Few companies have ever approached the iron grip that Disney possesses in animation. In addition to their own feature animation unit, they also have Pixar and DisneyToon studios (the latter of which has been running into some problems as of late). For quite some time now, they have had what you might call a monopoly on animation in the US. But lately, there’s been another Hollywood company who’s risen to challenge that position: 20th Century Fox.
As of this writing, 20th Century Fox now has three animation companies under its tent. Dreamworks Animation, with whom they signed a distribution deal that will last until 2018; Blue Sky Studios, which has served as Fox’s main animation production arm since their their acquisition in 1997; and Reel FX, while not owned by Fox or in any sort of distribution deal, have partnered up with Fox for The Book of Life. Depending on the film’s success, it’s possible that this loose partnership may extend to future projects. Overseeing it all is 20th Century Fox Animation, a division of the studio that oversees animated feature length productions.
Now it’s important to understand the history leading up to their current dominance. A long time ago, Fox had their own animation unit: Fox Animation Studios. Overseen by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman and originally in operation from 1994 to 2000, only two feature films were ever produced by the company: Anastasia and Titan A.E.. Out of the two, Anastasia was their only critical and commercial box-office hit, while Titan A.E. garnered mixed reviews and bombed at the box office. Almost a year after production on Titan A.E. wrapped, 20th Century Fox began issuing company-wide layoffs at Fox Animation Studios, the stated reason being to “make films more efficiently”. Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect: the work force was greatly decimated, with 300 of its previously 380 employees layed off. Eventually, in the summer of 2000 (11 days after the release of Titan A.E.), the company was shut down, letting go of Bluth, Goldman, and their remaining employees (their last film in production would have been an adaptation of Wayne Barlowe’s illustrated novel Barlowe’s Inferno and their first all-CG feature).
At the same time however, moves were already being made to salvage the oncoming failure of Fox Animation Studios and keep Fox entrenched in the animation game. In 1997, 20th Century Fox Animation was founded to oversee its animation efforts. That same year, 20th Century Fox’s Los Angeles-based visual effects company, VIFX, acquired the then-independent Blue Sky Studios to form a new visual effects and animation company. Shortly after, the F/X market crash occurs, forcing Fox to leave the visual effects business altogether. They sold VIFX to Rhythm & Hues, with Blue Sky Studios nearly approaching the same fate. They were eventually able to prove themselves by turning the script for what would the first Ice Age movie into a critical and commercial success. With this success, Fox finally had a company able to compete against the likes of Disney and thus the rest was history.
Flash forward to today, where Fox’s successes with Blue Sky has enabled them to make bolder moves within the animation industry, one of them being their distribution deal with Dreamworks Animation (a deal that may have played a role in Dreamworks’s current diversification plans). Furthermore, they have established themselves not only as a looming presence in feature animation, but as a studio that has made themselves an attractive fit for smaller animation companies looking to break out (case in point: Reel FX).
There has even been a few solid hints that 20th Century Fox Animation may be looking to develop in-house projects themselves. In the past few years, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety have caught whiff of several projects seemingly being produced solely by 20th Century Fox Animation: Welcome to the Jungle (with Jaime Fox set to star, produce, and score), an adaptation of the children’s book The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, and an adaptation of Doug TenNapel’s graphic novel Cardboard with Tobey Maguire and Chris Wedge set to produce under their respective production banners (Material Pictures and WedgeWorks).
Nothing more has been known about these films since, but I’m willing to bet that the current three dates set for untitled animated features from Fox (July 21, 2017, June 29, 2018, and July 20, 2018) could see 20th Century Fox Animation entering the feature animation arena with these projects. Mind you, this is just speculation, but if it’s true, then that certainly is a sign that Fox’s monopoly has given them enough courage and confidence to step back into the pool in a fashion similar to Paramount and Warner Brothers.
20th Century Fox has, for better or worse, become a major power player in animation. But will their iron grip be enough to keep them afloat amongst the increasingly crowded sea of new and returning faces? Only time will tell, but for now at least, they have become quite the force to be reckoned with in feature animation as a whole.