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, mostly on the movie business.
BART: The Best Picture quarrels may continue into perpetuity but an instant consensus has emerged about Worst Picture. Since no one I know has actually seen Gods Of Egypt, I decided to interrupt my pre-Oscar party circuit with a Godly visit. OK, a double vodka came first – a prudent decision. Let’s start with a look at the basic strategy: Given the hegemony of the tongue-in-cheek superhero movies (Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy) why not dial back to the sword-and-sandals era of Hollywood when heroes had to cope with gods, not gadflies? That, I assume, was the thinking of producer Basil Iwanyk, who had earlier given us Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans. Well, the titans have lost patience. Gods of Egypt cost $140 million and grossed $14 million on its first weekend. It will quickly be downhill from there despite overseas help.
FLEMING: Sometimes, movies just don’t work, so I am only somewhat prepared to sit here and ridicule the filmmakers and distributor. Lionsgate was just looking for a place to quietly park this pricey turd and chose Oscar weekend, when attention would be on other, better films, as well as the collective shaming of Hollywood over lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations. They slotted it last weekend, even knowing the film’s only recognizable star—Gerard Butler—would do next to no promotion because he has a sequel opening this Friday that he does care about. London Has Fallen staked out that date, first, and Lionsgate encroached with the rationale there was no other place to put this movie. Clearly, they just wanted to get it over with.
BART: Is it as bad as the word-of mouth? No, worse. It’s both chintzy and badly directed (Alex Proyas). With properly perverse editing, it could be the perfect midnight stoner movie, a sort of Rocky Deity Show. Whenever a movie like this opens, everyone associated with it proudly announces, “We won’t lose a dime.” Lionsgate says its exposure was $10 million. The Australian government kicked in subsidies. Foreign presales covered most of the cost. So did anyone lose? I once diligently followed the money trail on a film like this and finally found a distributor in Croatia who admitted he’d lost his shirt. And he was mad as hell. I’m going to try to find him again to see how he did on Gods of Egypt.
FLEMING: Somebody is losing their toga on the movie, and flops like this reverberate, no matter how Lionsgate rationalizes it. People on the party circuit were sick of talking about Oscars last weekend. So they discussed anything else. At the pre-Spirit Awards schmooze, the focus among indie guys who put movies together was Gods Of Egypt, and how it harms a precarious indie biz so dependent on foreign presales and offshore money. Said one sales guy: “This hurts the whole ecosystem. You can say your exposure is minimal and you spread your risk, but there is a small pool of these people who’ll take your bets. When one of us burns them, we all feel it.” Another said that if you are making an unspectacular sword-and-sandals film, don’t do it unless you can bring it in for $50 million cheaper.
The Oscar weekend contrast between great films and Gods of Egypt gives an opportunity for worthy discourse on what the audience is telling Hollywood, should it care to listen. The Gods Of Egypt marketing looked like a movie we’ve been watching since ancient times; Butler looked like he was in a commercial for a TV repeat broadcast of 300. Look at some of the movies celebrated during the Oscarcast. Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay winner Spotlight belonged to DreamWorks, which put it in turnaround when The Fifth Estate tanked and made them feel films about journalists don’t work. While Fifth Estate (Oscar-winning Spotlight co-writer Josh Singer scripted it) had a slippery, unsympathetic protagonist in Julian Assange, shouldn’t the execs there have seen the value in those gritty Boston Globe reporters, or the underdog appeal of those victims and their advocates who crusaded against the mortal sin being covered up by pompous Boston Catholic Archdiocese head Cardinal Bernard Law, who oversaw a hierarchy where hush money was paid and predator priests shuffled to new parishes, which was like relocating foxes to different hen houses?
How about Ex Machina, which got dropped by Universal and Focus Features, and won the Best VFX Oscar? Alex Garland made a completely disruptive, remarkable movie there. For all the bad movies Warner Bros made last year, couldn’t someone have recognized the zeitgeist potential of Straight Outta Compton and passion of F. Gary Gray and see beyond the limits of a P&L on an urban film? Given the success of Deadpool, why did it take Fox so long to make it? Viewers don’t want to watch the same thing over and over, and studio executives have to temper the normal instinct to be fearful. How about trusting your gut? Recall the movies that made you want to be in this business, and anticipate what the 2017 version of some of those films might be. It probably starts with a filmmaker who has ambition for some film burning in his or her gut like an ulcer. More Mad Max: Fury Roads, please?
BART: I think you and I will agree, Mike, on the positives of the Oscar show. The blandness of recent Oscar shows was totally obliterated the moment Chris Rock materialized stage center. Further, the awards were satisfyingly allocated among the films of merit – a something-for-everyone scenario. Even the political messages seemed smartly apportioned – Leo on climate change, Lady Gaga (and Joe Biden) on sexual abuse, Adam McKay on billionaires stealing elections, Tom McCarthy on Vatican hypocrisy and Alejandro Iñárritu (almost) on the Hispanic contribution (but the music cut him off). All this is constructive – the Oscars are again relevant on many levels and so are the films. Chris Rock’s peroration was cool, not shrill. And persuasive. And now it’s important that the diversity issue move from rhetoric to reality because the rhetoric can become counter-productive. Such was the case with the sprawling story in the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times headlined “What It’s Really Like To Work In Hollywood.” The story was about actors complaining – scores of actors, most of them actors of color. They testify about “not feeling seen, heard or valued.“ They experience rejection. They sense they’re being told, “You don’t belong.”
