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.
FLEMING: Hollywood was floored by the news Friday night that Netflix won its first tentpole film by committing $90M+ for a Bright package with a Max Landis script (for which he was paid $3M+), David Ayer directing Will Smith and Joel Edgerton as cops in a procedural surrounded by fantastical elements. Producers Eric Newman and Bryan Unkeless also got paid. Warner Bros & MGM teamed with an offer in the high-$50M range, and PalmStar Media’s Kevin Frakes (who’s shooting the Smith starrer Collateral Beauty) offered $4M for Landis’ spec and was prepared to fund a $60M budget. Both of those were for traditional theatrical releases, but Netflix committed around $45M for the budget and $45M to pay talent and buy out their projected backends. Ted Sarandos is serving a completely different revenue model; studios make calculations based on turning a per-picture profit. Netflix is serving subscribers in 190 countries — just about everywhere but China, Syria and North Korea. And Netflix is beefing up its Wall Street valuation.
At a time when studios strangle every deal — whether they are hiring writers, directors and talent, or buying pitches and spec scripts — this deal and the $5M outright buy Imperative Entertainment made for the David Grann book Killers Of The Flower Moon will loosen up the purse strings. Studios tried to hold the line on the Grann book to around $1M, but then AG Capital’s Alex Garcia and Laura Walker bid around $2.5M, and Frakes upped the ante to $3M and so did Netflix, bidding with Scott Stuber (he’s Universal-based, but the studio had Jason Blum and Scott Rudin on their bid). If an A+ producer like Stuber or Michael De Luca, or Lorenzo di Bonaventura can guide Netflix when their home studios tie other producers to auctions, this could get really interesting. Peter, are we going to see a return to the heyday of spec and books, where there was a seven-figure check written at least once a week?
BART: I think you’re getting sentimental, Mike, about the glory days of the spec script market – a moment when covering the writing game was a daily action-adventure exercise. We’d regularly bust deadlines at Daily Variety as the bidding for scripts took off into the millions toward the midnight hour. The “stars” of that era – Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black, for example – became folk heroes in their own right. The “star” agents of the spec era built a lot of melodrama into the process: They would give a studio executive a three-hour window to read a script, and sometimes they demanded to be present as the script was being read. It was all very exciting, but there were problems: Some of the hot scripts were never made. Those that were made didn’t result in especially interesting films – they were more like Lethal Weapon than Spotlight. Still, it was a great moment to see writers getting rich and signing autographs at the hot restaurants. I’m not sure we will ever see that again, Max Landis notwithstanding.
FLEMING: The cynic in me suspects this is all trading theatrical release dreams for a massive payday. Chats I had with Landis and Ayer indicate there was more at play than cash. First, Landis, who owned the spec and could have sold it anywhere, with any package: A lot of this deal had to do with his dissatisfaction with another of his original IP script creations, Chronicle, where he was cut out of a sequel process for a second film that never happened. “I realized not to put all your eggs in one basket when the sequel to Chronicle never got made, and there was no good reason for it not to,” he said. “As a guy who writes constantly, I stopped trying to sell specs to studios after that.” Landis works with studios all the time, when they hire him on their projects. He wrote Bright on spec while convalescing from hip surgery, and he said he dedicated it to J.R.R. Tolkien and Ayer, who were his stylistic influences. Much to his surprise, Ayer sparked to his script, and suddenly Landis was in a room with one of his favorite filmmakers.
“I saw End Of Watch 20 times, and I’m such an Ayer guy that I even liked Street Kings,” he said. “My scripts are idiosyncratic; I’m a strange writer, and so is Ayer, even if he’s more workmanlike and more terse in his prose. My dream was to write an Ayer movie, and we had this bizarre meeting after he read Bright, sizing each other up. He’s this super alpha male, former military guy, and I’m a rainbow-haired lunatic with a slight build. But we found common ground, and for the first time in a long while, I felt that he got what I was going for. He said he’d have to take it to Warner Bros, which made me nervous because I saw this as an indie movie and I didn’t want a studio. And then this series of phone calls happened, and Warners couldn’t catch up to the money. I’m a storyteller, as pretentious as that might sound, and the second your script falls into the hands of others, it is Frankenstein’s monster. I just trusted David, but there was no way a studio would give him final cut or keep me in the sequels if this thing hits. Chronicle was the big lesson. Like Bright, it was a big idea, and I was very close to that script and it became a huge hit, but I still got cut out of the process. Here, I wasn’t taking chances. In one scene, the Orc has a guy at knifepoint and calls him a dumb motherf*cker. Studios don’t want to do that.”
