Disney’s $71.3 billion purchase of the film and TV assets held by 21st Century Fox — the company behind everything from the Alien movies to The Simpsons — is one of the biggest media mergers ever. It also marks the first time a major movie studio has simply ceased to exist as an independent entity since the decay of MGM in the 1980s, taking the number of big movie studios in Hollywood from six down to five (Disney, Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, and Paramount).
And as of 12:02 am Eastern time on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, the merger is officially complete.
In this era of ever-accelerating media consolidation, the implications of this deal are pretty staggering — not to mention alarming to anyone who’s at all concerned about said consolidation. And if you’re an employee of either Disney or the former Fox, the threat of expected layoffs hangs over your head. So the deal comes complete with lots of dark portents.
But not everything is set in stone about how this new mega-company will function. There’s still plenty that even the people working for Fox and Disney don’t know about how the company will be structured. There are early plans, of course, but making something work on paper is very different from making it work in reality, and more questions are sure to be raised. Many of these questions will be answered in the coming months, while some will take years to figure out.
But there are some things we do know. Here are five big takeaways from the Disney/Fox deal, and what they mean for the entertainment industry.
1) Disney just purchased a boatload of movies and TV shows, a movie studio, a bunch of TV networks, and a controlling stake in Hulu
The most popular interpretation of just why Disney CEO Robert Iger decided to spend more than $70 billion — and fend off a late challenge from Comcast that almost sent the deal in a very different direction — is that he’s stocking up for the long winter ahead. In this case, the “long winter” is the streaming apocalypse, when every media company in existence tries to convince you to subscribe to its streaming service by any means necessary.
When viewed through that lens, the merger becomes centered on the idea that you could flip on Disney+ (the Disney streaming service that’s expected to launch in late 2019) and find titles not just from Disney and its associated brands (Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, etc., etc.) but now also from Fox and its associated brands.
Titanic could nestle in alongside The Avengers, and How I Met Your Mother could live alongside Grey’s Anatomy (at least once Grey’s current deal with Netflix expires). Disney now owns Fox’s entire film and TV libraries — which is to say every movie and TV show made by 20th Century Fox — and has thousands of titles newly at its fingertips.
It’s also gained a few movie studios — most notably 20th Century Fox and its associated prestige films arm Fox Searchlight — as well as a bunch of TV networks, most notably FX and National Geographic Channel. (Disney does not own the Fox TV network, for reasons we’ll get to in a second.) That gives Disney, which has long been associated with family entertainment, a whole bunch of new brands that are more closely associated with stories aimed at adults. And both Fox Searchlight and FX are major awards contenders, year in and year out, at the Oscars and Emmys, respectively.
Finally, Disney now owns Fox’s 30 percent stake in Hulu. Since it already owned 30 percent of Hulu prior to the Fox deal, its ownership stake in the streaming service is now 60 percent, making it the majority owner. The remaining 40 percent is held in a 30/10 split by NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia, and though we still don’t know whether Disney will try to buy it up, I wouldn’t be surprised, for reasons outlined here.
2) Fox Corp still exists, independent from Disney. It’s primarily a news and sports company now, though it does still own the Fox TV network.
Rupert Murdoch isn’t going anywhere (well, beyond the fact that he’s very old and is increasingly turning control of his company over to his sons). Always a newsman at heart, he’s now almost completely out of the entertainment business.
What’s left for Murdoch are his many, many publications (the Wall Street Journal among them) as part of the company News Corp, and then the various holdings of Fox Corp, including Fox Sports, Fox News, and the Fox TV network. (That last one is still at Fox Corp because no one corporation can own more than one broadcast network, and Disney already owned ABC.) Also — and this is neither here nor there, but I find it fascinating — former House Speaker Paul Ryan is now on the company’s board of directors.
The fortunes of Fox Corp, then, are tied ever more tightly to its conservative-skewing news network, its access to an NFL package, and reality television.
The Fox TV network, in particular, is going to suffer somewhat for losing access to the Fox TV studio, which produced most of the shows that actually air on it, but it has also locked down The Simpsons and its other animated comedies for the next one to two years. (It can also continue to buy programming from any studio it wants, including Disney/Fox. That’s just a less lucrative option. For more on why that’s true, read this.)
And as the success of The Masked Singer showed earlier this year, the Fox network can still launch a big show when it wants to. It’s just unlikely to invest heavily in expensive scripted programming when it could do just as well (if not better) with sports, cable news blowhards, and reality spectacles.
3) Marvel once again has access to the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters
Much of the media attention around this merger has centered on how the Disney-owned Marvel Studios will once again gain access to the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters, whose rights were sold to 20th Century Fox in the 1990s, when Marvel (which wasn’t yet part of Disney back then) was going through financial problems.
Considering how well-known the X-Men are, in particular, this deal could be a big boon to Marvel, but just how the characters will be used in future movies is a big question going forward. For now, at least, the upcoming X-Men films Dark Phoenix (June 2019) and New Mutants (August 2019) are continuing apace, under the 20th Century Fox banner.
Everything else we know amounts to rumor, but there are some juicy rumors. So I’ll link to one and leave it at that.
4) There are still so many questions going forward
Well, not “questions,” exactly, but scenarios where the structure of the new Disney/Fox behemoth doesn’t make a ton of sense. Officially, Disney says it’s keeping Blue Sky Studios, the Fox animation arm responsible for movies like the Ice Age series and The Peanuts Movie, up and running. But it already has Disney Animation and Pixar under its umbrella. Does it really need a third animation studio dedicated to computer-generated cartoons?
With that said, Disney needs to ramp up production in order to compete with Netflix, WarnerMedia, and other major entertainment behemoths, so maybe having three animation studios making a movie per year isn’t a bad idea, especially for a company so associated with family entertainment. But this one example points to the kinds of redundancies that are inevitable in such a massive merger.
And if you replicate those kinds of redundancies over and over and over again, all across both companies, there’s a reason lots of layoffs — perhaps as many as 10,000 — are expected.
5) We’re living in a scary new era of media consolidation
The quick and obvious take on the Disney/Fox deal is that media consolidation, already bad, is only getting worse. It’s been ages and ages since a major Hollywood studio just … disappeared, and now one that seemed pretty healthy before all of this happened has been consumed by a bigger corporation. Something very similar happened with AT&T and WarnerMedia. The big fish are eating each other, and soon there may only be one left.
The standard rebuttal to this concern is that tech companies can come in and “disrupt” the entertainment industry and the media and shake things up to create room for new voices. And maybe that will happen! Certainly, Netflix has become a Hollywood heavyweight in record time, and its movie Roma won three Oscars at the 2019 ceremony.
But for the most part, tech companies have built really great aggregators of content that comes from elsewhere. Outside of a handful of Netflix projects, there aren’t any real roaring successes directly produced by companies within the tech industry — and you can’t create great art, or even popular art, simply by throwing money at it, something Hollywood knows all too well.
Now that Fox is part of Disney, it’s hard to imagine that we’re not heading toward a universe where essentially all the major media companies in the world are owned by three or maybe four parent companies. And while the most obvious concerns surrounding that possibility stem from how news might take on corporate interests, there are a host of others that range from the political to the artistic.
Suffice to say that having one less major studio isn’t a great sign for the health of the American entertainment industry, for the future prospects of film lovers, or for anybody who read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas and recoiled a bit after learning that in his futuristic, dystopian society where humans are literal corporate cattle, movies are called “Disneys.”