Fox Searchlight, 20th Century Fox’s arthouse film division, is responsible for two of the top Oscar contenders this year: The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In the wake of Disney’s attempted $52 billion takeover of Fox, some of Fox Searchlight’s collaborators are deeply concerned that those kinds of films will soon cease to exist.
On stage last night (Jan. 12) to accept the Critics Choice award for best picture, The Shape of Water producer J. Miles Dale publicly called out Disney and its CEO Bob Iger, pleading with the powerful media company to leave Fox Searchlight alone. “I don’t know if Bob Iger is out there or not, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this Disney thing,” he said, “but I urge you not to mess this up.”
“[Fox Searchlight’s] got a good thing going and they rock,” Dale added.
Earlier in the night, The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro alluded to the potential deal without specifically naming Disney. He mentioned the fact that companies like Fox Searchlight still exist as something that gives him hope, saying that they’re increasingly a rarity. “We always want to tell stories that matter and are difficult to pitch,” he said. His film is about a mute custodian at a government laboratory who falls in love with an amphibious creature.
Disney’s deal with Fox, announced in December, would give the “Mouse House” control of Fox’s television and film studios, including Fox Searchlight. This immediately worried fans of the Fox indie studio, since Disney is strictly in the business of large, tentpole films (drawing from its Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar divisions) and rarely releases risky, lower-budget awards-friendly fare like The Shape of Water. Disney has not owned an arthouse film branch since 2010, when it sold Miramax after 17 years of ownership.
Considered one of, if not the most prolific arthouse film studio, Fox Searchlight routinely cleans up the awards circuit with smart films from talented filmmakers. In addition to its two major competitors this year, the studio won the Oscar for best picture in 2013 and 2014 for 12 Years a Slave and Birdman, respectively, and in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire. That’s in addition to Fox’s main film branch, 20th Century Fox, the studio behind even more awards-friendly mid-budget movies of late, including The Post, Hidden Figures, and The Revenant.
Disney, meanwhile, doesn’t much care about Oscars: It cares about money. The studio discovered that releasing a small amount of big, expensive films is more lucrative than releasing a large number of small films. Disney distributed just eight feature films in 2017, a slate three times smaller than Fox’s film divisions’, and three movies fewer than the output of Fox Searchlight alone. Though Iger has said he “fully intends to stay in [the Fox Searchlight] business,” there’s legitimate anxiety around Hollywood that Disney’s takeover of Fox could not only mean fewer riskier films, but also fewer films for fans to watch in general.
In any event, we won’t know for at least a year. Disney and Fox executives expect the regulatory process to take between 12 and 18 months before the deal can close. One way for Fox Searchlight proponents to help persuade Iger and company to keep their hands off the indie studio in the mean time is to, you know, actually go to the movies.