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.
FLEMING: I’m starting with a Super Bowl Sunday tip of the helmet to James Dixon, who to me personifies the arcane idea of doubling down and betting on oneself and not taking short cuts or cheating to get ahead. I knew Dixon when he was a rising WMA agent repping both Ray Romano and Kevin James when each was riding high with huge series hits. Dixon shared those stand up comics-turned sitcom stars with managers Rory Rosegarten and Jeff Sussman. He surprised many by leaving WMA to join Mike Ovitz’s AMG manager roster. Dixon was told he would never be asked to encroach on those clients. When things got tight at AMG and Ovitz eschewed the no poach tenet of the management game, what do you think Dixon was asked to do? So Dixon left. He couldn’t go back to WMA—Romano and James had other agents by then to count all that syndication money—so Dixon started his own small Gotham-based company and made lemonade out of lemons. He had his long-time client Jon Stewart, and Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel, who then hosted the chauvinistic The Man Show with its Girls On Trampolines signature.
Look at Dixon now. Stewart’s Daily Show birthed Dixon client Stephen Colbert, who soon takes over for a retiring David Letterman. Kimmel slimmed down and polished his act, and is doing great in the ABC late night slot. Stewart is solid at the Daily Show. Dixon also reps Carson Daly, Bill Simmons and Craig Carton, among others. While I’m sure Dixon at one time must have been tempted to return hat in hand to WMA, his company was this week bought by WME/IMG for what I bet was a lotta dough.
BART: There you go, being Mr. Nice Guy, again, Mike. Does Dixon deserve our applause just because he made a good deal for himself? Do clients really gain anything when their agency or management company gets sold? I can’t believe Jon Stewart or Colbert needs WME’s help on their next merchandising deal. Or to get them a role in the Entourage sequel. Or that Colbert wants Ari Emanuel to find him a movie to direct during his nine month wait before he can re-invent the Letterman show? Surely Colbert noticed that Jon Stewart’s Rosewater got love from the New York critics but got ignored by filmgoers around the country — Colbert is too wary a character to go through that pain. And they, like other Dixon clients, may worry that their rep will be distracted by the demands of his newly merged entity. Dixon got the crazies working for Ovitz. Will it happen again?
FLEMING: He gets my applause because he bet on himself and won, remedied a setback with hard work, and positioned himself and his clients for the future with this deal. Stewart directed Rosewater because the passion burned in him, and how can you knock that? Finally, don’t forget that Stewart’s hiatus birthed John Oliver, now an HBO star. There is a spirit here of ambition and building new stuff that I wish was more prevalent in places like Wall Street. Dixon will run his business as an autonomous outpost and his clients can tap into all that WME/IMG has to offer for endorsements, merchandising, and funding to broaden empires by creating and producing other shows. This struck me as exceptional in an age where everybody’s looking for short cuts, or cheating to get ahead. Today’s great Super Bowl match-up was marred by conversation over whether the Patriots cheated to ensure Tom Brady had his balls handled just so (since when was a little light fondling not enough for any guy?); and there’s a NYT report that the hot Wall Street investment is bonds consisting of bundled used car loans for the working poor (so next time the economy tanks it won’t be because of mortgages but rather because someone fell behind on payments on their old Ford Probe). And then you have Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation, in layoff and cutback mode after a long series of moves that included going public and then being unable to find a buyer to pay a high sticker price. Can you imagine the powerhouse that might have been, had Katzenberg kept animation part of DreamWorks, and if he and his partners had stuck to their knitting instead of trying to make deal after deal, and maybe a deal or two too many?
BART: It’s downright disorienting to watch Katzenberg twist in the wind like he has. Or at least “skating on thin ice,” as analyst Richard Greenfield puts it. We are accustomed to Jeffrey on the offensive, lecturing the industry for overpaying movie stars (remember the Katzenberg Memo) or blasting Michael Eisner for making a brain-dead deal to position Michael Ovitz as his potential successor. Coincidentally, I found myself in separate meetings with both Jeffrey and David Geffen during that portentous week when Time Warner was pondering a giant offer to acquire DreamWorks. The ”inside story” reportedly was that the deal never happened because Jeffrey had such a strong voice he would end up trying to run Time Warner as well as DreamWorks (the asking price also was too aggressive). Jeffrey probably should have reached for that deal. Now he’s got to reassure investors about DreamWorks’ financial condition, given reports that it might cost $450 million in write-downs and other charges to restructure the company. Jeffrey has fired at least 20% of his work force (including most of his top execs). Shares have gone down 40% in the past year and there’s only one film slated for 2015 release.
