Fox Executives on How Disney Layoffs Have Shaken the Studio: ‘I Have Survivor’s Guilt’

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“There is no sense of hustle and bustle and there is definitely a sense of waiting for the inevitable,” one former staffer tells TheWrap

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The phones have stopped ringing. The high energy of a studio lot that released more than a dozen movies last year is gone. This is the general feeling former and current Fox employees have in the wake of hundreds of layoffs since Disney’s acquisition of Fox in March. With the exception of Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula’s art-house division Fox Searchlight, which continues to both release and produce new movies, work on the regular Fox film lot has ground to a near-standstill, according to half a dozen current and former Fox executives who spoke to TheWrap. No new films have been greenlit since the merger and many films that have already been shot have been shuffled to releases in 2020 and beyond. For those executives who still show up to the lot in Century City, where office corridors are increasingly empty, the atmosphere can be unsettling. “I see ghosts everywhere,” one senior Fox executive still employed at the studio said. “I have survivor’s guilt.” “It’s very quiet,” a senior Fox executive who recently was laid off said. “There hasn’t been a greenlit movie since the acquisition, so it leaves people a lot of time for speculation. It does seem like the parking lot is emptier as well.” Since completing its $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox’s film and TV assets in March, Disney has pared down senior-level staff, mostly at Fox, in what is expected to amount to more than 4,000 jobs lost. The first wave in March claimed hundreds of workers — including large chunks of Fox’s communications team, as well as in the VFX and production departments. According to filings with the state of California, another 283 20th Century Fox employees have been laid off since mid-May. The first set of cuts hit both the TV and film studios and created a sense of unease and uncertainty on the Fox studio lot, and entire sections of the lot have been emptied of staff. Disney leadership has said it plans to have roughly $2 billion in cost-saving as job cuts continue to eliminate overlapping business functions. For other Fox holdovers, there has been a culture shock in fitting into the new Disney regime. “A lot of people don’t want to work at Disney — they don’t want just the same job at a different studio,” a second recently departed Fox executive said. “At Fox, you swim in the whole pool. At Disney, you get a lane, and you do not leave your lane. [If people leave their lane], people are shut down.” A representative for Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. “The tone of the lot is much quieter because there are no movies to make,” the first former Fox executive said. “We are finishing what we started, but there is no sense of hustle and bustle and there is definitely a sense of waiting for the inevitable.” Many expect more winnowing to come in the months ahead as projects that are now in the works wrap up and Disney scales back production and jettisons projects that had been in development. Disney shuttered the Fox 2000 label but president Elizabeth Gabler was kept on the payroll until the current slate is completed. (On Tuesday, the label’s final film, Amy Adams’ thriller “Woman in the Window,” was pushed from a prime awards release of Oct. 4 to January 2020 — one of many Fox releases to get bumped to accommodate Disney’s existing release slate.) The sense of foreboding has intensified since Disney CEO Bob Iger this month blamed the company’s disappointing second-quarter financial results on the $170 million operating loss from Fox’s film division, particularly the costly June flop of the X-Men spinoff “Dark Phoenix.” The company had estimated $180 million in operating income from Fox films for the same quarter last year. As a result of the poor box office performance, Iger signaled in his August 6 earnings call that Disney’s studio heads Alan Horn and Alan Bergman were working with newly installed Fox production head Emma Watts to “consolidate and to cut back on the number of releases.” A third former Fox executive said that the studio had been in a state of entropy well before the merger went through even as the studio moved forward on tent-pole projects like James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels. “The greenlighting process as we knew it ended in early 2018,” this executive said. “That’s not to say things weren’t still getting greenlit, because they were, but the way we’d normally done it stopped in the summer. We used to have regular greenlighting meetings and those just fell to the wayside.” And since the acquisition had not yet won federal regulatory approval, no one from the new Disney ownership could communicate with the Fox team about its plans. “The feeling on the lot was like we were stuck in purgatory. There are still people there stuck in purgatory,” this executive said. “Morale started to — well, it wasn’t great to begin with — but it only got worse and worse.” Even so, the first former Fox executive had no hard feelings against Disney leadership. “It’s just business,” the executive said. “Maybe people here have been feeling that it’s personal, but it seems that Disney and Fox are still trying to figure out how to proceed. It’s not a wholesale massacre at all, it’s just the best they can do. It’s a difficult process and there’s no rule book for this sort of thing. I do think Disney is being fair given the circumstances.” One exception to all the upheaval in Century City is Fox Searchlight, which multiple insiders said has continued to operate much as it did pre-merger. The division has greenlight its more modestly-budgeted projects all this year, including a remake of 1991’s “Sleeping With the Enemy,” Barry Jenkins’ biopic of dancer-choreographer Alvin Ailey, Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” and a new project from “Thor Ragnarok” director Taika Waititi. Searchlight’s release calendar has remained intact as well, with the division set to release the thriller “Ready or Not” this week. Natalie Portman’s astronaut drama “Lucy in the Sky” and Waititi’s satire “Jojo Rabbit” are heading to the Toronto International Film Festival and will have major awards play this season. Insiders told TheWrap that Searchlight seems safe from future job cuts so long as it continues to make money and win awards. Last year, the indie studio grossed $145 million domestically from just four releases — as well as holdover box office from Oscar winners “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Trey Williams and Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.