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: It looks like a fade to black this week for Ryan Kavanaugh at Relativity. Unless he finds a funding miracle, his markers will finally be called in and Relativity’s next chapter will be Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He’s the majority owner and lead shareholder, but the odds are his assets will be frozen–recent quitclaim deals for films to other companies might be undone–and Kavanaugh might well be on the outside looking in. What intrigues is the shadowy reporting on this unfolding debacle. Our guys have been dogging this along with everybody else, and from what they tell me, grabbing hold of the truth reminds of that scene in the Rocky movie where the fighter trains by chasing and trying to catch a squawking chicken. It is so elusive. Some of the cash infusion scoops whispered to THR (by Kavanaugh?) seem perplexing. If they were true, Relativity should have been able to help its cause by releasing several films that were due to come out summer and early fall, including the Jared Hess-directed comedy Masterminds. Those films were pulled–the company cited the reorganization uncertainty–but it’s clear to everyone that Relativity doesn’t have the P&A money to release the films, and it has frozen the company.
You wonder how that is possible, if we are to believe two recent THR scoops. One in April said Kavanaugh got a $250 million equity investment from San Francisco-based VII Peaks Capital–with Kavanaugh supposedly investing another $25 million of his own cash–and then he made a separate deal for Catalyst Capital to acquire Relativity’s senior debt worth $150 million, with another $170 million in equity being supplied on top of that. Finance people I trust didn’t believe the VII Peaks Capital story when it broke—the equity investment was far larger than its market cap–and the Catalyst Capital story is just as murky. What it sounds like is Kavanaugh has been taking on loans at distressed asset interest rates, because he is over-leveraged. After alienating Elliot Management, and now Colbeck Capital, why would another institutional investor think they would fare better? Kavanaugh claims he has been the victim of a malicious witch hunt, but it sure seems like he has had a lavish run on Other Peoples Money, and that run ends as soon as this week. If the trade stories were true, and Kavanaugh had $600 million to play with, why would the clock be running out on him?
And what about the splash that Miramax Films will be sold for $1 billion? Colony Capital and Ron Tutor bought it in 2010 for $660 million and many felt they overpaid back then. Despite pledges they would make new product and curate the library more diligently than Disney did, they have done nothing but work the library and make Blu-Ray and other deals that actually depletes the value of the library for a future buyer. The traditional way to escalate library value is to add new titles and they’ve done next to nothing on that front in a half decade despite all sort of grand announcements. Finance sources say the library might be worth less than the $660 million Colony Capital paid, but somehow the press runs hook line and sinker with a Dr. Evil-like one billion dollar boast. The pressure to scoop and create click-worthy headlines is always there, but man, you wonder if some of these stories will stand the test of time, or even seem valid two weeks after they were written.
BART: Ryan Kavanaugh likes to hang with actors and filmmakers, but he’s a deal junkie by nature and hence now dwells in deal junkie hell. That means meeting with shady bankers-of-last-resort and bankruptcy gurus, all of whom charge giant fees while rarely delivering the goods. I was impressed by the extraordinary fees charged by Wall Street dealmakers and numbers crunchers in the case of Comcast’s ill-fated takeover of Time Warner Cable. Comcast admits to squandering $415 million in the year since the takeover was announced but insiders think the number is much higher. And the deal looked troubled from the outset. The takeover costs all but obliterated the banner earnings from Comcast’s Universal division, up 92% in the quarter. While a lot of attention is focused on how much the filmmakers are going over budget on their blockbusters, little is written on how much Wall Street’s dealmakers are lavishing in search of their mega deals. And there are a lot of big deals in the works at the moment – witness AT&T and DirecTV. To be sure, Ryan Kavanaugh would love to find a merger partner for Relativity.. His problem, of course, is that the Wall Street dealmakers prefer to pull together enormously successful companies and then run off with mega fees. Kavanaugh is a charmingly persuasive guy who has been pulling himself out of trouble for years and has always seemed downright cheerful about it. I remember meeting him for a drink the day after he received a DUI and he was undaunted. “I really like my new driver,” he said. ”And if I get bored I may even get a chopper.” He did.
FLEMING: So what you are saying is that the proceeds of Universal’s killer film year has feathered the nests of fee-suckers? That’s gotta make Donna Langley and her hard working team feel awesome. Next topic. I don’t know if you’ve seen Southpaw, but I am intrigued by the career track that Jake Gyllenhaal has taken. Between the gaunt sociopath he played in Nightcrawler, and the heavily muscled boxer in this film, this guy follows a long line of thesps who transformed radically for their craft. His transformation is so dramatic that when Deadline ran the first image of him in the ring, it nearly crashed our site. The good thing is that Gyllenhaal went beyond muscling up here. Like in Nightcrawler, he gives a real performance, playing an inherently unlikeable guy who came from nothing, who loses everything through gun violence, and who scraps for some kind of redemption.
BART: My concern about Gyllenhaal is that when stars become obsessed with their physicality, they tend to lose touch with the characters they depict. I agree with A.O. Scott in the New York Times who wrote that, in Southpaw, Gyllenhaal’s mumbling seemed “studious” while in Nightcrawler “his physicality feels more natural than his diction.” In short it all became a distraction.
FLEMING: Isn’t that the same reviewer who said Magic Mike XXL was the film of the summer? I totally disagree here. In Nightcrawler, I was told Jake never blinks, in the entire film, during his reptilian performance. I never before saw that character he played. Here, he is convincing as a street kid, who pays the highest price for the rage that fueled his ring success, and is left with nothing. I used to think Jake was kinda boring, except for Brokeback Mountain. I was wrong. And I think he is as convincing in the ring as, say, Denzel Washington in The Hurricane or Will Smith in Ali or De Niro in Raging Bull.
