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: The resuscitation of a market for spec scripts, books and pitches has me remembering the days when two specs and one book a week sold for seven-figure sums. The emergence of Netflix and Amazon, and event TV outlets and outside financiers, has reinvigorated a market for material that had been sluggish because studios don’t want to pay a lot for material that doesn’t involve branded properties and superheroes.
Here are the latest developments: MGM is close to winning Deeper, the spec script by Max Landis that has Bradley Cooper attached to play a a disgraced astronaut who embarks on a mission to reach the bottom of a newly discovered oceanic trench, theorized to be the lowest point on planet Earth. He encounters an increasing level of danger, and soon finds himself in a psychological (and physical) fight against mysterious forces in a submersible sub (think Gravity, underwater with supernatural elements). White God helmer Kornel Mundruczo will direct it. This one has Oscar potential and a budget in the $40 million range and so many suitors that it has taken over a week for the participants to meet with them all.
At the same time, HBO just won an auction that included Legendary, IM Global and Hulu for rights to turn Ray Bradbury’s cautionary classic Fahrenheit 451 into an event film that will be written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, who pronounced himself as an up-and-comer with the Michael Shannon-Andrew Garfield film 99 Homes. He’ll be exec producer with Alan Gasmer and Peter Jaysen in a deal brokered by ICM Partners’ Rich Green. It gives new life to a property that languished at Warner Bros for over a decade, with top talent like Frank Darabont and Mel Gibson stepping in and out along the way.
Deeper is produced by Landis, David Goyer and Cooper, a co-production between Phantom Four and Addictive Pictures. Also producing are Kevin Turen for Phantom 4 and Russell Ackerman and John Schoenfelder for Addictive.
This comes on the heels of a big auction last week won by Paramount for Appian Way (and The Picture Company) on the TJ English Cuban mobster book The Corporation that has Benicio Del Toro attached to star. That was a fevered auction and those follow the massive auctions for the David Ayer-directed Will Smith-starrer Bright that Netflix won for $90 million, and the $5 million heated auction for the David Grann book Killers Of The Flower Moon won by Imperative Entertainment. What’s intriguing about all this is that studio-based producers who try to keep prices down are not winning these deals, as they were accustomed to doing for a long time. It all has to do with this time of disruption, and new platforms and players. I find it so invigorating.
It is making stars out of resourceful IP creator writers like Max Landis, who is on the verge of doing something never accomplished by Shane Black or Joe Eszterhas when both were cashing record $4 million checks for their spec scripts back in the ’90s. When Landis’s script Deeper sells momentarily, it will mean that, Bright included, Landis sold back-to-back specs in a couple of weeks that not only came with seven-figure price tags, but where buyers agreed to greenlight films that were fully packaged. What’s refreshing is that this is no get-rich-quick scheme for Landis and his WME and Writ Large reps. It grew out of frustration over his lack of inclusion on the sleeper Fox hit Chronicle, where he created that whole world and was cut out of involvement in a sequel that never even happened. He takes studio jobs all the time, but when he hatches new IP, he and his agents are making deals for packages that put them in control. It’s working.
BART: The competition for The Corporation and other recent books is encouraging as a reminder that the studios are fully respecting the book business as source material once again. In recent years, comic books or spec scripts have attracted the most excitement among buyers searching for film ideas. Paramount and Leonardo DiCaprio’s company won the rights to The Corporation, a nonfiction account of the rise of the Cuban Mafia and its leader, identified as a “Godfather -like figure.” The original Godfather, when acquired by Paramount, was a Mario Puzo novel — but not even a finished novel. Paramount subsidized its completion and contributed to the ads for the book. In the ’70s it was not unusual for studios to acquire unfinished manuscripts and gamble on their development and marketing. That practice faded in the “high concept” era of the ’80s but, with the revival of the book market, past practices may find their way back. That would seem appropriate at this moment when Universal is spending millions to promote the opening of its Harry Potter theme park — the ultimate reminder that Potter was the best book buy ever.
FLEMING: This is different because studios aren’t driving this train. Remember that Harry Potter was pulled out of the slush pile by an enterprising young exec who worked for producer David Heyman, and so that didn’t cost Warner Bros any money at all because JK Rowling was a struggling wannabe author at the time. Paramount did win The Corporation, but Brad Grey was compelled to land a big property for Appian Way after he lured DiCaprio over from Warner Bros. For the most part, studios are not the ones writing big checks here. I lived through that spec heyday and the trouble was that studios spent drunkenly and got caught up in the moment, without really knowing how they would turn these properties into films. They languished and that market collapsed. This campaign feels different. I will be interested to see what happens with a Gay Talese article in The New Yorker that CAA will shop this week.
The Voyeur’s Hotel is a long and rather unsettling piece in which a Colorado man named Gerald Foos, a lifelong voyeur, opened a hotel primarily so he could watch guests having sex, through ceiling vents. This man – he fancied himself some kind of observer of human behavior, but I’d call him a first-class creep like the one who filmed sportscaster Erin Andrews – chronicled everything he saw. That included a murder he was complicit in causing through his nosiness, when he flushed a dealer’s drugs and the guy blamed his girlfriend and strangled her. Foos sought out Talese because of his signature book on sex, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. That amuses me because that book serves as a cautionary tale in how not to buy a book for a movie. As I recall, UA in 1979 paid a record $2.5 million for rights to Talese’s book, mainly to make a statement they intended to be serious players. They pissed away millions and never made the movie. Let’s hope these new buyers have better luck.
