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: Talk about culture clash: You just got back from Cannes, Mike, where attention is focused on Carol and Cate (Carol is the movie about lesbian love and Cate is its star) and I am in Las Vegas, where people are trying to figure out what happened to all the gamblers (gaming now accounts for only 40% of Vegas revenues and gaming is down 37% in Macau). But now we both need to confront the summer blockbuster season, which is getting off to a bouncy start. Pitch Perfect 2 initially out-muscled Mad Max: Fury Road and the early warnings on Tomorrowland is that it’s not quite entertaining enough (“a poverty of vision”, in the words of The New York Times.)
FLEMING: Cannes was weather wonderful, with enough splashy deals to keep me busy and plenty of good films including Carol (put that on the early Oscar list, along with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara). The most intriguing deal on the ground was the one where Focus paid $20 million plus an 8-figure P&A commitment for world rights to Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. Everybody wanted this film, and it continues a dizzying Universal hot streak where a studio that scrapped for years now can’t seem to do anything wrong, most recently evidenced by Pitch Perfect 2. Ford, who gave a meticulous ballroom presentation with a slide show, first decided he might sell foreign territories, or just wait and fund the film himself. But he hit it off with Focus chief Peter Schlessel, a tough deal maker with a rep for honesty and transparency, and suddenly Ford saw a benefit to having his film under one roof. He craves control and that is easier with one enterprise, as opposed to piecemeal deals where you don’t know how the local distributor is going to market your film. The numbers rivaled Cannes’ last big deal, the $20 million Paramount paid for the Denis Villenueve-directed sci-fi pic Story of Your Life with Amy Adams, but that deal was mostly for U.S. rights. The idea of a big Cannes package being bought for the world by a major studio can only mean tsuris for all the local buyers who do business on the Croisette. But back to the blockbusters!
BART: Blockbusters don’t need critical approval, of course, but this summer’s counter-programming may generate more heat than the Main Events, as with Pitch Perfect 2. It wouldn’t surprise me if Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck (Judd Apatow directed ) turns out to be a lot more fun than Ant-Man and I’m looking forward more to Melissa McCarthy in Spy than to Terminator: Genisys. And let’s see if Paper Towns, based on a John Green novel, can match the sob level of The Fault In Our Stars. Somehow the sequels all feel instantly creaky, and that goes both for a Jurassic and a Magic Mike retread.
FLEMING: There will be some more counter programming opportunities like the one that Pitch Perfect 2 seized, claiming a niche audience and then expanding it through word of mouth. I didn’t see the first one, but the humor in the sequel was so off-color funny. With the sensitivity shown at every politically incorrect misstep these days, I’m glad nobody launched a petition on this comedy, which could have started the credit roll with an apology to Latino people, gay people, non-gay people, black people, women, plus-size women, Germans and many others. Most of those inappropriate lines were delivered by an announcer with a blissful lack of self awareness, played by scene stealer John Michael Higgins. I went with my 20-year old son, and we laughed the whole movie. But somehow, when we hit the restroom on the way out, and took our places at the line of urinals crowded by a bunch of guys, I was moved to grunt to my son how cool Mad Max: Fury Road was (we still haven’t seen it). Later, he informed me that all those guys had just exited Pitch Perfect 2 also. I know I’m going to love Melissa McCarthy’s Spy and that we will be there opening day like we are with all her movies, but this Girl Power thing is something I’ll have to ease into.
BART: It’s ironic that the studios are taking notice of Girl Power at the box office at the same time that pressure is growing to use more women directors and focus on more female topics. One study cited by the Los Angeles Times indicated that women make up only 12% of the protagonists in top grossing movies – and that’s fewer than in the previous years. This summer’s movies would suggest that the few women leads have to be R-rated in order to score – witness the foul-mouthed femmes in Pitch Perfect 2 or the always outrageous Melissa in Spy. Does the female audience prefer the R-rated films, as the boys seem to favor, or is simply all that’s available? And will Cate Blanchett’s picture resonate at the box office, as it surely will on the festival circuit?
FLEMING: We’re talking two different types of films and audiences. One film is an awards season prestige picture about sexual repression, and the other reflects the appeal of an unprecedented bumper crop of funny women. I just wrote about a Cannes Weinstein Company distribution deal for Hands of Stone, a film about Roberto Duran. In his weight class were Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Vinny Pazienza. The brawls were historic and boxing has never been as good for me. I think sometimes you have a concentration of outsize talent at one time, and we have that now with female comic actors. McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and new Ghostbusters Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and Cecily Strong; Jenny Slate, Annie Mumolo, Leslie Mann, Jennifer Aniston and others I’m sure I’ve forgotten. And don’t forget Elizabeth Banks, a fresh new filmmaker voice. The focus on the need for more opportunities just helps their ambition. And their work might seem fresh compared to some of the summer sequels and brand extensions like Tomorrowland, which from the coming attractions makes me wish that Disney would get over itself. Sure those Marvel movies are great, Star Wars is coming and the latest Pixar effort Inside Out killed at Cannes, but I wonder if its self-adulation is reaching a tipping point.
BART: If Tomorrowland does disappoint, it will interrupt a seemingly endless cascade of positive news from the Disney empire. Every hedge fund and stock picker has been effusing over Bob Iger’s strategies to perpetuate tentpoles through corporate acquisition. Indeed rivals complain that the Disney brands – Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel et al – have a lock on favorable release dates in coming years. The press about Disneyland’s 60th birthday is all about new measures being taken for crowd control – too many people crowding into what now seems like too small a place. That’s a nice problem to have. Except what happens when families ultimately decide that Disneyland is too crowded, and too expensive, to bother. Or, as with Tomorrowland, some decide it’s also too predictable? I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of Disneyland by Walt Disney. Walt seemed surprised whenever we turned a corner and found a bunch of kids – a “what are they doing here?” attitude. I think he would go into shock if he saw what he has created.
FLEMING: He might be shocked at the magnitude, but I bet he would be gratified at how it became everything he dreamed of, for families. I have unforgettable memories of those Orlando parks with my kids. I always come back from having sampled a new ride either at Disney or Universal, thinking, if only the movie guys were this resourceful and imaginative.
BART: We were talking about Girl Power before, so let me add that the reason I am in Las Vegas is to support a fellow book writer. Suzanne Somers is promoting publication of her 18th book in an unusual way: She is opening a show in Vegas at her new Suzanne Room at the Westgate (it’s called Sizzles, marking her usual feel for understatement). She’s singing, dancing (a bit) and talking (she’s funny). Many years ago she brilliantly hyped her first book (it was a book of poetry) on the Johnny Carson Show (every month!) but her new one is one of her health books, Tox-Sick, and is definitely not poetic. But Suzanne wins my Girl Power award for hard work and versatility. And in Vegas you have to work hard to overcome the noise level.
FLEMING: I’m boxing up my Thigh Master and want it back with an autograph!