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. Off last week, they return with a lot on their minds.
BART: Let’s be unique this week and not write about Stephen Colbert, whose post-Letterman debut has been so mega-hyped. How about another Steven — Spielberg. Everyone admires the stalwart vision of the director, but Spielberg, the studio chief, has changed business plans as often as Donald Trump has switched ideologies. In the twenty years since he, together with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, announced their bold new plan to revolutionize Hollywood, DreamWorks has kept reworking its dream. It was initially a full-fledged studio based at Playa Vista, then Universal, then Paramount, then Disney and now probably at Universal again. It was funded by assorted billionaires, then partially by Universal, then Viacom, then Reliance (from India), then Participant and now a mix of all of the above – if Spielberg and his reps can raise the money.
FLEMING: It is tremendously difficult to launch a major studio in this day and age, and probably impossible when your superstar talent also plays for other teams. I guess that’s one reason I’m intrigued by the expansion into U.S. distribution by EuropaCorp. Now, they didn’t get off to a seismic start this weekend with first film The Transporter Refueled. But that is a modestly budgeted film that should more than cover its bet when overseas revenues are added. When Luc Besson and partner Christophe Lambert put together the U.S. pipeline RED, the director committed to being very hands on—he moved to Hollywood, he thought up half the ideas himself for films on the slate, from the same brain responsible for La Femme Nikita, The Professional, Taken and most recently Lucy. And he’s directing his most ambitious career project, his answer to Avatar and Star Wars, in the $180 million Valerian. He’s working only for EuropaCorp, and RED. Had Spielberg been this monogamous, DreamWorks would have soared. Besson told me recently he gets a new idea, not always a gem, but an idea for a movie every 30 minutes. I’ve heard Spielberg has the same gift. But when you are adding to a legacy as maybe the greatest director, ever, like Spielberg is, that has to be your first priority. You don’t see his peers like Ridley Scott or James Cameron or Peter Jackson or Chris Nolan running studios. Well, Jackson has production, 3D and VFX facilities built with Lord of the Rings money in Wellington, but he doesn’t distract himself generating film slates.
BART: Of course, Spielberg the filmmaker is busier than ever – Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks this fall, The BFG next year — and the town wonders how much energy he wants to put into raising money and supervising a program of films. Disney clearly was skeptical about the latest DreamWorks re-invention and the appointment of a TV executive, Michael Wright, to come up with a slate of movies. Wright made little effort to involve Disney executives in his plans, whatever they were – the new gossip about re-booting Jaws or other old hits seems manipulative. Meanwhile, Katzenberg, of course, has long since gone off to his animation company, and is having troubles of his own, while Geffen has retired.
FLEMING: It’s odd he’s the last man standing at that company because it always felt like Spielberg was the most reluctant of the three participants in the original DreamWorks, when he and David Geffen jumped in with Jeffrey Katzenberg after the latter got screwed out of the heir apparent post at Disney. They never broke ground on their Playa Vista soundstages; Katzenberg spun off the animation business; they got that Paramount divorce. In all that time, Spielberg never left his Amblin headquarters on the Universal lot, even after the falling out that occurred when he and ex-partner Stacey Snider went to Disney and not Universal at the last moment. Given how well Jurassic World did for both Spielberg and Universal, all of that is water under the bridge, and it seems to make all kind of sense for Spielberg to return to the home he established with Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg. He’s like the kid who never really moved out of the house. DreamWorks becomes like the production shingles run by those other great directors I mentioned. Whether they are backed by Reliance or Participant, any financier that gets a piece of movies like Bridge of Spies, The BFG and Ready Player One should count their blessings, whatever else Michael Wright and Holly Bario develop.
BART: So where will Steven end up? He’ll end up making more movies, for sure. And in his spare time re-working DreamWorks yet again. Next topic. When the buyers’ checkbooks come out at Toronto next week (after appetites are fueled at Venice and Telluride), the question remains: Will much money actually change hands? Several of the “big buys” at last year’s festivals yielded disappointing numbers at the box office – Dope and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl come to mind. 99 Homes, acquired last year at Toronto, will be released by Broad Green after this year’s Toronto. One buyer I spoke with this week confided, “Festivals are a lousy setting for judging a movie.” The buzz of anticipation tends to hype audience reactions, not to mention the raucous applause from the filmmakers’ friends. At Telluride, a convention of cinephiles, audiences tend to be blissed out by every movie. That’s why canny buyers this year are making their judgments (and offers) in advance of festival season, if they’re making offers at all. It may be a lean year in fest city.
