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: Here’s the prevailing wisdom about summer box office: Filmgoers are exuberant about a couple of new releases (Finding Dory) but utterly dismissive of others (Free State Of Jones), with nothing in between. All this was under noisy debate last night at the chaotic industry convergence on Hollywood Boulevard, where The Legend Of Tarzan and The BFG were each celebrated on opposite sides of the street. Both movies open this weekend amid great fusillades of advertising – and much studio tension. Both covet the family audience. And both last night won admirers as well as doubters. The two films collectively represent something like $320 million in production costs alone for Warner Bros and Disney, and we’ve seen similar priced films from those studios fail to open on these shores, with Warcraft and Alice Through The Looking Glass.
FLEMING: No question it has been slack tide following last year’s record-breaking year. The Shallows, about a shark attack, managed to succeed for Sony in the same kind of counter-programming move that STX Entertainment tried unsuccessfully with Free State Of Jones. And Independence Day: Resurgence followed Warcraft as another in a growing number of big-ticket escapist pictures that perform far better offshore than in the U.S. I remember when the original ID4 came out 20 years ago. It felt fresh, with imagery, like the space ship hovering over and blowing up the White House. It made moviegoers say, I gotta see that. With the exception of Inception and a few others, it’s very hard to market imagery that doesn’t provide a sense of deja vu. The ID4 sequel didn’t have Will Smith, and the materials didn’t really show anything that felt new. Now, we’ve seen many attacking sharks, going back to Spielberg’s Jaws, but we haven’t had a good one in awhile. Shark Week on Discovery Channel always works, and this stirred audiences. I wonder if Spielberg wishes he had put a shark in BFG, a movie that goes into July 4th weekend as one of two big question marks, despite the filmmaker and a Roald Dahl classic as subject matter. I saw it in Cannes; it’s a fun family film with grand VFX. But despite his shiny new Oscar and strong performance here, Mark Rylance isn’t a bankable star and what kid saw Bridge Of Spies anyway? Are Dahl’s edgy fables big in China? Tarzan seems more perilous, despite Alexander Skarsgard’s admirable washboard abs.
BART: I opted to go to the Spielberg movie, which was widely respected at its Cannes premiere but not venerated. The BFG is a meandering movie, heavy on whimsy but light on narrative drive. It won’t create the worshipful following of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but millions of families worldwide will be downright delighted. Tarzan (from Warner Bros) has been shielded from the press until now but the premiere attracted the usual red-carpet mob. Studio publicists would not have been thrilled by the question of one tourist gaping at the celebrity arrivals: “My kids have never heard of Tarzan.” The upshot of last night: the traffic jam was monumental. Will those crowd scenes be replicated this weekend?
FLEMING: I remember when Spielberg launched E.T. and Gremlins. If BFG had come out back then, I bet he would have built anticipation by keeping the reveal of the giants a secret. But in this day and age, I guess it’s too risky to hold anything back. You have to acknowledge that kids know Finding Dory‘s Pixar predecessor, but probably not Dahl’s classic prose.
BART: I like decisions that are counter-intuitive, even though they’re usually high on risk and low on return. With that in mind I went to see Free State Of Jones last weekend, wading past filmgoers paying to see Independence Day, Finding Dory and two other new films. I’d heard Free State was a damn good movie from the talented Gary Ross; and it seemed provocatively counter-intuitive on many levels. Bottom line: It met my expectations, but its release attempted to break every rule in the book. It’s a somber Civil War drama released at a frivolous time of year. It’s relentlessly (perhaps pedantically) true to historical fact, defying rules of dramaturgy. Its “sell” is star-driven (Matthew McConoughey is in nearly every scene) at a time when the gurus tell us stars don’t matter. It’s a slavery movie built around a white star and a white director at a moment when diversity has become a battle cry. While most summer pictures deliver a cosmic fight in their third acts, Free State unfurls a blur of history told in disconnected scenes and lengthy scrolls.
FLEMING: It’s not wholly a slave movie; much of it is about post-Civil War reconstruction. In that regard, it’s a worthy follow to Lincoln. In case you thought the 16th president solved slavery and racism by crushing the South, you saw how political corruption and the KKK threatened to undermine Lincoln’s victory. You can look at all the true history, the research that writer-director Gary Ross did on Newton Knight, on a website he created. He annotated the picture, scene by scene. He told me he did this because it seemed a natural extension of all the years of research he put in; it’s a novel idea that other fact-based films might consider before they get picked apart during awards season. After seeing the film, I wondered if too much adherence to facts holds back the potency of narrative storytelling in historical biopics meant to entertain as much as inform. People quibble about the veracity of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace and Scotland in Braveheart, but that movie won Best Picture and is one for the ages. I think Ross got a bit bogged down, sticking so closely to history, and in illustrating such a huge chunk of Knight’s life. That balance between how much life to include, and how much liberty one can take in storytelling will continue to be an issue in the fall, when films like Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation and Jeff Nichols’ Loving come out during Oscar season. That’s where Free State Of Jones belonged, not on the weekend preceding July 4.
