Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: Remember the time, Mike, when ‘late night ’ was all about Carson? Now, with the mega-hyped entry of Colbert, late night is a feast for viewers but a potential nightmare for press agents. And their star clients. If you want to push a new movie, do you aim for Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel or Conan O’Brien or whomever? During the Leno-Letterman era you could get blackballed if you double-dipped or otherwise screwed up. Still earlier, if you were booked on the Joan Rivers show, you were excommunicated by Carson (if not assassinated).
FLEMING: Those were the days, when Jay Leno’s producer Helen Kushnick bullied and browbeat anybody who didn’t go to the Tonight Show first. The big difference here is, all of these hosts are nice guys and project camaraderie and respect for each other. Which is so boring. Maybe the producers behind them are tyrants, but if they are, it doesn’t get much press. They were all united—against the passive aggressive tactics of Leno and the way he hovered and undid Conan O’Brien’s stint at the Tonight Show—and now that Leno is gone they all sing kumbaya and it’s dull but it places a premium on cleverness and good writing.
BART: The geo-politics are still tricky. From the star’s POV, Fallon is your instant pal and still carries the biggest numbers but Colbert may claim the smartest demo. Kimmel is so hip he even deciphered Johnny Depp last week (what is Depp’s first language?) Conan is sharp but can be remote. Colbert has an “attitude’ about the ritual of the star interview. On his first show his back-and-forth with George Clooney was basically a send-up of the standard Tom Cruise interview – Clooney made up a fake action project to pitch and claimed he did his own stunts. Colbert prefers to interview the heads of Uber or Tesla or hear Joe Biden reminisce about his son but he needs star casting to keep his ratings aloft and the stars need him. Or, in desperation, Donald Trump, who helped Fallon leap back to the top of the Friday.
FLEMING: I’ve seen all the shows, and there is not a Chevy Chase or Magic Johnson in the bunch, and I’m talking about guys who were poorly suited for the couch gig. But most people can’t watch all of the current shows and so you’ve got to pick a horse and mine is Conan. Selfishly, I am so glad he left NBC for TBS. I think his willingness to share the stage with sidekick Andy Richter and give his writers screen time makes for brilliant repartee between them. The writing is edgier than it was at NBC because he doesn’t have to appeal to everybody, and the occasional cable-enabled cuss word helps, too. His 11PM start time coincides with the end of my work day, and for me it doesn’t matter who his guests are, because they are the least interesting part of the show. Much better is his stuff on Donald Trump and current affairs, and consistently hilarious bits like the lists that show BuzzFeed is running out of material for good lists, or O’Brien ineptly playing new video games, taking a spa day with Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun or taking cool lessons in a car with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube.
Exceptions on the guest front come when regulars like Cube and especially Will Ferrell show up. Cube is surprisingly hilarious, but Ferrell sets the highest bar for Best Guest. He showed up on Fallon’s Tonight Show dressed as Little Debbie, explaining that big movie paydays are over, and he supplements his salary with a snack cake sponsorship requiring him to dress the part. On Conan, he showed up with a live bird perched on his shoulder, and then refused to discuss it because he doesn’t talk about his personal life. It was right out of the Sacha Baron Cohen-Andy Kaufman playbook and was strange and hilarious. Otherwise, guests plug stuff and are routinely the most boring parts of these shows. Maybe that’s because O’Brien, Fallon and Kimmel work so hard to fill the front ends of their shows with inspired bits that have viral appeal.
BART: From the viewer standpoint, the new Colbert is a game-changer, with Colbert casting himself as the genial party host rather than the crusty conservative guru. His new attitude poses a problem for the young demo that (incredibly) depended on Colbert and Jon Stewart as its prime source of news. Now they’ll fall back on Facebook, Snapchat and BuzzFeed for their intellectual enrichment. Johnny Carson was lucky; he wasn’t responsible for choosing the next President…..
FLEMING: It’ll be a sad day when one of these guys are responsible for the coronation of a new leader, though I’ll forever love Tina Fey for exposing Sarah Palin as a poor choice to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. I never quite got Colbert when he masqueraded as a Conservative in his Comedy Central show. I think once the hoopla is over, he’ll be hard pressed to rise to the consistent quality level that Letterman achieved, or above the flood of fine late night talk shows that compete for a smallish audiences of insomniacs.
