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: I feel a rant or two coming on today. First up: how in the name of Sweet Baby Jesus does a movie as balls out funny as The Brothers Grimsby tank so badly? I saw it yesterday, and I was convulsed with laughter at least six times during a movie that is equal parts There’s Something About Mary, Ace Ventura, and Spy, all of which were big hits. This is the second time I’ve felt this way about a movie recently; the last was the Robert Zemeckis-directed The Walk, which created a 3D experience I’d never seen on a movie screen before. And nobody cared. Since both are Sony films, my knee jerk is to wonder can that studio market beyond standard studio fare, and I’ve heard that Baron Cohen’s WME reps are in high agitation that Sony didn’t do more with it. My second reaction is that this upstart service Screening Room might just be the salvation for movies like this by serving a demo right in Sacha Baron Cohen’s wheelhouse, of potential consumers who are just not going to the movies and therefore putting films like this on the endangered list unless they are made for peanuts.
BART: I share your concern. How could the movie with the best Donald Trump joke of the year flop at the box office? When I saw The Brothers Grimsby, that joke sent the entire audience into a state of hilarity. It was Borat time all over again. Of course, there were only four others in the theater (yes, I paid). And some other comic bits in the film didn’t register. Lots of others. But the critics have turned on Sacha Baron Cohen. Apparently so have the audiences. And Sony is not exactly delivering a Spider-Man marketing effort. Personally, I’m sticking by Cohen. He still delivers outrageous laughs. And the Trump joke will have its own immortality in the annals of comedy.
FLEMING: I can’t let this go so easily. The movie opens with a great raucous gag and quickly we are into an first person POV action sequence as audacious as anything I saw in the trailer of the biggest Toronto deal title Hardcore Henry (I’m not sure how this intense technique will sustain over a full feature), and then there are outlandish scenes involving the genitalia of elephants and Mark Strong that are wrong in all the right ways. Add to that the usual work Baron Cohen does in puncturing PC piety, and you’ve got maybe the greatest film to ever open wide and gross just $3.2M. The film got the same Cinemascore as Borat, which had a domestic gross of $128M, above the C that both Bruno and The Dictator got (each hit $60M domestic). I feel badly for Baron Cohen to work so hard making and promoting a worthy film and have this outcome to show for it. He must be crushed. That’s where Screening Room is beginning to sound good to me.
BART: That service has aligned a bunch of filmmakers from Spielberg, Scorsese and Peter Jackson, but what could it have done to change this?
FLEMING: I don’t know if Screening Room will get the unanimous acceptance it will need from exhibitors to go forward. I recall founder Sean Parker’s Napster origins, which probably hastened today’s reality that record store chains are extinct and if I owned a theater, I’d worry this could spell the same future for my brick and mortar business. But at a time when U.S. accounts for maybe around 25% of global grosses and movies are now made for the other 75% of the world in places like Asia where comedies like The Brothers Grimbsy won’t play, Screening Room’s potential strength is that it might be the only thing that saves those kinds of movies from oblivion.
The service hopes to address the niche described in these MPAA provided facts: over the last two years, only 11% of the U.S. population could be described as frequent film goers (who attend 18 times a year) and they comprise 50% of U.S. box office revenue. The other 89% of the population goes no more than once or twice per year and accounts for the rest of box office. Out of 300M people in the U.S., 100M never go to the movies. Many are in the 25-49 demo, young professionals who have money, but no time with careers and kids. That’s Baron Cohen’s audience, and Screening Room’s sell is that they will salvage some of that market with consumers who can pay $50 to see a new movie at home.
BART: Napster was an outlaw undertaking that got shut down.
FLEMING: Parker learned. He and partner Prem Akkaraju first went to artists, and I’ve heard at least 25 have or will become shareholders. They’re financially incentivized here to play ball, but their thumbs up was in place before studios and theater chains were approached. Two studios haven’t seen the presentation of the set top box that will cost consumers $125 or so to receive these movies. But theater chains have shut down every past attempt to do this, including one by studios where the price point was much higher. The biggest chain, China-owned AMC, has already signed on. So there must be something to Screening Room’s claims you can’t just aim a video camera at a set top box and walk away with a pristine copy for pirating purposes. The sales pitch to exhibitors is, they will get money from customers that elude them, extending their reach. For studios, the sell is that the revenue will help offset the formerly larger DVD revenues that once allowed them to weather flops and cushion risk. When a movie leaves theaters, it also leaves the Screening Room menu, so the normal movie revenue run continues as usual. As one top agent said to me, “It’s inevitable that this has to happen and studios have wanted it for years. Whether it’s these guys or someone else, something has to give.” I have to admit. These agents of disruption are on to something the business has to take seriously.
