Twenty-First Century Fox's (NASDAQ:FOX) (NASDAQ:FOXA) Fantastic Four is set to bow in American theaters on Aug. 7, and there's a good chance that the series reboot will fail to set the box office aflame.
Relative to other big-budget superhero action movies, there appears to be little fanfare for the Four's latest outing, and Fox has made the decision to cancel the 3D conversion process for the release. While technological problems or time limitations may be to blame, the other main possibility for not delivering the movie in the 3D format is that the company doesn't think the extra tickets sold would justify the expense. If that's the case, Fantastic Four is on track for a dismal performance, and one that would seriously disrupt plans for the future of the franchise.
Meanwhile, Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel Cinematic Universe had a less spectacular summer season than many had anticipated, with Avengers: Age of Ultron failing to match the box-office take of its predecessor and Ant-Man delivering the lowest domestic opening for an MCU film in seven years. Would a Fantastic flop bring the property to the point where it makes sense for Fox to sell the film license to Disney or partner with the studio for a co-production?
Things aren't looking good for Fox's Four
The official reason given for ceasing the 3D conversion process from director Josh Trank was that it was done out of a desire to keep the experience as pure as possible. While it's possible that this is a truthful statement, there are also good reasons to doubt the explanation. A blockbuster superhero action film without a 3D theatrical version is an extreme rarity because the format has been a proven winner in the genre. Roughly half of the domestic ticket sales for the first Avengers, and 44% of the Avengers: Age of Ultron opening domestic frame came from sales in the format. That Fantastic Four's 3D conversion process was halted certainly implies that Fox was planning to screen the picture in premium formats during production, so news that the picture won't benefit from playing on 3D screens is a bad sign for its performance no matter the reason.
The complicated world of superhero team politics
Regardless of how Fantastic Four fares at the box office, it will extend Fox's film rights to the property. Per the terms of the deal that the company struck with Marvel, Fox retains the screen rights so long as it releases a movie featuring the characters within a given time period. Still, there's not much value for Fox in continuing to produce expensive films that lose money or barely break even for the sake of retaining the license, and a soggy performance for the latest Fantastic movie after the fizzling of the previous film franchise in 2007 will complicate the value of the characters.
Fox is apparently interested in a crossover between its X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises, which could be a way to generate more interest in the First Family of Marvel, but combining the properties on screen could lose a lot of its appeal if Reed Richards, the Storm siblings, and The Thing once again bottom out at the box office. The X-Men series may also be on somewhat shaky ground, with key talent Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, and Partick Stewart leaving the franchise, and attempting to shoehorn the Fantastic Four into the series as a new identity and direction are being established could be a bad move.
Prioritizing success on the silver screen could bring two storied rivals together
Fox and Disney have long been rivals in the film entertainment and broadcast space, and ongoing moves from the House of Mouse and its Marvel subsidiary have probably only heightened tensions. Disney and Marvel are opting to de-emphasize the Fantastic Four and X-Men in comic book runs and have shied away from producing merchandise that could be seen as supporting Fox's films.
While it's likely that there is some bad blood between the companies, it's not as though a potential team-up or partnership is without precedent. Disney and Fox (along with Comcast) are co-owners of the Hulu streaming service, and while the two companies have had differences in vision for the video platform, the arrangement has been productive. Fox and Disney were also reportedly working on a deal in 2012 that would have prevented the screen rights to the Daredevil character from reverting to Marvel in exchange for the use of Silver Surfer and Galactus, characters from the Fantastic Four property. While nothing came of the rumored deal and Daredevil is now back with Marvel and Disney, if true, it does suggest that the companies are at least open to mutually beneficial arrangements, and not beholden to reported rivalries or grudges.
Having the Fantastic Four feature in the MCU could very well work to both companies' advantage, and that outcome isn't as impossible as it may seem. Before Sony's Amazing Spider-Man 2 disappointed at the box office in 2014, bringing the character into Disney's MCU didn't seem like the best move for the Japanese company, as Spider-Man is its most valuable film property, and handing significant creative control to a competing studio raises a lot of potential issues. But Sony's 2014 tentpole dramatically underperformed, and a deal with Disney materialized pretty quickly.
For Fox to outright sell the Fantastic Four property to Disney remains an unlikely outcome, but significant underperformance for this summer's installment in the Fantastic franchise will create a situation where some manner of a Fox-Disney team-up makes a lot more sense.
Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.