Next topic. I’m here at the Toronto Film Festival, where it feels like there is a pall and not just because it has rained pretty much every day so far. Oscar-bait movies are taking full advantage of the global launch pad and friendly Canadian audiences, but the deal making I focus on has been very slow so far. It probably won’t get going until tonight or tomorrow, after buyers have seen all there is–tonight’s Daniel Bruhl-Emma Watson-starrer Colonia is one of the last buzz titles on buyer lists that people haven’t yet seen. Buyers tell me the acquisition titles here are all okay, but they’ve seen nothing with real breakout potential. They only have themselves to blame, because they basically emptied the shelves of all the big stuff, back at Cannes and Berlin. Michael Moore’s polemic docu Where To Invade Next is more whimsical than sledgehammer controversial, which makes it only okay as an election year film (though there is action there with Netflix as a rumored possible landing place). Another docu, the Sydney Pollack-directed Aretha Franklin 1972 church concert pic Amazing Grace, has multiple bids north of $2 million, I hear. It got bounced from an official screening at Toronto for legal reasons but the legal snafu has since been overcome and the singer has made her deal and that allowed WME to set a private screening. I hear there are now questions of whether you can use Pollack’s name, but that won’t hold back a deal that should close soon. The narrative films are moving slower.
Nobody seems in a big hurry this Toronto and the only deal of note so far was Paramount buying the Meryl Streep-Hugh Grant comedy Florence Foster Jenkins, based on promo footage shown Friday morning. Word is that Paramount paid between $8 million and $10 million for U.S. rights. Paramount’s inability to fill its slate with homegrown films has made it a godsend for Toronto sellers; the studio will pay big sums, as evidenced by the last deal for the Chris Rock comedy Top Five. The slow deal pace is good in the long run for the films, because they will find the right buyer with the right marketing plan, as opposed to the highest bidder. Waiting for the deal logjam to break is always unnerving for deal hawking journalists like myself. Pre-buying has become the most desirable way to do business for these distributors, who can have a say in the process and have ample time to plan awards season campaigns on films like the Rathergate drama Truth, Freeheld, Spotlight, Room, and numerous others.
BART: Next topic: People always make polite and respectful speeches at funerals, but when Merv Adelson was buried Friday the main mood was one of disbelief. Hollywood’s power players lined up to pay their respects, but they all had the same question in mind: How could a man who once ran the hottest company in town, which he sold in a billion dollar deal, end up a lonely, penniless old man who passed away at the Motion Picture Home? The answer: Adelson was a high-flyer but a self-destructive one. During the dot com boom he kept betting on the wrong companies. His relationships with women were messy. He held on to his many millions in Time Warner stock at a time when the shares cratered.
FLEMING: I didn’t know him, but how sad, to have “futility” be your epitaph.
BART: But everyone liked him. Sitting adjacent to me at the funeral were Bob Daly, Terry Semel, Brad Grey, Les Moonves and other CEOs who had known Adelson and who had liked him personally but were perplexed by his downfall. At Lorimar, Adelson and his partner, Lee Rich, had devised a fool-proof formula. They turned out TV hits like The Waltons and Eight Is Enough. They produced films that were seemingly risk free because of pre-sales to broadcast and pay TV and foreign sales. They devised a smart syndication operation and, under the guidance of Warren Lieberfarb, purchased great video operations like Allied Artists and Karl Video. Michael Milken engineered their creative financing. When Warner Bros bought Lorimar for $1.2 billion, the deal added enough heft to Warner to facilitate the Time merger — a great deal until shares tanked due to the AOL fiasco.
FLEMING: You see these kinds of implosions, with Ryan Kavanaugh and Relativity being the latest, and the cynical part of your brain wonders what kind of price these guys pay in failure. Kavanaugh — evidenced by the mansions, private planes and helicopter commuting — seems to have benefited financially from all the fees and perks paid in his studio slate financing foray, and more recently Relativity’s failed bid in film and TV production and distribution, sports, fashion, etc. Did Adelson die a wealthy man?
BART: Adelson had construed the perfect intersection of deals, and it seemed he was set forever. Except he died broke. Even as the power players listened to loving speeches from family members Friday at the Hillside cemetary, they could not help but ask themselves: How could this have happened – rags to riches and back to rags, as one Adelson friend described it. Adelson created TV shows and movies but the most fascinating story was about Adelson.
FLEMING: I was getting depressed about the lack of action in Toronto, and now you have sent me through the floor with this tale of a nice guy who launched great shows and died broke. Any stories about dead puppies? Thanks for that!