At 25 years old and after nearly 200 films, four Best Picture Oscars, and serving as the creative home for auteurs like Wes Anderson, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Steve McQueen, Fox Searchlight is in an unusual position. As the fall festivals begin with the awards season in hot pursuit, new corporate parent the Walt Disney Co. will be judging its performance to determine exactly how the deeply respected specialty division will serve its new world order.
Searchlight will be absorbed in the care and feeding of three titles this fall with Noah Hawley’s “Lucy In the Sky,” Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” and Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” All have hopes for awards, if not box office. But on Disney’s most recent earnings call, CEO Bob Iger delivered what was interpreted as a verbal hand-slap: He noted that, going forward, Fox divisions would be going in a “new direction … applying the same discipline and creative standards behind the success of Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm.”
Of course, for those entities that means tentpoles and franchises and branded IP, none of which have had much currency in Searchlight’s world. That may be changing; the first Searchlight project announced post-merger is a biopic about the creator of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which will be the directorial debut of Eva Longoria.
However, it would be a mistake for Disney to bulldoze Fox Searchlight into conformity. It’s a well-run, proven, autonomous specialty distributor that offers a low-budget alternative to Disney’s costly live-action and animation release slates. Searchlight and Disney movies do not compete in any way.
And as any agent will confirm, Searchlight co-chairs Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula are tough executives who always drive a hard bargain. Along with not spending too much, Searchlight has an undeniable track record with awards: their Best Picture Oscars include “The Shape of Water,” “Birdman,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” among many other awards wins. While Searchlight attracts top talent like Guillermo del Toro, the best thing Utley and Gilula have going for them is they never slack. Searchlight’s TV division is already finding ways to build on existing Searchlight properties for streaming and television projects.
Still, exactly how will the smart, quirky brand exist within the corporate behemoth that is Mickey Mouse? One answer may be in another Hollywood story that began before Searchlight was born: The alignment of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.
In 1994, New Line Cinema was a 27-year-old independent studio responsible for franchise films like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and “House Party,” not to mention the oevure of John Waters and titles like “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Torch Song Trilogy,” and Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan.” Co-founders Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne made a deal to sell the company — with the partners remaining in charge — to Ted Turner. In 1996, he sold Turner Broadcasting System to Time Warner, and New Line became the smaller sister studio to Warner Bros. Pictures.
New Line chugged along autonomously for more than two decades, a period that included the global blockbuster success of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But in 2008, Shaye and Lynne left as Time Warner downgraded New Line from a studio division to a production label, with the parent studio releasing its six or so movies a year.
That’s when it became sink or swim, and many Hollywood insiders didn’t think New Line would survive. There was a strong chance that if New Line didn’t perform, Warners would shut it down. After all, the studio showed no patience when it killed specialty labels Fine Line, Warner Independent Pictures, and Picturehouse. So New Line chief Toby Emmerich and his team got to work like their lives depended on it.
They delivered a series of low-budget hits along with some robust franchises (including Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” films) and betting on a diverse slate of action movies starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (“Rampage,” “Central Intelligence,” “San Andreas”), comedies (“We’re the Millers,” “Game Night”), and strong genre material (James Wan’s “The Conjuring” series spurred seven titles and $1.9 billion worldwide, including “Annabelle” and “The Nun” spinoffs). Long before Screen Gems and Blumhouse got into the game, New Line was discovering talent and churning out smart originals.
Sure enough, the little engine that could showed staying power, year after year, capped by 2017’s $700-million worldwide blockbuster “It,” adapted from the Stephen King doorstopper by “Conjuring” writer Gary Dauberman, directed by Argentine import Andy Muschietti (“Mama”), and starring a gaggle of child actors.
When then-Warners studio chief Kevin Tsujihara needed a new chairman, he gave the job to Emmerich, leaving New Line in the hands of two veterans, president and chief content officer Carolyn Blackwood and president and chief creative officer Richard Brener. And when Emmerich needed to fill his new Warners slate, he took on more New Line titles including DC comedy “Shazam!” That title had flummoxed studio creative executives until New Line asked to develop it, hiring “Annabelle: Creation” director David F. Sandberg and casting pitch-perfect Zachary Levi as the boy-superhero. Emmerich pushed up “Shazam!” to a more advantageous April release slot, yielding $363 million worldwide.
This week, at the lavish amusement park-themed “It Chapter Two” premiere, Emmerich, Blackwood and Brener were all smiles. Even with double the first film’s budget, this two-hour, 49-minute E-ride crammed with chills and thrills and pricey VFX plus stars Bill Hader, James McAvoy, and Jessica Chastain as the grown-up kids, came in around $80 million. That will mean a major return to Warners’ bottom line. (Unlike Searchlight, acquisitions aren’t its forte; New Line’s $15-million Bruce Springsteen-themed Sundance buy “Blinded By the Light” lost traction at the August box office.)
Ultimately, New Line and Searchlight share a small scale and the ability to be nimble, to zig when others zag, to skip studio-reliance on pre-set release dates, to chase after targeted niche audiences, and to resist agency hype as they seek out the right talent for the right movie.
Right now, Searchlight has smart horror comedy “Ready or Not” in theaters. Hawley’s stranger-than-fiction “Lucy in the Sky” (October 4) stars Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm as real-life astronauts, Taika Waititi’s satire “Jojo Rabbit” (October 18), stars the director as a child’s fantasy of Adolf Hitler, and its own $14-million festival acquisition, Terrence Malick’s moving anti-Nazi true story “A Hidden Life” (December 13), which debuted in Cannes and will hit the zeitgeist hard.
While Searchlight is the top performer among the surviving studio specialty labels (along with Sony Pictures Classics and Universal’s Focus Features), the theatrical distribution market has never been more challenging. That’s why delivering more product for streaming will give the distributor an added edge.
So far Searchlight has gotten the greenlight from Disney’s Alan Horn on the new projects it wants to produce; it’s now Utley and Gilula’s turn to prove why Disney should keep them around.