Disney Deal Could Redraw Fox's Animation Business

Ferdinand Still - Publicity - Embed 2017
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Fox's Blue Sky Studios has produced hits like the 'Ice Age' franchise, but now will be under the same roof as Pixar and Disney Animation.

With Thursday's news that the Walt Disney Co. is acquiring 21st Century Fox's entertainment assets for $52.4 billion, the future of Fox's animation business is now in question.

Since Disney already houses Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, arguably the two biggest brands in feature animation, will the new mega-studio have room for Fox Animation and the Fox-owned Blue Sky Studios?

Based in Greenwich, Connecticut, Blue Sky launches its newest animated feature, Ferdinand, on Friday. But Blue Sky's most valuable property is its Ice Age franchise, which has earned more than $6 billion since the original 2002 animated feature debuted, spawning four sequels as well as several animated TV specials and shorts.

"They are nervous," one source in the tight-knit animation community confides, although he cautions it's "too early to tell" how the Disney-Fox merger could play out.

Animation Guild business representative Jason McLeod describes the present moment as "a wait-and-see situation. At this point, there aren't enough details about what might happen to provide an informed comment."

Observes USC animation professor Tim Sito, "Blue Sky is a profitable studio, so I don't think Disney would phase them out."

But, Sito adds, it "will have an effect on the way animated films are distributed. Many animated features are released around this holiday time and early summer in close competition with one another. Currently, Blue Sky's Ferdinand is about to go up against Pixar's Coco and Sony's The Star. Disney is quite shrewd in the way they release their animated features, so as not to step over one another. I would expect they would shift the dates of a Blue Sky release clear of any Pixar, Disney product."

After Ferdinand, Blue Sky's next scheduled feature release is Spies in Disguise, based on Lucas Martell's 2009 animated short Pigeon: Impossible and featuring a voice cast that includes Will Smith and Tom Holland. It is slated for a Jan. 18, 2019, release, just a few weeks ahead of Warners' The Lego Movie Sequel, which is set to open Feb. 8, 2019. Beyond that, there's Blue Sky's adaptation of the graphic novel Nimona, which is dated for Feb. 14, 2020.

Blue Sky was founded in 1987 just outside New York City by a small team that included Chris Wedge, the Oscar-winning director of the 1998 animated short Bunny as well as such features as Ice Age. The studio originally turned out commercials and other short-film work, moving into feature animation with Ice Age in 1999 following its acquisition by Fox. Blue Sky releases have also included the Rio franchise, The Peanuts Movie and Horton Hears a Who!.

Its new movie Ferdinand, based on Munro Leaf's children's book about a bull who doesn't like to fight, earned two Golden Globe nominations earlier this week for best animated feature and best original song.

To bolster its family-friendly offerings, Fox has also announced Ron's Gone Wrong, a new project from its co-production deal with the U.K.'s Locksmith Animation. It is set for a Nov. 6, 2020, release — just a few weeks before the Nov. 25 date Disney Animation has reserved for an untitled project.

Outside of kids' movies, Fox also is developing animated features for a more adult audience. In October, Fox Animation announced a feature based on its successful TV series Bob's Burgers, which is due out in theaters July 17, 2020. That is just a week before the July 24 date secured for an untitled Sony Pictures Animation title and just a month after the June 19 date currently being held for an untitled Pixar film.

And just this month, Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, the animation company behind the long-running Adult Swim series Robot Chicken, signed a first-look deal with Fox Animation, setting up the Untitled Sword Project.

Given Fox both produces its own animated movies and also deals with outside suppliers, another animation insider notes, "The troubling thing about Disney buying Fox's animation assets isn't just the potential of losing Blue Sky as a studio to work for, but the loss of Fox as a studio to distribute indie animation films. Will Disney be as interested in releasing a film like Jorge R. Gutiérrez's Book of Life [which Fox released in 2014]? What other animated films may or may not get released?"

Fox's approach to animation has been going through some changes. With last spring's Captain Underpants, Fox completed its distribution deal with DreamWorks Animation, which was acquired by NBCUniversal in the spring of 2016 and which will release future titles via Universal. In that acquisition, DWA became part of the same company as the Despicable Me franchise's Illumination Entertainment. At that time, many similarly questioned DWA's future under the same roof as Illumination, but so far both animations studios are coexisting.

Fox Animation also has new leadership: In late October Andrea Miloro and Robert Baird were named co-presidents, with oversight of Fox Animation and Blue Sky. They succeeded Vanessa Morrison, who was named president of Fox Family.

Of course, before Disney can decide what do with Fox and Blue Sky, it must first address the leadership question at its own Pixar and Disney Animation, where last month, chief creative officer John Lasseter announced that he would take a leave of absence amid allegations of misconduct.

Mia Galuppo contributed to this report.