Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly Sunday column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.
BART: Hollywood has always displayed a talent for basking in its own self-promotion, but the violence in Paris has cast a shadow over what is supposed to be a weekend of celebration. A frenzy of studio parties and screenings is on tap but even at Universal’s huge holiday party Friday night (and Universal has a lot to celebrate) the portents of Paris weighed on the conversation. Hollywood’s marketplace is global and when Paris declares its first curfew since 1944 that is not good news for the purveyors of entertainment.
FLEMING: It must indeed be a difficult weekend to think about much else after watching in real time the assault by a group that displays such disregard for basic human principles. It took me right back to 9/11 and those feelings of sadness, helplessness and cold rage. The box office for films like Spectre in France and other territories will suffer; indeed the cinemas in Paris are just opening today and who knows if people will go after the traumatic events of Friday night? U2 and HBO canceled its Saturday evening Paris concert, and the French premiere of the Natalie Portman-starrer Jane Got A Gun was canceled. How much awards season action has taken place this weekend?
BART: Everyone from Steven Spielberg to Elon Musk is hustling from screening to screening this weekend as awards season looms and marketers fear they’ll be forgotten in the rush. Netflix seems to have booked every screen in town in a push to remind the industry that Beasts of No Nation is a movie, not a TV spectacle. Q & A sessions are focusing on those films that had high expectations but dim openings, such as Steve Jobs and the Brangelina problem child, By The Sea (which critics re-titled By The Snooze). The screening circuit is steeped in gossip: Is David O Russell still re-cutting Joy? When will Fox unfurl Revenant? While the major studios dominate the party circuit, newcomers like Broad Green and A 24 also have booked pricey restaurants for party season to promote their heavy release schedules. “There are too many movies out there,” the chief of one major complained to me. “But there are never too many parties,” enthused one party planner.
FLEMING: You can’t fault anyone here for going through with parties scheduled before the Paris carnage; Oscar awareness is an important part of the business cycle of all the movies you mentioned. I imagine the revelry is subdued, and maybe it helps, being able to absorb a tragedy by talking about it. I imagine it will color everything, and focus the discourse between presidential aspirants from both parties. Just a week ago, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said he would kill “Baby Hitler.” Knowing how many Right To Life advocates care less about babies once they are born, I’d have thought the better question is: would you kill Fetus Hitler? Embryo Stalin? But the Paris attacks, and security concerns here remove the frivolity and absurdity and distractions of this race, and the rush to cameo on Saturday Night Live. If Donald Trump was alone on an island in his hard stance on immigration, he seemed to have company this weekend, based on the soundbites I’ve heard from Republicans. Democrats were more circumspect in the debate, but there will be calls to stop Syrian refugees from entering borders, following reports that ISIS planted at least one operative who arrived as a refugee. Serious stuff.
BART: I suspect we will be witnessing a mood swing in the political campaign, as in one of those films that suddenly shifts from frivolous to somber. This will be the ultimate test for Trump, who seems to have the instincts of a showman (or a “carnival barker,” as the Democrats prefer). But will he have the savvy now to tone down the barking and to get serious? And does he have enough grasp of the issues to bring this off? Relative to your remarks, I would offer one correction, Mike: The way I heard the Democratic debate, the candidates are still pro-immigration (even from Syria), but insist on a vastly improved level of screening. Question: Can a government bureaucracy accomplish that?
FLEMING: Next topic. As a rabid fan who spends all Sunday watching NFL games and never betting on them, I have been troubled all season by the punishing presence of DraftKings and FanDuel. I am glad they’ve been banned in New York if only in hope they will stop infiltrating pre-game shows and dominating the commercials. Empowered by a loophole excluding fantasy sports from an online wagering ban, these well funded companies have been as subtle as vikings in hawking their weekly betting service and then laughably claiming it isn’t gambling. I was reminded by how scrupulous the Hollywood Stock Exchange behaved several years ago when Cantor Fitzgerald led a move to turn a fantasy enterprise into a legitimate futures trading market, with real money wagered. It was outlawed when studio lobbyists objected to betting on movie box office performance, and it got tucked into the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. As in Chris Dodd, the U.S. Senator and Senate Banking Committee chairman who became MPAA chief. One could say MPAA didn’t want to see the performance of movies and stars subject to bets; others wondered if they feared attention on Hollywood bookkeeping and marketing spends. HSX founders saw their business evolving into a useful tool for indie film financiers. As far as I can see, these football fantasy entities are merely out to siphon cash out of the wallets of gamblers, using commercials that are fantasy get-rich-quick schemes.
BART: I am impressed by your analysis, Mike, but I have a confession to make: I have not watched a moment of football in 20 years. And I have treasured the time I have re-discovered to do other things. Football viewing does not permit moderation: You either commit to a serious agenda of football scrutiny or you shut it off and decide to spend that time reading… or playing. My only sports vice is to watch pro basketball and my secret is to DVR the last two minutes of a hot game. In pro basketball, the last two minutes of play always takes twenty of real time, given the injection of numbing commercials, time-outs and re-plays. It is a total bore and it puts me to sleep more consistently than Ambien. The people who run the NBA are boring viewers to extinction. But I sleep better.