BART: Sure, some of the top stars of the moment (Hanks or Bale, for example) are amazing in their ability to re-shape their bodies to fit a role while remaining in great condition. By contrast, when I interviewed top stars in my early years in Hollywood I was usually impressed by what terrible shape they were in. Actors like Bogart and Holden and Gable tended to smoke and drink too much and also eat everything in sight. John Wayne, a steak-lover, was very hefty. Even the younger guys like Montgomery Clift and James Dean lived life on the edge and never went near a trainer. There were exceptions, to be sure. Burt Lancaster was always in great shape (and also well read, as well). So I respect Gyllenhaal for his professionalism and his iron will. But I hope he’s stuffing himself like the stars of old these days – and finding more accessible roles.
FLEMING: Daniel Day-Lewis once told me the muscles he accumulated for Last of the Mohicans started falling off even before he finished the film. It’s hard for these guys to stay in shape, especially when they get older. But Day-Lewis, De Niro and Christian Bale, Hanks and most recently Matthew McConaughey have shown how much of a tool an actor’s body can be in shattering expectations, if you put a performance behind it. I don’t think McConaughey’s work in True Detective would have been nearly as touching had he sauntered in as the beach bum. Jake takes full advantage here. I saw Michael B. Jordan at Comic-Con and while he said he’d lost the muscle he gained to look good in the ring for the upcoming Creed, we man-hugged and this guy is like granite. Then again, I’ve got food in my freezer older than the estimable Michael B., and it’s much easier to shape shift when you are young, your metabolism is raging and your body is still producing respectable levels of testosterone. I just admire the dedication of these actors, and in general didn’t understand the critical body blows Southpaw absorbed. Critics said, it’s more of the same, the boxer rises, loses everything and fights for redemption. What else would you want to happen in a boxing film? That’s like slamming a superhero movie for introducing a spandex character, hobbling him with adversity, then watching him rally to save the world. That’s the formula and if you are a boxing film fan (I sure am), this one is worth your time. Gyllenhaal has now given the most transformative back-to-back performances of any actor not named Eddie Redmayne (I’m counting his upcoming Oscar bait performance as the recipient of the first gender reassignment surgery in the Tom Hooper-directed The Danish Girl, on top of the Oscar turn as Stephen Hawking). Southpaw won’t win Jake an Oscar, but he’s now got the cred for a real run in the future. If I was Gyllenhaal I would lobby David O Russell hard for a job. Russell is exacting on his actors (remember the Lily Tomlin diatribe?), but nobody pulls better performances in prestige pictures than Russell does.
BART: Speaking of actors, the next Tom Cruise epic rolls out next weekend, and it will be interesting to see whether the star will be as promotionally hyper-active as in the past. And whether he will impose constraints on his interviewers in hyping Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation. Cruise clearly would prefer to talk about Rogue Nation rather than his rogue religion, Scientology, but the ferocious Scientology documentary, Going Clear, is still on people’s mind. Interviewers and late night hosts have always loved Cruise, who can be charming and congenial. But his handlers in the past have specified which topics he likes to talk about – and which to avoid. On Mission, Cruise would like to talk about the Great Stunt – leaping onto the wing of a giant A-400 transport as it’s taking off. Cruise did it – and likes to show it. Cruise does not like to talk about his religion – understandably so, because in some countries (like Germany) Scientology is toxic. But interviewers don’t like to be given a list of banned topics.
FLEMING: I watched Alex Rodriguez hit three home runs last night, the latest feat in the twilight of a remarkable career that will forever be discounted and marginalized because of his PED scandals. I am still not comfortable seeing Cruise being forced to answer for his religious beliefs, he’s saddled with the same kind of baggage after erring and making his devotion to that faith so public years back. The shocking Going Clear was so widely viewed on HBO that it is impossible for Cruise to expect to simply answer questions about his latest death defying stunts, the ones no other actor would dare try. So Cruise hasn’t done much press this time around. When I interviewed him for Playboy a couple years ago, no topic was off the table, he answered every question I had and owned up to the mistakes he made, when he was critical of Brooke Shields’ post-partum depression and seemed to be telling people how to live their lives. Cruise said he learned to reserve discussion of his faith to proper forums and he has done that. What I find ironic is, it was clear to me in that interview that Cruise practically invented the global press barnstorming tour that is now expected of mega-stars. He was a sheltered kid who grew up with no money, and this was a way for him to see the world he’d viewed in all these movies he watched as a kid. He initially had to beg studios to send him places. He did the global barnstorming tour, but I haven’t seen as much here in the U.S. The film opens Friday, so maybe there will be a saturation.
BART: During my nine years of doing TV, only one star ever banned a specific question. Mel Gibson asked to meet before we went live and said, “Peter, I hate being asked about my crazy father. Can we skip that topic?” There’s always lots to talk about with Mel so I readily agreed – even though at that moment his father had inadvertently become newsworthy again. The only other TV constraint came from, of all people, Max Von Sydow. “I have a broken rib,” he said off camera, “so if you or I say anything funny and I laugh I will promptly double up in pain.” We did not run that risk. It is not difficult to be un-funny with Max Von Sydow. Cruise is a media warrior. His film has been tracking a bit softly but the giant fusillade of advertising and promotion is only now beginning. And we will see how the 53-year old star fares in hustling his almost 20 year old franchise.
FLEMING: I thought De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible made no sense, but I’ve liked the rest, especially the last one. I look forward to these films the way I do installments of James Bond. They had problems with the ending, but I have heard they worked it out and that the film is good. I will be there opening day.