Disney's 20th Century Studios Will Hardly Release Anything In Theaters, And That's A Real Shame

Disney provided the media world with one of its biggest shake-ups in years when it closed a deal to acquire most of Fox's media assets back in 2019 for more than $71 billion. It was a gigantic deal poised to provide a seismic shift to the entertainment landscape, which was beginning to push heavily towards streaming, with Disney gearing up to launch Disney+ in order to compete with Netflix. The acquisition was always about streaming above all else, and only partially about getting the "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" rights into Marvel's hands. The pandemic only further pushed the world further towards streaming and away from the box office, and we recently got some news illustrating that point in disappointing fashion.

20th Century Studios, formerly 20th Century Fox, is now going to be pumping most of its titles directly to Hulu, Disney's other streaming service that is more adult-skewing, with only a few select films going to theaters every year (think movies like "Avatar 2" and the upcoming "Free Guy" sequel). Everything else? Straight to streaming to the tune of ten movies a year to help bolster Hulu's offerings and grow its subscriber base. 

As the theatrical side of the movie business continues to recover with the box office on shaky ground, this is especially frustrating (if expected) news that could be taking some bold invention in the moviegoing space off the table in the years to come. Though, if all goes well, we'll get some bold movies to enjoy from the comfort of home, as opposed to in a theater near you.

Fox's history of interesting hits

20th Century Fox was one of the original "Big Five" studios, competing at the box office alongside the likes of Disney, Warner Bros., and Paramount year after year. Every studio formed an identity of sorts over time, and Fox built up a legacy of bold bets that often paid off and resulted in some of cinema's most enduring franchises. The likes of "Die Hard," "Planet of the Apes," "Alien," "Ice Age," "Predator," "Home Alone," and many more all came from under that roof — not to mention "X-Men," which was truly the franchise that kicked off the superhero craze that is still going strong to this day.

Let us also not forget that it was Fox who gave James Cameron a boatload of cash to make "Avatar" happen, and it ended up becoming the highest-grossing movie in history. The studio is also behind gigantic hits like "Independence Day," "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Life of Pi," "The Revenant," "The Greatest Showman," "The Martian," and "Mrs. Doubtfire," among many, many others. I am focusing a lot on more recent entries to illustrate a point that, in an age full of reboots, sequels, and IP-focused movies, Fox was still making interesting, unique films that managed to find a huge global audience. You don't have to like "The Greatest Showman" to acknowledge that a musical flopping in its opening weekend and going on to make $433 million worldwide is good for the movie business overall.

It's also important to point out that Fox was doing some very fascinating stuff in a landscape that necessitated reboots and reinventions. Just look at the "Planet of the Apes" trilogy, with "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and "War for the Planet of the Apes" ranking as some of the most compelling mainstream blockbusters in recent memory. Plus, the studio helped push the R-rated superhero envelope with the likes of "Deadpool" and "Logan." For all of its misfires (we're looking at you, "Speed 2: Cruise Control") Fox left behind a legacy of interesting movies that people wanted to see.

A Hulu funnel and (almost) nothing more

Unfortunately, the pandemic truly upended what constitutes a theatrical release movie, especially under the Disney umbrella. It costs a lot to market a movie, and if that movie isn't a virtual guarantee at the box office, it is going to be used to bolster streaming instead. Period. So, when Disney needed to funnel adult content to Hulu, it turned to 20th Century Studios, one of the many shingles under its massive multimedia umbrella that seemed fit for the job. And yes, the recent release of "No Exit" and the upcoming "Deep Water" prove that the studio formerly known as Fox can do that job and will probably do it well. But at what cost?

Currently, there are few movies that are truly safe bets at the box office, and until streaming starts generating a whole lot more money, the industry at large still needs revenue from ticket sales to keep operating. There are no two ways about it. Yet, a new "Predator" movie titled "Prey" will go straight to Hulu instead of hitting theaters. The same goes for the recently announced "Alien" movie from Fede Alvarez. If an "Alien" movie can't go to theaters, where does that leave us? To that end, director Wes Ball's new "Planet of the Apes" also might end up on Hulu and skip theaters, when "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" was able to make $710 million.

It feels like Disney is not only maybe, just maybe, leaving money on the table, but is also doing the industry overall a disservice by shifting all of these films to streaming only. There is an argument to be made that the studio could easily give these films a theatrical release and still benefit by having Hulu be their exclusive streaming home after the fact, much like it did by releasing "Encanto" in theaters before it hit Disney+. It did well in theaters, but blew up on Disney+. Have your cake and eat it too.

The potential upside

If someone who values the theatrical experience a great deal (such as myself) must be forced to look at the upside of all this, there is certainly a part of this whole thing that is seemingly good, actually. In speaking with THR, 20th Century Studios head Steve Ashbell explained that the lack of pressure to deliver at the box office will allow for some bold swings to be taken within these movies that are being made directly for Hulu.

"We get to find bold takes on beloved Fox properties. You can take big creative swings — which you'll see with Prey, which we'll launch this summer. A Predator movie set in the Great Plains in 1719 by Dan Trachtenberg. That's what this allows us to do."

Does it suck that a new "Predator" movie can't get made in the modern marketplace with movie theaters in mind? You bet. Is it cool that we are going to get a version of the franchise so radically different simply because Hulu is there to support it? Also yes. Two things can be true at the same time. The need to pump out ten movies a year for Hulu could result in some very cool, creator-driven films that simply aren't getting made for theaters right now. The other plus side is that this is all going to be evaluated as time goes on. Ashbell explains:

"We will evaluate these decisions film by film, and looking at the marketplace as it is and making the predictions that we can. We do have original films of scale in development that we haven't announced yet, and it will be whatever feels right for that number of films per year. What's great about all of this is that we have both. We have this explosive new streaming mandate to pursue, yet we also have titles that we can make [for theatrical]."

20th Century Studios being turned into a streaming movie factor is an unquestionable loss to the industry as a whole but out of the ashes may come something else that allows filmmakers to make interesting stuff for a wide audience. It's a mixed bag for the time being but, hopefully, something that Disney will remain flexible enough with as the post-pandemic marketplace continues to evolve. It would be a damn shame if the next "Taken" or "Cast Away" didn't at least get a chance to have its day on the big screen.