FLEMING: Wow, most guys would be loathe to admit they were a “two minute man.” A moment more on HSX. I am the first to admit I got completely lost during Trading Places when Dan Aykroyd explained to Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis how they would manipulate orange crop reports to bankrupt Randolph & Mortimer Duke. HSX felt they could have helped funding of indie films, using the same futures trading methodology that helped farmers fund equipment and supply purchases for future crops. HSX could have created liquidity for distributors, producers, exhibitors, financiers and possibly talent, in advance of a movie’s release since they could have traded for their value on the open market. It would have provided a hedge against box office performance fluctuation and allowed film funds/financiers to lock into specific financial returns. Exhibitors would have been able to minimize their box office exposure by locking into a certain box office number in advance of a release and focus their efforts on selling more concessions. It could have accelerated the dispersal of cash flow for distributors and exhibitors for use in making more movies. And it could have attracted new sources of capital. Cantor Fitzgerald designed it with protections against insider trading, the kind that put these fantasy football services and their insiders in the cross hairs recently.
Now, HSX didn’t have the powerhouse backings that these football services do. DraftKings has backing from Major League Baseball, Fox, Comcast, NBC Sports, Kraft Heinz Foods, the National Hockey League, New England Patriots owner Robert Draft and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. FanDuel’s backers include Google Capital and Time Warner. HSX failed because Hollywood didn’t want it, even though it could have helped the business. DraftKings and FanDuel does nothing but help itself to siphon wallets of gamblers. But both DraftKings and FanDuel each have valuations north of $1 billion, even though reports say their revenues are only $30 million and $57 million, respectively. It seems all about the money. If they cut back on advertising during football games, it might make more room for the hot button NFL-themed pic Concussion, which will try to advertise to that audience soon enough, knowing that being turned away would be the greatest way to create awareness for that movie. Do you think the government will wet its beak and legalize these sports betting outfits, or shut them down HSX?
BART: Here’s the service that “movie betting” can provide: Regular filmgoers who decide to place their bets will soon empathize with the obstacles facing Hollywood’s picture pickers. It is all but impossible to predict the success of a film based on cast, budget and script. The damn process is still about execution. If you don’t believe it, look at the crazy-making box office results of this fall’s releases. Brad and Angelina would look like good prospects, right? In the indie arena, who would have gambled on a Helen Mirren movie titled Woman of Gold versus Bradley Cooper in Burnt?
FLEMING: Final topic. Reading the WGA List of Top 100 Comedies, I realize why it’s so hard to make good comedies. The group charged with writing them can’t even identify the best ones. You’d think 100 would cover all of them. There are a lot of great ones, but I guess I’d quibble over their designation of what is and isn’t a comedy. Is The Apartment that? Hollywood Foreign Press is placing The Martian as a comedy, but I wouldn’t call it that at all. I favor physical comedy, so how about the Adam McKay-directed Will Ferrell-John C Reilly sibling rivalry romp Step Brothers? For that matter, where is Talladega Nights with all those guys and Sacha Baron Cohen? Aren’t those more beloved by moviegoers than a lotta dusty old relics that would put you right to sleep? What about Chris Farley’s best movie Tommy Boy? Jim Carrey’s manic comedy turns in Liar, Liar and Ace Ventura, including the scene where he was “birthed” by a rhino? Adam Sandler has fallen into disfavor, but The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore are beloved. Okay, maybe that’s going too far. Mike Myers’ first Austin Powers pic made the list, but the sequels were funnier. What about the Jackass movies, where Johnny Knoxville and cohorts destroyed their bodies in the name of comedy? I recall you weren’t a fan of the latter movie and might have felt it permanently tarnished Paramount. What did you think of the WGA list of greatest comedies?
BART: I resist making lists of all sorts, and lists of comedies pose a distinct problem because of contrasting genre. There is the comedy of laugh-out-loud versus the comedy of the quiet chortle. The favorite comedy I ever worked on was Being There with Peter Sellers, which offered chortles rather than laugh-out-loud moments. It holds up great today because Donald Trump is Chance, the clueless gardener, come to life. I saw the compelling new movie titled The Big Short last night and it definitely belongs to the Being There school. Only a brave soul would try to make a comedy based on the 2008 economic crisis. Adam McKay even stops the frenetic action to post darkly comic quotations from the likes of Mark Twain – in what other movie would you encounter epigramis interruptus? Brad Pitt’s cameo as an estranged investor (who never changes expression) clearly helped get this black comedy made. Will The Big Short make any “best comedy” lists? It will surely make a lot of people re-think how they invest their money, because many of the symptoms of financial disaster are re-appearing today.
FLEMING: Haven’t seen it but it sounds like this expands Pitt’s list of memorable, unexpected, wacky small dose performances. He brightened up Tony Scott’s True Romance as the pot-smoking roommate, and same in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise. In Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, I could not understand a word his gypsy boxer character said, but I laughed every time he was on the screen. That guy can be funny.