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.
FLEMING: Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the highest paid female Hollywood star, but she came out swinging this week on the unfair pay disparity between actresses and their male counterparts. In an essay for Lena Dunham’s online newsletter Lenny, Lawrence attributed the disparity to her “vagina” and the higher pay to her American Hustle co-stars to, well, their “dicks.” When it comes to paydays, women have long held the short end of the stick, not inconsistent with many other industries. While it’s refreshing to see Lawrence put herself out there for a worthy cause, I’m not sure that American Hustle is the movie to use as Exhibit A. Here’s why. Everybody on that particularly film worked for heavy discount to make the numbers work. By the time Lawrence was brought in by her Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell to round out that stellar cast, deals were done with other cast members. And then they were changed, as several others gave up back end pieces to make things more palatable to Lawrence, who worked a lot fewer days than most everybody else.
I’m told that Lawrence worked 19 days and was paid $1.25 million and got $250,000 in deferred compensation. She also got seven points in a back end pool that kicked in after cash break zero. Christian Bale worked 45 days for $2.5 million upfront and nine points; Bradley Cooper worked 46 days for $2.5 million and nine points. Amy Adams got $1.25 million and seven points for working 45 days, so if anyone has a beef, it would be her. I’m told that Bale and Cooper each gave a point from their back ends to bring Lawrence up. Russell also gave up some back end and so did Sony and financier Annapurna Pictures, to make the formula work.
BART: Jennifer Lawrence may have fired up her fans, Mike, but she inadvertently focused attention on a related question that she shouldn’t go near: Aren’t all stars, male, female or whatever, absurdly overpaid? The original reason studios lavished big paydays on select actors was that they actually “opened” movies. Shirley Temple opened movies; so did John Wayne. In more recent years, action stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger triggered substantial advances from foreign distributors. Arguably, neither of these phenomena, however, are true anymore. The combination of an actor and a ‘brand’ – Cruise in a Mission: Impossible, Damon in a Bourne Identity –can guarantee an opening. But the real stars who guarantee opening grosses are faux people like Harry Potter or some character who fell out of a comic book. So Jennifer should be grateful for her fabulous paydays – and change the subject.
FLEMING: I see it a bit differently, Peter. We are watching in real time as this young actress matures and becomes self-aware—I first noticed her like many for her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone when she turned 20—and I love the fact she doesn’t pretend to be some fully formed manufactured vision of perfection. She’s this occasionally clumsy coltish young woman from Kentucky who tripped on the stairs before accepting her Oscar, and then laughed about it. When some creep stole her private photos and put them online, Lawrence went public and made people understand what an abhorrent privacy invasion might feel like. Those were stolen computer documents and so were the Sony hacks that put the American Hustle information in circulation and brought it all to her attention. I’ve found those hacked documents are embraced as full truth when they tell half a story and lead to conclusions that are too simplistic. American Hustle was a terrific movie and it doesn’t deserve to be the poster child for Hollywood sexism and unfair pay. Everybody sacrificed to get that movie made; if the actors and director had been greedy and insisted on their usual fees, a worthy film would have died at the negotiating table. That’s why you rarely see films with that many bankable stars. American Hustle got 10 Oscar nominations, including for all four of those actors and Russell for directing and co-writing. From Adams on down, all got momentum from success that benefited them in subsequent film negotiations. That includes Lawrence, who I hear got paid $20 million to star in Sony’s Passengers, a fee that was $5 million or $7 million more than her co-star Chris Pratt got, and he’s undeniably the fastest rising male actor in Hollywood.
It’s too simple to peg these deals to the anatomical terms Lawrence used in her essay. It’s all about momentum and leverage and some deals benefit studios and others benefit talent. Everybody kicked and moaned when Marvel insisted on as many as ten options for actors who signed on for superhero roles. You don’t hear anybody complaining much now, because those movies have been such huge successes that helped all those actors make better deals for other movies. That includes Scarlett Johansson, who because of her Black Widow turns in Iron Man and The Avengers was set by Luc Besson for Lucy, and off that got $10 million or more for the upcoming film Ghost in the Shell. Is she worth it? Time will tell. The actress I feel sorry for is Emily Blunt, who was all but set to play Black Widow until Fox enforced an option and instead made her co-star with Jack Black in the forgettable Gulliver’s Travels. But Blunt has rebounded and showed her chops in films like Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow. So while recent Hollywood chatter has Doug Liman on an inside track to direct Channing Tatum in Gambit, there’s also talk that Liman and Tom Cruise might do a sequel to Edge of Tomorrow. In that case, Blunt’s warrior character would likely be back and she’ll get her payday.
