I Ran the Fox Studio and Here's a Secret: Murdoch Hated Movie People (Guest Column)

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Rupert Murdoch in 2003.

As Disney unveils a $52.4 billion deal to buy 21st Century Fox assets, former executive Bill Mechanic looks back on his time at both companies.

At various points in my career I’ve had a stake in both Disney and Fox, so 21st Century Fox’s decision to sell to Disney fills me with ambivalence. On one hand, it’s a tragedy for the movie world: there’ll be fewer films, fewer jobs, less diversity — and we’re already in arguably the worst era of film in history. A great brand will all but disappear. That’s especially heartbreaking for me, because I took Fox from worst-performing major to box-office leader and hired so many of the people who will now be displaced.

But it’s also a great moment, because we’re free of Rupert Murdoch, who hated the business. He hated movie people, thought they were pampered and bleeding hearts. I remember once he went on a diatribe about how lazy everyone was. I snapped back: “The only car I see here on the weekends is mine!” — I never saw his car there. At least that gave him a reason to hate me.

Well before I went to Fox, in 1984 I joined newly appointed Disney chairman Michael Eisner, president Frank Wells and motion picture chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, initially to help them build up the dormant film company. The campus felt more like a funeral parlor than a movie studio: perfect sculpted shrubs and lots of people sitting on park benches with nothing to do. Disney was just a theme-park and licensing business back then. But with the success of its Touchstone label and animated films, we turned that company into an industry leader and left it strong enough that when Bob Iger took over, he could grow it into a juggernaut big enough to swallow Fox.

I moved to Fox in 1993. I remember my interview with Murdoch, who I thought was just another “rail baron,” concerned with profit and loss, not a power-monger. As I drove to his office, I thought, well, Fox has the best location of all the studios, and since Barry Diller had been there as chairman, at least the place would be immaculate. But when I pulled up, the sign above the gate said: FOX F__ M COM_PAN_. Rather than pristine, it was like Dickens’ Satis House. Later, I learned he was planning to sell the Fox lot, which I told him would make us no better than a banker. The Fox history was what defined us.

As chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, I had nothing to do with the television network (still in its infancy), but I did usher in the Marvel films and the X-Men franchise, which led the way for the comic-book world so dominant today. While I was there, we also launched Blue Sky, Fox Animation and Fox Searchlight (first under Tom Rothman, later Peter Rice). I take great pride in how Fox’s film labels have done. Even though I haven’t worked for Rupert Murdoch since 2000, I’m thrilled by their success.

But if Fox is being sold now, that is because of its failure, not its success.

This may be a move by Disney to position itself for the future, but it’s also a sign Fox doesn’t know how to do so. Sure, the company recently changed its name to 21st Century Fox, but it remains 20th Century Fox in the mind of its leaders.

The Disney I joined with the Michael Eisner regime and the Fox I went to in the early days of its television empire were built on energy, imagination, daring and drive. The Fox sale is a concession that those qualities are sorely lacking.

Perhaps the greatest thing Fox has lacked under Murdoch is a culture of values. Between the phone hacking scandal in the U.K. and the mess at Fox News, ethical compliance was never asked for and never achieved.

There’s a multitude of reasons why Fox decided to sell — the failure to buy the rest of Sky; the abysmal performance of its digital ventures (remember MySpace?); the middling result of its film slate — but the biggest reason is that Rupert has an affinity for news, and little else.

The Disney deal is all about Fox’s TV strengths, rather than its historic movie tradition; and it’s hard to imagine Fox’s film group staying intact when the acquisition is finalized. While there are film assets of value, none is a deal driver the way it might be for an Amazon or Netflix (which in any case seems to have no interest in film, other than as another product to stream).

I’m sure Disney’s happy to bring two of Fox’s most popular franchises, X-Men and Fantastic Four, into its fold, but the reality is Marvel’s made more out of less with its characters, while Fox has made less out of more: Thor, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are far bigger movie franchises than those Fox controls, and X-Men has been feeling tired after a 17-year run.

Blue Sky Studios has even less deal value: Ice Age has been pounded into the ground, and Fox has no other ongoing animation franchise — as if Disney needs help with animation. As for its Avatar series, since Disney already owns the theme park rights, that’s relatively small potatoes.

I always thought Rupert won in business because of two factors: he was the most aggressive person in the media world, and he treated News Corp. like it was his to do with as he pleased. Board meetings when I was there were a joke.

I’ve never worked with Iger, but what he’s done is impressive, and he’s done it within a very public company. He’s acquired strategically and with a vision. Fox has gone from being one of a handful of majors to zero, in the same time Disney has gone from zero to being the biggest major of all. 

In a sense, it’s a Small World after all. Thanks to Disney, it just got smaller.

Bill Mechanic is the CEO of Pandemonium, and served as chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment from 1993 to 1996.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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