Peter 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, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: I’ve never seen anything like the craziness that followed the elevator surveillance-camera footage of Ray Rice punching his wife, and an NFL deer-in-the-headlights response that put its tenured commissioner Roger Goodell in danger of being on the business end of a knockout punch himself. It became bloodsport; ESPN has shown the elevator punch so often in the past few days, it’s surprising they haven’t assembled their fight commentators to dissect it. The subsequent media scrutiny of other players who’ve done similar or worse things — but who suited up today — leaves you thinking that NFL players have crime stats comparable to the prison team Burt Reynolds quarterbacked in The Longest Yard.
BART: People make a mistake, Mike, when they deal with The Ray Rice Affair as though it were reality. The world of pro football is financial fantasy. Four networks spend $5.3 billion a year to play ball with the NFL. Football keeps network schedules alive with a 20.3-million average viewership. Commissioner Goodell may get pounded but he earns $44 million a year for making all his mistakes. Robert S. Mueller, the supposedly impartial former FBI director leading the probe, now works for a law firm that is steeped in billion-dollar NFL negotiations.
FLEMING: Much has been written about the deplorable act of men hitting women. I want to explore a point here and it’s going to take me a moment. I listen to the Boomer and Carton morning radio show in New York, and both guys struggled over this issue; Craig Carton knows Rice personally, and Boomer Esiason is an all-time NFL great intertwined with a league legacy he’s proud of. My wife and her brother went to East Islip High when Boomer broke all the QB records there and they said he was a ridiculously outsized talent. My brother-in-law played wide receiver and said when they lined up to run patterns in passing drills during practice, they’d try to get in the line with the backup QB; Boomer threw the ball so hard, you went home with welts on your arms and chest. Most NFL players display that level of high-school dominance. While Boomer could be incorrigible, he grew up in the suburbs of Long Island with a strong father and football coach as mentor.
My wife once saw that coach, Sal Ciampi, put Boomer up against the wall in the cafeteria; Boomer didn’t get away with anything. Grown-up Boomer is now a better man than I think I could ever be; after his son Gunnar was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, Esiason became a fund-raising machine, to find a cure. He was encouraged by sports-writing great Frank Deford, who turned the loss of his 8-year-old daughter Alexa to the disease into a lightning rod of awareness. Through the foundation he started, Boomer has raised over $100 million and helped move the needle in prolonging the life of cystic fibrosis sufferers like his son. He works nine jobs and much of it is to drive the charity. While Gunnar deals with respiratory hardship, he graduated college and is living his life. No father who tunes in isn’t touched by this, or when Boomer says his only goal is to die before his son. I bring all this up because it’s clear to me things like where you grow up, father figures, etc., really matter here in teaching morals and empathy. If you don’t have them, and all you have is physical ability, anger and aggression, what do you expect? Many football players who’ve done awful things didn’t have strong father figures, didn’t feel safe at home and grew up with the threat of violence all around. They give up their bodies to make huge football paydays and don’t even think about future brain-injury considerations. Is it surprising some can’t shut off the propensity to be violent?
BART: It’s interesting that the top athletes themselves disagree about the penalties to be paid. Your friend Boomer is adamant that child abuse in any form is on the unforgivable list (the Adrian Peterson case). Yet the ever-candid Charles Barkley declares, “Let’s get real, folks. Black families in the South whip their kids. That’s how I was brought up.” His point was that there are diverse cultures intersecting here and judgments have to be weighed in that framework.
FLEMING: I remember once meeting Sugar Ray Leonard in his heyday when I wrote for Newsday. I was such a fan, I knew everything about him, and we had a great conversation. I didn’t want to see him hurt and casually said, “Ray, you sure you want to get in the ring with Marvin Hagler? He is so strong he looks unbeatable.” Ray’s eyes changed; in The Sopranos, they called it flashing “the Manson lamps.” The look was momentary, and then nice guy Ray was back and said he knew what he was doing and changed the subject. What I saw was a fearless, ferocious, scary dude, the one that showed up in the ring. It made realize these sports heroes aren’t like normal schlubs like me. Ray, who beat Hagler, was better than most at being able to flip the switch to “off.” Some guys don’t do it nearly as well off the field, especially when stimulants are involved.
