Disney-Fox Merger: Combined Box Office Strategy Begins

At the top of Fox food chain is James Cameron's 'Avatar' franchise, which now becomes part of the Empire that Bob Iger Built.

In recent days, 20th Century Fox has been quietly rearranging its release calendar, no doubt in anticipation of the $70 billion-plus Disney-21st Century Fox marriage. Late last week, Fox pushed back the release of Death on the Nile, a star-studded sequel to Murder on the Orient Express, from Dec. 20, 2019, to Oct. 2, 2020.

In its earlier date, Nile would have opened opposite Disney and Lucasfilm's untitled Star Wars: Episode IX. Fox also pushed Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt, from January to late May, while relocating the action-comedy Stuber from May to July.

Federal regulations prohibit Disney and Fox film executives from directly coordinating their efforts during the merger process, but the proverbial handwriting is on the wall. Soon — providing there are no eleventh-hour glitches — Disney will begin releasing titles from a scaled 20th Century Fox proper, Fox Searchlight and Fox 2000, further expanding its ever-growing market share.

On Thursday, Disney announced that 20th Century Fox Film vice chairman and president of production Emma Watts will hold the same title when joining its ranks. Ditto for Searchlight co-chairmen Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley, as well as Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler. All three entities will contribute separately to the already booming Disney portfolio.

"The addition of these respected film groups under the umbrella of The Walt Disney Studios will create endless possibilities as we continue to deliver first-rate motion pictures to audiences around the world," said Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn, to whom the four will report. "This is an experienced group of executives, and [studio president] Alan Bergman and I look forward to welcoming them to our leadership ranks upon completion of the acquisition."

The acquisition of Fox's film assets is the latest coup for Walt Disney Co. chairman-CEO Robert Iger after buying up Pixar Studios, Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios, which co-exist as separate brands alongside Disney's own live-action studio and Disney Animation.

Disney's domination has surged in the past several years. It currently commands an unprecedented 30 percent of market share at the domestic box office, which will only grow upon the Fox merger. Fox's market share is roughly 9 percent; if Disney and Fox were already under one roof, that would equal 40 percent of the marketplace.

Disney's film studio can certainly handle more product. Last year, Disney released only eight films, far fewer than any other major studio. Fox released 14, although Fox isn't expected to have the same volume going forward. Nor is it clear how many films from the various Fox brands will directly feed Disney's streaming services.

The marquee Fox franchises Disney inherits includes James Cameron's Avatar series, while Fox superhero properties such as X-Men and Deadpool are expected to move to Marvel Studios. Watts will continue to shepherd Avatar. The long-in-the-making Avatar sequel, now in production, is set to open in theaters on Dec. 18, 2020. (Disney doesn't have a Star Wars pic set for that corridor.)

Watts will also guide the Kingsman franchise. The third film in the series was recently dated for Nov. 8, 2019, a weekend that doesn't conflict with a film from Disney (Frozen 2 debuts on Nov. 27).

It isn't clear when Disney will take over marketing and distributing Fox films. Sources don't believe that will happen until after Alita: Battle Angel, set for release on Feb. 14 (it was originally set to open Dec. 21). The movie is directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by James Cameron's Lightstorm.

Fox's X-Men spinoff Dark Phoenix could be the first film released by Disney. Its release was recently pushed from February to June 7, a date that doesn't conflict with any movie from Disney.

Other 2019 Fox films include New Mutants (Aug. 2), Spies in Disguise (Sept. 13), Fox 2000's The Woman in the Window (Oct. 4) and The Call of the Wild (Dec. 25). Fox's 2020 release calendar is far less crowded. (That makes sense, since Fox has known about the merger since last December, so has slowed down in terms of dating movies.)

Disney already has an impressive 2019 slate, with many box office observers predicting it will set another industry record. Marvel's Captain Marvel opens March 8, followed by Dumbo (March 29), the second installment in Avengers: Infinity War (May 3), Aladdin (May 24), Toy Story 4 (June 21), The Lion King (July 19), Jungle Cruise (Oct. 11), Frozen 2 (Nov. 27) and Episode IX.