Blue Sky and Fox Searchlight labels. Everyone knows that by the time the bloodletting is over, upwards of 5000 might be gone as Disney tries to meets its stated goal to pare $2 billion in consolidation costs. The question is how that will impact the executives and producers who’ve been putting together movie slates under the Fox label for years.

Particularly since the output of films is expected to be low. For instance 20th, which has been making a full-size slate of pictures since The Depression, might only be able to make four theatrical films and four streaming films per year, if the rumors I am hearing are true.

The Fox 2000 shocker was a torpedo blow and it’s inevitable that the cultures of those Fox divisions built by Emma Watts (Logan and Planet of the Apes), Steve Gilula/Nancy Utley (The Shape of Water), Vanessa Morrison (Bob’s Burgers) and Blue Sky’s Andrea Miloro and Robert Baird (Ice Age) will be challenged if not destroyed. Disney doesn’t make a lot of first-look deals but Fox certainly did. It’s an open question how many of those will be needed, or even how many production executives will be necessary once Disney is done cherry picking assets to supplement its already booming theatrical slates and to feed its streaming services Hulu and Disney+. Disney-based producers already had a hard time in securing the few slots that aren’t devoted to Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars and family-friendly live-action remakes of animated classics. Imagine trying to crack the slate if you are an outsider. Some execs left Fox over the past few months while others hung in hoping they can continue their careers or else receive generous settlements that will give them time to find new jobs.

20th Century Fox

20th alone has six production executives and a slew of producer deals that include Chernin Entertainment, Scott Free, Ben Affleck & Matt Damon’s Pearl Street, Noah Hawley, DeVon Franklin, Boom! Studios, Hutch Parker, 21 Laps, Simon Kinberg and Lauren Shuler Donner’s The Donners Company, and James Mangold. Given that Fox itself is expected to be truncated to as little as four theatrical and that many streaming titles, how many execs and producers will be needed to manage that output? And will the talent in films designed to be theatrical releases with back-end potential be satisfied with being relegated to Hulu, where the upside on such films won’t be nearly as attractive?

One tenured Fox filmmaker who is moving on is Paul Feig, who years ago signed a deal to develop R-rated comedies for Fox — those won’t fly at family friendly Disney — and where he made comedy blockbusters The Heat and Spy. I’ve confirmed that Feig’s deal has lapsed and he is in the process of moving his FeigCo label from Fox to Universal. The move isn’t a shock, as Feig just wrapped a film for Uni, the Emma Thompson- and Byrony Kimmings-scripted Last Christmas with Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding. He’s also developing a few other projects at the studio including one with Eva Longoria called 24-7, a workplace comedy he’s producing with Kerry Washington and Ben Spector, and the comedy False Alarm, which he’s producing with Dylan Clark and Sam Esmail.

Fox’s loss is Universal’s gain. Universal Pictures president Peter Cramer confirmed the deal: “Paul is one of the most distinctive and versatile filmmakers working today, and we are thrilled to welcome him, Jessie Henderson, and the FeigCo team back to Universal. We know they will add to their impressive track record of creating successful films for global audiences that are full of Paul’s signature joy, wit, and heart, starting with Last Christmas in November.”

While uncertainty abounds, other producers seem a firmer fit into Disney. Chernin seems secure; 21 Laps makes Disney-esque movies like Free Guy, the Ryan Reynolds-starrer that is expected to be a Disney tentpole for 2021. Ridley Scott’s Scott Free seems also a good bet to stay: beyond the next Aliens installment that he’s working on, Scott is expected to next direct Merlin, a live-action movie on the formative years of the wizard, for Disney.

Whether it is the current acrimony between the Writers Guild and the agencies, or how the future of Disney has been calculated, Hollywood is ruled by television. For a film guy like myself, it has been cruel, watching Fox’s TV heads be an inclusive part of the discussions of the future, while the feature folks who used to puff out their chests on the lot have essentially been forced into the position of being told their fate.

We’ve known for some time that film chief Stacey Snider won’t be part of the Disney future, even though she has been in her office this week. Watts has long been known as a very strong executive, and several have said she is about the only one there who has been clued in on the Disney plans. Does she have the clout to prevent Fox film properties from being repurposed as TV projects or as streaming projects on Hulu and Disney+ with low budgets and no back-ends? Sources said that in the recent past she fended off an attempt by Hawley and FX to take the Aliens franchise and turn it into a miniseries, and when Searchlight once wanted to do something with The Omen, she held fast because who wants to give up your franchises? She did that before the Disney deal, when it was a whole different ballgame.

What will happen to inventive projects like the three-picture reinvention of Alien Nation with director Jeff Nichols, or the drama that Affleck was going to direct and Damon to star in, based on the true story of the ex-cop who rigged the McDonald’s Monopoly game and allegedly stole $24 million, with a script by Deadpool‘s Rheese & Wernick? The decision on all of these will come down to Disney’s Horn, who will hold the greenlight power going forward.

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