BART: Domestic violence is an important issue but there’s no way owners and network are going to let it get in the way of their fantasy money machine. Baseball owners have been far more skillful in shoving incidents under the carpet. Gossip has long been rampant about domestic thuggery among NBA players but, again, “crisis management” has kept things quiet. I admired that documentary about NBA players titled Free Spirits in which Marvin Barnes, a long-time star forward, admitted, “I always wanted to be a gangsta, a drug dealer and a pimp as well as a player.” Barnes, who snorted coke while on the Boston Celtics bench, got all his wishes. He died last week at age 62.
FLEMING: Goodell is paid all that money by football owners to protect the revenue stream, plain and simple. When he saw a massive concussion lawsuit coming from past damaged players, he cracked down and penalized and dropped heavy fines for cheap hits, and took public abuse for it. He was right. I think he went wrong in giving a two-game suspension to Ray Rice because he met with the Ravens player and his (then-) fiancée, Janay. She was so passionate that I think Goodell felt her embarrassment and just wanted to help her make it go away so the couple could move on. That’s probably why the NFL didn’t seek out the punch footage Goodell didn’t see until TMZ aired it. He dropped the ball, letting emotion get in the way of fiduciary responsibility. Goodell should put back on the armor and make hard decisions based on the money, because it is the most persuasive thing. Tell his NFL players, over and over and over if necessary, that with riches comes responsibility. If they hit women or commit violent crimes, the gravy train ends. Banned a year for each transgression. No paycheck. No exceptions. The best way to make a lasting impression on a man is through his wallet. Then, the point comes through in Technicolor, to rob a line from Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential.
BART: None of this justifies Ray Rice or sports thuggery. I’m just amazed that, with the universe of crisis management as adept and pervasive as it is, the affair has reached such shrill proportions. What else you got?
FLEMING: I’m going to take a mulligan on my recent rant that Toronto Film Festival organizers were right to exclude from its first four days any film that premiered at Telluride or elsewhere. While on paper they are right to demand world premieres, and maybe they hoped to stretch the festival beyond the first four days when most people leave. But the move upset the delicate ecosystem that sees acquisition titles find distributors. Sellers tell me that when buyers see films play with the sophisticates in Telluride and then film fans in Toronto, they learn all they need to know about what to spend money. Also, the move meant that Toronto’s opening weekend was lined with big studio films. There was a palpable lack of electricity because everybody wants to see Oscar combatants. No Birdman from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, which played other festivals; films like Reese Witherspoon’s Wild and Foxcatcher and the Audience Award winner The Imitation Game didn’t play ’til Monday or later, when journalists from cash-strapped newspapers were either packing or home. The acquisition title 99 Homes, held back until Monday night, hasn’t sold yet and it’s the kind of film that in festivals past stirred first-weekend all-night auctions. Nobody won here; Toronto organizers got an earful and I bet they rescind what now seems like a petty ban. The New York Film Festival takes better care of its titles at gala premiere showcases, and Toronto has allowed its Gotham rival to become the prestige place to launch an Oscar film.
BART: I understand your second thoughts about the Telluride-Toronto machinations, Mike, but I still think the initial position was valid. Since specialty pictures, like tentpoles, tend to ghetto-ize themselves in terms of release corridors, they have to stake their claim in terms of strategy. Telluride is like opening your film for a fan club, but it’s a premiere nonetheless. I think the New York Fest will continue to gain in importance — excellent venues, great media set-up. Still, every opening is chancy. The only “sure thing” I ever experienced occurred when I was president of Lorimar Films. We opened a film in Cannes (out of competition) titled Someone Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe. Lavish dinners (and wine) were served at each screening. Everyone loved the meals and the movie and the advances were also lavish.
FLEMING: I’ve been to great launch bashes for movies that bombed and thought they should have filmed and released the premiere party. Toronto premieres aren’t that lavish, even though Warner Bros showed a nice touch holding The Judge party at the new Montecito restaurant opened by Ivan Reitman. He walks around like the mayor and is such a Toronto festival icon, with streets named after him, you wonder why he doesn’t run for mayor and unseat that crack-smoking incumbent. Did the recipe for Chefs Of Europe lead to a box-office killing?
BART: Chefs did well in Europe but the trouble with a movie like that is that you can’t keep serving dinners at every theater. Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey are discovering that with The Hundred Foot Journey — another movie in search of a meal. By the way, I’ve been trying to get accustomed to the new theaters that serve dinner with your movie. I still find eating and film going to be in conflict. A good movie by itself provides enough to chew on. (But often a good martini helps.)