Disney’s Fox deal may have pushed away legend Ridley Scott

A new Hollywood Reporter profile of Ridley Scott takes a panoramic look at the filmmaker’s career, with reflection on Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma and Louise, and a host of other movies that have defined a singular career. The director of House of Gucci and The Last Duel is famously particular about his work — there wouldn’t be so many cuts of Blade Runner otherwise. And he quickly reveals his reasoning for abandoning an in-development project.

For years, Scott’s home studio has been 20th Century Fox, now 20th Century Studios, where he made Alien, The Martian, The Last Duel and others. But when Disney bought the venerated studio, “they wanted me to do a wizard film, and I don’t do wizard films,” he says. “It was a bad idea.”

Scott is likely referring to Merlin, a planned adaptation of T.A Barron’s book series of the same name. Disney has its own version of the character from 1963’s The Sword and The Stone, so it follows that the company might be interested in a gritty reboot. Scott was once attached to the project, but a report in October 2021 naming a new director said that he “parted ways due to his busy schedule.” Perhaps that was a more polite version of “I don’t do wizard films.”

Scott’s relationship with the new 20th Century — that is to say, Disney — has had a mixed start. Beyond the attempted Merlin project, there’s also the matter of The Last Duel bombing at the box office. The rights to adapt the non-fiction novel on which The Last Duel is based were owned by Fox for some time, and once Disney acquired the rights alongside all other Fox properties, it was an open question if the project’s adult subject matter would fit with the company’s plans.

“If Disney doesn’t step up, I’m told every studio in town is waiting in the wings for this one,” said a 2019 Deadline report.

Ridley Scott directing a scene from The Last Duel
Photo: Jessica Forde/20th Century Studios

Disney did indeed step up. But the question of how much it stepped in promoting the movie is an open one. Scott, speaking to podcast host Marc Maron, said that “Disney did a fantastic promotion job” while saying what it “boils down to — what we’ve got today [are] the audiences who were brought up on these fucking cell phones. The millennials do not ever want to be taught anything unless you are told it on the cell phone.”

As might be expected, the theory prompted push back on Twitter. One particularly galaxy-brain theory suggests that Disney placed The Last Duel, as well as Nightmare Alley and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, in poor positions upon release in order to let 20th Century’s current theatrical projects fade away to focus on studio’s library as a source of streaming content. Of course, it’s worth noting that a whole host of non-Disney movies, like The Matrix Resurrections, have also been sinking like a stone at the box office during the pandemic.

Scott is still working with the Mouse House. He’s a co-producer of Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming adaption of Death on the Nile, set to finally arrive in theaters next month. But if he’s cautious of directing a project under 20th Century’s new management, he’s not the only one. Another studio regular, James Mangold, voiced concerns in 2017, shortly after the news of the then-potential merger went public.

Speaking after a screening of Logan, Mangold worried that Disney might alter Fox’s “mandate” in releasing adult-oriented movies, even in the superhero category. “If what they’re supposed to do alters, that would be sad to me because it just means less movies,” Mangold said, according to Deadline.

“The real thing that happens when you make a movie rated R, behind the scenes, is that the studio has to adjust to the reality that there will be no Happy Meals. There will be no action figures,” Mangold said.

Of course, Mangold also recently wrapped production on Indiana Jones 5, a Lucasfilm Ltd. production set for distribution by Disney on June 30, 2023.

There have been directors more enthusiastic about the merger. James Gunn of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and The Suicide Squad, no stranger to R movies, said he was “incredibly happy” about the deal in 2017.

There are still several 20th Century Studios theatrical releases scheduled for this year, including Death on the Nile and The Bob’s Burger Movie. It’s also sending out several movies on Hulu, where Disney has placed its more adult content, like the Predator prequel Prey, a Romeo and Juliet rom-com called Rosaline, and the especially intriguing “John Wick meets Sleeping Beauty” film The Princess.

There’s also a potential box office giant at the end of the year: James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar 2, which will kickoff a slate of four already-in-the-can sequels. If that bombs, 20th Century might be in real trouble.

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