How the Disney Takeover of Hollywood Impacts the Future of Film
By gobbling up Fox, Disney is killing off vestiges of the old studio model's independence.
The fanfare just became a funeral march.
One of the greatest studio logos in film history—20th Century Fox’s thundering drums and searching spotlights—went silent and dark recently as Disney finalized its purchase of the competing studio.
Shareholders—and fanboys who can now imagine Fox’s X-Men and Fantastic Four joining the rest of Disney’s merry Marvel team—may have reason to celebrate. Serious movie fans, though, should mourn.
It’s not just another sign of the Mouse Factory’s mission to engulf and devour everything , as they greedily add a few new, edgier franchises, like Alien and Avatar, to their crowded stable of Muppets, superheroes, Jedi knights and Pixar toys.
It’s the disappearance of a little bit of Hollywood history. And a reminder of how little the word “studio” even means anymore.
The first studios were created by individuals, not conglomerates. Their founders were brash men with big personalities, and they stamped every movie they made with their own hopes and fears.
Doing that, they created brands before “branding” was even a thing. Their own particular styles and sensibilities went into every project they approved, leaving moviegoers knowing just what to expect, right from the moment those studio logos flashed on the screen.
Warner Brothers? That was the dependable home of scrappy and working-class heroes, with stories about cab drivers and secretaries, gangsters and long-haul truckers. Even their musicals were blue-collar, set in Depression-era New York and featuring chorus girls and struggling songwriters.
MGM? As Gene Kelly pronounced in the studio’s Singin’ in the Rain, “Dignity. Always dignity.” Metro was a place of classy best-sellers and classic adaptations, of fake British villages and real English stars, terribly tasteful dramas and gorgeous—but never garish—musicals.
Every studio had its own small specialty.
Paramount was the literary lot, where brilliant wits like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges pushed boundaries (and, sometimes, the censors’ buttons). RKO boasted gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and crisp Art Deco set design. Universal was for kids of all ages, mixing monster movies with Abbott and Costello comedies.
Fox, meanwhile, was as its independent as its boss, Darryl F. Zanuck—and as unlikely to play it safe.
Warner may have sometimes shown a social conscience, but Fox pushed it even further, its The Grapes of Wrath, Gentleman’s Agreement and Pinky talking frankly about class, anti-Semitism, and race. MGM might have Kelly and Judy Garland, but Fox’s musicals were always a little wilder, a little louder. (Of course, having Carmen Miranda under contract didn’t hurt).
And while every studio had its own resident sex symbol, decade after decade, the biggest, boldest beauties always seemed to end up at Fox—whether it was Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe or Raquel Welch. Fox always pushed to deliver more—a devotion that finally proved nearly deadly with enormous money pits like 1963’s Cleopatra and 1967’s Doctor Dolittle.
Times were changing, though, and soon the cocky old moguls disappeared, their studios now part of other, larger corporations that had made their money building parking lots, or selling soda. Movie studios weren’t dream factories anymore. They were another line item on the quarterly report.
Of course, there were those who cheered the end of the old moguls—the Golden Age of Hollywood was basically 40 years of #MeToo. But at least Warner and Mayer and the rest took a certain pride in, and responsibility for, the movies they made. After all, their name was usually there, right in the credits.
But with the conglomerate’s new anonymity came deniability. Those old, personal connections were gone forever.
Does the average moviegoer even know who really runs Paramount or Universal today? If the original Columbia pictures put out a stinker, head honcho Harry Cohn knew someone would blame him for it. But who do you blame now when Sony puts out a flop?
Maybe more to the point: how can you even tell the studios apart? Most of them are as alike as the product they push.
Oh, occasionally, one will show a sudden thrilling burst of personality, like Paramount, a few years back when it took wild (and costly) bets on profoundly difficult movies like mother!, Silence, Downsizing and Suburbicon. But that was then. This year, Paramount didn’t even have a plausible awards-season contender. It’s back to being just another company.
Of course, maybe that’s safer. The irony is that, recently, the studios that have succeeded in developing a signature style only ended up getting bought —by Disney, which then stamped it out.
First it was Miramax, which had spent the ’90s specializing in broad-appeal foreign films and edgy indies but, put under Disney’s control, became just another logo. Then there was the idealistic Pixar which, once firmly under the Mouse’s thumb, began doing some very un-Pixar things, like churning out sequels nobody wanted, and features designed to do little but sell toys.
Now it’s Fox’s turn, and that’s a particular shame. Because while that studio no longer had the singular stamp of Zanuck’s personality, it still retained a willingness to go further than its rivals.
Remember, it was Fox that, under its Fox 2000 label, still put out smart, mid-budgeted, mainstream movies like The Hate U Give, Hidden Figures and The Devil Wears Prada—films with big stars but smart stories too, a niche that apparently interests Disney not at all. They’ve already announced the unit is being shut down. (Fox’s indie arm, Fox Searchlight, seems to have been spared.)
Fox still had some of Zanuck’s brashness, too. When it did do genre, it did it differently, giving us the R-rated gore of Logan, the adults-only humor of Deadpool, the trippy sci-fi of Avatar, the dirty kicks of Kingsman: The Secret Service. It pushed the envelope in comedy, too, eagerly underwriting the rude, crude gags of Seth MacFarlane and The Simpsons.
How is all that going to mesh with Disney’s jealously protected family-friendly image? It will be interesting to see.
And it will be a kind of rough justice if, in gobbling up other people’s brands, one of the oldest and most successful businesses in Hollywood only ends up diluting its own.