Joe Neff knew there was trouble when the horror films started vanishing.
Neff is the director of the 24-Hour Science Fiction and Horror Marathons that happen every spring and fall at the Drexel Theater, an independent venue in Columbus, Ohio. For this year’s Horror Marathon, Neff wanted to screen the original 1976 version of The Omen and the 1986 remake of The Fly, two of hundreds of older 20th Century Fox features that became the property of the Walt Disney Corporation after its $71.3 billion purchase of the studio’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, was made official this past spring. In the preceding few months, Neff had heard rumblings in his Google group of film programmers that Disney was about to start treating older Fox titles as they do older Disney titles — making them mostly unavailable to for-profit theaters. More and more film programmers and theater managers were reporting that they had suddenly and cryptically been told by their studio contacts that Fox’s back catalogue was no longer available to show. Some got calls informing them that an existing booking had been revoked.
When Neff’s requests to screen The Fly and The Omen were denied — via the Drexel, which handles the logistics of booking a programmer’s requested titles — he realized the rumors were true, and that he had to stop screening Fox films altogether. It was a devastating blow: Neff’s homegrown repertory festivals have shown many older Fox movies, including Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Zardoz, the original versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Suspiria, and Phantom of the Paradise. He asked the theater to double-check with Disney to make sure there hadn’t been some mistake. “Our Fox booking contact offered a very brief apology that she could no longer book repertory titles with the theater,” he says.
Sadly, Neff’s experience is indicative of a recent trend across North America, where it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly what Disney’s new policy regarding back-catalogue films is, beyond generally making it more difficult to show classic 20th Century Fox movies in theaters. The Transit Drive-In in Lockport, New York, which has hosted packed screenings of older Fox films like Alien, Aliens, Say Anything, The Princess Bride, and Moulin Rouge, says those films and others can no longer be screened there. The Little Theater in Rochester booked Fox’s Fight Club for August and was told by a Disney spokesperson mere days before the scheduled screening that a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) of the movie would no longer be shipped; then a Disney representative called the theater to apologize for the misunderstanding, and assured management that the film was still on its way; the reversal happened a day after a Los Angeles Times reporter called Disney asking them to clarify their repertory policies.
A recent Canadian Broadcasting Company story confirmed that even major first-run chains like Cineplex will now lose access to Fox repertory titles. That collection of movies is a gold mine for many commercial theaters — particularly art houses, regional chains, and big-city multiplexes that like to mix things up by sprinkling a few older works into their screening lineups. In addition to films that have already been mentioned, Fox’s holdings include hundreds of notable films in a variety of genres and modes, a layer cake of options which, taken together, give a sense of the richness of American cinema over the last 100 years: everything from Miracle on 34th Street, All About Eve and The Sound of Music to Deadpool, The Revenant, The Simpsons Movie, and Terrence Malick’s version of The Thin Red Line.
Disney officially declined to comment for this piece, but a film distributor with firsthand knowledge of the company’s policy says it is directed at theaters that screen first-run Disney and Fox content alongside older titles. The distributor said that screenings of vintage Fox films would still be allowed at nonprofit theaters such as Film Forum in New York and Segundo’s Old Town Music Hall, and in some other venues, including outdoor screenings in public spaces and at museums and cultural institutions (particularly ones dedicated to cinema, such as the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York, and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago). And there might be some exemptions granted for special occasions such as anniversaries. But each instance would be considered on a case-by-case basis, with no guarantee that the decision will go the theater’s way, no matter what Fox films it had been able to wrangle a week, a month, or a year earlier.
In fact, in reporting this story, I found that Disney’s new policy is being applied differently from place to place. Several theater managers and film programmers (all of whom requested anonymity for fear of creating bad blood with Disney) said their requests to show older Fox titles had been either preemptively denied or revoked after the fact, despite fitting the description of a venue that should be allowed to do so. Sometimes no rationale was offered; other times, they were given a reason, but it didn’t jibe with what was happening at other venues. In August, Rachel Fox, the senior programmer for the Rio Theater near Vancouver, tried to book the original Alien to play alongside the upcoming Alien making-of documentary, Memory: The Origins of Alien. Disney told her that the title was unavailable, even though Alien has had one-off screenings in theaters all over North America throughout 2019, the movie’s 40th anniversary year, and is being shown via satellite in hundreds of theaters by Fathom Events this month.
