It's getting harder to see certain movies in Portland.
Last March, Walt Disney Studios spent $71.3 billion to acquire 20th Century Fox, one of its few remaining competitors in the movie business. With one move, Disney—which already owns Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and ABC, has a controlling stake in ESPN, and will soon own Hulu—not only removed another major player from the entertainment industry, but bought everything they owned, from The Simpsons to Avatar, from Alien to Die Hard, and from Planet of the Apes to the film rights for X-Men and Deadpool.
At least in terms of world-dominating, mega-corporate strategy, the deal—which went through with the blessings of the Trump administration—was smart. It was also well-timed: Former Fox properties like The Simpsons will now significantly bolster the offerings of Disney's upcoming streaming service, Disney+.
But aftershocks from the purchase are being felt, even in Portland. The city's independent movie theaters that have made a habit—and in some cases, a tradition—of showing older films are poised to suffer from Disney's takeover.
The practice of theatrically showing older films—known as "repertory screenings"—has rarely been supported by Disney, which keeps strict limits and requirements on their titles. While the company's dominion over first-run theaters is all but complete—just try to imagine what a modern multiplex's schedule would look like without franchise offerings from the Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Disney brands—those who book repertory titles have found themselves facing the possibility that Fox films, now under the ownership of Disney, will be increasingly difficult to obtain.
"It's definitely changing the way we look at things," says Dannon Dripps, the manager of the Academy Theater, which shows second-run titles—films that have finished their initial runs at first-run theaters, and are then made available by distributors to screen for lower ticket prices—alongside a large number of repertory films. This past summer alone, the Academy brought back over 20 older titles to the big screen, from Singin' in the Rain to The Dark Crystal. But two titles Dripps had hoped to book didn't make it onto the schedule: The Princess Bride and Alien, both of which were Fox properties.
"I was first told, as of when I was booking moves for this summer, that all Fox titles were off the table and were basically considered part of Disney's repertory," says Dripps. "I ran into a few things I wanted to get in the summer, most notably The Princess Bride, which we show every summer—we were no longer allowed to show that."
The Academy is hardly the only theater used to showing Fox repertory titles—and hardly the only Portland theater that could be affected. Last December, the Hollywood Theatre put together a Die Hard and Die Hard 2 double feature, and they've previously shown 70mm prints of Cleopatra and Aliens. Cinema 21 hosts The Sound of Music sing-alongs. The Clinton Street Theater is famous for their weekly, record-setting screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
"This has been a huge point of discussion among members of the arthouse community," says Lani Jo Leigh, one of the owners of the Clinton Street Theater.
"We have been reassured that Disney will not pull Rocky Horror from theaters that already screen it on a regular basis, even if it's only at Halloween. So we are safe for now—but the movie business is fickle." —Lani Jo Leigh, Clinton Street Theater
"The way everyone understands it," Leigh says, is that "Disney/Fox will no longer permit any of their repertory titles to play at any theater that screens first-run titles, with the exception being Rocky Horror Picture Show. For all other titles in the Fox catalog, theaters will be checked on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not they will qualify to screen repertory films. It doesn't matter whether or not the theater is for-profit or not-for-profit, [the theater's] size, [the] number of screens, etc. It seems that the only criteria is whether or not the theater plays first-run films from any studio."
Dripps notes that in the past, Disney has allowed some repertory screenings of their films "to theaters that are designated as quote-unquote 'repertory' theaters, and that means that theater doesn't show first- or second-run Disney movies. There's at least one theater in town that's under that status, and that's the Hollywood. So those theaters are allowed, with limited availability, to show some designated Disney titles."
But the Academy—like most second-run theaters—doesn't fit into that category. In the current film climate, Disney's blockbuster franchises are some of the only titles that reliably attract large audiences.
"Second-run Disney movies are pretty key to what we do," says Dripps. "As you can tell by the markets these days, they control a lot of what comes out, as far as new movies go."
Continuing to show Disney movies in second-run will have an effect on the kind of repertory titles that, Dripps says, audiences have come to expect to see at the Academy.
"I'm already thinking about Christmas," Dripps says with a laugh. "Knowing that we aren't going to be able to show Die Hard and Home Alone is kind of a bummer. But it is what it is, and I'm holding onto hope. Disney has changed their [repertory] policy in the past, and there's still a chance that things could change for us in the future, since they've acquired such a large catalog of movies. So maybe something could change. But I'm not holding my breath."
Leigh says that, for Rocky Horror fans at least, there's good news.
"We have been reassured that Disney will not pull Rocky Horror from theaters that already screen it on a regular basis, even if it's only at Halloween," she says. "So we are safe for now—but the movie business is fickle and studios care about their brand and shareholders and other stuff that doesn't really matter to my Rocky Horror Picture Show community, and we know that this position could change in the future."
Dripps also points out that restrictions on repertory titles are hardly Disney's focus at the present. The film industry is in flux, with many of Portland's formerly second-run and repertory theaters, like the Bagdad and the Laurelhurst, having made the switch to first-run, while streaming services and franchises have massive effects on which movies get made and where people can see them.
And for the foreseeable future, the company wielding the most power over the industry is Disney. And Disney has their own goals.
"A lot of what they do is just shifting the paradigm of how people watch movies—they're trying to push [viewers] into their new streaming service, and stuff like that," says Dripps. "A lot of the industry is just trying to figure out what that means—and how the industry is changing, and how people are consuming things is changing, and what that means for the distribution of movies."