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 on the movie business.
FLEMING: Two observations about Sunday’s Golden Globes. It felt like the Ricky Gervais and his ever-present pint passed their expiration date, though I understand the HFPA couldn’t find anyone else willing to follow Tina Fey/Amy Poehler, so why not the host who preceded them? After Gervais served up his requisite nastiness, then prepared to tee off on perceived easy target Mel Gibson, it was like watching a bully get punched when Gibson told him that seeing Gervais every three years was a good reminder for his colonoscopy checkup. Great line. The big Globe takeaway, though, is that wins by the surging The Revenant and the lingering The Martian makes Best Picture the most wide open Oscar category I can remember, days before nominations are announced. Five or six pictures have a shot.
BART: To steal from Eugene O’Neill, the Globes show was a long day’s journey into blight. The network censor gave us a clue: Ricky Gervais should be bleeped into oblivion after this show. The debacle reminded us of this confusion: the community cannot decide whether the Globes is a serious award ceremony or a roast. To some winners, like Lady Gaga, the Globes is the Oscars. Then, Denzel Washington tells a bizarre story about how his old agent, Freddie Fields, once essentially ‘bought’ the award for him. Apart from Gervais’ problems, I felt the acceptance speeches were an all-time low: A blizzard of thanked agents, managers and publicists and, most of all, to the money. With special reverence on The Revenant for Arnon Milchan, who paid for the overages. It was only Leonardo who had something serious to say that wasn’t about the big bucks. And Stallone, who paid homage to nostalgia.
FLEMING: The latter speeches were great and those guys might well have to work on new routines; it sure feels like their year.
BART: Next topic. Since Deadline broke the story about Relativity’s new creative bosses late last week, let’s address some of the problems that Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti will confront. If there’s one thing you would tell them, Mike, what would it be?
FLEMING: Run? I was doing my best Gervais there. If Ryan Kavanaugh gets out of Chapter 11 and recapitalizes, I think these guys are inspired choices. Though new to the studio exec set (let’s not count his lacerating portrayal of one in Swimming with Sharks), Spacey’s ferociously intelligent, decisive and he and Brunetti gravitate to the tasteful and provocative tweener projects Relativity needs. Usually, when you hear about actors messing with models, it is tabloid fodder. For Spacey, it describes his passion for challenging established business models. That includes toplining Margin Call, an early multi-platform release success; hatching a groundbreaking drama series for a streaming service; and spending a decade reviving The Old Vic, which everybody thought was crazy. He and Brunetti wanted to expand their Trigger Street with funding and distribution. They’ve got it now, and a Netflix deal. I’ve been critical of Kavanaugh because he wouldn’t own his mistakes, but he bought a lot of credibility turning over the green lights to these guys.
BART: Here’s one message worth remembering: Picking pictures is an art, not a science. As they start the process of rehabilitating Relativity, they should face the fact that the algorithms espoused by Ryan Kavanaugh were irrelevant. So was the research data and budget formulas unveiled by STX Entertainment’s Adam Fogelson in the just published The New Yorker. The bottom line, guys: When you green light movies, go by your gut. And pray for luck.
FLEMING: One of the few that Spacey and Brunetti consulted before saying yes was Mike De Luca, who played this niche game as well as anyone ever has when New Line made Se7en, Boogie Nights, Dumb and Dumber and numerous other tweener films. I asked De Luca why these guys could succeed. Here’s what he said: “They want to occupy that same tweener space STX talks about. They have the tenacity, taste and bring instant credibility. They have a keen understanding of the marketplace where big studios aren’t going and the audience they aren’t serving.”
BART: We are giving Spacey and Brunetti a PhD in management when they haven’t managed anything yet, so let’s calm down. Running something is different from acting out a role. For one thing, it requires discipline—the ingredient Relativity has most lacked. On that subject, none of us is certain that Relativity can command the funds to support the Spacey-Brunetti plan. Every regime needs three or four years to succeed. Will they have the time to show their stuff?
FLEMING: Who knows, but here’s the thing. What Relativity lacked is the kind of successes those guys generated at Trigger Street. And remember William Goldman’s adage that nobody knows anything. There were whispers everywhere last year that Warner Bros would make a change, the same gossip you heard about Donna Langley a few years ago before everything she touched turned to gold. Kevin Tsujihara just reupped Greg Silverman, who has a 2016 slate that could very well turn things around. Who knows if it was the right call and who knows about Spacey and Brunetti, who have it harder than Langley and Silverman; Relativity can’t make pricey four quadrant tent poles. Here’s how De Luca described the job requirements: “You have to be fearless and do the job like you expect to get fired next week. The reward comes from innovative risk taking, and for recognizing opportunities and a good idea and having the courage to act on it, and be right. There are no rewards for playing it safe. It’s nerve wracking; all these movies look bad on paper and wouldn’t survive a P&L meeting at a studio. These are gut instinct plays, and conventional wisdom says they shouldn’t be movies. Dana and Kevin are fearless enough, and they are excited by this new frontier.” De Luca made Captain Phillips and The Social Network with those guys. The big question: will the town give them a chance? I say yes, if Kavanaugh can convince them he’s got cash and it isn’t going to fuel his helicopter.
