'Ready or Not' and Horror's Next Frontier

Fox Searchlight has two upcoming films in the genre, which begs the question of whether that could become a path forward for the studio, which is now owned by Disney.

Ready or Not may not have burned up the box office over the weekend, given the horror-comedy from Fox Searchlight finished in sixth place, taking home $7.6 million, which was less than projected. But does that mean it was a failure? The film from directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett was a hit with critics and received buzz when the first trailer was released in June, and it became a must-see for many horror fans after its premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival in July. It also marked what seemed like a potential new path for Fox Searchlight, now owned by Disney, as a horror hub.

Horror is one of the only genres in which an original film is still able to take a bite out of the big-budget, franchise-dominated box office. Cost-effective and typically leggy, horror has become a reliable and bankable way for studios to populate their release schedules. A number of the major studios have created or partnered with production companies in order to establish film divisions that deal almost exclusively in horror and thriller movies. Warner Bros. has New Line and Dark Castle; Universal formerly had Rogue and now frequently pairs with Blumhouse; Sony has Screen Gems and a partnership with Ghost House; and Paramount has built a long-standing, though not exclusive, relationship with Platinum Dunes. As the landscape of Hollywood continues to shift and IP becomes increasingly important to major studios, it wouldn’t be surprising for more studio horror to find sanctuary within these partnerships. Notably absent from these ventures is Disney, but there may be a way for the studio to make its own mark on horror, a genre never lacking for new ideas and possibilities. 

Disney’s plans for 20th Century Fox’s major IP is coming into focus, with the future of AvatarKingsmanX-MenPlanet of the Apes and even Home Alone being developed for future theatrical and Disney+ releases. But as The Hollywood Reporter reported earlier this month, Disney is paring down on Fox’s features, ones that seemingly aren’t guaranteed to be financial hits or fit within the desires of the brand. Amidst a number of scrapped projects that were in development, such as Mouse Guard, and rescheduled films like The Woman in the Window, CEO Bob Iger said during an investors' call that Disney was working “to consolidate and to cut back on the number of releases so as to focus on the kind of release that we hope would come out of that studio." 

When it came to Fox Searchlight, known for specializing in the distribution of indie films, niche genres and European productions, Iger said it will "continue to make the prestige films it’s known for, while expanding its high-quality original storytelling into the [direct-to-consumer] space." But the reality is that Fox Searchlight’s releases are not in Disney’s comfort zone, and the cost and return on those films is often negligible in the scheme of Disney’s high-profile offerings.   

The question is whether filmmakers known for their auteur-driven movies will still find a home at Fox Searchlight, under scrutiny and efforts for Disney to preserve an image that’s become all the more family-friendly since the days of Touchstone. Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch are two of the major releases coming from Fox Searchlight — major for film enthusiasts, that is. But short of Oscar wins, it’s hard not to wonder whether Disney will maintain interest in distributing those kinds of films and paying for marketing that doesn’t draw the crowd it is used to seeing. Horror could be the very thing that keeps Fox Searchlight going and permits Disney a greater freedom with its adult fare.

Last week, the trailers for 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight’s upcoming horror films Underwater and Antlers were released, with both drawing a sizeable amount of interest and excitement. The former stars Kristen Stewart and looks to revive the long-dormant creature-feature aquatic horror that had its heyday in 1989 with The AbyssLeviathan and DeepStar Six, while Antlers, from director Scott Cooper and producer Guillermo del Toro, explores supernatural horror in a small town in Oregon. The likelihood that either is being primed as a franchise starter seems slim, but both look like films that could find an audience. As fear looms that Fox Searchlight will eventually be forced to shutter its doors and the question of what purpose the 20th Century Fox label will serve for Disney lingers, perhaps fear is the very thing that will define the smaller Fox label and be bolstered by abandoned 20th Century Fox projects. 

While it’s unlikely that Fox Searchlight will cater exclusively to darker genre fare anytime soon, that identity may be its future, especially if the box office grosses of Underwater or Antlers prove their viability within Disney’s new identity better than Ready or Not. Nearly every major studio, as invested as they’ve become in blockbuster franchises, has found a home for horror and built up a more diverse array of filmmakers because of it. As Disney’s critics grow increasingly wary about its lack of output of low-budget, original films and its lack of diversity behind the camera, creating a house of horrors within the grand and looming Mouse House could be the thing that proves the studio really is interested in diversifying its output and audience.