FLEMING: I will later look up the word ‘peroration,’ but for now Peter, I’ll say that I thought diversity was predictably overplayed on a pretty good Oscarcast. Chris Rock’s monologue showed maturity –his use of Kevin Hart as a foil was eons better than his Jude Law bit in Rock’s first hosting stint–and Rock and Hart showed an unwillingness to join the Sharpton picket sign guilt-and-pity party. Rock even made fun of this collective “shame” narrative pressed by a few celebs like Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith (he seemed to have been roped into taking a position because she did; he just doesn’t seem like a guy who’d buy into it) and a trade press looking for angles on which to hang PC white guilt stories. To me, it’s a little like the Oscar nominated film The Big Short. It’s great that Adam McKay and cohorts found a way to bare the shameful greedy bankers that tanked the economy in 2008. But you know damn well it’s only a matter of time before these banker bastards find some other way to bundle risky assets that will ensure big fees and bonuses. Once that bubble bursts, it will devastate mine and every other working stiff’s retirement account and we will all work until age 90. I feel like this whole Oscar shame thing was overdone into a version of the scene in Game Of Thrones where the queen was forced to march naked through the streets, taunted by common folk, a crone walking behind her, crying “shame.” You know after the queen got back to the safety of her big castle, everything would go back to normal.
That could happen with this #OscarSoWhite thing. Forgotten in that narrative is the dirty little secret that the people who make it in this business do so because of the fire in their belly that exists in people like Rock and Hart, or Alejandro González Iñárritu, or Jamie Foxx. I watched Louis Gossett Jr. get a good seat because of the diversity outcry and I remember how great he was in winning the Oscar for An Officer and A Gentleman, only to find his reward was the lead role in Jaws 3D. Things are better now, not because of affirmative action but rather some exceptional artists who’ve made their own breaks and shown there are financial benefits to being more inclusive. You could look at most of the people in that auditorium, regardless of skin color and see that. How many crappy TV series did George Clooney star in for no money before ER? And didn’t Leonardo DiCaprio grow up poor and get fired from Romper Room? And Spotlight producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust spent a hard decade making no money and trying to get the eventual Best Picture winner made. Should they feel shame?
I spent last Friday morning with Antoine Fuqua as he put the finishing editing touches on The Magnificent Seven, the ensemble Western where he teams his Training Day Oscar nominees Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke with a cast that includes Chris Pratt. We’ll have a longer discussion later this week, but Fuqua is a guy who made it out of the streets of Pittsburgh to the A list by making Hollywood see his talent as an opportunity, and not some affirmative action obligation. He wanted no part of this shaming game that played out for the past few months, culminating in the face of Sharpton.
It will be great if this diversity cloud that hung over the Oscars opens the door a crack for some. But the people who break through do it because they won’t be denied. I just don’t buy this judgment that people in Hollywood are racist, or that Academy voters are, and it’s sad some of them are being scapegoated and shipped out to pasture with the clear implication they caused the problem. I think that Hollywood execs, agents and producers who put together movies are a liberal bunch. But they are overworked and thinking more about survival than diversity as they try to program movies they hope will fill theaters here and outside the U.S., including places where the populations are prejudiced. That reality is something these Sharpton protest marches don’t really recognize.
What does it say that Iñárritu won the last two Best Director Oscars and before that it was Alfonso Cuarón, and yet the leading Republican presidential candidate says he will build a wall to keep Mexicans from entering this country? Is it possible that these Mexicans who risk their lives to cross for a shot at a better life might have something to offer and that they or their children could be the next Cuaron, Inarritu or Lubezki, in film or some other industry?
Had voters put Straight Outta Compton on the Best Picture ballot, or if Spirits Award winners Idris Elba and Abraham Attah had been rightfully nominated, people would have looked at this as a normal year. But the race case just isn’t airtight, same as when Jennifer Lawrence was made the poster girl for gender pay disparity last year for American Hustle, despite mitigating circumstances. I don’t think voters ignored Elba or Attah because of their skin color. I think Academy voters sneered at Netflix’s claim that Beasts of No Nation was a feature film because Ted Sarandos put it in a few theaters where it did no business. Just yesterday, the New York Times reviewed the new Crouching Tiger installment and labeled it: Television Review. I’m sure Sarandos will find a way to change perception, but this was Netflix’s very first attempt at a prestige feature, and it was one that had the kind of violence that doesn’t go over well with Academy voters. Might that be a better, but admittedly less compelling explanation than the race narrative?