As for the picture playing primarily on the Netflix streaming service, Landis said his lineage (his dad is Blues Brothers director John Landis) betrays his priorities, but he also has to live in the fast-changing world. “As my father’s son, I grew up loving the ritual of going to the theater, and that’s how I think of features,” Landis told Deadline. “But I also know the process of getting movies to that level involve a lot of compromises, and sometimes you just get sick of that. If the money, the creative vision, the visual effects are all right, and the only compromise is audiences don’t have to go to theater to see it?”
Ayer was even less conflicted about making a VFX popcorn movie that likely won’t play at a multiplex: “I can’t even speak to any theatrical release plans for this; I don’t even know if that’s going to happen, and it wasn’t my priority. I was after the creative freedom, the ability to make really hard-R-rated movies with vision and voice and see them play in the on-demand world. You do that as a theatrical release, and you’d better hit a bull’s-eye, some cultural zeitgeist. Otherwise it’s a gamble for studios; it’s easier for them to justify $200M budgets for tentpoles than $40M to $90M for the movies I like to make.
“Netflix is this disruptive company that is at the forefront of how the business is evolving,” Ayer said. “Sitting in the cockpit as director and looking over the horizon, you see changes happening daily. That includes Screening Room. Netflix is deeply biting into cable viewership, and it’s clearly the future of the entertainment industry, which is on-demand and portable devices. To bring a flagship project into that world and have the opportunity to be the tip of the spear, I felt like we were given a hunting license to be truly creative, and to do what I love. The middle of the business, these journeyman movies, they have just gone away. Majors are interested in the hyper-specialized awards season and tentpoles, and that’s it. Playing a role in re-establishing the middle ground I like to play in as a writer and director, it just made sense. This business is bifurcating, and you follow that line and look down the road 10 years and you see where it’s going. Disruption is healthy, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of this.”
BART: Now I realize, Mike, you are a fan of macho deal making, especially when it threatens to be “disruptive.” From the standpoint of Netflix, the deals with Ayer and Will Smith are bold and, yes, totally disruptive. It’s exciting to have a multitude of players bidding for your services, especially when the numbers soar into the mega millions — $90 million in this case, to be precise. On the other hand, let me list the things the star and director are surrendering – and I do so at the risk of sounding like a traditionalist. They appear to be giving up a major theatrical release and all the goodies that come with it. In Concussion, Will clearly relished the release and promotion of his film, and he did a great job at hustling it, even though — as his wife reminds us — he did not win an Oscar for his efforts.
I watched him in action a couple of times – no one works a crowd better than Will and manages to convey more good feeling. In addition, from the way the deal lays out, it seems to put a precise lid on the ancillary income streams an actor or director may realize. So Ayer and his star are setting out to make a self-defined medium success. It will stream worldwide, but there will be no delicious surprises if the film takes off into the stratosphere here or abroad, or if it seems destined to become a franchise or even a theme park. Mind you, all this is fine by me if it’s fine by them. Every new movie is an adventure into the unknown; in this case it’s the semi-unknown. So I applaud the various agents, attorneys and managers who engineered this deal and also Netflix for funding it. It’s great to see new energies, and new bidders, wallowing in this ocean of intrigue. Disruption is healthy, especially when it enriches people. Albeit people who really don’t need either the fame or the money to begin with.
FLEMING: I heed all you say, but Smith has a big studio hit coming with the Ayer-directed Suicide Squad, and he’s making another Bad Boys. So he’s poised to take a chance, particularly as he was financially cushioned. But I point again to Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Brothers Grimsby or Tina Fey’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and how they failed to make a ripple in theaters. There are more of those than Deadpools, which unexpectedly gross tons of money. Each of those comedies would have been events on Netflix, and everyone would have seen them — in 190 countries. Ayer’s right; disruption is good, though filmmakers, studios and exhibitors are sure pushing back against Screening Room. One thing I wonder if architects Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju considered when they got testimonials from Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson. Cynics say those guys are real businessmen as well as directors and they were given stakes and could make a fortune if this thing takes off in a public offering like Facebook did. Directors who came out against it were not on the ground floor. The other drawback seems to be this: Studio owners like Comcast already spent a fortune developing and make a fortune renting cable set-top boxes to the masses. Why would they let an outsider horn in on the profits from hardware they could themselves manufacture and sell, when they also fund the movies that will play on them?
