UPDATED WITH RESPONSES FROM JAMES CAMERON, JON LANDAU & PATRICK WHITESELL: Emma Watts has just resigned as President of Production at 20th Century Studios. Her existing creative team remains in place, and a new leader is expected to be named in the coming weeks. Disney reports there are no current changes to 20th Century Studios’ development or release slate.
Following Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox last spring, Watts was kept in place as part of the transition to oversee movies for the former big Fox film brand, both for onscreen and the Hulu streaming platform. She was also the key executive in overseeing James Cameron’s future Avatar movies, the first which hits theaters on December 17, 2021.
Deadline hears her departure today has nothing to do with being forced out, rather it’s just that the job wasn’t shaping up in a way that she saw was a fit after being behind such movies as current Oscar Best Picture nominee Ford v. Ferrari ($220 million in worldwide box office); four-time Oscar winner and $900M WW-grossing Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody; the Night at the Museum franchise; the X-men series and spinoff Logan; Deadpool (which broke he R-rated mold on popular superhero movies); and the recent reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise.
Post-merger, Fox Searchlight, now re-branded Searchlight Pictures, enjoys a lot of autonomy in the Disney empire, greenlighting pics they know and operating their own distribution, publicity and marketing teams. 20th Century Studios (which recently dropped the Fox) was melded into the bigger Disney fold, fusing all its operations.
Watts’ departure leaves a void at present as to how Disney will handle the 20th Century live-action adult label going forward, this despite the fact they have carved out a slew of dates for product in the years to come. DreamWorks previously provided adult fare after Disney largely retired its Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures labels.
Some of the promising projects under Watts’ eye down the road are Ryan Reynolds’ upcoming summer action comedy Free Guy on July 3, and Amblin’s Steven Spielberg take on West Side Story on December 18. I understand the projects Watts had in development, i.e. James Mangold’s The Force, which just attached Matt Damon, remain active, with Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel with Damon, Ben Affleck and Adam Driver about to go into production. The next 20th Century Studios release, The Call of the Wild, based on the Jack London novel and starring Harrison Ford, just hit tracking today with a $17 million projected opening.
Watt’s departure rocked the town, with many prolific filmmakers and dealmakers she worked with sharing their praise of her:
Cameron told Deadline, “It’s hard to imagine Fox without Emma. Her creative input and support were invaluable on Avatar, and even more so on the sequels, She deeply understands movies, in her DNA — how they work, what’s wrong when it’s not working, how to fix it. I’ve always felt a strong creative synchronicity with Emma, and give her input a great deal of weight. It’s been great to have a strong, knowledgeable, and committed person as my studio head. And I would add to that list — friend. I can’t wait to see what she does next, because I have no doubt it will be big.”
Added Lightstorm Entertainment COO and Avatar producer Jon Landau, “Emma first came to Fox as a junior executive when we were producing Titanic. Over the years I saw her grow into a very accomplished senior executive who had the ability to balance the creative needs of production with the responsibilities of her studio role. This ability garnered her the respect of both filmmakers and studio executives. While I will miss having Emma as our partner at the studio, I am excited to see what the future holds for her.”
Said Spielberg today, “Emma is a studio executive in title, but a filmmaker at heart. Her support and willingness to take risks is what this business has always thrived on. I can’t wait to see what Emma does next and I’ll work with her again on anything at any time.”
“When it comes to studio executives, Emma is as good as it gets. She has an artist’s sensibility and has rightly earned the respect of the filmmaking community with the important films that she has brought forward. There’s no doubt that she has plenty of opportunities ahead of her, and I look forward to what she does next,” said Patrick Whitesell, Executive Chairman of Endeavor.
Reynolds tweeted out the following about Watts, who built his $1.57 billion-grossing R-rated Marvel feature franchise. “Deadpool would never have happened without Emma Watts. And certainly wouldn’t have been as good. I hope to continue working with her wherever she decides to go.”
On the upside, Watts got a shot at making a go in the new Disney-Fox, an opportunity that many senior-level Fox executives didn’t get. Heading into the merger last March, for example, it was expected that Elizabeth Gabler’s Fox 2000 would make the jump. Instead, Disney shuttered the label immediately post merger, with Gabler exiting.
Added Disney Studios co-chairman and chief creative officer Alan Horn and co-chairman Alan Bergman about her exit today: “Emma has made many wonderful contributions to Fox over the past two decades, shepherding a number of memorable films to the screen. We truly appreciate and thank her for her commitment and partnership in overseeing the transition in this past year and wish her the best.”
No word on Watts’ immediate plans.
Watts first joined Fox in 1997 following stints as a creative executive at Def Jam Pictures and later for Oliver Stone. In 2005, she was named EVP Production for 20th Century Fox. She has been the president of production since 2007.
Below is the email that Watts sent to her team.
I am writing to you today to share that, after much reflection, I’ve made the difficult decision to step away from Twentieth Century.
Over the past many months, it has been my top priority to continue to foster great filmmaking while leading this team successfully through the integration period with Disney. After reaching this point, I approached Alan and Alan, realizing that it was now time for me to pursue new opportunities.
I started at Fox 22 years ago — Titanic was in theaters, George Lucas had just announced his second Star Wars trilogy, and X-Men was in development. I was a young creative executive eager to learn the business, and from day one I was welcomed. Who knew that together we would add Night at the Museum, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Martian, Deadpool, Logan, Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story and, of course, Jim Cameron’s Avatar to the studio’s already storied legacy. It was a front-row seat to an incredible evolution culminating in Fox becoming a part of one of the greatest media companies that continues to shape our industry on a global scale.
Disney has an immensely gifted and creative leadership team, and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to be a part of the expanded company. Even more so, I am deeply grateful for the time I’ve spent with all of you. Thank you for your dedication to supporting great talent and storytelling, and above all, for your friendship.
I’ll be here and available for the next few weeks to support the transition process.
All the best,