Sundance: Will Fox Searchlight Still Be a Player in Shadow of Disney Acquisition?

“Their buying ability might be affected,” one dealmaker tells TheWrap

Last Updated: January 17, 2018 @ 8:09 PM

All eyes are on Fox Searchlight as the indie unit heads into its first Sundance Film Festival this week since Disney announced plans to acquire 20th Century Fox’s film and TV assets.

Many indie film buyers and sellers are openly questioning how aggressive unit chiefs Nancy Utley and Steve Gulila will be with a cloud hanging over their future — despite an established track record as producers and acquirers of Oscar-winning hits like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Juno” and “Black Swan.”

“What we are told is that they are going to be a real buyer [but] the conversation they are having with Disney, their buying ability might be affected,” said one top sales agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Content makers, reps from talent agencies and producers have been assured that the full acquisition team from Fox Searchlight will be on the ground in Park City, as well as 20th Century Fox Film head Stacey Snider, multiple individuals who spoke with TheWrap said.

Fox Searchlight had no comment, but a studio insider told TheWrap that any shift in the unit’s direction under Disney would not take place until after the deal closes, fully 12 to 18 months from now. “Fox Searchlight has a business model that still has accountability in it,” the insider said, adding that it’s been more than a decade since Searchlight has left Sundance without buying a single film.

Still, those mouse ears are already casting a shadow. “I think they’re going to be cautious,” another senior deal maker with multiple titles in the market said. A third film rep wondered if sellers might be wary of selling to Searchlight with a Disney transition imminent.

In analysis of the Disney deal, many industry experts said Searchlight was the most likely to emerge unscathed after the merger. In recent years, Walt Disney Pictures has never shown the prowess for prestige movies or the ability to capture awards attention the way Searchlight has — and it has also shied away from the more adult-oriented and R-rated fare that is a staple of the indie unit’s slate.

Searchlight’s most recent original productions — “The Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Battle of the Sexes” this year — have been solid art-house performers at the box office. The first two are prominent players in this year’s awards race.

That’s an area that Disney has consistently de-emphasized since selling its Miramax unit in 2010 and giving up a multiyear distribution deal with DreamWorks.

Searchlight’s Sundance strategy might be further complicated by its recent track record with pricey acquisitions in Park city that have stumbled at the box office.

The company famously ponied up $17.5 million for Nate Parker’s 2016 historical drama “The Birth of a Nation,” which grossed only $15.8 million in the wake of resurfaced rape allegations against its star-director-cowriter (he was acquitted of the charges, which stemmed from his college days).

Last year’s rap drama “Patti Cake$,” bought by Searchlight for $9.5 million, earned just $800,000 domestically ($1.5 million worldwide), while the feel-good documentary “Step” has grossed $1.1 million after a $4 million purchase last January.

Searchlight’s biggest Sundance success story was 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” which it picked up in Park City for $10.5 million and turned into a $60 million box office hit that earned two Oscars.