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Emma Watts resigns as head of 20th Century Studios, the latest change under Disney

Emma Watts
Emma Watts became president of production at film studio 20th Century Fox in 2009.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Emma Watts, the longtime production head of the film studio once known as 20th Century Fox, has resigned as owner Walt Disney Co. continues to make major changes to the storied company it bought less than a year ago.

Watts, who had been with Fox for more than two decades, announced her resignation on Thursday in a memo to staff. Disney did not name a successor, but said it expected to name a replacement in the coming weeks.

“Emma has made many wonderful contributions to Fox over the past two decades, shepherding a number of memorable films to the screen,” said Walt Disney Studios Chairmen Alan Horn and Alan Bergman in a joint statement. “We truly appreciate and thank her for her commitment and partnership in overseeing the transition in this past year and wish her the best.”

Several people familiar with the situation, who were not authorized to comment publicly, said Watts’ departure was her decision.

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Watts was one of the few high-level Fox film executives to remain at the company after Disney acquired it in March. Fox has weathered several rounds of layoffs since the acquisition. Major executives who left in the wake of the acquisition included Fox film Chairwoman Stacey Snider, Fox 2000 head Elizabeth Gabler, domestic theatrical distribution President Chris Aronson and marketing President Pam Levine.

Her job had also changed significantly under Disney ownership. Watts is known as a filmmaker-focused executive and has built her reputation by working not only on franchises such as “Planet of the Apes” and “X-Men,” but also on more original material such as “Gone Girl,” “The Greatest Showman” and “Ford v. Ferrari,” which is nominated for four Oscars, including best picture.

Working under Disney, which is heavily focused on movies based on branded intellectual property, left Watts with less leeway to pursue some of the projects she has gravitated toward, people familiar with the matter said. Disney also put the “X-Men” franchise, one of Fox’s biggest film properties, in the hands of Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige.

“Over the past many months, it has been my top priority to continue to foster great filmmaking while leading this team successfully through the integration period with Disney,” Watts said in her staff email. “After reaching this point, I approached Alan and Alan, realizing that it was now time for me to pursue new opportunities.”

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Several filmmakers and stars voiced their praise for Watts, who has long been known in Hollywood for her strong relationships with creatives such as Steven Spielberg, James Mangold and Matthew Vaughn.

“Emma is a studio executive in title, but a filmmaker at heart,” Spielberg said in a emailed statement. “Her support and willingness to take risks is what this business has always thrived on. I can’t wait to see what Emma does next and I’ll work with her again on anything at any time.”

Ryan Reynolds, star of the R-rated Fox superhero hit “Deadpool,” tweeted his praise, crediting Watts with supporting the risky comic book action-comedy.

“‘Deadpool’ would never have happened without Emma Watts,” Reynolds wrote. “And certainly wouldn’t have been as good. I hope to continue working with her wherever she decides to go.”

Watts’ exit marks the latest major change for the studio.

Disney recently rebranded the film company as 20th Century Studios, dropping the Fox name that is closely associated with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who sold much of his empire to Disney. Fox Searchlight, the specialty film division known for Oscar winners such as “The Shape of Water” and current contender “Jojo Rabbit,” is now called Searchlight Pictures.

20th Century Fox was part of Disney’s larger $71.3-billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox Inc., which was meant, in part, to provide more content to fuel Chief Executive Bob Iger’s push into streaming to rival Netflix. Disney launched its flagship streaming platform Disney+ in November with some Fox movies, including “Avatar.”

The rest of the 20th Century Studios film creative team remains and no changes have been made to the unit’s development or release slate, which includes such titles as Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Vaughn’s “The King’s Man” and James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, Disney said.

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Watts joined Fox in 1997 when Tom Rothman hired her as a creative executive. She became president of production in 2009, leading the studio through a period in which it released blockbusters such as “The Martian” and “Logan.”

The company is currently enjoying Oscar attention for Mangold’s “Ford v. Ferrari,” which Disney inherited from the Fox regime. However, Burbank-based Disney also had to weather Fox duds such as X-Men epic “Dark Phoenix,” buddy comedy “Stuber” and sci-fi flick “Ad Astra,” which put pressure on the company’s earnings.


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