4 Years Under Disney: What Is 20th Century Studios Now?

In the four years since the Walt Disney Company bought 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight, the core studio — now known as 20th Century Studios — has become for the most part a content mill for its streaming services.

Some key IP — like next summer’s “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” — are still deemed worthy of theaters but most 20th Century Studios films, like the true-crime thriller “Boston Strangler” and “Vacation Friends 2,” are streaming-bound.

Insiders differ on whether this is a temporary situation caused by COVID variables, a Wall Street-driven rush to streaming and an uncertain theatrical marketplace playing their parts. Will the formally theatrically-focused powerhouse fade into Disney-backed irrelevancy or might an improved theatrical marketplace offer the former titan a chance to be more than just a streaming supply arm for the Walt Disney Company?

In March of 2019, the Walt Disney Company paid $71 billion for Fox Studios. Insiders agree that Disney bought Fox, to quote one distribution executive, partially to procure “a place for theatrical films which Disney wouldn’t make.”

However, a global pandemic decimated the theatrical marketplace in 2020 and Wall Street changed its collective mind in early 2022 by demanding streaming profits over content splurges. Both variables undercut some of Disney CEO Bob Iger’s initial motivations for the acquisition. Kid-friendly IP expansions like “Home Sweet Home Alone” bombed on Disney+ while recent films like “A Haunting in Venice” struggled in theaters. Where does that leave Fox as a film studio?

A rival studio executive told TheWrap, “Disney bought Fox to get the Marvel properties, the ‘Avatar’ brand and ‘The Simpsons’” and it makes sense. “Avatar: The Way of Water” earned $2.3 billion at the worldwide box office and “The Simpsons” has consistently been one of Disney+’s most popular shows. Meanwhile, “Deadpool 3” opens next summer, while the inclusion of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four could be key to keeping the MCU fresh.

From the mighty Fox to a Hulu supply chain

The independent and fully operational Hollywood movie studio previously known as 20th Century Fox released 17 movies in theaters in 2014. They earned a then-record $5.5 billion worldwide that year. Today, the studio that released “The Grapes of Wrath,” “All About Eve,” “The Sound of Music,” “Star Wars” and “Titanic” is now just another brand under the Disney umbrella alongside Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm.

Disney has released, or will, 43 features under the 20th Century Studios banner since 2020. All three 2020 films went theatrical. Five out of 10 (50%) were sent to streaming in 2021. 12 out of 18 (67%) missed out on theatrical release in 2022 while eight out of 12 (67%) did or will premiere on Hulu or Disney+ (in some overseas territories) in 2023. After that? It’s “Avatar” sequels, formerly Fox Marvel properties and some IP like “Alien” that Disney hopes justifies the theatrical spend.

Studio insiders told TheWrap that moviegoers are still going to see big upcoming theatrical swings like Gareth Edwards’ “The Creator” and next year’s Rami Malek actioner “The Amateur.” Insiders were optimistic that 20th Century Studios will become even-handed in what goes to Hulu and what goes to theaters. They credited a theatrical marketplace that has further recovered from the pandemic.

Guillermo del Toro (R), winner of the Best Director and Best Picture awards for 'The Shape of Water,' and producer J. Miles Dale
The 90th Academy Awards, during which Fox Searchlight’s “The Shape of Water” won Best Picture

Searchlight survives on Oscar glory

It wasn’t crazy to believe that Disney bought Fox partially to win Academy Awards. From 2014 to 2018, a Fox film won the Best Picture Oscar three times in five years, either directly from the studio or through its subsidiary, Fox Searchlight. The likes of “The Revenant, “The Post” and “Jojo Rabbit” kept the studio awash in awards season fortune and glory. In the first year under Disney’s control, Searchlight’s “Nomadland” won the studio its fourth Best Picture Oscar in eight years.

“Disney still wants to be in the awards game,” noted the distribution insider. “They still want to make smaller movies or acquire promising films from festivals.” 

However, the rival studio insider argued that Searchlight could be sunsetted if they stopped winning big Oscars. If that prospect is true, then the annual Oscar race may be a kind of immunity challenge for Searchlight.

From 2020 through 2023, 19 of Searchlight’s 24 films have gone or will go to theaters. That includes the $10 million Sundance acquisition “Theater Camp” and this year’s Oscar contender, Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things.”

But is streaming really a demotion?

