20th Century Fox, Disney and the Future of “Home Video”

When Disney purchased 20th Century Fox it acquired not only its intellectual property and in-production franchises, but also Fox’s film and television archive. I know that sounds obvious, but most coverage of the merger focuses on Disney’s stranglehold on the theatrical box office and who owns what superhero. You know, the “important” shit. (Pardon my expletive, but this post needs some fucking language.) Putting it mildly, Fox has been around for a very long time and made a lot of goddamn wonderful movies.

Pre 20th century fox
The Fox Film logo – before the merger with Twentieth Century.

A Brief History of 20th Century Fox

Hungarian-born newsboy turned mogul William Fox formed Fox Film Corporation on February 1, 1915 as the successor to his earlier projects, the Greater New York Film Rental Company and Box Office Attractions Film Company. Fox helped initiate the movie business’s move from New York to Hollywood in 1917 when he set up West Coast production facilities because the climate was more hospitable for filmmaking. In 1926 he bought the patents for the Movietone sound system – the sound-on-film method for recording synchronized picture and sound on the same strip of film. F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) became the first film released with Movietone. The film included music and sound effects and a few unsynchronized words. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the near bankrupt William Fox was stripped of his film empire and Fox Film and its more than 500 theaters went into receivership.

Created in 1933 by Joseph Schenck (former president of United Artists) and Darryl F. Zanuck (former studio executive and producer at Warner Bros.), Twentieth Century Pictures was an independent production company that distributed through United Artists and leased studio space at Samuel Goldwyn Studios. After a failure to merge with United Artists in 1934 (blame Mary Pickford), Schenck and Zanuck turned their attentions to failing Fox Studios. A hostile takeover later, 20th Century-Fox was born in 1935.

20th century fox logo

Among the studio’s first contracted stars were Tyrone Power, Carmen Miranda, Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Betty Grable, and perhaps most importantly, Shirley Temple – the child actress who shepherded the young studio through the Great Depression.

For the next 83 years, 20th Century-Fox (the hyphen was dropped in the 80s when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired the studio) was one of the “Big Six” American film studios. That’s a lot of movies. That’s a lot of history. And now Disney owns it all. Once everyone gets over the fact that Marvel has the X-Men back (mock cheer), there’s going to be a reckoning and a seismic shift in the way we’re allowed to consume media.

The Future of Fox Repertory Screenings

Disney has long held a policy to restrict the screening of its films by first-run or commercial discount cinemas. After the acquisition of 20th Century Fox, the Little Theatre in Rochester, NY was informed that their screening of Fight Club would no longer take place as scheduled. As expected, the Disney no-exhibition policy has been applied to Fox’s expansive catalog as well – the exception being the midnight-mainstay The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

rocky horror 20th century fox

It’s not exactly that clear cut, however. Disney places theaters into two categories: “repertory” or “commercial.” Commercial theaters can screen Disney’s first-run features, but can’t play catalog titles. If the theater has “repertory” designation it can play old movies, but not first-run. Disney did not consult anyone about these designations. Successful appeals have been made, but as many programmers have pointed out, it’s not realistic to designate theaters as either one or the other. Many independent theaters that program repertory must balance their programming to stay afloat by running first-run features. No other major studio has such a policy — and this will undoubtedly cripple the available titles for many small-town locally-owned theaters.

And How This Applies to Home Video

While repertory theaters flounder in the dark, trying to navigate the obstacle course placed in front of them – home video consumers also sense the coming of a chilly winter where Disney expands their “vault” to include any number of Fox catalog titles.

Disney launches its brand new streaming service Disney+ on December 11. For $7 a month, subscribers can access almost everything the company creates. In addition to its Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and classic animation, the service will offer a significant number of original shows and movies. Jeff Goldblum’s show about whatever, The Mandalorian, and She-Hulk (and dozens of other Marvel properties) have been buzzy members of the lineup. With the addition of Fox, you’ll also see all 30 seasons of The Simpsons, for example, alongside the integration of classic Fox programming like The Sound of Music. Disney has also promised the “reimagining” of Fox franchises “for a new generation” is also in the works. (They’ve threatened a Home Alone reboot.)

Most everyone has made the logical assumption that Disney+ represents the next step in home viewership. The future of physical media is imperiled. Most statistics show that sales of physical media has fallen off a table during the last five years. Citing decreased sales at big box stores like Best Buy (not that they care about anything but selling big ticket items anymore) the numbers show that consumer spending has dropped from $10.3 billion in 2014 to $5.8 billion in 2018. Overall consumer spending, however, increased due to investments in streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. (Subscribe to the Criterion Channel, btw.)

niche blu-ray distributors

For the time being, however, studios are still releasing physical media and niche distributors like Kino (I highlighted the Kino Studio Classics line a couple years ago), Twilight Time, Arrow, Criterion are still pumping out discs. Prognosticators have been predicting the demise of DVD for years, but many of us are still on the front lines of this war, attempting to ensure that we’re allowed to own movies, in our home, for the foreseeable future. And that idea of ownership is going to become a crucial part of this new digital future.