BART: I admire their willingness to take a chance. Kavanaugh dug himself quite a hole — $1.2 billion in liabilities. Plus he kept assuring bankers that he knew the magic formula, when there’s isn’t any. I was reminded of this after reading the long STX piece, The Mogul Of The Middle. Forget franchises and tent poles, Fogelson advised. All you have to do is mobilize star vehicles costing between $20 million and $80 million, then spend more money to market them than to make them. This will deliver you a guaranteed a 24% profit margin, double the studio average. Research proves it.
FLEMING: He grew up marketing films and said if he can sell it, he’ll make it. But the movie business is like sports: statistics are helpful, but only to a degree. I watched the NFL’s Wild Card weekend and the Bengals had their game won–until their linebacker tried to decapitate a Steelers receiver long after the play was over. Steelers win. The Vikings only needed a game ending chip shot field goal to win, and the kicker shanked it. Seahawks win. Coaches plan and the sports gods laugh. The movie gods are just as cruel.
BART: Well, that happened with STX’s first star-driven movie release, Secret in Their Eyes with Julia Roberts, which failed to break even. Fogelson conceded in that article that he cut the budget too harshly. STX’s first film, The Gift, will gross about the same as it cost to make and market. Meanwhile Fogelson’s boss, Bob Simonds, initially stated his prime goal was to finance ‘human stories.’ By the end of the piece, he was imagining a Chinese-funded multinational corporation with interests spanning all media.
FLEMING: You can’t judge STX on two movies. What favors their model is their seasoned exec and marketing staff, led by Fogelson and Oren Aviv. They’ve seen everything and they’re smart. Simonds produced hits and has found the money to get them going and he spends a ton of time in China. They are all in and it’s exciting to see a new company try to succeed. Key will be Fogelson, and Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece was a gorgeously written love letter to an exec I’ve found to be earnest and engaging. Friend basically gave him credit for all the green lights in Universal’s record year, but glossed the acrimony and power struggling with Langley and Ron Meyer that left him blindsided and out of a job. I watched that happen up close and it was shocking. Friend also ignored the collective effort that goes into getting films ready for green light, and the management of those films as they get made. Still, good for Fogelson that he got some love after being relegated to forgotten man status in the story of Universal’s record year, which he played an important role in setting up. I was surprised though how much access STX gave Friend. There were awkward moments as the STX team manipulated Keanu Reeves and his producing partners into cutting the budget of a film, and I wonder if there will be hard conversations to follow. That’s what happened when Friend granted the same access in profiling WME’s Dave Wirtschafter, who watched several important clients leave the agency because of how he characterized them in print. I guess STX felt it the risk was an acceptable price to peddle its tweener formula in a prestige national magazine. There are only one of several new companies that think they built the perfect mousetrap to be tweener film factories. More will fail than succeed, especially at a time when it’s never been tougher to get adults to leave home to see these movies, despite 2015’s record global gross tally. It will come down to who is bold and chooses right. One mousetrap I like is the EuropaCorp model, where much of the slate is based on concepts hatched by Luc Besson, whose past ideas included Taken, The Transporter, Lucy and so many others. But who knows?
BART: This brings me to a nasty question. Can a star run a studio? My mind inevitably flashes on Tom Cruise and a two year tenure so brief at United Artist that you might have missed it if you blinked. Ironically, Cruise and his then partner Paula Wagner followed the STX formula in their two pictures. Both were reasonably budgeted films with top stars – Redford and Streep in Lions for Lambs and Cruise himself in Valkyrie. The former missed and the latter didn’t hit strongly enough. Cruise seemed uncharacteristically restrained in pulling the trigger. The $500 million in funding was in place but the green lights weren’t flashed.
FLEMING: My memory is that UA deal was a rebound romance after Sumner Redstone publicly kicked Cruise to the curb. Cruise and Wagner didn’t make enough movies for their funding to be realized. But Cruise has found his place in the world, and that’s producing his star vehicles. He’s as good at that as any actor, as Mission: Impossible and other films attest. I think Spacey is a different guy. Hey, when you left journalism for Paramount, you worked under Bob Evans, another actor-turned studio chief. That led to The Godfather, Love Story and others. What about that?
BART: At the time Evans was recruited as chief of Paramount, he had turned his back on acting and was focused on his producing career and his partnership with his brother, Charles, on the fashion company Evan Picone. Evans by then had conditioned himself to think like a businessman, not an actor. But some traits still lingered. For example, he loved being photographed. I once told him that there was a serious problem on a set and that he should get over there. He did so – but first summoned the studio photographer. It turned out to be a great shot – Evans comforting Mia Farrow on the set of Rosemary’s Baby. For that take, Evans was a great actor.