The Mouse That Ate The Fox: Indie Film Distribution Under Disney

The Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS) and Twenty-First Century Fox, Inc. (“21st Century Fox” —NASDAQ: FOXA, FOX) today announced that they have entered into a definitive agreement for Disney to acquire 21st Century Fox, including the Twentieth Century Fox Film and Television studios, along with cable and international TV businesses, for approximately $52.4 billion in stock (subject to adjustment). Building on Disney’s commitment to deliver the highest quality branded entertainment, the acquisition of these complementary assets would allow Disney to create more appealing content, build more direct relationships with consumers around the world and deliver a more compelling entertainment experience to consumers wherever and however they choose. Immediately prior to the acquisition, 21st Century Fox will separate the Fox Broadcasting network and stations, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, FS1, FS2 and Big Ten Network into a newly listed company that will be spun off to its shareholders.

We knew it was coming and it finally happened. Disney bought all the good bits of Fox. Going forward Ruper Murdoch’s empire will be focused on the news and sports section of their portfolio while letting television, film, and their stake in Hulu move over to Disney. While many casual observers have been waiting on tenterhooks to see The X-Men finally able to join Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of what this means for their television, home media, and Fox’s film holdings and distribution wings. For me, those concerns are primarily focused on Fox Searchlight.

The greatest casualty of all of this, without even touching on the myriad ways in which media consolidation can and will muck things up, will likely be Fox Searchlight. I do not believe that Disney would fund or distribute The Tree of Life, The Grand Budapest Hotel, or The Shape Of Water to name even a few. Even with the meager budgets and ad-spend that Fox Searchlight represents, I think Disney will kill Searchlight almost completely.

Fox Searchlight has been an important piece of the independent film distribution game since it was spun up in 1995. The first film released under the banner was The Brothers McMullen, the $28,000 Irish-Catholic comedy-drama from writer-director-producer Edward Burns. Winning The Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at 1995’s Sundance Film Festival, the idiosyncratic film was released in the same year as Toy Story, Apollo 13, and Batman Forever and proved that Fox Searchlight was on the right track right out of the gate. The people writing the checks knew what they were looking for: big voices, bold films, and new ideas.

The following year Fox Searchlight’s release slate expanded to 4 films. In 1997 it expanded to 9, including The Full Monty and Ang Lee’s modern masterpiece The Ice Storm. Other standout films from the early period of Searchlight history included Boys Don’t Cry and Super Troopers. Their release slate was as varied as any other independent film distributor and the backing of weight and pomp and circumstance of Searchlight’s sister studio, 20th Century Fox, gave them the money, energy, and freedom to push these releases during the independent boom-times of the late 90s. Over the course of its existence Fox Searchlight has been responsible for bringing such varied films as 28 Days Later, Thirteen, Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, The Darjeeling Limited, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, Stoker, 12 Years A Slave, Jackie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water to the public. Fox Searchlight represents something that’s almost missing from mainstream film distribution in 2017, the idea of the middle-budget film for adults. Dipping its toes into nearly every genre, FS has sought out and distributed numerous important films that may otherwise have fallen by the wayside and not found their audience without the fervor and money that it brings to the table.

In recent years, Fox Searchlight has been led by Matt Greenfield and David Greenbaum and those executives have worked wonders, making Fox Searchlight both a staple of awards season, securing Oscar nominations for 15 of its films and winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards with 3 of those 15. They’ve landed awards and brought many a critical darling to light while additionally embracing the idiosyncratic and recognizing the value of foreign film. Speaking with Vanity Fair in December, Greenfield indicated that his outlook on the potential merger was positive. “We hope that any company will value what we do […] We feel like the filmmakers we work with . . . [could] then go on to make big movies for the main division.” While Greenfield and company seem hopeful for the future, there exists a cautionary tale to be considered: Miramax.

Of course, Disney under Bob Iger has publicly stated that he is “very interested in what Searchlight accomplished” and that Disney intends to stay in those businesses, the fact that he refers to Searchlight in the past tense gives me pause. While Greenfield and company seem hopeful for the future, Iger’s word choice and my own pessimism call Miramax to mind. Specifically Miramax’s fate under Bob Iger’s Disney.

