Who runs the film studio? Who gets the keys to the TV kingdom? And will a Murdoch be in line for Bob Iger’s throne?
There are more questions than answers as the possibility of Disney acquiring the 20th Century Fox studio and other significant assets from 21st Century Fox appears to be gaining steam. CNBC reported Tuesday morning that a deal valued at $60 billion or more could be struck as early as next week.
It’s understood that high-level Disney and Fox executives had substantive conversations during the Thanksgiving holiday break. But sources at both Disney and Fox say there has been no formal communication with the rank-and-file about the prospect of a deal. The silence has led to much nervous speculation about how a Disney-Fox marriage would be structured, and what it would mean for senior leaders on both sides. Sources cautioned that the talks remain in the delicate stage with no certainty of a deal coming to fruition. But that hasn’t stopped industry insiders from speculating about what the combination of two historic Hollywood brands might look like after the dust settles.
One of the most intriguing questions posed by what would be a historic union of two Hollywood studios is whether the Fox deal could also provide an answer to the drawn-out process of finding a successor for Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger. Peter Rice, the Fox Networks Group chief who was recently promoted to president of 21st Century Fox, has been seen as a candidate even before the merger discussions took root. Twenty-First Century Fox CEO James Murdoch and executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch would emerge from the proposed stock transaction with big stakes in Disney, thanks to the Murdoch clan’s holdings. It might be hard to imagine a Murdoch working for another media giant, but already there’s been speculation that James might seek a role overseeing international TV operations. Sky and Star TV are businesses he helped grow before climbing into the corporate executive suite a few years ago. Lachlan Murdoch, meanwhile, might be more inclined to stay involved with the assets that don’t go to Disney: Fox News, Fox Sports, Fox Broadcasting, and the TV station group.
Twenty-First Century Fox CEO James Murdoch praised the one-year-old regime of Stacey Snider at 20th Century Fox for putting the film studio in “a good place” creatively. But would Snider maintain her perch if the studio is sold to Disney? Perhaps 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight would endure as a specialty labels within Disney’s film universe, which also includes such content engines as Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and, of course, Walt Disney Pictures. Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn has had the hottest hand of any studio chief in recent history— thanks in part to the wealth of material at his disposal.
Would there be enough breathing room in the kingdom for Snider to stick around under Horn? Or might she be asked to serve as the sorcerer’s apprentice for a period? Horn, who has been in the role since 2012, turns 75 in February. Disney has faced criticism for its lack of female division heads, and Snider does have a deep resume, having run Universal, DreamWorks and Fox. Some in Hollywood said they could imagine Fox as a stand-alone production unit inside Disney, making more original movies in the vein of Fox’s upcoming awards contender “The Post,” a period drama about the Washington Post during the Watergate era, while Disney continues to focus on the big tentpoles.
The formidable 20th Century Fox Television production operation is a crown jewel in the Fox empire. The mothership studio has a deep library and dozens of shows in production at any given time — with notable recent success stories including NBC’s “This Is Us” and Fox’s “Empire.” The Fox 21 Television Studios arm focuses on cable and streaming outlets. Together they deliver a wealth of mostly scripted TV series content that travels the globe. There is no question that Fox’s TV operation is larger and more profitable than Disney’s ABC Studios unit, which has been beefing up its talent roster and diversifying under the direction of president Patrick Moran. Would size win out? It’s hard to imagine Disney maintaining parallel TV production operations.
A tricky consideration here is that the 20th TV studio bosses — Dana Walden and Gary Newman — also oversee the Fox broadcast network, which is not among the assets Disney is angling to buy (for starters, FCC rules prohibit one company from owning more than one of the Big Four networks). The deal as it stands will put Walden and Newman, who have been professional partners since 1999, at a crossroads with some of their turf left behind no matter which way they go. Unless, of course, Disney has bigger plans for the pair, or Walden and Newman have their own plans. Walden’s name has surfaced as being on Jeff Bezos’ wish-list for the vacancy at Amazon Studios.
The valuation of Fox’s FX Networks cable group has to come with a special premium for the Landgraf factor. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf is one of the most respected programmers and mangers of creative talent in the industry. He has been on the short list for major network and studio job openings for a decade. At FX, he’s built a loyal team of executives who have punched above their weight with a mix of high-brow prestige programs (“The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” “The Americans”) and edgy crowd-pleasers (“American Horror Story,” “Sons of Anarchy”).
Given this track record, it would not be surprising to see Landgraf and Co. courted for a bigger profile within an enlarged Disney TV group. Of course, such a move would have implications for existing Disney/ABC TV Group brass starting with president Ben Sherwood.
The National Geographic Channels group, headed by Courteney Monroe, would likely remain an autonomous entity even after a sale as Fox owns most, but not all, of that joint venture with the National Geographic Society.
Meanwhile, the 22 regional Fox Sports cable channels would easily fold into the ESPN operation, which has long operated autonomously from Disney/ABC TV Group. Fox’s national Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 cable networks are not part of the sale equation as those would surely raise red flags on an anti-trust basis if combined with ESPN. ESPN has not been in the regional sports network business — but the expansion with the Fox RSNs might still prove a hurdle on the regulatory front.
Fox’s collection of 300-plus international cable channels, its stake in Euro satcaster Sky and the growing Star India TV business are a big part of the deal’s appeal for Disney. The international TV assets aren’t as high-profile as the Hollywood brand names but they represent huge growth potential in an area where Disney is lagging its traditional media rivals. With little overlap, Disney would probably seek to keep existing management in place, at least for the near term.
(Pictured: Stacey Snider, Peter Rice, John Landgraf, Dana Walden, and Gary Newman)