Disney inherited a slate of Fox movies when it bought the studio up in 2019 – here’s what happened to one that survived the initial cull of projects.
In March 2019, Disney finally leapt over the necessarily regulatory hurdles to complete the purchase of 21st Century Fox and its assets. Those assets included the 20th Century Fox film studio, Fox Searchlight and Fox 2000. That, and a bunch of films that were already in production.
It was a fan-favourited $71.3bn transaction in many quarters, primarily because it returned X-Men characters to Marvel. It remains really quite odd to see such a massive corporate takeover cheered in the way it was when it cost thousands of people their jobs, and led to dozens of films being canned. Still, here we are.
When Disney assessed the Fox slate, some films were quickly cancelled, with Wes Ball’s film of The Mouse Guard one of the casualties. Others were just being written, so were easy to stop. But then there was a bunch of movies well into development, that carried on.
This article then is focusing on them: the film projects Disney inherited, how it treated them, and how the films came out. It’s easy to do this in a two dimensional way and just assume Disney is bad, but in researching this, I found real intent to do things properly in many cases. Still, some movies simply didn’t fare as well…
And it all started here. A Fox Searchlight film that was announced to be the first released under the new Searchlight Pictures banner. Co-written by Oscar-winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, along with Succession creator Jesse Armstrong, Downhill is a remake of a 2014 movie from Sweden, Force Majeure. It needed careful curation to stand any chance of breaking through, and it didn’t really get it. It didn’t help that it wasn’t a brilliantly received movie either.
It did not bode well for the new regime. Disney released it, the film barely made a mark with critics or audiences, and things were not off to a good start. It’d take a while for them to improve.
The Call of The Wild
The first film to bear the new 20th Century Studios name – dropping Fox from the studio’s title – was family adventure The Call Of The Wild, starring a bearded grumpy Harrison Ford and a CG dog. Adapting Jack London’s book, the film cost some $125m to make, and was released just a couple of weeks before pandemic lockdowns began. Bottom line: it got a full cinema release, but lost a lot of money. This would be a recurring theme, but in this particular case, had Covid not intervened, it should have at least washed its metaphorical beardy face.
The New Mutants/X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Delay after delay after delay struck the lower-budget X-Men movie The New Mutants, from The Fault In Our Stars director Josh Boone. And after Disney released X-Men: Dark Phoenix pretty much untouched, it threatened to chop and change The New Mutants. Dark Phoenix’s box office did not inspire much confidence.
In fairness, with The New Mutants it inherited a proverbial hot potato anyway, as Fox had been wanting reportedly extensive reshoots that never happened. Throw in the pandemic, and the film finally landed in cinemas years after it’d been shot, with no reshoots and not much enthusiasm for it. It fizzled fast, bringing the Fox line of X-Men movies to a very quiet end, 20 years after they’d blown open the potential of comic book films. The irony: would Disney have been in such a strong position to buy Fox in the first place, had Fox’s X-Men series not blasted open the path to more comic book movies…
The Empty Man
Another film that was in Fox limbo for a while, having being shot in 2017 and sat on the shelf after test screenings that didn’t go well at all. Disney pretty much decided just to get the film out there having taken a look itself, and gave it a release in October 2020. Director David Prior never got to lock down a cut he was happy with, and the reviews weren’t kind. Nor was the box office.
This one’s had a bit of a tail to it though: since the movie has landed on home formats, it’s gradually found a bigger audience. Good job: it didn’t get a cinema release at all in the UK. Still, there’s a growing sense this one might build, and maybe one day we’ll get to see a final cut that Prior is happier with.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
A real shame this one never saw the inside of a cinema properly. Based on the hit West End musical, the film of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie brought across the creative team behind the show and gave them the tools to make the movie version. It was primarily backed by Fox in the UK, along with New Regency, and it had been lined up for cinema release still.
Covid lockdowns though in the end led to a change in plans, with Disney selling the film to Amazon. It gave it a premiere and a push, releasing it back in September. Got a solid response too.
The Woman At The Window
Once of Disney’s first acts when it took over the Fox movie slate was to shut down the Fox 2000 arm. This was the division of the company that had focused on books to be adapted into film (having originally been conceived to chase mid-budget fare), scoring notable success in its final years with the likes of Hidden Figures, The Fault In Our Stars and Love Simon.
Its final project was the big screen take on A J Finn’s novel The Woman In The Window, a prestige project that attracted Joe Wright to direct and Amy Adams heading up the cast. That said, Disney didn’t like what it saw when it tested a cut of the movie, and promptly delayed its planned October 2019 release as it sought a re-edit of the film. Further announced release dates were also scrubbed, and in the end, Disney flogged the project to Netflix.
It was finally released in May 2021, to pretty miserable reviews.
Also known as ‘the one that worked’. Ryan Reynolds and director Shawn Levy started work on this one in earnest. It was one of the projects Disney inherited at a point where it still could have stopped it (and the number of films Disney yanked the plug on would fill a much bigger article than this). Instead though, Disney ownership unlocked more things that Levy and his team could do in terms of cultural references, and it fitted the MO of the company perfectly.