BART: The most avid book advocates are the stars, who are eagerly searching for good roles. Reese Witherspoon’s production company has 16 books under option, ranging from thrillers to women’s fiction and biography, according to a profile in the Wall Street Journal. Last year she found herself bidding against Nicole Kidman for rights to Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight. Another actress, Emma Watson, has started a feminists book club, and Lena Dunham is launching a publishing imprint at Random House to rival Oprah Winfrey.
Next topic: Speaking of women, I have one word of advice to Melissa McCarthy about her latest announcement: Don’t. A couple of days after the opening of her appalling new starring vehicle, The Boss, directed by her husband, she disclosed they would now team on a new one, Life Of The Party. Say it ain’t so, Melissa. You and Ben Falcone may be a happily married couple, but you’re a klutzy comedy team. And, Mike, you should join my “Rescue Melissa” crusade. When she came out with Bridesmaids and then Spy you lauded her comedic talents and rightly pointed out that Paul Feig, her director on those two movies, had sharpened her timing. Well, now Melissa is her own writer and producer and Feig has been replaced by hubby Ben. They hobbled through the ill-conceived Tammy together but in The Boss, she’s created the seemingly perfect role for herself: A brash financial guru who goes to jail for insider trading. But as Manohla Dargis gently puts it in her New York Times review, “there isn’t much filmmaking in it.” That’s putting it mildly. “The Boss deserves a pink slip for its lost opportunities,” headlines the Los Angeles Times review. So here’s another bit of unsolicited advice to Melissa: The Boss was co-produced by Adam McKay, who is responsible for The Big Short. How about asking Adam to direct your next opus and give hubby the day off?
FLEMING: McCarthy is among a short list of directors and stars whose films I see on opening day. Denzel Washington’s on that list, not many others. I turned to my son about ten minutes in and whispered, uh oh. She has every right to exploit her success and make more movies with her husband, but Adam Sandler is a good cautionary tale. Comedy stars can only disappoint their audiences so many times before that audience bails. For some reason, Feig brings out the best in her. Falcone hasn’t, so far, even though they honed their comic chops together at the Groundlings. It is odd they set up another movie with a reported paycheck for her of $15 million, rewarded for a movie that didn’t get good reviews and I found unsatisfying. It is also interesting how we’ve seen spouse teams create a united front on movies that were underwhelming. Zack Snyder and his producer wife Deborah oversaw Batman V Superman, and you wonder if it became harder for Snyder to realize that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was the Jar Jar Binks of villains, or that Superman and Batman needed the Heat coffee shop scene before their battle, or maybe even to laugh once or twice. Maybe the third time will be the charm for Falcone and McCarthy and they’ll get one right. She has Feig’s Ghostbusters, which hopefully will cleanse the palate, and she could come through the summer as Hollywood’s highest-paid actress not named Jennifer Lawrence.
I just want her to force him to match the high bar set by Feig. Her physical comedy work is in the ballpark with Jim Carrey, Chris Farley, Steve Martin, Sacha Baron Cohen, Curly Howard. I can’t think of another woman even close. Her Saturday Night Live work and in the Feig films show a fearlessness that reminds me of all those guys. Peter, I will keep showing up day one for her films, but maybe not day one for the ones she makes with her husband. I still think she has an award-winning serious turn in her. I will continue to carry a torch for her, even though I was disappointed when I attended the Thursday 7:05 PM first show.
BART: Next topic. It’s a tribute to the Disney secrecy machine, or to its state of corporate confusion, that no clear explanation or even credible rumor has emerged to explain the departure of Tom Staggs. The New York Times promised but didn’t give. “Behind the scenes at Disney as it purged an heir apparent,” heralds a page one headline, but readers aren’t delivered a clue. At stake is what is arguably the biggest job in Hollywood and Staggs was the designated heir. Yet none of the accounts of Staggs’ abrupt departure pin the blame on Bob Iger — the Teflon CEO has reached the point of corporate adulation that nothing ever gets blamed on him. Several “insiders” suggest darkly that unnamed members of the board of directors — a sort of corporate Politburo — were not fans of Staggs, but no one says why. In the Times’ story, James B. Stewart, who wrote an excellent book on Disney’s previous succession wars, reminds us that Iger’s predecessor, Michael Eisner, undermined Michael Ovitz as a potential successor and effectively shot down the chances of Barry Diller to become CEO by notifying the board: “The fact that he (Diller) is a homosexual should have no weight on the final choice.” Some Disney insiders question whether the board ever received the memo on Diller cited by NYT.
In the end, all that is known is that Iger, 65, likely will stay on as CEO since choosing a successor has become a toxic mission. To be sure, Staggs had been groomed for years for the job, having been appointed to a succession of important position, even as chief of the Disney theme parks. Staggs had nurtured his relationship with the bankers and, to some extent, with the press. I had three extremely pleasant lunches with him and found him perfect CEO casting. Perhaps that was his flaw. As I’ve written before, Disney is more a nation-state than a company and there’s room for only one czar at the top. If he really wants to retire some day, Iger may have to find a way of resurrecting old Walt himself.
FLEMING: If this succession dilemma keeps Iger on longer, nobody’s going to complain. The Yankees found a shortstop and relief pitcher to replace Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and the Broncos will find a QB to replace Peyton Manning. But they can’t compare and Iger’s exit will be the end of an era. I observe from the film side, and Iger’s bold deals for Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm make him the best and most imaginative Disney chief outside Walt Disney. Viacom, Fox, Universal or anyone else could have bought those companies, but Iger saw the silo system possibilities, and risked billions of dollars to buy those companies. Now, Disney is set up for a long time in superheroes, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and John Lassiter animated classics. Every one of those deals will pay for themselves, if they haven’t already. And nobody else saw it except Iger and whoever was advising him. Iger’s still vibrant and engaged. What’s the rush here?