A studio insider stated that “Hulu and Disney+ are major creative and commercial components for the Walt Disney Company. 20th Century Studios can reliably and consistently produce quality at-home feature films — alongside releasing periodic theatrical tentpoles like ‘Avatar’ and ‘Free Guy.’ That makes them especially valuable in that specific avenue.”

Take Pixar, for example: Whether the brief foray into Disney+ exclusivity marred Pixar’s overall value remains to be seen. After all, the commercial failure of “Lightyear” can be seen as a redux of “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” Strong reviews and stronger word-of-mouth alongside massive legs for the $487 million-grossing “Elemental” hints that it might have been a temporary problem.

And as reported by TheWrap, Hulu was among the few streaming platforms that didn’t decrease its volume of streaming original features.

An insider stressed that 20th Century Studios films being sent to or made for Hulu isn’t about dumping movies. It’s rather “about being able to make a variety of non-tentpole movies in a variety of genres.” They claimed it allowed executives to say yes to interesting ideas and clever high concepts.

Yes, a handful of these pictures got yanked from the platform this past summer — part of an industry-wide trend of films and shows being tossed off their respective streaming platform as a cost-saving measure. However, as of this past Tuesday, “Rosaline” will be available digitally and on-demand outside of Hulu. “The Princess” will become available on Nov. 7. That more conventional, transactional availability furthers the notion that being sent to Hulu isn’t automatically a demotion.

Plus, a Hulu movie can be a hit. Brian Duffield’s unique sci-fi horror film “No One Will Save You” debuted Sept. 22 to immense critical acclaim and grew a wealth of organic commercial buzz on social media from those who checked out (and loved) the Kaitlyn Dever vehicle. In interviews, Duffield credited 20th Century Studios for taking a chance on his nearly wordless home invasion thriller, and the film came a year after another 20th Century Hulu horror hit, “Barbarian,” debuted to similar buzz.

A representative for 20th Century Studios declined TheWrap’s request for comment.

Blame the audience?

Fox’s fortune and glory mostly came from producing the kind of films that once flourished theatrically alongside conventional IP-centric tentpoles. Even in the 2010s, they scored with “X-Men” movies and the likes of “The Heat” and “Life of Pi.” 20th Century Studios can still make those movies and make them well, but the theatrical audience no longer cares.

“I met at Disney after Kevin Costner’s ‘McFarland USA’ flopped in 2015,” writer/director D.J. Caruso told TheWrap. Caruso said he was told that, with the failure of the well-liked underdog sports film, no more non-Disney IP titles would go through their system. “Hence, all we get are big swings with so-called proven IPs.”  Fox faced a similar challenge prior to its takeover.

In 2018, the year before Disney took over, Fox released a slew of star-driven, adult-skewing or inclusive theatrical films. Fox placed fifth in market share with $3.4 billion worldwide. Disney would top with $7.33 billion that year.

Among that lineup, including “The Darkest Minds,” “Widows” and “Bad Time at the El Royale,” the only smash hits were “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Deadpool 2.” When audiences don’t show up to, for example, Fox 2000 films like “The Hate U Give” and “Love Simon,” Disney can only accrue so much blame for shutting down that division.

Legion M co-founder Paul Scanlan remarked, “We’re the ones who buy tickets, pay for subscriptions and choose what to watch. If the only thing we’re choosing to see in theaters are these retreaded franchises, then that’s what we’re going to get.”

To quote the “Julius Ceasar” line that inspired the titles of one of Fox’s more aspirational 2014 hits, the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.

The best of all bad solutions

The studio that brought theatergoers “Die Hard” and “Miracle on 34th Street” is now being mostly confined to direct-to-streaming movies. However, it’s symptomatic of an industry-wide shift over what kind of films audiences will still see in theaters. As recently as 2015, a star-driven high-concept action comedy like “Spy” could earn $235 million at the worldwide box office.

Few insiders think that 20th Century Studios is ever going to entirely fade away. To quote the distribution executive, “Disney needs a label for R-rated films like ‘Alien’ and ‘Hellraiser.'”

It may not be a happy ending, especially for older Fox films that have been mostly kept out of theatrical rotation and are less valuable as streaming content in 2023 than they might have been in 2019. However, it might be the least tragic finale possible under the circumstances. We’re still getting something approximating an old-school Fox line-up, even if it’s on a streaming platform instead of a multiplex.

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