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These are interesting times for the film industry, and the latest reports suggest they could yet get stranger. According to CNBC, Disney is looking to expand once again, and this time they've actually set their sights on rival studio 21st Century Fox. Fox is said to believe that a more tightly-knit, focused property would be more competitive in the current market. As a result, the two companies entered into talks to sell both the movie studio and "significant TV production assets."
Negotiations would be complex, and CNBC reports that they're currently on hold. No doubt Disney would have to tread very carefully, as it would be in danger of establishing a monopoly on certain key aspects of the film and TV industry. Disney couldn't own two broadcast networks, for example, and also wouldn't buy Fox's sports assets. That said, they would also add entertainment networks such as FX and National Geographic to their portfolio.
It's staggering and unprecedented news, giving a fresh sense of just how ambitious Disney really is. The company has grown at a rate of knots over the last decade, most notably through smart acquisitions. Disney famously purchased Marvel back in 2009, for example, and Lucasfilm in 2012. The House of Mouse plans to launch its own streaming service in 2019, and adding Fox properties to that site would make it even more attractive.
Again, it's worth stressing that CNBC reports the talks are currently no longer active. But for a moment, let's exercise a little imagination and speculate on what such a deal could mean for one specific area of Fox's business: their superhero films.
What impact would this have on Fox's superhero properties?
Back in the '90s, before they even had their own studio house, Marvel staved off bankruptcy by selling the film rights to various characters. As a result, Fox currently own the film rights to Marvel's merry mutants, as well as to the Fantastic Four. (This is also why Sony has the rights to Spider-Man.) Although there have long been rumors of heated dispute between Marvel and Fox, things seem to have calmed down a lot in the last two years. Marvel Television is even working with Fox on two popular and critically-acclaimed TV shows, Legion and The Gifted.
Fans have long dreamed of a day when the film rights for all Marvel characters were returned, longing to see Wolverine stand side-by-side with Captain America on the big screen. Disney's acquisition of Fox would make that feasible for the first time.
But would that really be such a good thing? It's true that Fox's tentpole X-Men movies have been of varying quality. They kicked off back in 2000, when studios weren't so confident that superheroes could actually be blockbuster hits in their own right. As a result, Fox chose to "earth" the franchise, and we only really saw the X-Men embrace superhero costumes in last year's X-Men: Apocalypse. So, looking at the tentpole movies, you can easily understand why fans would be delighted to see the X-Men return to Marvel.
If you cast your eyes to the wider X-Men slate of films though, you get a different picture. The last two years have seen Fox take a much more experimental approach to superheroes than before, with Deadpool and Logan proving to be tremendous successes. Both films would have been decidedly off-brand for Marvel Studios, as would Josh Boone's New Mutants trilogy, scheduled to launch in 2019. Marvel Studios would never produce a raunchy comedy like Deadpool, a brutal Western like Logan, or a straight-out superhero horror film like New Mutants.
Meanwhile, it's also worth noting that Marvel ownership of the X-Men would probably result in fewer X-Men films. Fox is currently working on one tentpole film every two years, with at least one spinoff every year. 2018 will actually see Fox release no less than three superhero movies, matching Marvel's output. There's simply no way Marvel Studios would be able to release six movies in a year, so the rate at which X-Men films were produced would have to drop.
With fewer X-Men movies being made, we'd also expect an increased focus on core characters — namely, the X-Men themselves. Imagine a scenario where Marvel had to choose between a surefire success tentpole movie and a debatable, lower-profile spinoff.
A Wiser Choice
From a business perspective, this approach simply wouldn't make sense. It would see the X-Men return to Marvel, but also possibly see most of the franchise's value effectively wasted. This points to a different route, one that seems far wiser.
Rather than merge in the traditional sense, Disney could choose to run Fox as a separate studio, producing films that were branded under its own identity. It's actually the same approach Disney has taken with Lucasfilm and #Marvel, allowing both studios to run relatively independently, producing content under their own respective brands. That's why you see a "Marvel" logo at the beginning of Thor: Ragnarok; Disney understand that the separate brand has a power of its own.
This arm's-length approach could allow things to effectively run as they are today, albeit under Disney's oversight. In this scenario, the X-Men would remain separate from the Avengers, and the Disney-owned Fox studio would be allowed to continue its experimental vein. You would, however, expect to see the MCU and Marvel movies complement one another, and characters would transition from one branch to the other with a lot less difficulty.
(The Fantastic Four, in desperate need of another reboot after the failed 2015 Josh Trank movie, would be a much easier fit for the MCU.)
Right now, this is all hypothetical. According to CNBC, the talks are currently stalled. That said, the reports stress that Fox doesn't believe they have the scale to compete in the current media landscape, and that's unlikely to have changed. The example of the #XMen franchise is an important one, demonstrating that business needs — rather than fan dreams — will dictate the shape of the final organization, and the precise placement of the film rights.
If Fox and Disney do indeed go back to the negotiation table, it will be fascinating to see the final impact.