Fairness has never been at the core of pay for actors who in films from American Sniper to Forrest Gump have made back end paydays of $40 million or more for what amounts to a few months of work. You’re right, Peter; almost no actor ensures an opening weekend bonanza, and gone are the days of first dollar gross paydays where you would hear that an actor like Tom Cruise earned $50 million from a Mission: Impossible film before Paramount recouped the hundreds of millions it invested in budget and P&A. Men, more than women, benefited from that system, partly because it was thought they were more reliable than women in action vehicles that performed globally. All that said, good for Lawrence, for being willing to wave the flag for fairer paydays and raise awareness at the risk of being told to shut up—your suggestion—because she makes a fortune now on every movie. Actresses on the low end of the pay scale are the ones who might benefit from her words. I applaud her and other actresses—and actors like Cooper—who are commenting on her comments.
BART: Politics seem to surround us and it’s not just Donald Trump’s fault. Hollywood is giving us a rush of political movies, even a few non-political political movies. Michael Bay apparently has produced a movie titled Thirteen Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi that doesn’t even mention Hillary Clinton, according to a piece in the New York Times. The Republicans on the never-ending Benghazi Committee will doubtless snub it. Then we have Truth starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, which is really about George W. Bush but never deals with him. The movie centers on the demolition of Dan Rather for his Sixty Minutes II exposé, but it gets caught up in arcane issues about bogus military documents. The movie never gets around to portraying the young party-boy persona of Bush, who ducked his military service and constructed a web of lies to conceal it. That would have been a more interesting movie.
FLEMING: These fact-based films can’t win. If Benghazi focused on Clinton and Truth on Bush they’d be condemned for being polemics. It’s shaping up as another year where fact-based Oscar movies get dinged up on accuracy, a tradition that has dogged films from A Beautiful Mind to The Hurricane to Zero Dark Thirty, and last year’s American Sniper, Selma and Foxcatcher. We’ve already seen it happen with an advance blindside hit by the New York Times on the upcoming football film Concussion, before anybody saw the movie. I’ll be very surprised if spin maligns Spotlight. The Tom McCarthy-directed movie about the Boston Globe expose of a shameful cover-up by the local archdiocese of pedophile priests lays the blame squarely on the doorstep of church higher-ups who committed an atrocity and destroyed many young lives by not getting predator priests defrocked and prosecuted and instead paid hush money and funneled them to other parishes to prey on more children.
At least these movies have controversy that might make audiences want to come and see what all the fuss is about. A lot of movies with strong filmmakers and casts came away from Toronto with odd deals. Jason Bateman directed The Family Fang and stars with Nicole Kidman and they got a Starz deal. A Variety report has the Drake Doremus-directed Equals with Twilight Saga‘s Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult got an A24 deal that gives the film its biggest berth on DirectTV. I doubt either filmmaker wittingly made their movies for Starz or DirectTV, but it is getting that hard for non blockbusters to find distributors willing to make P&A spends.
I’m still troubled that Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk didn’t draw a larger audience. I saw it early, in IMAX 3D, and totally felt the vertigo and fear as Zemeckis put me on that wire with Philippe Petit, 110 stories high, between the Twin Towers. I walked out thinking, I’ve never seen anything like that on a movie screen before. Maybe it was the much repeated Tweets by some journalist about racing to the men’s room to vomit in a press screening and seeing other weak-stomached journalists had beat him to the crappers. Something turned off the potential audience. I’m telling you, this is a movie worth seeing, the rare 3D movie worth paying a couple extra bucks and wearing those glasses. Maybe the best one since Life of Pi.
BART: The reluctance of audiences to embrace The Walk, Mike, points up once again the great divide between the critics and the filmgoers. Critics tend to review the entire work of a filmmaker–in this case Robert Zemeckis–rather than his current film. Another case in point is Steven Spielberg and Bridge of Spies. Everyone wants to venerate Spielberg and his career and Bridge has been rewarded with good notices, but with hidden code words. It’s “gravely moody” (New York Times). “The work of a consummate professional” (Los Angeles Times). Only Deadline’s hyper-caffeinated critic says it may be “his finest work ever.” Not exactly. While expertly shot, Bridge is about a negotiation, not an event. It is very slow; there are long periods of waiting for something to happen. Very little does happen. No one plays a noble Everyman better than Tom Hanks, but he sniffles with a cold throughout the movie and by the end I, too, needed my aspirin. Bridge is a period piece that somehow feels creaky. Though the film is worthy and finely wrought, it will be interesting to see whether the wide audience will seek it out in theaters or wait to see it at home.
