FlemingBartColumn_badgePeter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.

Fleming: Working on the Deadline/Awardsline Emmy issues prompted me to binge my way through cable series like True Detective and House Of Cards. It really got me depressed about the movie business.

Bart: Why?

trueFleming: Because those series and 10 more like them are better than anything I see on a movie screen. For the 25 years I’ve covered it, film has always been the sexiest, most prestigious part of the business. Sure, TV packages drove the bottom line, but agencies and studios were measured by the feature stars and directors in their stables. TV, particularly pay and basic cable, has gradually overtaken movies and become the trendsetting cool place to work. Why leave the house for the theater when so many movies regurgitate past success, especially at studios? Look at the projects put in development last week. Revamps of Power Rangers, The Flintstones, Private Benjamin. Uninspiring. The most successful major studio right now, Disney, has a success formula based on recycling old movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, sequelizing Marvel superheroes, and refashioning fairy tales. The definition of excellence in studio summer movies these days is putting a smart spin on an old concept, as happened on Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came just a decade after the last Spider-Man 2 and cost so much that studio higher-ups will hang on tenterhooks until the global gross exceeds $750 million, when it might turn some profit. Next up, another Godzilla, only 16 years after the last reboot. Add to that an antiquated delivery system that hasn’t changed since the 1980s, and movies seem at a low creative ebb, compared to pay and basic cable outlets soaring with boldness and creativity.

gone with the wind set 12 gable leigh selznickBart: Summer is always the best time of year for the studios, Mike, but the worst time for audiences — grown-up audiences, that is. My problem with superhero movies is that I liked them better when they were comic books. But the gurus have been predicting the decline of movies for generations. David O. Selznick gave us Gone With The Wind but in 1948 he wrote one of his famously grumpy memos stating, “I’ve stopped making films because the motion picture business is taking such a terrible beating from television.” He was right at the time, Mike, but film goers found their zeal again in the 1970s. So stay tuned for award season when the indies ramp up again and the filmmakers become the superheroes.

Fleming: Well, Peter, you were certainly part of that ’70s renaissance. But now, it feels like the ecosystem has been damaged. The creative vision on the big films comes from executives who give creativity-stifling one-step screenwriter deals, with emphasis on reaching four quadrant audiences. Producers have been marginalized. Should the authorship of a picture belong to the studio exec? By contrast, some of the best series are generated by feature writers who couldn’t get hired after studios turned away from smart mid-budget dramas in favor of no-budget genre and high-priced tent poles. I remember Tony Gilroy telling me a couple years ago that movies like his superb Michael Clayton would go extinct, but there should be no funeral because all those writers who made them were flocking to TV and wait and see what happens. Man, was he right. Will the next generation growing up in this creative blight be inspired by mediocrity to dream about having the authority to reboot The Hangover? Today’s studio decision-makers got into the business because of those ’70s movies, and look how that ambition has been marginalized by economic pressure. Studio movies like Gravity are anomalies, and so many of the ones that do get made are funded by high net worth individuals or as you say, are the domain of the indies. What would you and your pals have had to do today to get make movies like Harold And Maude, Midnight Cowboy, French Connection, Love Story, Chinatown or Nashville?

John
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coppBart: From the standpoint of the studios, here’s the real reason the ’70s were exciting. When I moved to Paramount, the message was clear: All rules are off. None of the policies of the past were working. The studio system was broken. Let’s start over. That’s what enticed me into the game. It was a great message. The ’70s were a great time to be alive in the movie business but the era also has been romanticized of late. A key reason so many innovative  films were made was that costs were so low. Even The Godfather cost $7 million, which was considered pricey. A studio slate consisted of 25 movies and there were no committees to “model” prospective grosses or ponder ancillaries. Studio executives often greenlit movies because they looked forward to seeing them — how’s that for a radical concept? I truly looked forward to seeing Harold And Maude. But then a filmmaker like Dennis Hopper, fresh from Easy Rider, would deliver The Last Movie, and you knew it was aptly titled. The ups and downs were radical.

mckFleming: Movies also seem hobbled compared to TV because of an inability to compromise with theater owners to close the gap between theatrical and DVD/VOD release. Think of it. The Sunday night that billions watched Matthew McConaughey win Best Actor Oscar, the second to last episode of True Detective aired on HBO. If you missed True Detective because you were watching the Oscars, you could watch it on demand immediately after, or whenever you wanted to. TV makes it so easy. Kevin Spacey, who tested the feature multi-platform feature release model on Margin Call and then the groundbreaking Netflix series House Of Cards, told me recently that his mantra has become, if you give the people what they want when they want it, they won’t steal it. Why can’t exhibitors and studios get together and stop fighting the inevitable?

Bart: I think you’re right to favor compressed windows but the policy I distrust is compressed schedules. Each year the studios make fewer but more expensive movies. Paramount’s quarterly reports boast about cutbacks as though it was intent on becoming The Incredible Missing Studio. Hollywood was a happier place when everyone was working and a Spider-Man sequel didn’t have to gross $750 million worldwide to break even.

Fleming: Sounds like you are telling me to enjoy this TV golden age and wait for the feature crowd to get back their spines. It’s hard, because the ledger sheet of studio movies worth getting excited right now is about as short as the reservation book at the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge.

normalBart: Yes. And since you are binge-viewing, Mike, add Silicon Valley to your list. It’s downright savage. And remember this about HBO and its cable rivals: They are always desperate to sign movie stars. Witness Julia Roberts in Normal Heart. Or Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind The Candelabra. And the biggest prize for TV’s creative stars is still to make a movie — witness Matt Weiner. It’s still the one credential that’s most coveted.