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: I could start with Oscar diversity, and how that Janice Min THR interview with AMPAS’ Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Dawn Hudson about reforms reminded me of when George W. Bush landed a plane on the deck of that aircraft carrier, with the banner “Mission Accomplished.” But I’ll start with the just-concluded Sundance Film Festival, where big money was paid for prestige films. The market was driven by streaming services Netflix and Amazon, each of which spent big money and left with slates full of prestige pictures. The two biggest sales of the festival were brokered by WME Global head Graham Taylor, who got $10 million from Amazon for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, and a record $17.5 million from Fox Searchlight for Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation. I asked him to explain what these new players mean to the fragile ecosystem of indie films after his team brokered eight deals with more coming. He traveled to the fest with his wife, vet indie producer Lynette Howell, who brought a film to the festival, and their two small kids. So hang in, Peter, while he tells us exactly what the hell happened.
BART: Hanging in.
FLEMING: First, Graham, how do you and Lynette balance indie film commerce with small children?
TAYLOR: We got on the plane with our 3-year-old and 8-month-old screaming kids, and our 50 bags, and even though most people on the flight knew us, it was like the Clampett clan had boarded. Luckily, Lynette’s film had distribution so I just had to be her plus-one. The tough days were Saturday [Manchester] and Monday [Birth], when we were going till near 4 in the morning, and then I’d get attacked by a 3-year-old at 6:30 AM. And I’m not sure who was more torturous, Harvey or the toddler. Fortunately I have great partners and we beat our best Sundance with over $40 million in deals with more coming.
FLEMING: Why did you make the $10 million deal with Amazon, a streaming service, but turn down $20 million from Netflix to take $17.5 million from Fox Searchlight for The Birth Of A Nation?
TAYLOR: With Amazon, the filmmakers really connected with Ted Hope, Bob Berney, and Josh Kramer and how they saw the release as one with a traditional theatrical window with a minimum of 90-day hold back to give theater chains what they needed. They plan a major awards play, which they’ll get behind with P&A. We tend to get distracted by the minimum guarantee, but that is just one component to go along with marketing commitment, release date and what other overlapping films the distributor might have on their slate. You want to be first priority.
FLEMING: Did you really set a $12 million minimum for buyers to sit at the big table and bid for Birth? That never happened before at Sundance.
TAYLOR: Yes. Irrespective of the film’s cost, we felt the bidding needed to start at a certain economic level for the film’s investors, and then it got beyond that and the question was how much to de-risk upfront, while preserving upside in success.
FLEMING: Why didn’t you take $2.5 million more from Netflix?
TAYLOR: Nate’s hope is that the film moves people to become agents of change. He loved Netflix, but there, you’re consuming content passively. If you are engaged in a shared theatrical experience, irrespective of color, gender or economic background, you can create a conversation, in order to activate and affect change. That was very important to him.
FLEMING: WME made the Beasts Of No Nation deal with Netflix. It seems inexplicable to me Idris Elba isn’t the Supporting Actor Oscar front-runner, but he wasn’t nominated. Was Parker trying to avoid what might be an Academy reluctance to accept Netflix entries as feature product? Unlike the Amazon strategy you describe, Netflix pays generously to service its streaming subscribers, even if it opens on some theater day-and-date.
TAYLOR: Netflix felt like the right solution to event-ize the release of Cary Fukunaga’s movie and it was most effective on that front. Idris 100% should have been nominated and Beasts should have had multiple nominations, but I don’t ascribe that to Netflix. Every year, incredible performances are overlooked and I don’t know if there was an Academy issue where large swaths of members did not see the movie. To me, Beasts is a Picasso.
FLEMING: There was confusion over WME making the Birth deal when Parker left for CAA.
TAYLOR: He left several months ago. Nate took a hammer to his art and his life, deconstructing everything to reconstruct it. I’m excited to see what path he chooses next.
FLEMING: I’ll play devil’s advocate on all the deals WME, CAA and other agencies made with streaming services. Here’s the rub, according to numerous distributors: these streaming upstarts disrupted a fragile ecosystem for prestige films that will implode when Amazon and Netflix see there is limited interest in these films.
TAYLOR: After the 2008 crash, capital was restricted, and distribution curtailed and was limited to traditional theatrical and broadcast. The business is now healthier than ever. Studio and indie distribution, day and date, digital platforms, streaming. We live in a world with options and white noise and everybody is trying to figure out how to get consumers to pay attention when there are so many options and no fix-all strategy, but more different modes of transportation to deliver content. Distribution had a hold on this business and that has given way to a more democratic process. It has empowered artists, and better positioned us to make more noise for great audacious art. It has also created a renaissance for the producer. The movies that worked best here are the once that were well produced and manufactured. All this is the sign of a healthy marketplace.
FLEMING: Thanks for the postmortem. Peter, how does this play at normal altitude?