If Disney attempts to force everything it owns onto this streaming service, logically they’re going to want to restrict repeat home viewership outside this paywall. If the only way to see these films is through a streaming platform, its in their best interest to make sure that you’re reliant upon this service to view your favorite Disney (and Fox films). Why would they go through the trouble of marketing and releasing a physical disc when they can curate a captive audience already mindlessly flipping through options for the next piece of digital chaff. The allure of pushing a button and queuing up unlimited entertainment sounds wonderful. The history of film at your fingertips! But that will never, ever, ever, ever be the case and it’s time that we, as a film community, broadcast the inherent fallacy of “everything available all the time” to the widest possible audience.

Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes, also coincidentally a 20th Century Fox property.

The Future of Ownership

While many celebrate these developments, I can’t help but equate the ultimate outcome of the streaming war with the ending of Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston storms the beach, spots the sunken Statue of Liberty and recognizes that humanity has destroyed itself. Embracing this streaming future also means you no longer own anything. Disney and all the other potential streaming platforms want you to pay in perpetuity for the right to view these movies – movies we once owned on Betamax, VHS, CED, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, 4K and viewed for free whenever the hell we wanted.

What is a lover of all movies to do about this? Classic film has already been rendered a second class citizen. Netflix, for example, has dispatched most movies on its service made before 2010 in favor of its own original programming — some of which has pushed TV into new and inspired directions. That said, this generation that relies on streaming for 99% of its viewing will just not watch classic film because it’s not available at the touch of a button.

Buying physical copies of movies has become conscientious objection. Every time we buy a Blu-ray we’re making a statement that physical media matters, that owning and curating a collection of movies matter. It’s an interesting development, really, considering that only a little more than 30 years ago people thought they’d won the jackpot by being able to buy Top Gun on VHS for $14.95. What’s really happening is that studios have found a way to put that genie back in the bottle. They want to regain control over their properties – something they lost when they opened up their libraries and found themselves surprised that consumers actually wanted to own the movies they’d deemed largely without value. They proceeded to inefficiently milk that home video teet for decades as they fought format wars, modified movies “to fit your screen,” and released the same films over and over and over again while other wonderful properties gathered dust (but that’s a complaint for an entirely different tirade).

top gun vhs
Sorry, Disney. Maverick’s gives his flybys to Paramount.

Many of us have come to the conclusion that we should purchase 20th Century Fox catalog titles while we still can. For example, the aforementioned niche distributor Twilight Time has had a long relationship with Fox – releasing dozens of titles on Blu-ray that have never otherwise seen the light of day. It’s no stretch of the imagination to assume that the tide of titles supplied to them will soon run dry (if it hasn’t already) as Disney gathers up its belongings and refuses to let anyone else play with them. Twilight Time wooed studios with their business model of releasing only 3,000 units of any title supplied to them, after which distribution reverted back to the original company. The cap on the number of units made wary studios a little more comfortable about loaning out their properties. Listen to the Pure Cinema Podcast episode focusing on Twilight Time for a more in-depth conversation about the label.

Buy 20th Century Fox Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

Twilight Time has just started a big sale during the month of September with many of its 20th Century Fox titles included. (I’ll highlight a number of recommended titles in a future post.) We should all be worried that these more obscure catalog titles will disappear forever once the 3,000 discs produced by Twilight Time have been sold. For a company as large as Disney, it would be wasted dollars bringing these to their streaming service since the financial gain from these films would be immaterial. If you want them, buy them now. You’ll regret it when they’re gone for good.

My Twilight Time shelfie.

It’s important to note that we don’t know any of this for sure – but we don’t *know* largely in the same way that we don’t know that it will necessarily be sunny in Los Angeles at some point next month. We’re staring at the future and it’s okay to want to be a part of it, but if you’re not also making sure that you’re gathering your essentials for the coming upheaval of man by a faction of hyper-intellectual apes, you also can’t say you didn’t see this coming.

Also, it should be noted that supporting physical media and allowing streaming services to supplement your viewing regimen is not sleeping with the enemy. You’re also not a heathen for choosing either side of the divide. I know many people who just don’t care — who think that whatever entertainment pops up on Netflix or Amazon Prime is good enough. I — like many of you — don’t want just “good enough.” I want access to all of the movies I love — and the potential to view all the movies I’ve yet to experience. We should all want this.