How will Disney work its 2020 slate around these new films?
Disney’s $71 billion acquisition of Fox may be complete, but the studio’s distribution team now must figure out how to integrate Fox’s existing movie slate into its own.
The Burbank-based studio plans to release all of Fox’s films, an individual with knowledge of the slate tells TheWrap, but some of the 13 Fox films slated for release in the next 12 months will be moved around in the coming weeks to avoid competing against Disney’s own 2019 slate. Disney declined to comment.
The likeliest target for a move: James Gray’s sci-fi film “Ad Astra,” starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut who chases after his father (Tommy Lee Jones) who disappeared on a failed mission to Neptune decades earlier. Fox has booked the film to open May 24 — the same day as Disney’s live-action adaptation of the animated hit “Aladdin,” making a date change all but inevitable.
“At this point, it’s quite likely that ‘Ad Astra’ will either be moved or taken off the slate,” Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock said. “It’s coming out the same day as ‘Aladdin,’ and even before the merger there was no promotional material or trailer for this film even two months away from release.”
In addition to “Ad Astra,” the X-Men spinoff “New Mutants” is also likely to get a push. Unlike other Marvel films that Disney has released, this one is a horror movie, a genre that Disney has mostly avoided. “New Mutants” has also been pushed back twice from its original spring 2018 release to August 2019, and reshoots that were announced last year have not taken place.
It’s also possible that at least some Fox titles could bypass theaters altogether for release on Disney’s upcoming Disney+ streaming platform or even Hulu, in which the company now has a majority stake.
In some ways, Disney can easily absorb an expanded slate. Over the last few years, the studio has dominated the box office charts by releasing the fewest films of any major studio yet making every release feel like an event. Since 2015, the studio has never released more than 13 films in a single year, with 11 scheduled for 2019. Now it’s in control of a Fox operation that released 26 films in the past two years, 41 if you include titles released by Fox Searchlight.
That output is expected to drop dramatically — especially after Disney surprised the industry on Thursday by shuttering Elizabeth Gabler’s Fox 2000 division, which has released films like “Hidden Figures,” “Love, Simon” and “The Hate U Give.” In addition, the studio on Thursday laid off many of the top distribution, marketing and publicity executives who had been overseeing the release of Fox’s upcoming movies.
With the Fox slate, Disney gains a host of more grown-up fare — a category it has avoided in recent years (the studio’s last R-rated film was 2013’s “The Fifth Estate,” one of the final releases in its now-lapsed distribution partnership with DreamWorks). But adult-skewing films could more easily fit into a schedule loaded with the studio’s mainstay family fare: James Mangold’s untitled biopic on the Ford-Ferrari motor-sports rivalry, due November 15, isn’t seeking the same audience as the following week’s “Frozen II.”
Few expect much schedule juggling at Fox Searchlight, which has enjoyed plenty of Oscar success in recent years but only has the upcoming biopic “Tolkien” officially slated for release. Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley’s division could maintain a degree of independence akin to what Harvey and Bob Weinstein enjoyed when Disney owned Oscar powerhouse Miramax (before selling off the division in 2010).
Beyond 2019, the Disney-Fox balancing act gets even more intriguing. Disney has yet to fill in much of its 2020 slate beyond date placeholders, while Fox has some titles with serious box office potential.
The biggest of them is, of course, “Avatar 2,” the sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time and which is set for a December 2020 release. That could plug a hole that Disney recently filled with new releases in the “Star Wars” franchise — which helped the studio rule the holiday box office market from 2015-17. “Episode IX” at the end of this year.
But following the disappointing results for last summer’s “Solo,” which became the lowest-grossing “Star Wars” release ever, Disney hit the pause button on the franchise with no further plans for big-screen installments beyond this December’s “Episode IX.” Instead, Lucasfilm is now focused on developing “Star Wars”-themed shows for the upcoming Disney+ streaming service.
“‘Avatar’ is the perfect way for ‘Star Wars’ to take a break from theatrical release,” Bock said. “James Cameron has a tentpole set up for them, and who knows, maybe it’s possible that Disney tries also putting something different into that time of year for a different audience.”
Another place where Disney might step aside for Fox is Valentine’s Day 2020, where “Kingsman: The Great Game” is currently set for release and where Disney has a live-action placeholder slot. On the other hand, Disney is likely to consider a shift for “Gambit,” the planned “X-Men” spinoff starring Channing Tatum which hasn’t started production and is currently set for March 2020 release, the same month as Pixar’s “Onward” and Disney’s “Mulan” remake.
Another Fox film with big four-quadrant potential is Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of “West Side Story,” which seeks to capitalize on the current big-screen musical craze. No release has been set, but with filming set to start this summer, it’s likely that Disney will release that film in the latter half of 2020 as a potential awards contender.
With so many films in place and Disney’s future plans to continue their box office domination still under wraps, the studio’s D23 convention is becoming a big date on the industry calendar. Disney has usually made big announcements about its future plans to get fans excited, but with a streaming service to launch and a 2020 slate to unveil, the August event will likely provide answers to where exactly Fox belongs in Disney’s growing stable.
Regardless of the specifics, this much is certain: In 2018, Disney’s $3.09 billion domestic gross accounted for 26 percent of the year’s record-breaking $11.9 billion gross. Add Fox’s $1.08 billion to that total, and the mega-studio’s market share would have been 35 percent. With even more popular titles now added to its already strong IP stable, Disney is in position to further tighten its grip on the box office.