EXCLUSIVE: Despite a wave of rumors she might be headed for the executives suites of Paramount or Warner Bros, Emma Watts is staying put at Fox/Disney. Deadline hears that the vice chairman and head of production is in the middle of formalizing a plan with the studio to stay on in the future and continue to steer Fox’s film division. There was no comment or confirmation from Disney.
Sources familiar with what’s going on there tell me that while Watts had to give up the Marvel properties that include Deadpool to Kevin Feige, her decision to continue was certainly incentivized by continuing to oversee the Avatar sequels generated by James Cameron. Those films will go a long way toward showing whether or not Disney’s acquisition of Fox was a good idea. Watts, I’m told, will be key to the relationship with Cameron, who has four shots at wresting his all-time global box office crown back from Avengers: Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo when the films get released in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027.
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All this runs contrary to rumors that grew rampant last week that Watts would rejoin Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos, with whom she had a close relationship when he ran Fox. I’m persuaded there actually were no conversations there. Paramount has steadfastly denied anything was in the works.
The absorption of the Fox film studio into Disney hasn’t come without pain on the film side — Dark Phoenix and Stuber were misfires, and the Wes Ball-directed $175 million budget film Mouse Guard was put in turnaround two weeks before it was to start production.
Despite that, the Disney acquisition isn’t about short-term results, particularly when the studio is on course to have the greatest grossing year of any studio in history. It is about the long game, and Watts’ decision to stay the course makes a good deal of sense if Disney is serious about broadening its slates as it makes product both for theatrical and to feed the Disney+ streaming service.
As evidenced by this morning’s news that the James Mangold-directed Ford V Ferrari with Christian Bale and Matt Damon was chosen to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September before it is released in awards season November 15, and yesterday when Ridley Scott abruptly committed to direct Damon and Ben Affleck in The Last Duel from the script they wrote with Nicole Holofcener, there is a benefit in having on the Disney lot a strong executive making adult films, one with solid relationships with A-list filmmakers. While Disney’s current output is dominated by Feige’s Marvel superhero efforts, Kathy Kennedy’s Lucasfilm Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, Pixar, and Sean Bailey’s live-action family film division that is minting money with The Lion King remake, there are long-term risks of going to those wells too often. And there is no one else on the lot better positioned than Watts to create a niche in the PG-13 and adult space that led to the launch of original franchises like Kingsman, Murder on the Orient Express and Deadpool.
While The Last Duel is set in 14th century France, it is a timely look at gender dynamics perfectly relevant in the current #MeToo moment. Even though Watts lost bragging rights over the Marvel franchises X-Men, Fantastic Four and especially Deadpool, she has a good chance to launch new franchises like Free Guy, the Shawn Levy-directed action comedy about a bank teller (Ryan Reynolds) who learns he’s actually an NPC (non-player character in a brutal video game). While Deadpool is with Marvel, Reynolds has a big producing deal at Fox with his Maximum Effort banner and Watts is key to that relationship. That will next yield a movie based on the board game Clue, which has an edgy, irreverent script by Deadpool scribes Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick.
She also has the Steven Spielberg-directed West Side Story and the Kingsman prequel, with another sequel in the works. Death on the Nile, the Kenneth Branagh-directed sequel to Murder on the Orient Express, is another. Mangold is close to getting script by Scott Frank for The Force, an adaptation of the bestselling Don Winslow novel, and there are projects like Alien Nation, with Jeff Nichols directing what he hopes will become a trilogy; there is Nevermoore, an adaptation of Jessica Townsend’s fantasy book series that Drew Goddard is writing; and Children of Blood and Bone, the Rick Famuyiwa-directed film based on the Tomi Adeyami novel.
There might be hard conversations on some of these projects at Disney with Alan Horn and Alan Bergman; The Last Duel will carry an R rating, while some of the others can be PG or PG-13. For Watts, why not stay and see through these and other projects; for Disney, where else will they find an executive like her, one that has relationships with legacy filmmakers from Cameron to Scott, Matthew Vaughn, Branagh, Cameron, Mangold, Damon, Affleck and numerous others? Flush with revenue from its silo hits, Disney more than any other studio in town can afford to take big swings to diversify its slates going down the road, especially the Avatar quartet, which is as big an investment on a series series as has ever been made in Hollywood.
It is understandable why the studio and Watts are working toward extending her stay.