FLEMING: I recall the bluster and promise when DreamWorks was launched by Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. It was an alliance borne partly from anger that Michael Eisner denied Katzenberg the job of Disney heir apparent after Frank Wells was killed in a tragic plane crash and Eisner suffered heart problems. They were going to show Disney, and everybody. Hollywood’s brightest minds were going to build a new studio for the ages. But it was like each guy had too many other interests to put more than one foot in the venture. They never broke ground on a studio; Spielberg never left his comfy Amblin offices on the Universal lot, even after Ron Meyer got so furious when Spielberg and Stacey Snider spurned his distribution deal for Disney at the last moment. I always suspected that if the DreamWorks troika and Stacey Snider had not been so used to having their bums lathered—which led them to leave Paramount because the studio dared take credit for DreamWorks’ success when they owned the studio—that Katzenberg, Spielberg, Spielberg and Geffen would have rewritten Hollywood history, beyond their single respective outsized achievements. In their Paramount divorce, DreamWorks left behind strong development projects and the Transformers series, for a deal with India’s Reliance where they had to sweat out a funding commitment extension that just ruined their momentum. Snider left for Fox because her skill is managing big studio slates, and DreamWorks doesn’t have that. Spielberg now has to figure out what DreamWorks is going to be just as Katzenberg has to figure out what the new, downsized iteration of DreamWorks Animation is going to be.
BART: Jeffrey can be counted on to put up a good fight. He’s cutting his releases from three to two a year, reducing production costs from $145 million to $120 million and has qualified Kung Fu Panda 3 as a Chinese co-production. He still has his Chinese theme park, his Fox distribution deal and his limitless energy and ambition. His one release this year is titled Home. Knowing Jeffrey, he’ll kill to make it a Home Run.
FLEMING: I once had a breakfast with Jeffrey that went so well I thought I’d made a new best friend. I stopped at the restroom before leaving and we crossed paths on my way out the door. I caught his eye and smiled, and he looked at me as though he’d never seen me before in his life. I didn’t feel slighted; I was awed imagining how driven and compartmentalized this man was, in a Terminator-esque way. I would never bet against him. Maybe going public made him rich behind his wildest dreams, but it just seemed that each time he’d put out a quality animated film and it didn’t set opening weekend records, the narrative became about a precipitous stock drop–even though his movies turn in strong performances over time. Disney could have spun off Marvel or Pixar in public offerings, but that studio is the bastion of stability because it has powerhouse divisions to rely on when others weather inevitable slumps.
BART: Next topic. Too much rhetoric has surrounded American Sniper, and I don’t want to add to it, but here’s my final comment: If the film stays on course to become the highest grossing Super Bowl weekend movie and the highest grossing war movie, the ideologues will be jumping up and down with new weighty analyses. My own analysis is admittedly simple-minded: Clint Eastwood has delivered a classic western disguised as a war movie, complete with empathetic hero called into one more mission. He hasn’t steeped it in complex sub-texts. It is, in a way, the flip side of Birdman: Underacted and under-plotted. Film goers instinctively want to see it, and the ideologues should shut up.
FLEMING: I just love that the Academy has to deal with this late juggernaut entry; American Sniper and the recent wins for Birdman wins has made the Best Picture race as tight as today’s Super Bowl match-up between the Patriots and Seahawks. Boyhood had all the early momentum, but not now; there isn’t a weak title in the Best Picture category. One final note from me: back when Paul Feig announced last summer he would provide his patented estrogen injection into one of my favorite guy films, Ghostbusters, I objected strenuously. My opinion offended some female readers who would have been happy to see me hanged from a bra strap. Gotta say, Feig has turned me around with the cast he set this week. His Bridesmaids’ stars Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are joined by two of the best and brightest Saturday Night Live castmembers. Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones make me laugh every weekend. There’s a good chance this neanderthal was dead wrong.
BART: As I said, Mike, you’re Mister Nice Guy.