On Wednesday, an email arrived in my inbox from Fox Searchlight. It announced the October 2018 theatrical release of Can You Forgive Me?, an upcoming comedy directed by indie auteur Nicole Holofcener about the notorious forger Lee Israel, played by Melissa McCarthy. In any other week, an email like this would have been on the fast track to my junk folder. But on the eve of Disney’s long-rumored acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s film and TV studios for a mammoth $52.4 billion dollars—which was officially announced on Thursday—it took on a whole new meaning.
On one hand, it was a wistful reminder of how good Fox Searchlight has become at finding and developing idiosyncratic, adult-oriented prestige fare—the kind of movies that make a lot of noise once awards season gets underway. In the past five years alone, Fox’s art house film division delivered us modern-day classics like 12 Years a Slave, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman. This year, it’s responsible for two Oscar hopefuls—Guillermo del Toro’s otherworldy love story, The Shape of Water, and Martin McDonagh’s smoke-black comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The innocuous press release also doubled as a subliminal plea from Fox Searchlight’s long-standing co-presidents, Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley, aimed at all the people who’ve come to rely on their films as antidotes to the glut of blockbusters that dominate multiplexes all 12 months of the year. Of course, Gilula and Utley have no real reason to ask for our forgiveness. They had nothing to do with the merger, and unfortunately, they’ll have little say in the future of their studio.
Its fate is in the hands of Disney CEO Bob Iger, who in a conference call with analysts Thursday, said that he is “very interested in what Searchlight accomplished,” adding that his company fully intends to “stay in those businesses.” (That said, the deal is likely to lead to significant layoffs throughout Fox.)
Should we believe Iger? Disney only released eight films this year, but thanks to the three-headed monster that is Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel, it made more money than any other studio—and it wasn’t close.
Fox Searchlight, meanwhile, typically accounts for one percent of annual box office receipts, or roughly the amount it costs to feed the cast and crew of the Avengers on a single day of shooting (we assume). On the horizon for the Fox specialty division are Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, opening in March; comedy sequel Super Troopers 2, hitting theaters in April; and J.R.R. Tolkien biopic Tolkien, which stars Nicholas Hoult and just wrapped principal photography.
The only conceivable reason Disney would have for keeping Fox Searchlight fully functional would be to bolster its end-of-year awards intake. But based on its yearly output of can’t-miss blockbusters and little else, Disney has shown no interest in the specialty movie market since it sold Miramax in 2010.
One potential outcome for Fox Searchlight would be a new role as procurer of niche content for Disney’s upcoming streaming service. Instead of focusing on the development of its own IP—as it does now—Fox Searchlight’s tastemakers would be deployed to film festivals around the world to identify and then purchase independent movies to premiere on the streaming service. Backed by Disney’s deep pockets, Fox Searchlight could conceivably outbid rivals like Netflix and Amazon, both of which have been dominating the festival circuit in recent years.
But that would still mean a significant drop in theatrical releases for films aimed at adult audiences, which is a scary proposition for those of us who cherish original storytelling. Speaking of cherishing, I think I’m going to hold on to that email a little while longer.