In some ways, this is just standard operating procedure for Disney. Older Disney movies — particularly traditional animated movies like Fantasia and blockbuster live-action “family films” like The Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — have generally been unavailable to theaters of all kinds. It’s a vestige of the company’s long-standing “Disney Vault” strategy of artificially creating excitement for a repertory title by keeping film prints out of theaters for years or decades, and periodically manufacturing a limited number of physical media copies (on VHS, then DVD, and eventually Blu-ray). The general absence of older Disney films from first-run theaters always made them feel a wee bit denuded of possibility, but over the decades, cinephiles gradually got used to the idea that Pinocchio or Sleeping Beauty would probably never show at such theaters unless they were part of a coordinated, wide-scale Disney rerelease, timed to a film’s appearance on some new variant of home video, often remastered in a new format to spruce it up.
But Disney is one thing, Fox is another. Even without older Disney films, inhabitants of major cities, medium-sized suburbs, and college towns could visit a populist, commercial venue such as a multiplex or art-house theater and choose between, say, the new Fast and the Furious or Frozen or a Quentin Tarantino movie, or a weekend midnight show of a Fox title like the original Planet of the Apes or Commando — or, during a holiday period, Fox Searchlight’s 28 Days Later or 20th Century Fox’s Die Hard and Home Alone.
Now, Fox classics are going into the vault as well, for reasons the company won’t publicly explain or justify. And Disney’s vaultification of Fox titles is bad news for movie theaters that depend on repertory screenings to shore up their increasingly shaky bottom lines. The decision to broaden Disney’s artificial scarcity tactic to include thousands of movies released by a onetime rival is a wounding blow to a swath of theatrical venues that used to be able to show them, and where film buffs were able to see them with an audience.
For such theaters, repertory screenings make business sense, too. “It may not seem like a big deal, losing access to movies that might only make the theater $600 or $1,000 once you deduct the costs attached to booking them,” said a film programmer who asked not to be named in this story for fear of angering Disney. “But over the course of a year, it all adds up. A lot of these movies are what you’d call ‘steady earners’ for theaters. You show them, and people turn up.” Speaking of steady earners: the steadiest of them all, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, appears to be the one title Disney isn’t cracking down on — perhaps because, according to Rachel Fox, “maybe Disney knows that if they pull Rocky Horror too, there’ll be a full-scale audience revolt.”
What all of this does is erode the idea, beloved by cinephiles, that any film is new if you’re seeing it for the first time, and that movies exist in a perpetual present where different eras are in conversation with each other. This idea is still reflected on streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, Hulu, Criterion Channel, and Shudder, and to a degree, Netflix (although the latter has become notoriously unwilling to dedicate more than a fraction of its offerings to movies made before 2000). But there’s a special thrill in seeing an older title displayed on the marquee of a first-run movie theater like Cincinnati’s Esquire, which one weekend not long ago was offering Joker, Downton Abbey, Monos, and Aquarela, plus 1987’s The Lost Boys and 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby.
The silent erasure of many classic Fox films from mainstream commercial spaces is also unnerving because it invites the question, What will go away next? If you’re a fan of seeing repertory films in public spaces, and are lucky enough to live near a first-run theater that shows them at midnight, on weekends, as anniversary or holiday events, or in themed festivals like Joe Neff’s drive-in marathons, Disney’s gradual culling of the Fox catalogue is chilling — like the start of a horror film where the things you love begin to vanish from the places they once called home.
But why, exactly, is Disney doing this?
The most commonly floated theory is that the company is trying to give consumers one more reason to subscribe to its new streaming service, Disney+. Recently, the company released a list of the films and shows that will be available to stream on the new service when it debuts November 12 — predictably, it included plenty of old Disney movies both good and bad (lots of Don Knotts!), as well as some Fox titles that could conceivably be Disney titles (Miracle on 34th Street, or Danny Boyle’s Millions). Does that mean that the rest of the Fox catalogue will go to Disney’s sister streaming service, Hulu (a cooperative venture that Disney recently acquired by purchasing Fox, a one-third partner in Hulu, then buying out the other remaining partner, Comcast)? That’s not clear at this point. Either way, the Disney+ theory only makes sense if you really believe that film buffs who love Fox or Disney repertory titles enough to leave their homes to see them in theaters would be less likely to subscribe to a service that offered a whole library of options in that vein.
A more convincing theory is that this is just how Disney does business. We’re now 11 years into the imperial phase of Disney’s expansion, which saw the company buy Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm (owners of Star Wars and Indiana Jones) and become the dominant player in theatrical exhibition. Last year, Disney claimed 40 percent of North American ticket sales (a number expected to jump to 50 percent once the Fox merger begins to deliver). It is able to demand and receive percentages of ticket sales far beyond those of its rivals, plus entire screens dedicated not just to near-surefire hits from Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Disney’s animation department, but iffier prospects like the live-action remakes of Pete’s Dragon and Dumbo, A Wrinkle in Time, and nature documentaries like Monkey Kingdom.