Miramax began in 1979 and acquired and released 73 films between 1980 and its purchase by The Walt Disney Company on June 30th, 1993. Following the purchase, Miramax was able to grow, flourish, and diversify into actually producing a number of well-regarded films, launching Dimension Films along the way. During this golden period, Miramax was allowed to operate independently of other Disney subsidiaries, though Disney was still able to flex its muscle with final say over what Miramax could release, it rarely caused problems. Over time Miramax moved from the little engine that could to a mid-to-high-level distribution company, tackling larger and larger projects and releasing fewer. If you look at 2003, only 3 films were released under the banner. Compare that to 1995’s 30 and the difference is stark. Still, they were making or distributing bold cinema that would never see the light of day as a mainstream Disney film, so the ship was not sinking so much as simply changing.

This relationship changed in 2005 when Bob Iger, president, and COO of Disney since 2000 succeeded Michael Eisner as CEO in 2005. A relationship with the Weinsteins that had already grown contentious as the focus shifted boiled over when Disney-Under-Iger refused to allow Miramax to distribute Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 after disagreeing with the subject matter. The Weinsteins, presumably furious over being unable to choose the direction of the company that they had spent so much time building, did not renew their contract with Disney and the Weinsteins left Miramax. In the wake of their departure, another Disney subsidiary, Beuna Vista Motion Pictures Group seized control of Miramax and the Weinsteins took Dimension with them.

Despite Disney Studio chairman Dick Cook’s support of Miramax, the newly minted CEO Iger clearly did not care about the division, nor did Cook’s replacement. He had bigger fish to fry, of course. Disney had recently swallowed Marvel Comics, and would soon do the same with Lucasfilm. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars were the names of the game. Nearly immediately Miramax abruptly changed directions. The Miramax banner saw Pokemon and Lego Bioncle movies released under it, the operations budget was gutted and by 2009 Miramax’s staff had been reduced by 70%. 2010 saw Miramax release only 2 films: a 20 million dollar comedy starring Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston and the worst thing Hellen Mirren’s ever been in, Julie Taymor’s The Tempest. Iger’s focus was on the branded mass entertainment properties that can be rolled out into lucrative product licensing deals (See: Star Wars vegetables) and theme park attractions. While Eisner may have had a taste for niche adult fare, Iger clearly did not. Miramax, no longer a priority or even a concern, was soon sold.

Disney under Iger does not, has not, and will not fund or distribute creative, daring adult work. They will not commit to doing so. I am unfortunately of the opinion that Fox Searchlight will face a similar fate to Miramax. Nothing that Fox Searchlight does meshes with Bob Iger’s vision for Disney, a carefully selected number of ultra-safe tentpole films made more by a committee of trusted producers than any credited filmmaker. They cannot make a Wes Anderson theme park and bold recent releases like Guillermo del Toro’s adult fairy tale, The Shape of Water will not spawn a series of children’s t-shirts.

I want to be proven wrong. I want Disney to not only allow Matt Greenfield and David Greenbaum’s Fox Searchlight to continue to probe the darkness and find bold new voices. Fox Searchlight’s model allows filmmakers to take risks, knowing that a distribution powerhouse like FS will give their work the ability to find its audience. I am open to optimism. However, I honestly believe Bob Iger doesn’t give a single shit about independent film, or new voices. He cares about t-shirt sales and theme park tickets. You need look no further than how Disney treated Miramax but you can also look to the horror stories we hear about filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller being forced into a Mickey Mouse Shaped Box only to be replaced by the guy who made Bring It On and the world’s safest director Ron Howard  if you need more proof.

I will gladly eat crow if Iger’s Disney handles this differently than Miramax and will be immensely grateful if Disney does indeed allow Fox Searchlight to continue to function as it does now, or in an absolutely perfect world even bolsters its operation. My gut feeling, however, is that they simply don’t care enough about the future of film to even bother.

Humanstein

Nathan is a film writer, an aspiring filmmaker, and a junk food enthusiast. He's also the founder of Humanstein.com and loves a good cup of coffee.