Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: Big stories are usually nasty stories – that’s one of the realities of the news business. The Sony episode is a prime example; no journalist finds pleasure in recycling information that has been obtained through criminal behavior. But at this point the Sony story is important news, impacting not only the economics of that studio but of the industry as a whole. Every top executive in Hollywood is digging through his emails to determine whether he, too, is vulnerable to embarrassment. But as the Sony leaks continue, they are making news, providing insights into the true numbers behind the deals and also into the emotional subtext behind key decisions.
FLEMING: You make a compelling point. I still have a problem with all this, but clearly this is the biggest movie story in years. Where it intersects with the business we cover, we will have to play this regrettable game and run stories we’ll handle as respectfully as possible. My bad, for taking time to come around, though we broke the whole hacking story in the first place and have been breaking developments right along, sans serving up these leaked documents for their intended purpose–to embarrass and sabotage the Sony regime for daring to lampoon North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the comedy The Interview. It still seems unfortunate that what these terrorists have done is create anarchy in showbiz journalism; bottom feeders who’d never get their calls returned and have nothing to lose, serving up dishy, embarrassing slop in private correspondence for maximum eyeballs. It’s gotten to the point we can’t ignore it. This weekend, sites are putting details of the James Bond movie script Spectre all over the web. The industry repercussions are massive and cannot be ignored, and we will deal with newsworthy elements, filtered through our moral sensibility.
BART: Sifting through the material, I find myself asking this question of Amy Pascal: Some of your alleged comments and responses display clear signs of combat fatigue, Amy. You are good at what you do, but you’ve been at it for a couple of decades. You’ve begun to talk the brutish talk of the Scott Rudins of the industry and tolerate their thuggish power plays. At what point are you ready to say, ‘I’ve caused some marvelous films to happen but the sheer ‘noise’ of the business is getting to me.’
FLEMING: I think it was good that Amy spoke out finally, and that both she and Rudin apologized for indefensible racial comments. It’s still odd the way people aren’t cutting any slack for how these e-mails have surfaced. It’s the right of Shonda Rhimes to express outrage, but I didn’t see her offer up years of her personal e-mails for scrutiny to see if perhaps a smart woman ever wrote something dumb and regrettable in an e-mail. After I went to the theater last night to see Chris Rock’s Top Five, I thought about how you define a person. Under Pascal, Sony has probably made more movies with African American talent than any studio, especially if you include Screen Gems. As one lot filmmaker said to me, “Calling Amy a racist is like calling a Jew a Nazi.” As for Rudin, he funded Top Five through his arrangement with Barry Diller’s IAC. Everybody bitches there aren’t enough films by African Americans. Rock wrote, directed and starred in Top Five, and I bet 20 African American actors had big roles in the runaway hit of the Toronto Film Festival that is now getting a wide release through a major studio in Paramount. It has all of us focused on Rock’s voice as a filmmaker for the first time, comparing him to Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. I am by no means excusing racially insensitive comments. What speaks loudest, a few words, or actions?
BART: Inevitably we all think of Pascal’s dilemma in terms of our own experience. Personally, I’ve always been paranoid about hackers. One of the first things I did in becoming editor of Variety was to ban email debates of company policy – even then too much private material was turning up on Page Six. At Paramount I bet Robert Evans that our phones were tapped. He was sure they weren’t. I won the bet. I never ran a company with the global thrust of a Sony, but after eighteen years at Paramount and MGM, and finally as President of Lorimar Films, I had had enough of the ‘noise level.’ A movie studio has no connection to the real world and I was ready to bid farewell to the egomaniacs and sociopaths. I’d suggest to Amy she give it a think. But of course if she ever decides to take a walk, don’t do it for a while – no one wants the hackers to get that sort of satisfaction.
FLEMING: It’s the question everybody is asking, can Amy survive this? One smart producer I talk with suggested that Sony might just need somebody who hasn’t written e-mails on Sony’s servers that continue to be served up for embarrassment. Just to break the continuity. Since this rambling column allows for supposition, ponder this: imagine if, when they finally figure out who was behind this hacking, how appalling it would be if the finger pointed at cyber-terrorists from a hostile foreign government which targeted Pascal for ruin because she didn’t bow to blackmail attempts to quash The Interview. And that while Hollywood liberals who were quick to engage petitions to protest Hamas in the Gaza and basically starve waiters and valets by boycotting the Beverly Hills Hotel (because it’s owned by the Sultan of Brunei), they didn’t lift a finger to protest this unprecedented occurrence happening right in Culver City to a tenured member of the film establishment. Our reporters asked the MPAA why they weren’t raising holy hell and we were told no comment, it wasn’t their problem. Why, again, does the MPAA exist? The one irony in all this, if I may get on my Mel Gibson soapbox for a quick second, is, Pascal was one of the studio heads who publicly banished that star for anti-Semitic things he said while drunk in a cop car that were leaked and disgraced him. Now that she has had to answer for private utterings made public, I wonder if she will reconsider her harsh stand on Gibson, who finally has some good stuff going again. As Pascal tries to navigate a situation that only gets worse with each hacker document dump, she can at least look to Gibson as evidence that you cannot die of embarrassment.