It helped too that the film was a lot of fun, and it turned into such a hit that Free Guy 2 is now on the cards. It looks set to move faster than the long-in-limbo Deadpool 3, that’s also on Ryan Reynolds’ to-do list. Free Guy feels more ‘on brand’ for Disney though.
Headlined by Lil Rel Howery, John Cena, Yvonne Orji, Meredith Hagner, Robert Wisdom, Lynn Whitfield, and Andrew Bachelor, Vacation Friends was the kind of R-rated comedy that Fox was regularly looking for. Directed by Clay Tarver, the project had actually been in development since 2014 and by the time it finally started shooting, it was already under Disney’s watch. And it was already heading for streaming by the time filming began in the summer of 2020. There was never an intent from the Mouse to send this to a cinema screen at the point it gave it the greenlight.
The film fitted two Disney platforms: Hulu in the US, and Disney+ Star elsewhere. As such, this was an easy project for the firm to continue to back. And when it landed on those platforms over the summer of 2021, it did enough to get a follow up – Honeymoon Friends – into development.
The Last Duel
Ridley Scott, on his now-infamous press tour of the autumn of 2021, went out of his way to praise Disney for the way it backed his box office disappointment, The Last Duel. The historical drama was a project the studio had ample opportunity to put into turnaround, and didn’t. Instead, it spent $100m on the movie, and by Scott’s words, marketed it heavily. Anecdotally, from our side of the fence, we barely heard a peep about it.
I didn’t quite see much in the way of marketing that Scott did (the only PR information we got at this outlet was when the movie hit Disney+), but the bigger problem was that the film came and went in a flash in cinemas. Granted, this was likely in part because it wasn’t bringing in audiences, but still: it was gone before most of us had seen a poster for it.
With not too much fanfare, it was on Disney+ within two months of its cinema release. Scott meanwhile by this stage had released – well, Universal had – his next film, House Of Gucci, that’s fared considerably better.
Ron’s Gone Wrong
New British animation studio Locksmith had inked a three picture deal with Fox in 2017, and it set to work on the first of those films. That’d become Ron’s Gone Wrong, but the Disney takeover made things trickier. After all, Disney is hardly shy of animation expertise, and it thus ended the Locksmith deal early – although it did back Ron’s Gone Wrong, and in fairness, gave it a good launch in the autumn. Locksmith has gone on to sign a new deal meanwhile with Warner Bros. A better fate than befell Ice Age creators Blue Sky Studio, that was closed down after more than two decades in business.
Locksmith co-founder Sarah Smith told us more of the story, here.
West Side Story
Here’s one where it’s hard to see what else Disney could have done differently. It held the Steven Spielberg-directed film back, that it had inherited from Fox, to ensure it had a full cinema release, and pushed the movie heavily as well. It was hard to miss the fact that it was sitting in cinemas. There was a sizeable international press tour, lots of publicity and… well, not much interest from audiences in actually going to see it, as it turned out. A surprise box office disappointment this, but one that any studio in Hollywood would have plumped for. Also, expect it to have a long tail, and to find its audience over time.
The King’s Man
Again, Disney held out a long time for this one, to give it a cinema release. Several times release dates for The King’s Man, from director Matthew Vaughn, were announced. Promotional campaigns got under way, and then Covid forced several changes of release plans.
When it did ultimately land in cinemas in December of last year, it then got caught in a difficult slot. It wasn’t that there wasn’t audience appetite for something comic book-y. It’s just everyone seemed to be off seeing Spider-Man: No Way Home, leaving The King’s Man fighting over the scraps with The Matrix Resurrections. Still, plans remain afoot for Kingsman 3, and Disney will be moving this one to its streaming platform with reasonable speed.
Death On The Nile
A film beset by delays, but not just for expected reasons (controversies surrounding Armie Hammer have added headaches to Disney’s plans for the film), Kenneth Branagh’s second big screen Poirot film is now due in February 2022. It remains to be seen how it fares, but this is another that Disney has stuck with (although it’s taken its time finally locking down that release).
In recent years, there’s not been a long line of erotic thrillers released by Disney, and 2022 does not promise to end that drought. For a while though, one was on the way. Deep Water, based on the book by Patricia Highsmith, is from Indecent Proposal and Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne. Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck star, and the film has reportedly cost some $50m to make. It’s also been over two years since it was shot, and has gone through a trio of release dates.
But, in a move that is not on the surprising side, Disney has now opted against a cinema release. It’ll go to Hulu in the US and Amazon Prime elsewhere. For those after fruity content with a Disney logo on the front, the agonising wait goes on.
Disney has configured Fox Searchlight to still be able to back smaller projects, under the banner Searchlight Pictures. As such, Guillermo del Toro’s impressive Nightmare Alley was able to sail through and get made. Where it’s struggled is the selling of the film. Disney programmed its release in the Spider-Man corridor, and a challenging film to push anyway got swept away. Time will be kinder to this one.
The biggest gamble of all is being saved for last. When Disney bought up Fox and its assets, it also took on the four planned Avatar sequels that James Cameron has been building towards. It’s a huge gamble and an expensive one at that. By the time the movies are made, it’d have added $1bn to the bill Disney has forked out for Fox assets. Of course, if the films do half the business of the original, Disney will be laughing all the way to the Alliance & Leicester.
If not? Expect Avatar TV shows to jump in their place…
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