FLEMING: There are so many distributors who’ve raised money and need films to justify their existence that I believe all these movies will find homes. But buyers have told me there isn’t a must-have title at Toronto, because so many of the most promising ones were pre-bought and come to Toronto with distribution already spoken for. That seems to be the smartest way of doing business, because you are not left in a situation where you have to overpay and top the highest offer to get the film, in all night bidding battles. There will still be some of those, for sure, but I’d be surprised if sales get near the size of the $7 million paid a couple years ago for the films Can A Song Save Your Life (U.S. rights) and the Jason Bateman-directed Bad Words (world rights), let alone the $12.5 million-$15 million Paramount paid at the last fest for world rights on the Chris Rock-directed Top Five. Then again, all of those spirited bidding battles happened after killer opening night screenings and passion has to factor into the business, so you never know. Appetite for acquisitions should be helped by the volume of great awards season films launching at Toronto (based on their well-reviewed first stops in Telluride and Venice), which will certainly make everybody feel good about prestige films. Factor in the increasing aggressiveness of streaming services Netflix and Amazon, and the inevitability that Apple will become a player to fuel demand in its new iteration of Apple TV, and the ecosystem seems healthy enough. This is despite what you cited about those big Sundance buys Dope and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which under-performed for varying reasons including the latter film having a pretty unappetizing title.
BART: Watching the NFL and Sony spar this week, Mike, was like observing two prize fighters in the ring who have taken too many punches. Sony’s hacked emails keep coming back to haunt them – in this case, suggesting a “softening” of a movie whose title itself is marginally repellent (Concussion). You quote the director, Peter Landesman, who often writes for The New York Times, attacking The Times for running the story. And there’s a suggestion that the NFL might have encouraged the newspaper to run the piece – a dubious scenario given the fact that the NFL seems incapable of accomplishing any mission (witness Tom Brady). The Times cited one hacked email from Hannah Minghella, a top Sony executive, as stating: “Rather than portray the NFL as one corrupt organization, can we identify the individuals within the NFL who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth?” That’s a reasonable suggestion, except the aim of helping the NFL on any issue seems both fruitless and foolhardy. In the end, any publicity the movie receives will be more helpful than hurtful. Head-bashing is not one of my favorite topics.
FLEMING: I was on vacation last week, getting a kid off to college in Boston, but I sought out Landesman and gave him equal time because I felt the NY Times story was a cheap shot, below that paper’s standards. I objected to several things here, including the idea that the most prestigious newspaper in the United States—whose own reporter Alan Schwarz originated much of the ground breaking reporting on the discovery of CTE that fuels the film’s plot—would rely on hacked emails for a front page story whose premise seems pretty wrong. That is the idea that Sony and Landesman kowtowed to pressure from the National Football League to soften the Will Smith film. Landesman said that anything cut from early scripts was done so for reasons of fairness (he wasn’t in a room so it was unfair to put words in the mouth of NFL commish Roger Goodell, for example) and out of concerns about libel. He was adamant the NFL applied no pressure. Deadline has tried to avoid building stories around these hacked Sony documents because it felt unfair and one sided, with the caveat that if the Pentagon Papers slipped out of them, we’d jump on it and make an exception. So far, these stolen private documents have yielded mostly gossipy embarrassments and this was the latest example, a great paper using documents stolen by North Korean cyber-terrorists to write a misleading front page story that tries to marginalize a movie a full four months before it gets released. Throw the penalty flag, ref!
Nothing unearthed by NYT qualified as a smoking gun; the discourse seems part of any reasonable editorial process, whether it is making a fact-based film, or publishing potentially libelous stories in a newspaper. Too bad there wasn’t more of this back and forth at Rolling Stone when it published and then retracted the campus rape expose. Because I admire NYT so much, my first reaction to that story was an image of the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country For Old Men, who couldn’t believe the increasing ruthlessness of lawbreakers and wondered if he was getting too old to keep up. It felt like standards slipped here. But then I recalled how many times Oliver Stone had been put through this barrel and survived it after leaked scripts fueled press reports on movies from JFK to Nixon and W. There were proclamations of doom before the release of every movie James Cameron ever made, and alarm bells raised on movies from World War Z to Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation. In the end, all those films thrived or died based on what we saw onscreen. Some benefited from heightened awareness, and maybe NYT inadvertently did Concussion a favor. I have to get past the arcane notion that a movie deserves to be defined by how it plays on a big screen, in finished form. As for NFL, let’s see if the league tries to stop its host networks from advertising Concussion during late season football games. That would be scandalous and answer whether the league is actually trying to bury this picture, which Landesman wondered.
