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: We barely had a moment to bash the Oscarcast – a musical variety show that too infrequently gave an obligatory nod to movies – when Sony replaced Amy Pascal and Paramount fired Film Group president Adam Goodman. What did you think about Sony’s coronation of Tom Rothman, two years after he was deposed by Fox?
BART: Whenever there’s an important management change in Hollywood, reporters always scratch their heads, figuring out what to write about. What’s the lead? In the case of Rothman, the stories are all the same: He had a great record at Fox but he’s contentious. And he’s got a big voice. But is that a character flaw? Everyone in Hollywood has been reading everyone else’s emails these past few weeks, and if there’s one point that emerges, it is this: Packaging movies is akin to a barroom brawl. Deal making is like an episode of Survivor. Every offer is an insult. Every counter-offer is an affront. Every casting suggestion is ludicrous. Every star is really an idiot and every agent a terrorist. This is not an atmosphere for gentle people. So if Rothman has a temper, as the press suggests, it will come in handy.
FLEMING: Well, you are right about the reportorial head scratching; in the spin zone it’s hard to know who deserves credit or blame. It seems to this outsider that the mark of success in that chairman job is how well you walk a tight rope. You entice good filmmakers to choose you and your script over others, and then you impose your will enough to ensure you get the movie, at the price, that you signed up for, without so strangling the creative process that you turn them into lackeys to execute your own vision of each movie on your slate. It sounds like Rothman might have been losing his balance a bit walking that wire in his waning days at Fox. It was probably useful to have a timeout at TriStar, where he put together a great slate with strong directors, and had time to reflect. Ironically, his first project there is the ultimate high-wire movie, The Walk, the Robert Zemeckis-directed 3D caper film about Philippe Petit crossing from one Twin Tower to the other in the World Trade Center. The fact that he got Ang Lee‘s next film, after they collaborated on the risky-as-hell Fox film Life Of Pi, shows he can find common ground with A-listers. The question I’ve most heard from agents is, can Tom loosen the white-knuckle grip? Here’s something you cannot take away from him. He is very good at decisively choosing movies with tentpole and franchise potential, dating them and challenging creatives to deliver on time and on budget. More than any studio in town, Sony needs those kinds of pictures. Production president Mike De Luca has bought a bunch of projects with franchise potential. Rothman had a big hand launching the franchises that sustain Fox; he just has to walk the wire a bit better. Given all the proven execs and film divisions that Sony has, and Jeff Robinov and Pascal taking big swings as producers, Rothman seems poised for success. Fiscal restraint is not a weakness, and even if he is as bracing and directly confrontational as you say, harsh language never killed anybody and it is better than passive aggressiveness.
BART: The dismissal of Adam Goodman at Paramount reminds me, Mike, how difficult it is to ‘manage upward’ at a movie studio. Goodman was a thoughtful, diplomatic guy who seemed to be doing well as president of Paramount’s film group but suddenly he stepped into a pothole, just as John Lesher had done before him and a long list of others in the past.
FLEMING: The most common reaction I’ve heard for Goodman taking a bullet is, too many tent poles came in late and/or over budget. The latest to pump the brakes is Mission: Impossible 5 so Chris McQuarrie can craft a better ending. Goodman alienated some important people, which I suppose is inevitable in that job.
BART: How do you rate someone’s performance at a studio? I’ve worked at three of them, and I’m not sure. Paramount makes so few movies (nothing will come out until July 1) that you can’t fault Goodman’s excesses. Last year, the studio put out 12 movies compared with almost 30 at Fox. To be sure, the Transformers and Sponge Bob businesses have been bountiful and the new Mission: Impossible sequel someday may stop shooting and be ready for release. Goodman once told me he intended to embark on an ambitious micro-budget program, but I never saw the results. And Brad Pitt likely hurt his cause by snatching his company from Paramount to New Regency.
FLEMING: They have Paramount InSurge and Paranormal Activity, but you really are defined by how you manage the big pictures. World War Z was a cautionary tale for the studio, but when it isn’t entirely an isolated incident…
BART: In years past, a production chief could take a bow if one picture turned into a hit. Now, a long line of credit-takers quickly forms. Who can take the credit for American Sniper other than Clint Eastwood? Alan Horn built his regime at Warner Bros on a string of Harry Potters and they served him well. But the bottom line for studio executives is this: they’d better save their money and check out the teaching positions at universities.
FLEMING: There is credit to go around on American Sniper but this is the hardest part of covering this racket, figuring out who deserves the glory and the goat horns. But Goodman need only look at recent Paramount predecessors to feel better about his future. John Lesher is right now figuring out where in his house to put the Oscar he just won for producing Best Picture winner Birdman. Brad Weston became CEO of New Regency, pledged to help Arnon Milchan restore his company as a maker of important movies and a filmmaker haven, and they were an integral part of the last two Best Picture winners, 12 Years A Slave and Birdman. Goodman might have to mend some fences, but his track record at DreamWorks and Paramount indicates he has a lot to offer.