BART: Next topic. The arguments in the Hulk Hogan case are surreal, especially this one: that Hulk Hogan, the celebrity, is a totally separate character from Terry Bollea, Hogan’s real name. Bollea, it seems, is a regular guy who covets his privacy. The celebrity wrestler, Hulk Hogan, is the schmuck who phoned The Howard Stern Show to discuss the sex tape and also called TMZ about it. Needless to say, the Gawker attorneys pointed up the murkiness of this split-personality thesis, which would come in handy for many celebrities, and athletes, who misbehave on the set or playing field. I wouldn’t mind using it myself. Hence I am not advancing the information you see in this column, it’s my public persona who is holding forth. And he embarrasses me from time to time but fortunately doesn’t do sex tapes.
FLEMING: Bollea is right. Wrestlers are actors and always have been. Once, I had dinner with a group of them at the Carnegie Deli after a match. I’m sitting across from Kamala the Butcher, the Ugandan giant, purported to be a cannibal from deepest, darkest Africa. This giant of a man, James Harris, is actually from Mississippi and he was well mannered and shy and so were the cohorts who came with us. Man, could they eat. Peter, I hate to be the one to tell you: Wrestling is as real as the superheroes in Batman V Superman.
I will say this about the verdict: It delights me. There has been a no-quarter mindset in Internet journalism, and Gawker has been a prime reason. I thought it was appalling, the way they got hold of Quentin Tarantino’s first-draft script of The Hateful Eight and flogged it by telling readers to click to an anonymous website (which it may well have set up) so anyone could read a script not ready for public consumption. Tarantino eventually withdrew his lawsuit, but how is what they did OK? And publishing a sex tape and hiding behind the First Amendment and the justification that Hulk Hogan is a celebrity, that is beyond the pale. You hate to see verdicts like this against media, but if there’s a First Amendment, I don’t see it. Let’s hope this is a course correction the same way that British tabloid reporters had to stop tapping into the voicemails of story subjects after that whole sordid Fleet Street scandal. Hogan might be as unlikely to collect as Erin Andrews was in her humongous civil suit verdict. But it does put people on notice and if this prompt a return to civility, I am all for it.
BART: Last topic. Since you and I, Mike, share a perverse fascination with failure and hence like to catch movies that everyone else is ignoring, I made a pilgrimage to see Terrence Malick’s Knight Of Cups. Pilgrimage is the right word since the movie opens with John Gielgud reading snatches from The Pilgrim’s Progress — which, by the way, in no way figures into the plot, whatever there is. The critics have thus far blessed Malick’s artistic eccentricities and top-line players like Christian Bale, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett continue to lend their talents, which is remarkable since none of them actually gets to play a scene. In Malick movies, an intense scene is set up and then, before dialogue can be exchanged, there’s a cut to a voice-over. The absence of dialogue as such is intriguing because the central character (Bale) is a screenwriter who never writes but keeps getting lavish offers (even WME’s Patrick Whitesell is on screen to make one).
FLEMING: The whole time I discussed The Revenant after seeing it early, I described it as a Terrence Malick movie, except stuff actually happens. Malick’s movies are visually gorgeous meditations, but nothing much happens.
BART: I don’t enjoy being snarky about Malick since, in an earlier life, I acquired his first screenplay, titled Deadhead Miles (I could never figure out its plot either). But with Knight Of Cups, he has finally exhausted most of his critical worshipers. The movie is “a lukewarm bath of male self-pity,” said A.O. Scott of The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times assigned its architectural critic to review the movie, appropriately so since the buildings in the movie, set in L.A., are more interesting than the characters. Even the CAA building looks inviting in one montage. But I doubt that anyone at the agency (or anywhere else) actually saw it. So last week, Mike, we caught it for admitting that we actually think that Sacha Baron Cohen is still funny. This week we may hear from Malick admirers. Fortunately, neither of us pretend to be movie critics. Or intellectuals who covet “lukewarm baths.”