More than one exhibition professional contacted for this article speculated that Disney’s overall goal is to claim as many screens at a theater as possible for its newer titles, even if some of them are packing the house but others are selling just a handful of tickets per show. A former theater manager for a major chain, who asked not to be identified in this piece, says, “It seems short-sighted, you know? But they do it, I think, just to keep a Sony title out, to keep a Universal title out.” The Fox freeze out, he speculates, may be an extension of that tactic: Disney considers any screen that’s taken up by an older movie, even one that’s owned by Disney, to be a screen that could be showing the new Marvel or Star Wars title instead. Or showing Orangutans 4 to an audience of three.
It might seem as if the wars being waged by international conglomerates over screen space would have little bearing on whether a movie lover in Montreal or Minneapolis can see a weekend screening of a Fox comedy like How to Marry a Millionaire, Mrs. Doubtfire, or Big. But as an ancient proverb states, when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.
The economic effects could be especially devastating for neighborhood landmarks like the Plaza in Atlanta — the oldest and last remaining independent theater in the city. Its owner, Christopher Escobar, also the executive director of the Atlanta Film Society, estimates that 25 percent of the Plaza’s yearly revenue comes from Fox titles. Half that take is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which they’re still permitted to screen; but once they lose other guaranteed Fox moneymakers like Alien, Fight Club, and The Sound of Music, he estimates they’ll lose 10 to 12 percent of their yearly income. “Why would a distributor make it harder to be in the movie theater business now?” Escobar asks. “In an era when there are a dizzying amount of streaming platforms launching, and there are all these fights happening about availability windows, they should be working to get people to see movies in the best possible way first.”
There might be a tendency to see all this as a niche issue, one that only affects nostalgists and people who are still enamored with the theatrical experience. But Escobar and other theater owners interviewed for this piece point out that the estimated 600 independent first-run theaters left in the United States are the only reliable incubators for independent filmmakers who are unlikely to have their work screened in multiplexes dominated by Disney and other major distributors. Many of them are international filmmakers, documentary filmmakers, and filmmakers of color who are going to lose access to these venues unless they’re subsidized by other events such as repertory screenings of old movies that can be relied on to draw crowds. “These kinds of theaters are the only places where women filmmakers and other members of underrepresented groups can go and see themselves, the last frontier space,” Escobar says. “The more the means of making, distributing, and exhibiting films are controlled by a handful of companies, the fewer entry points those voices are going to have.”
Access to multiplex screens has become even harder for independent filmmakers in recent years, now that a version of “block booking” — the supposedly illegal practice of withholding likely hits from a theater unless it agrees to take a probable flop from the distributor as well — has become commonplace once more. Distributors are increasingly practicing “clearance” — refusing to book films in small theaters if they’re already playing at a big multiplex, even one that’s an hour away. The Rio’s Rachel Fox says her theater only shows new major studio films when they’re basically played out, because big multiplexes in the area always get first dibs and hang onto them until they’re old news. “I mean, we didn’t even get A Star Is Born until weeks after the Oscars,” she says. But that hasn’t helped her make her case to Disney. The Disney representative she spoke with said those distinctions didn’t matter, because their theater was considered first-run regardless of what films it shows and when. She says she’s starting to suspect that Disney “makes the distinction of what kind of venue you are to be based, probably, on your box-office return, which really sucks.”
Even at the upper echelons of theatrical exhibition, the business is being worn down by a confluence of forces, including the relative cheapness of streaming services; shorter windows between when a movie plays theaters and when it goes to home video; more aggressive rental terms by major distributors; shoddier service (at chains, mainly) due to cost-cutting; and ticket prices, which have steadily risen with inflation over the past 40 years even though wages have remained roughly the same. Audiences have been conditioned not to leave their homes except for spectacular, special-effects-laden, heavily advertised entries in a big-name franchise like James Bond, DC adaptations, The Fast and the Furious, or, well, everything else that seems to be owned by Disney these days — from Marvel, Pixar, and Walt Disney Animation to Star Wars, Die Hard, and Alien to awards-friendly one-offs like The Descendants, 12 Years a Slave, The Shape of Water, and the upcoming A Hidden Life and French Dispatch. Huge chains are able to survive under these conditions (though not easily). Smaller theaters have to go the unconventional route, and repertory screenings have always been an important tool in their kit. Remove it, and survival becomes much harder.
The Plaza’s Escobar also happens to be a Disney shareholder, and he says he’s holding out hope that Disney will change its mind and rescind the new policy. “Disney has the opportunity not to be the bad guy, to act in the public interest and prove that them owning something is not a bad thing,” he says. Time to wish upon a star.