BART: I’m seeing forms of disruption all over, even at SXSW, where you used to go to share indie films and BBQ with the likes of Michael Barker. Yet this week you had President Obama speculating how Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat could be harnessed for government initiatives. SXSW is a metaphor for the state of show biz: The ground keeps shifting. At auctions for films or film properties the action stems from Netflix and Amazon. Sales agents are waiting for Facebook, Google or Apple to make surprise appearances. Mike, your story this week about the auction of the David Grann novel Killers of the Flower Moon reflected this atmosphere. Relishing a hot property, the CAA mavens were weighing competing offers from the usual suspects – Leonardo, J.J. Abrams, Clooney, Pitt, RatPac. How does a CAA agent explain to a major client that he’s been outbid by yet another major client? Suddenly that question is off the table: A surprise player called Imperative headed by a Houston-based business man plops down $5 million and the game is over. And yet another Hollywood caper gets an unexpected ending. One can only guess about the next chapter: Will it become Apple’s first film production – after its acquisition of Paramount, that is?
FLEMING: That book auction, and the one that’s still going on for Bright, the David Ayer-directed Will Smith-Joel Edgerton cop drama with fantastical elements (Smith plays an Orc cop) completely reflect disruption and the empowerment of outsiders. Bright got a whopping bid around $75M from Netflix and while PalmStar Media’s Kevin Frakes and one studio teamed with an outside partner might tempt the filmmakers to take less for a standard theatrical release, it will probably be yet another instance where Ted Sarandos used a big checkbook to encroach on domain that belonged to the studios. Established studios feel Netflix and Amazon (which bought more Sundance films at higher prices than anyone) are damaging the ecosystem because they don’t have to worry about films making money; they are beholden to Wall Street valuations and subscriber churn, only.
When I found out and quickly broke the winner of the $5M David Grann deal, my first reaction was that it was the most surprising ending I’d seen since finding out Bruce Willis’ character was dead in The Sixth Sense. A-list stars and producers attached to studios put in bids that topped out around $1M because the subject matter is period and far more execution dependent than big ticket books like Fifty Shades Of Grey, Da Vinci Code or Jurassic Park. Things quickly went awry and the auction’s broker — CAA’s Matt Snyder — watched bids soar into uncharted territory. AG Capital, run by Alex Garcia and former CAA Film Finance Group agent Laura Walker, was looking to make its mark, and bid $2M Tuesday. The following day, PalmStar’s Frakes bid $3M. Netflix and producer Scott Stuber joined late, but I heard they bid $3M. And then came the bid from Imperative’s Dan Friedkin and Bradley Thomas. The latter worked for years with Peter and Bobby Farrelly and Friedkin is a billionaire who formed that company a couple years ago with Thomas and Heroes creator Tim Kring and others. They too were looking to make a splashy buy and yowza, they sure did. All the established under bidders called it insanity, but look how a few good risky bids have gotten monied companies like Teddy Schwarzman’s Black Bear Pictures (The Imitation Game), or Cross Creek (Black Swan) or Annapurna (Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle) a seat at the table. This disruption from outsiders might well happen each time a hot piece of material hits the market. At least until somebody loses their shirt.
BART: Next topic. Since we mentioned Sean Penn’s “Chapo” episode a few weeks ago, Mike, and since you know him better than I, do you have any theories about the new revisionist account offered in The New Yorker. According to Kate del Castillo, cited in that magazine, Sean Penn’s version of his action-adventure interview with the Mexican drug lord is delusionary. There were no military checkpoints. Del Castillo was unaware that Penn had an assignment from Rolling Stone or that she was helping to facilitate the article. Is all this a reminder that Penn’s future is not in journalism?
FLEMING: She thought she went down to set up a movie, and Penn thought he went down to write an article, and neither knew what the other was doing? Seems like each wanted to be the star of this drama. Maybe the movie is a contemporized version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, melded with Rashomon. I once went on a vacation with my parents and two sisters, driving from Long Island to Florida, in a tiny Datsun with AM radio and no air conditioning. I thought that was as bad as a vacation could get. I was wrong.
Final rant: watched Survivor last Thursday and they forced contestants to take on a grueling challenge to survive, in sun and sand so hot that three contestants dropped suddenly from heat stroke. When one appeared to stop breathing, they cut to a long string of commercials, and only on return did he start breathing again. They promoted this near tragedy for weeks, and you know someone there said, “this is gold.” It was unseemly. I read a NY Post expose that found 21 people on reality shows committed suicide over 10 years. Feels like things are getting out of hand. That doesn’t factor all the viewers who tune into such crap like The Bachelor, and want to kill themselves. Tonight The Bachelor ends and we won’t any longer have to endure Ben, who is a Massive Tool. Enough ranting.