FLEMING: Well Peter, if we are no longer flocking to the theater for stars, then maybe we should go for directors like they do in Europe. You are more likely to see a better film than if you buy the sales pitch of a brand or highly derivative plot concept. I am just back from two weeks off and have to catch up with Bridge of Spies, but if it has the complexity and layers of Lincoln or Munich, count me in. I thought Guillermo del Toro gave Deadline such an eloquent interview Friday as he opened his throwback gothic romance/haunted house film Crimson Peak knowing it doesn’t fit with the slasher/exorcism/found footage fare that passes for genre these days. When he spoke about not pandering in search of the big opening weekend, del Toro talked about how movies like Ridley Scott’s The Counselor and The Walk can’t be defined simply by box office gross. “There is a certainty you have as a filmmaker, that when you raise your child to be itself…the child will grow even after you’re gone,” del Toro said. “There are movies like The Walk or The Counselor that one makes with the hope of finding an audience like a message in a bottle will find the shore and be read in the right way, with the right amount of pure love. With most Zemeckis movies in the last couple of decades—including Flight which I find enormously rewarding—I see a master, talking to me and talking to everyone that wants to hear. We have a history of not always listening to those that are right. We’ve even crucified them. I don’t think that people with something to say are necessarily the same people that are heard. Zemeckis is one of the most singular talents working in film. A monumental talent that we take for granted in a way that we shouldn’t,” said del Toro. That said, these movies cost so much to make and market, that the stakes to perform financially have never been higher.
BART: Next topic. Managing the public relations of a major studio has to be the worst job in the world, and we were well reminded of that lately. The Wall Street Journal (under the headline Battle Brews Atop Viacom), the New York Times (under the headline Doubts Circle Viacom, Vanguard of Yesteryear), and almost every newspaper has taken turns whacking Viacom and its CEO, Philippe Dauman. The Journal even followed up with a skeptical piece this week about Paramount’s decision to release its genre pictures on home video only two weeks after they play in theaters–so much for the 90-day window. Most exhibitors have shunned the Paramount scheme. The studio’s counter-offering of “good news”: Brad Grey, Paramount’s boss, has signed a new five year deal.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has taken a beating from the press for its dismal slate of films, capped by speculation of a $150 million write-off of Pan (“How can any studio lose on this family-friendly character”? stories demanded). The response of Warner’s PR team was to point out that the company’s videogame division has had a banner year, ranking number one in sales. Pan might be a loser but Batman: Arkham Knight was a major winner. It’s tough to sell success stories about games, but good for Warner for trying. And of course the Viacom and Warner PR teams have still fared better than the Sony flacks, who still must ward off those hacked emails. Given all this, it’s little wonder that most studios have re-defined press relations as press non-relations. Reporters are treated like nasty relatives who only call when they want to borrow money. I get it.
FLEMING: Deadline broke a story the other day about Paramount canceling a sequel to its overseas hit Hansel & Gretel. It’s the second viable film title that has been given over to Paramount’s TV division after Jack Ryan. Some speculate that on paper, plum TV titles are more valuable if you’re readying your company for some kind of sale. Who knows if that factored into the decision, but Dauman has placed a greater emphasis on buying back Viacom stock than finding and backing visionaries to build ambitious movie slates and bold programming on MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. It makes you feel they’re all being as cautious as possible, waiting for Sumner Redstone to pass away.
Warner Bros is different. It’s like watching a baseball star in long hitting slump. Do you get rid of the hitter, even if the back of his baseball card indicates he’ll come out of the slump? Most times, you keep putting him out there to take big swings. That’s what Kevin Tsujihara has done after replacing Jeff Robinov with the triumvirate of Greg Silverman, Sue Kroll and Toby Emmerich. Pan was another big swing and a miss, but there is light at the end of this dark tunnel. Unless Donna Langley wants to jump after a record Universal year she’ll never be able to duplicate, who exactly are you going to bring in that is better than the Warner Bros trio based on their past success? For their sake, they better find some hits, soon, because the rumors are becoming as deafening as the boos the slumping baseball hitter hears, taking the walk of shame back to the dugout after another strikeout.