BART: New topic. Angelina Jolie does not deserve her widely circulated new label as a “minimally talented spoiled brat,” but after observing her massive domination of the media this week, I just don’t ‘get’ much of what she’s saying and doing. She’s zealously promoting her new movie, Unbroken, as a Christmas release suitable for the whole family (“I want all my children to see it”) when it is a relentlessly violent war movie, replete with torture scenes, that should never have received a PG-13 rating. As part of her campaign she managed to transform a primetime hour on NBC into a movie trailer (Tom Brokaw was her shill) thereby exploiting Comcast’s willingness to turn its stewardship of its network into the service of its studio, Universal. While urgently advocating women’s rights, she continues to invoke the sympathy card, irrelevantly introducing her preventive surgeries to avoid breast and ovarian cancer. And while all this is going on, of course, the pirated emails from Sony portray her as an unrelenting power player bent on packaging her movies in front of competitive projects (per Scott Rudin’s characterization of her in a pirated email, stemming apparently from Rudin’s feeling that Jolie was throwing her weight around on the Steve Jobs film because it interfered with her film, Cleopatra, both of which Rudin is producing).
FLEMING: Well, meow, Peter, you sure have your claws out for Hollywood’s most beguiling movie star-turned-writer/director. All your points are well taken. The point that caught my eye was the one made by NY Timesmen Cieply and Barnes in their Golden Globes nomination coverage. They reported Jolie’s snubbing by a Hollywood Foreign Press Association that adores her might be attributable to late delivery of Unbroken because she was distracted shooting another movie with hubby Brad Pitt. If true, that would be costly indulgence at Unbroken‘s expense, considering how hard she campaigned hard to win the Unbroken job, how strongly she bonded with Louis Zamperini and how much a tough prestige movie like Unbroken could benefit from awards adulation.
BART: Like everyone else, I admire Angelina’s courage. In directing Unbroken as her second film, she took on a technically demanding and very expensive project. Paradoxically, while demonstrating her technical proficiency, however, she failed to deliver an emotionally compelling film. There are no tears to pay off her characters’ fears. Before Unbroken’s release, she completed another film, By The Sea, with husband Brad Pitt, thereby revealing her understanding of an old Hollywood rule: If a star has a risky movie out there, put another one in the bank before releasing it.
FLEMING: I’ve been so busy with Oscar features and Sony hacking stories that I haven’t yet seen the movie but am eager. I’ve written for so long about this movie. Like the film’s long-suffering producer Matt Baer (who worked 17 years, mostly for free, on this), I have been a believer since watching the superb CBS Zamperini documentary done for the coverage of the 1989 Winter Olympics in Nagano, where the one-time Japanese prison camp POW carried the torch. Baer used that docu as his torch, going Willy Loman from place to place in futility, until Laura Hillenbrand’s book finally gave this movie the urgency it needed. It’s amazing to think that Zamperini first got in business with Universal when he sold them his memoir in the late ‘50s for Tony Curtis to star in after Sweet Smell Of Success and Some Like It Hot, only to see it languish when the actor accepted Stanley Kubrick’s offer to do Spartacus. Zamperini never gave up, but died July 3 at 97, months before seeing the movie open. If there was an Oscar for Best Backstory, Unbroken would win in a runaway.
BART: On many levels, therefore, Angelina is a remarkable woman – her six kids, her work as a special UN envoy, her medical and political advocacy. “I want to be a stronger person,” she tells audiences. My message to her: You’re strong enough, Angelina. Now try to relax a little. Maybe Cleopatra is not the best role for you. And do your kids a favor. Don’t take them to see Unbroken.
FLEMING: I too find Jolie to be admirable. One final thought. I read an article where Japanese bloggers and media are beating up on Unbroken for its depiction of POW brutality by the Japanese. Let’s hope they haven’t got any black-ops hackers over there but just in case, Universal execs should be either deleting emails, or making sure its security is up to snuff. As we’ve seen with Sony, once your every secrets and scripts are leaked, you are seemingly on your own.
What kind of chilling long-term impact is all this stuff going to have on future hot-button projects? Can you even imagine any studio thinking about going forward with all those projects on Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB officer who fled to the UK and became an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime. He was given a fatal dose of Polonium-210 and blamed Putin as he succumbed to acute radiation poisoning. Several studio projects were developed on this. Could you imagine any studio trying that now, given Russia’s hacking capabilities and the fact that these hackers have the Sony regime on the ropes?. This is such a fascinating story on so many levels. I saw the superb MLK film Selma and wondered how those who had segregation in their hearts back then feel now, if they are still alive. History unfolds and when you react in real time, you just hope that when you look back, that you were on the right side. I fear what we might find here is that bad guys muzzled free speech: the media was too caught up in serving up dishy details; Hollywood as a whole duck and covered, glad it wasn’t them; and entities like the MPAA were too busy with their self interests to do anything to help. That’s the cautionary version, anyway.
BART: The last question: will Sony let George Clooney make his film Hack Attack, about the phone hacking engineered by Rupert Murdoch’s English tabloids?