BART: You always get grumpy when news stories comment on films prior to their release, but I think its all fair game. And most of the stories are ‘plants’ anyway — the studios are extraordinarily manipulative. At Variety, we once took all this a step further to out-smart the studios: We reviewed important screenplays before they were shot. This was in the days of ‘spec script fever’ when studios would offer millions of dollars to ‘hot’ writers like Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black when they went up for auction. Once these deals were consummated, Variety would assign a top critic to tell us whether the script was worth it. Should we look forward to the ultimate movie? Needless to say, the reviews drove studios crazy. Also the writers. And it was perverse. Our argument was that books are reviewed, then bought for film, so why not scripts? We really didn’t believe that argument, to be sure. In the end we stopped our “reviews.” And, alas, the spec auctions eventually stopped as well.
FLEMING: A final topic for me. Is it right, in this age of heightened political correctness, that filmmakers like Aloha’s Cameron Crowe and The Danish Girl’s Tom Hooper have to apologize for not setting unknown actors for ethnic and transgender roles who ethnically or biologically match the part? And what about the continuing debate on whether black British actor Idris Elba should be James Bond, lately fueled by the author of the new ghostwritten James Bond novel saying, in what sounds at least subliminally prejudiced, that Elba is too “street” to play Bond?
BART: I’ve always felt the Bond franchise took itself too seriously. After all, fourteen actors have played Bond – that is, if you include the charming David Niven, who starred in the Bond parody Casino Royale. The original Bond, we are told, was an ornithologist in the Caribbean. He was a bird expert. In a way, so was Sean Connery. Maybe that’s why one Bond picture was titled Octopussy.
FLEMING: Movies are big business, and studios don’t set unknowns for lead roles in movies like The Danish Girl, because they fear they won’t make their money back. Harvey Weinstein turned the casting of unknown Jaye Davidson into a mystery-shrouded marketing campaign triumph on The Crying Game. But that was a teeny budget foreign film. In a day and age where even the nation’s preeminent newspaper would build behind-the-scenes movie stories from hacked private emails, Harvey’s secret reveal in that film would never keep nowadays. NYT published a story Friday that wide-eyed wondered how The Danish Girl lead went to Eddie Redmayne and not a thesp who is actually transgender. Well, there’s that Best Actor Oscar that Redmayne just won for playing Stephen Hawking, a role he got despite not being physically debilitated (he escaped the outrage of that group). Redmayne’s showcase performance gives The Danish Girl its awards season cachet and the possibility the film can make back its investors’ money, which wouldn’t have been a realistic expectation had the role been given to an unknown, because they were actually transgender. And any transgender not named Caitlin Jenner is an unknown. That story seemed about as realistic as if the reporter had wondered why can’t there be unicorns roaming the earth, handing out candy to everyone.
Movies like The Danish Girl are an incredibly hard sell: it wouldn’t be my instinct to race out to see a film about a woman trapped inside a man’s body. That premise seems so sad and desperate, and the idea that similar-themed films like The Diving Bell and Butterfly and The Theory of Everything managed to be so inspiring, well, they are cinematic miracles that in large part were attributable to the expert performances of Mathieu Amalric and Redmayne. Casting recognizable stars who pretend to be other people is just the way the business works. Elba has no actual experience as an African warlord, but he is regardless getting fine reviews for Beasts of No Nation. I do find the Bond discussion about him intriguing. I first saw Elba on the HBO series The Wire and then on the NBC series The Office, where he played Americans. It wasn’t until I saw his BBC series Luther that I realized Elba was British; he’s that good an actor. He’s also a tall, handsome physical presence, and no more “street” than Daniel Craig is. That is why I have so liked Craig’s work as 007, because he’s not pretty like Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore were, but rather is a throwback to tough guys like Steve McQueen, Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood. You’ve observed the machinations of Bond longer than I have. Would the producers who control that project, who don’t even take risks on auteur directors like Quentin Tarantino for fear of tampering with a time-tested formula, ever seriously consider casting an actor of color in that role?
BART: Bond franchise producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson might take a serious look at the overseas box office grosses of Straight Outta Compton and give it a deep think. Having said that, the Bond people are notoriously conservative and probably wouldn’t go for it, ultimately.
FLEMING: They did try to develop a spinoff of that Jinx character Halle Berry played opposite Brosnan in the Bond film Die Another Day. Maybe the best thing would be to put Elba–who has franchise star written all over him–in a Bond film as a new character, and spin him off in a film where he creates his own mythology. I’m mindful the producers have always resisted the spinoff idea. But this kind of battle, whether it’s color blind casting or transgender actors trying to establishing themselves, seems a lot like the smash mouth football depicted in Concussion. Progress is measured by ground gained a few yards at a time, with headaches inevitable from the obligatory collisions.