A variation on the "if a butterfly flaps its wings..." question: If a scandal brings down a venerable newspaper in England, does that affect what's playing in Peoria at the multiplex?
Short answer: Not yet, but wait and see.
So far, the British phone hacking scandal that has brought Rupert Murdoch's U.K. media empire to its knees has had only a limited effect on News Corporation's American holdings. What's more, the News Corp.-owned 20th Century Fox movie studio in Hollywood seems likely to be the furthest removed from the scandal in England, both in terms of geography and in terms of heads that will roll for over alleged wrongdoing in the newspaper fiasco.
Still, the company as a whole has already taken a financial hit and may be forced to undergo changes in leadership that could go as high as Murdoch himself. 20th Century Fox won't be immune to such repercussions, especially given the hit-starved studio's hunger for cash. In the long term, that could mean fewer new movies from both 20th Century Fox and art-film division Fox Searchlight.
The film division of News Corp., which includes 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, and their home video businesses, has been one of the conglomerate's biggest revenue generators, earning as much as a quarter of News Corp.'s revenue in recent years, according to a 2010 financial statement. The studio hit a new peak in late 2009 and early 2010 with the release of 'Avatar,' whose $2.8 billion worldwide gross made it the most lucrative film of all time (albeit without adjusting for inflation).
For the past 18 months or so, however, 20th Century Fox has been coasting on 'Avatar's' fumes. In 2010, the biggest hit to emerge from the Fox camp was 'Black Swan,' and that was from the quasi-independent Fox Searchlight. Since 'Avatar,' 20th Century Fox has released only three movies that have achieved blockbuster status (grossing more than $100 million domestic): 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,' 'Rio' and 'X-Men: First Class.' Flops like 'The A-Team' and 'Marmaduke' have been all too common.
Usually, when a studio has a record like that, scythe-wielding consultants start stalking the halls, junior staffers get laid off, and studio-wide austerity measures are imposed. That includes more risk-averse spending on new movies. Now, in Hollywood, risk-averse production spending doesn't mean what it might mean in the rest of the business world -- spending less per movie so that they don't have to sell as many tickets to be profitable. If that were the case, Fox Searchlight would actually benefit, since its execs are skilled at turning low-budget movies into modest hits. Rather, 20th Century Fox is more likely to put all its eggs in fewer baskets, spending more on fewer aspiring blockbuster action spectacles (about the only safe bet in terms of attracting massive global audiences), while letting Fox Searchlight feed on table scraps and fund fewer art-house movies (a more difficult market with more limited rewards).
That's something Fox is likely to do even without the parent company's current troubles. But those troubles, stemming from the phone-hacking scandal -- the recent price plummeting of News Corp. shares, which has led to a $5 billion company stock buy-back; the quashing of Murdoch's $12 billion bid to buy the 61 percent of satellite broadcaster BSkyB that News Corp. doesn't already own; the threat of a shareholder lawsuit over alleged mismanagement by the Murdoch family -- are likely to hasten austerity measures company-wide, not just in Hollywood.
A rosier scenario might see News Corp. plowing some of that $12 billion from the BSkyB bid back into the company's other divisions, including the movie studio. But the stock buy-back means there won't be that much extra cash, if any, to go around. Besides, the company may want to keep that cash in escrow for legal fees and fines, especially if the company's executives find themselves charged with crimes in the U.S. as well as the U.K.
If News Corp.'s dynastic management -- say, heir apparent James Murdoch, or even Rupert himself -- is forced to step down, the resulting leadership vacuum could also affect the movie studio. The film division could find itself either rudderless or suddenly under new management that wants to clean house, scrapping projects in development in order to cut costs and make its own imprint on the division.
Others in the movie world may be affected; indeed, many already have. First among them are British actors, especially those who've been tabloid targets, most of whom can breathe easier knowing their phones aren't being hacked by tabloid reporters. Already, some stars have emerged as heroes among their peers for taking on News Corp., including Sienna Miller (who won a settlement from the company two months ago, before the scandal really broke), Steve Coogan (who's been outspoken about the whole matter) and especially Hugh Grant, who actually went undercover with a wire and taped journalist Paul McMullan admitting his hacking.
When they make the movie about the phone hacking scandal, the filmmakers should get Miller, Coogan and Grant to play themselves. And you know there will be a movie; the drama of the still-unfolding upheaval is too juicy to resist.
Usually, such movies end up being made for HBO (like the recent 'Too Big to Fail,' about the Wall Street and Washington personalities behind the 2008 financial collapse). But it's possible that the movie could be a big-budget prestige studio feature, like last year's 'The Social Network.'
If there is a big-screen feature about the News Corp. crisis, it wouldn't be a surprise to see it distributed by 20th Century Fox. After all, the studio behind such landmarks as 'Fight Club' and 'Avatar' is clearly not afraid to release movies that criticize the corporatist agenda of the parent company. If Fox is really looking for a low-risk smash, this could be it.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.