BART: It takes guts to make a big buy at Sundance. The event comes at a daunting time when awards announcements from Hollywood deliver a final blow to many specialty pictures – films that needed a Globe or an Oscar nomination to fuel their wide releases. Too many promising films that stirred excitement on last year’s fest circuit have thus far failed to cover their production costs at the box office – Carol, The Danish Girl, Trumbo, Room, etc. Yet some well received films have made a dent – Spotlight at $34 million and Brooklyn at $30 million – and have hopes for yet further boosts from the Oscars.
FLEMING: That happens every year. Both in the prestige space, and also with big studio films. Take the two 2015 films from reigning Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne. The Danish Girl reportedly cost $25 million and grossed $10M U.S. and $35M globally. Jupiter Ascending, at a reported $176M cost, grossed $47M U.S. and $183M abroad. That latter film’s loss covers a whole slate from a robust specialty film company. The Danish Girl was small by comparison, a risk anyone in the prestige space would take.
BART: Still a glimpse at films with loftier budgets (and ambitions) provides a mix of good news and bad. Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight at $52 million has generated less than half the ticket sales of The Revenant (to be sure, it’s had a more modest release). Satires famously do no business, but The Big Short has run up $60 million and Joy has managed $55 million (its cast held more promise than its script). Given all this, the decision of Fox Searchlight to wager a $17.5 million advance on Birth Of A Nation merits a purple heart. That company gambled $12 million during the 2015 Sundance on Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, which never generated that amount at the box office. As I said earlier, it’s a daunting time of year.
FLEMING: Actually, Earl was headed toward that size deal, but Searchlight switched to a co-production arrangement with Indian Paintbrush, like it had done on the Wes Anderson hit The Grand Budapest Hotel. Clearly, the film faltered. They should have changed the title, for starters. But there are really good movies being made in that indie space, and more ways for them to monetize than ever before.
BART: Next topic. It was exactly one year ago this week that word first leaked of the Big Decision – arguably the most bewildering in the recent history of the TV business. Jon Stewart quit his show right before the start of a presidential election that seemed pre-ordained for his slash-and-burn wit. Then Stephen Colbert, too, signed off, to reinvent himself as an upmarket Letterman. One year later, does any of this make sense? The news media has been trampled by Trump. News anchors have played into his hands, numbly magnifying his rhetoric and expanding his stage. Where was Stewart when we needed him?
FLEMING: Stewart clearly grew tired of being that guy. He was ready to make room for the next smartass.
BART: Polls from the Pew Organization have revealed that Stewart and Colbert provided the principal source of news for an entire generation of younger viewers. Yet at the moment of truth they hid in their foxholes. Sure, Comedy Central tried to pave over the cracks, but Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah haven’t measured up to the challenge (their ratings at one point plunged 40%). Stewart has announced a new deal at HBO but nothing has materialized as yet. Colbert, too, has had ratings troubles against the machine-tooled stunts of the Fallons and Kimmels. Even Samantha Bee is moving into the late-night turmoil with Full Frontal, a political satire show designed to break the all-male dominance (Rivers and Chelsea Handler had previously tried to defy the Bros). Colbert got an early boost by corralling presidential candidates who were enamored of the Early Colbert mythology, when his persona was deftly masked behind that of a stodgy right wing asshole. But the new Colbert has become Late Night Bland – he has the big smile but no distinctive point of view. His interview last week with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a case in point – Colbert struggled so hard to advance a lucid question that his guest said, “Look, I’ll save you the embarrassment and ask the questions.” On a typical evening Colbert confronts the same list of Hollywood actors pushing their latest releases that has greeted every late-night host going back to Carson, but there are none of the oddball zealots who occasionally graced his previous show.
FLEMING: Times change, and there is still time for one of these late-night hosts to become a voice to puncture the arrogance balloon of Donald Trump, who might be fading anyway after Iowa. As I’ve told you, I mostly watch Conan O’Brien, who has been killing Trump, lacerating candidates from both parties and issues like the all-white Oscars, with great lines. Replacing Letterman is so daunting, and Colbert, who is likable and witty, will find his way. What, did he have an audience of 100 college kids before, and now he’s got millions watching and is making real money? I choose not to feel sorry for him.
BART: OK, I realize that Stewart wanted greener pastures and Colbert a bigger stage but couldn’t they have waited a year? Their decision to prematurely ejaculate proved harmful to their own careers and, more important, to the Body Politic.
FLEMING: OK, that last line presented an image I’ll now try to un-see. Final for me: tonight starts the FX series The People V O.J. Simpson. I saw the pilot and couldn’t help but think back to when you ran Variety and had a book party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I came and saw every one of those trial fixtures there but the Juice. Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, down to bit players like Faye Resnick and Kato Kaelin. My question: What the hell were they all doing at your book party and will this series reignite the zeitgeist again? And can you believe it was 22 years ago this sordid affair took over our lives and our book parties?
BART: I have survived a lot of book parties (after nine books) and here are my conclusions (1) No one I’ve ever invited to a book party has, to my knowledge, actually bought the book. (2) A disturbing large proportion of the guests report that the parties were more interesting than the books. This sounds like it was the case with the party you recall. Given these phenomena, I have decided that, in the future, I will discourage the publisher from having a party. Or, an even better idea, I won’t write the goddam book.