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The Disney Vault

Wait, is Disney putting Fox movies into the vault? It certainly looks that way. Disney’s purchase of 21st Century Fox became official earlier this year and with it, the Mouse House gained ownership and control over the library of the Twentieth Century Fox film studio. Now it seems Disney is beginning to exert that control, putting Fox movies in its vault and limiting where and when they can be seen.

Most Disney fans and anyone who’s ever wanted to buy The Lion King on home video when it wasn’t available is familiar with the Disney Vault, the practice through which Disney artificially creates demand for catalog titles by keeping them out of print for years and then releasing them for a limited time as a sort of event. But what many don’t know is that the Disney Vault practice extends to the theatrical realm as well.

By and large, Disney doesn’t allow many of its catalog titles to play theatrically in first-run theaters in the way other distributors do. That’s why you don’t see animated classics like Beauty and the Beast or live-action family films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mary Poppins playing at the local art-house or multiplex alongside new releases in the way that you do for other studios films. Barring instances where these films are re-released by Disney itself as part of a wide-scale, coordinated release, Disney keeps its catalog titles in the vault.

This has not traditionally been the case for 20th Century Fox movies, which exhibitors could book for their theaters so audiences could see classic titles back on the big screen. So you could maybe see Alien on the big screen to coincide with its anniversary or Home Alone as part of a holiday event. But it seems that the days when you could catch a special screening of a classic Fox catalog title at your local theater are coming to an end.

It looks as though Disney will now start treating older Fox titles in the same way that it does to its own catalog films, which is to say, making them unavailable for theatrical exhibition at for-profit theaters. In a piece about the practice and its consequences, Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz cites several examples of instances across North America where Fox titles are being made unavailable to exhibitors.

One director of a Sci-Fi/Horror marathon in Ohio wanted to book screenings of The Omen (1976) and The Fly (1986) only to have his request denied. A drive-in in New York can no longer play The Princess Bride or Say Anything. Theaters are having requests to book repertory titles denied and existing bookings revoked, with studio contacts telling exhibitors that Fox’s catalog titles are no longer available to screen.

This isn’t just limited to art-houses and smaller chains either, it applies to multiplexes as well. Disney hasn’t issued any official statements on the matter and it seems there isn’t a lot of clarity on what the company’s policy is on theatrically screening Fox’s back catalog. Allegedly the policy is directed at for-profit, first-run theaters that screen new Disney and Fox movies alongside the older films, but it doesn’t seem that the policy is being applied unilaterally or that it’s the same for everyone everywhere.

There are apparently some exceptions that allow some films to come out of the vault too. Screenings of repertory titles will still be allowed at non-profit theaters and places like museums and outdoor screenings. Exceptions may also be made for film anniversaries but this seems to be a fluid policy with no clear hard and fast rules and decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. Although it seems as though The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the one movie that Disney is allowing to continue playing uninterrupted.

At first glance this might not seem like a big deal, after all there are plenty of first-run movies worth seeing and the majority of these catalog titles are available on home video and streaming. However, these midnight, weekend, anniversary and holiday event screenings of classic titles matter to the theaters that show them as they reliably bring in money and even if it isn’t a huge amount, it adds up.

Furthermore, for many small, independent first-run theaters, these repertory screenings of Fox titles helped shore up the bottom line so that those theaters could showcase the work of independent filmmakers that might not be able to get their films into larger chains. Without the subsidizing factor of the screenings of popular catalog titles, these venues may no longer be available to these filmmakers.

Without a statement from Disney, its reasoning for this practice is left to speculation and it could be a number of factors, from Disney+, to monopolizing theaters screens for its first-run titles, to it simply being the company’s MO. Either way, it’s unfortunate and one of the negative consequences of Disney’s purchase of Fox. Having the X-Men in the MCU extracts a heavy toll.

This also make you wonder if this will happen on the physical media side of things as well with Fox titles getting the Disney Vault treatment. Snatch up those Blu-rays folks.

For the first-run theatrical movies you can look forward to the rest of this year, check out our 2019 Release Schedule.

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