The business of picture picking and managing slates is tough for anybody. Look at this weekend’s first-place film, Focus. It finished at $19 million. Will Smith’s movies used to make that on a light Friday. I’m not picking on him but no studio head can rely on the star system anymore and it is getting so hard to find original content in this age of regurgitation. There are three Robin Hood projects percolating right now, if you count the ones at Sony and Disney, and the spec by Joby Harold, the writer who scripted a multi-part King Arthur movie that Guy Ritchie will direct at Warner Bros with Charlie Hunnam. The Weinstein Company is negotiating right now to pay big bucks for U.S. rights to a movie about McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc for next Oscar season. It’s another splitting-the-atom movie like The Social Network and the upcoming Steve Jobs and The Imitation Game. Will that formula work again? Facebook, Apple and winning WWII were cool outcomes; what are the byproducts of Kroc’s innovation, bypass operations and fat American kids? Still, Michael Keaton is back, baby, and I can’t wait to see him onscreen again as Kroc. I’m saying, none of these decisions are easy. Even when you find something original to say, it’s difficult. I just saw Kingsman: The Secret Service and while it has done fine with $86 million domestic and $210 million worldwide gross, I wonder why people aren’t raving more about this R-rated gem; a stylized picture with action and humor that revels in its inappropriateness and surprises. You expect Sam Jackson to be a great villain, but Colin Firth, Killing Machine?
Director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman, the same team that launched X-Men: First Class, have once again hatched a franchise-able property with great style, tone and rough edges, with a great young lead choice, Taron Egerton. If I was looking to turn a comic book, graphic novel or video game into a franchise, Vaughn would be the ideal choice, outside of his Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels cohort Guy Ritchie. I’m surprised that more people aren’t talking about this one, but it is showing some staying power at the box office.
BART: Next topic. If you want to end a conversation in Hollywood, all you have to do is to say the word ‘Oscar.’ The award season is behind us and no one wants to revisit it. I noticed this even at the Vanity Fair party, where the atmosphere was ebullient. Almost feverishly so. It was a rainy night, there were traffic jams and everyone looked weary, despite the miracles of hair and makeup. So why the good cheer? Because the awards season was finally over. The succession of parties and Q & A sessions had ended. People could resume their careers. No one would have to pretend they were longing to see Whiplash again or re-review the historic facts behind Selma. The Oscar season is like a play that has two or three too many acts and the author has clearly no idea how to end it. So here’s the good news: It has ended.
FLEMING: I enjoyed following awards season so closely, but I’d be hard pressed right now to name the eight Best Picture nominees; we all moved on so quickly to Sony and Paramount. I’d venture that everyone at that party is ready to move on because 2015 is shaping up to be a killer box office year. Business will be booming, records will be broken and there is so much room for growth and prosperity. Back in 1998, international box office was 48% of the pie and now it’s 70% and there are burgeoning markets and new middle classes and theater complexes cropping up from South America to Asia. International TV deals are being renewed for high prices, and in the switchover from DVDs to digital, studios are saving about 15% in production and shipping costs. More than ever, content is king. Managing that prosperity, creating new intellectual properties that stay on budget, is the challenge for all.
BART: Next. Judd Apatow is a very nice guy who, in his early days, was beat up by some women critics for his rom-raunch movies. Now it turns out he’s a hero to Maureen Dowd for advancing what seems to be an important cause for her: “putting dirty words into pretty mouths.” Yes, women are talking dirtier than guys in several new films and Dowd (writing in The New York Times) applauds it. She even likes a scene in which a woman masturbates with her daughter’s teddy bear as she lies on the floor next to the sleeping child. And she likes the mega raunch in Girls, the HBO show Apatow exec produces.
FLEMING: I’m with you, to a point. I find Melissa McCarthy to be consistently hilarious, Tina Fey also, and Jenny Slate was funny in Obvious Child. I am rarely offended by foul-mouthed comedy (there is a line at the end of Kingsman, uttered by an elegant princess, that broke up everyone in the theater because it was so unexpectedly shocking). But I only go so far with the You-Kiss-Your-Mother-With-That-Mouth? dialogue when it comes to women. I saw a Sundance comedy called The Bronze, which took it a little too far for me with The Big Bang Theory’s Melissa Rauch as a potty-mouthed gymnast. It’s all in the execution, I guess, and perhaps some of the excess can be excised in the editing room by Relativity, which bought it.
BART: Dowd approves of the idea that women are expressing themselves (they sure are) and even directing the films they write and (sometimes) star in. She hypes a new movie, Trainwreck, written by and starring Amy Schumer that premieres next month at South by Southwest. It is about a sexually promiscuous young woman who finds love with a sports doctor. I can imagine his doctoring. Says Apatow about the new feminine expressiveness: “The most titillating part is their making the choice not to censor themselves on emotional honesty.” And Dowd seems to agree. Does The Times appreciate Dowd’s “emotional honesty” running adjacent to pieces analyzing Israel and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign? I suppose it’s “titillating.”
FLEMING: It’s unfair to shackle Dowd with the same expectations when she covers Hillary Clinton as when she writes about Amy Schumer. First time I saw Schumer was when I watched an uncensored Comedy Central roast of Charlie Sheen; this unassuming sweet-faced blonde gets up and just obliterates Sheen and everybody else on the stage with the most foul-mouthed, ruthless and hilarious observations you can imagine. They didn’t know what hit them. Apatow is such a good talent spotter; I can’t wait to see what he and Schumer came up with in Trainwreck but I do hope they exercise some restraint. Jury’s still out for me on a Paul Feig estrogen injection of one of my fave guy comedies, Ghostbusters, but Feig sure nailed the level of raunch on Bridesmaids. There is no gender barrier right now in raucous comedy.