BART: I admired the movie but I remember reading a quote from Adam Fogelson, president of STX, suggesting that 75% of a film’s success stemmed from marketing and marketability. I think this is a wise assessment but, on my counter-intuitive scale, I think Free State may not have created a solid slate. Staying with the topic of star-driven movies, summer ’16 is proving to be a quirky year. Dwayne Johnson may be commanding imposing advances for his future action films, and no one is worrying about the 401(k) of Downey and DiCaprio, but some of their colleagues in the superstar fraternity have had a challenging year. The Nice Guys, teaming Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, struggled to get past $34 million last time I looked. Money Monster, starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, was stuck around $40 million. By contrast, Me Before You, starring relative unknowns Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin, has substantially outpaced them at the box office, and is also is performing well overseas. “Do Stars Matter?” asked a headline in the Los Angeles Times last week. Of course they do: They have talent. But their agents may also be facing tougher negotiations.
FLEMING: The examples you just mentioned do disturb me, because I enjoyed both Money Monster and The Nice Guys. I love these kinds of movies. When I spoke with her before her movie premiered in Cannes, Money Monster director Jodie Foster felt fortunate she was able to make a real New York movie on a shoestring budget, but she lamented that it might be the last of its kind and that movies like this will only exist on streaming services like Netflix, or as pay and basic cable projects. I still hope she’s wrong, but she is a very bright lady and I fear these kinds of movies could go by the wayside. My concern is that not enough people care anymore but it is possible that I am frozen in the past and want to see more Sidney Lumet-like New York movies, and retro politically incorrect dramas that made Shane Black Hollywood’s one-time spec script king.
BART: As if Free State doesn’t have enough problems, the critical reception to the movie raises disturbing questions. Is the subject of slavery effectively “off limits” to white filmmakers? In a long op-ed piece in the New York Times, Charles M. Blow, who is black, criticizes Gary Ross for depicting the McConoughey character as a “white savior” and suggests that the movie gives a “genteel treatment” to the institution of slavery. Specifically, Blow seems irritated by what he calls the “Tarzan narrative” – “a white man who, dropped into a jungle, masters it better than the natives.” Apparently, to meet the approval of the Times’ editorial columnist, it would be the “natives” who master the environment, even though this wasn’t the case in this particular historical incident. Further, any movie on this subject has to deal more aggressively with the subject of “slave rape,” to meet Blow’s approval. The impact of this sort of critique could be daunting for filmmakers: Will films of this genre have to be submitted to a panel to check whether sensibilities might be offended? Is the “black experience” going to be off limits except to black filmmakers?
FLEMING: I remember when Norman Jewison gave up on his Malcolm X movie because of criticism from filmmakers like Spike Lee. Then Spike took over, and I always felt he partially undermined his own Malcolm X biopic by not stopping right after the shattering assassination in Washington Heights. Lee followed with a long documentary-like coda on Malcolm X’s legacy, and for me he dropped a masterpiece into a rabbit hole with an ending that should have been saved for the DVD. This can happen when filmmakers get too irreverent about their subjects. I think it happened to Ross a little bit, but I don’t think Ross has to apologize for the color of his skin here. I’m glad Nate Parker will redefine himself as a formidable director after struggling to make The Birth Of A Nation, and that Steve McQueen made the Best Picture winner 12 Years A Slave and John Ridley won the Oscar for adapting it. But Ross, too, struggled for a decade or more to get his movie made. It’s too easy for an armchair critic, unaware of Ross’ effort — he dropped out of The Hunger Games sequel partly to focus on this less commercial picture — to discount a writer-director’s struggle, and marginalize a movie like Free State Of Jones based on a filmmaker’s skin color. I think it’s unfair. In all likelihood, Knight’s story, which framed a worthy exploration of post-Civil War racism and corruption I hadn’t considered, would have remained the domain of dusty history books. For that reason I wish more people had gone to see it. Lincoln’s triumphant slave liberation would have been Hollywood’s last word on the subject, serving up a happy ending that was an illusion that the North’s victory solved all problems. It created new ones that were pretty horrible, and the illustration of that was a primary reason Ross felt so passionate about making Free State Of Jones. Ross will next make a female-centric Ocean’s Eleven caper pic, in cahoots with Steven Soderbergh. The picture will star Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth Banks, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter and there is talk that Emma Stone and Wanda Sykes might join in. Should Ross disqualify himself because of his gender?