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Emma Watts’ Disney Departure Shows That Studios Get Smaller as Movies Get Bigger

At Fox, she ran a studio within the studio. At the global conglomerate of Disney, there's no room for that.

Emma Watts, 20th Century Fox President of Production, speaks at 20th Century Fox 2017 CinemaCon Presentation, in Las Vegas20th Century Fox 2017 CinemaCon Presentation, Las Vegas, USA - 30 Mar 2017

Emma Watts, 20th Century Fox Vice Chairman and President of Production

Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Last March, Emma Watts, Fox vice chairman and president of production at Twentieth Century Fox Film, was a new recruit to Team Disney, shepherding her crew as they were ingested by another studio. She went along for the ride, hoping for the best.

Last week, after 22 years at Fox, Watts bid Disney good-bye, leaving in charge senior executives Scott Aversano, Mike Ireland, and Steve Asbell. While she ran Fox as a studio, she leaves behind a glorified Disney label. Her resignation memo stated her need to “pursue new opportunities.”

While that’s boilerplate language for high-profile executive exits, here it has the added benefit of being true. “They cut her off at the knees,” said one agent. “Fox remains as a pod for Jim Cameron. It’s another sign of the diminishment and Disneyization of that company. They’re dismantling it.”

When Watts started at Fox as a creative executive more than two decades ago, hungry development execs could aspire to run their own labels. If content was the lifeblood, studio production deals and in-house labels were the circulation system. They ensured the volume and variety that studios needed to thrive.

Little by little, that changed. First-look and exclusive production deals have dwindled since the start of the 21st century, but more recently studios have turned down the volume — as well as the variety — in the face of declining box office and streaming competition. The increasing disinterest in original dramas is well documented: In today’s market a studio label is Pixar, or Lucasfilm. These entities are charged with creating not just tentpoles, but billion-dollar IP. In that context, Watts could only face a diminished role.

Two of her signature franchises, “X-Men” and R-rated “Deadpool,” were now in the domain of another label — Kevin Feige’s Marvel. And even if James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” followed last year’s Wolverine finale “Logan” as an Oscar contender, there were too many flops: action comedy “Stuber,” “X-Men” chapter “Dark Phoenix,” and succès d’estime “Ad Astra.” Whatever their faults — poor decisions, execution, or Disney distribution — it dogged her ability to build trust and confidence in her leadership.

“The Fox studio performance was well below where it had been,” Disney CEO Bob Iger told investors in a Q2 2019 earnings call, “and well below where we’d hoped it would be when we made the acquisition.” He said Disney co-chairmen Alan Horn and Alan Bergman would help Watts to “consolidate and to cut back on the number of [Fox] releases so as to focus on the kind of release that we hope would come out of that studio.”

Watts and Mangold

Fox chief Emma Watts and filmmaker James mangold at the Telluride opening day brunch

Anne Thompson

Another Fox release, “The Woman in the Window” starring Amy Adams and produced by Scott Rudin, was pushed out of prime 2019 fall release and into May 2020. Watts was forced to kill several of her babies, including Wes Ball’s $175-million “Mouse Guard,” right before it was to start production. Eyes are on Watts’ first major Disney green light, Ridley Scott’s medieval drama “The Last Duel,” starring Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck, which was on course for a December 25, 2020 awards-qualifying release. Also on deck are James Cameron’s four “Avatar” sequels for 2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027.

Watts also leaves behind Shawn Levy’s “Free Guy” starring Ryan Reynolds as a bank teller who learns he’s a character in a video game. Now in post, it’s scheduled for a July 3 release. Reynolds, who signed a producing deal at Fox in January 2018, tweeted: “Deadpool would never have happened without Emma Watts. And certainly wouldn’t have been as good. I hope to continue working with her wherever she decides to go.”

Ryan Reynolds'Deadpool' panel, Comic-Con International, San Diego, USA - 21 Jul 20182018 Comic-Con International: San Diego Day 3 - Deadpool 2 Panel

Ryan Reynold at the “Deadpool 2” panel at Comic-Con International 2018

Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock

Watts is a tough, opinionated executive who grew up at Fox and boasted both strong development skills and talent relationships. She thrived under mentors Tom Rothman (now at Sony) and Jim Gianopulos (now at Paramount), but tangled with new boss Stacey Snider before making the move to Disney. (Snider has yet to resurface.) Watts is a moviemaker in the Rothman mold, who believes passionately in people and projects and — if it makes for better movies — is willing to take risks and piss off producers and agents along the way.

She pushed Ridley Scott’s Mars drama “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, backed Matt Reeves’ iterations of “Planet of the Apes,” helped save troubled “Bohemian Rhapsody,” launched “The Kingsman” series, and supported not only Hugh Jackman musical “The Greatest Showman” but also Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (and the upcoming “Death on the Nile”), and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “West Side Story.”

"West Side Story"

“West Side Story”

Disney

“Emma is a first-rate movie maker,” Rothman told IndieWire. “She is passionate, professional, and potent. She has strong convictions and the courage and capability to act upon them. She was a great colleague and a fearsome competitor, and I respect her deeply.”

Like Elizabeth Gabler (who planned to join Disney with Fox 2000, but was cut out of the transition and wound up with a producing deal at Sony), and distribution executive Chris Aronson (who joined Paramount), Watts will have plenty of opportunities in Hollywood’s expanding content environment. A studio landing is possible (just as Sony producer Amy Pascal transitioned to Universal), but she’ll likely find more suitors from the deep-pocketed, product-hungry streamers like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix.

Meanwhile, the word “Fox” has been removed from specialty label Searchlight as co-chairmen Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula forge ahead, with more autonomy than Watts’ label and their own distribution and marketing. “Jojo Rabbit” is in the Oscar race, amid some other disappointments, including their pricey $14 million Cannes pickup of Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” which mustered just $3.3 million at the global box office (and no Oscar attention), and lackluster Sundance 2020 landings for Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” and “Force Majeure” remake “Downhill” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell.

Here’s Watts’ departure memo:

Team,

I am writing to you today to share that, after much reflection, I’ve made the difficult decision to step away from Twentieth Century.

Over the past many months, it has been my top priority to continue to foster great filmmaking while leading this team successfully through the integration period with Disney. After reaching this point, I approached Alan and Alan, realizing that it was now time for me to pursue new opportunities.

I started at Fox 22 years ago — Titanic was in theaters, George Lucas had just announced his second Star Wars trilogy, and X-Men was in development. I was a young creative executive eager to learn the business, and from day one I was welcomed. Who knew that together we would add Night at the Museum, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Martian, Deadpool, Logan, Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story and, of course, Jim Cameron’s Avatar to the studio’s already storied legacy. It was a front-row seat to an incredible evolution culminating in Fox becoming a part of one of the greatest media companies that continues to shape our industry on a global scale.

Disney has an immensely gifted and creative leadership team, and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to be a part of the expanded company. Even more so, I am deeply grateful for the time I’ve spent with all of you. Thank you for your dedication to supporting great talent and storytelling, and above all, for your friendship.

I’ll be here and available for the next few weeks to support the transition process.

All the best,

Emma

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