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: This is the moment when all the top stars are feverishly pitching their summer blockbusters on the talk-show circuit. It’s a stressful exercise: Every shoot has to be flawless, every director inspired. Adding stress this summer is the fact that many critics already seem to be playing favorites. They favor the talking animals over the actors.
Consider the excellent critter dialogue in The Secret Life Of Pets, Finding Dory, The Jungle Book, The Angry Birds Movie, Zootopia, King Fu Panda 3 and so on. The performance of Max the Dog in Pets is arguably more profoundly empathetic than Matt Damon’s in the new Jason Bourne. He’s voiced by Louis C.K. I liked the snake voiced by Scarlett Johansson in Jungle Book – she was more fun than Scarlett’s live-action Lucy. Besides, stars seem more relaxed and amusing in their talk-show pitches when they’re promoting anthropomorphical animal performances. Until now, five of the top 10 grossing movies have featured talking animals, so there’s a reason to be cheerful.
FLEMING: Animated films have certainly dominated the summer, to the point where, I wonder, would a cartoon adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG have fared much better than the VFX-heavy feature that failed at the box office despite the pedigree of director Steven Spielberg and reigning Oscar winner Mark Rylance? All the animated movies you mentioned were slam-dunk options for families with children. But maybe BFG‘s premise — lovable giant kidnaps sassy adorable orphan, who spends the whole picture running from a gnarly bunch of behemoths who are trying to eat her and other kids — became a feathered fish to adults trying to figure out if their youngsters would be haunted by nightmares. Dahl was an edgy writer; my kids loved his stories, but some we had to stop reading because the imagery was so disturbing. You knew that wasn’t going to happen with the lovable Dory or Pets. It is getting so hard for Hollywood to figure out what franchise fare might work, and the failures have been alarming enough to wonder if the habits of moviegoers have changed forever because of all the other choices offered in this digital age where it becomes harder than ever to create reasons for people to leave their homes. A well-done animated film will always have a built-in audience of parents who want to give their children a thrill.
I spent the last few days seeing Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad and Jason Bourne. I predict a rally coming for live-action summer films here; David Ayer’s Suicide Squad has a lot of the irreverence and fun you saw in Deadpool and didn’t see in Batman V Superman, and it should be a monster hit for Warner Bros; Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond and Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne plugs you right back into why you loved these franchises in the first place, moving each forward in interesting storytelling ways. They should be winners for Paramount Pictures and Universal, respectively.
But the tentpole business will only get harder, going forward, in creating clear-cut reasons why a movie is a better option than the free options available through outlets like Netflix and TV, including the coronations of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the conventions. Then there is the Summer Olympics. Ghostbusters is a funny movie, and it had a harder road than it would have a decade ago; it was weighed down by the “controversy” over whether the primary roles should have been played by women, even though it was the only way that movie was going to get made. Bill Murray wasn’t coming back to rehash the original, and the silence was deafening when Sony kept sending him scripts and got no response from the actor.
This tentpole uncertainty is why there has been such a stampede to collar rights to franchise fare like Pokemon. My sources told me last week that Legendary Pictures is moving toward a deal to acquire that property for live-action treatment. Demand has been powered by that Pokemon Go app that has been so popular it catapulted part-owner Nintendo’s stock up 25%. You hope the fervor for that new iteration of the 30-year pocket monster franchise endures for the time it takes to make and release a picture, but it certainly has captured the fancy of the masses. Also interesting was this recent massive auction won by Legendary, which will pay $3.5 million to Adam McKay to write, and substantially more to direct Bad Blood, a film about embattled Silicon Valley startup blood-testing company Theranos. Jennifer Lawrence is attached to play its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes was just banned for two years from operating a lab because of unsafe practices, and the company’s precipitous fall from a $4.5 billion valuation has made it a cautionary tale. Lawrence’s bankability and McKay’s Oscar-winning success in making another cautionary tale, The Big Short, made Bad Blood a stampede that started with nine offers before Legendary won rights to make a movie in the $40 million-$50 million range. You really need that kind of a hook these days, to rise above all the clutter.
BART: If the critics are admiring the talking animals, they’re having a tougher time critiquing Woody Allen and Café Society. No one wants to knock a Woody Allen movie. It’s just that after watching 46 of them, they’re finding it difficult to find something new to praise. Or to avoid saying that they’ve seen most of the scenes play out in years past. Or that they know most of Woody’s one-liners by heart. When one character in Café Society says, “life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer,” most of us ask ourselves, “in what Woody movie did I hear that before?” None of this is daunting to Woody. He’s casting his 47th even as you read this. And his prospective actors are thinking, “my lines may seem recycled, but I’m going to love delivering them anyway.”
FLEMING: That is another movie that got chewed up by a press narrative that began in Cannes. The narrative was hijacked by a rehash of abuse allegations against the filmmaker that were investigated years ago but never prosecuted. They reared up again, despite a lack of any new evidence. Movie makers and marketers seem to have less control than ever of the narrative in the democratized world of social media.
That includes the upcoming Summer Olympics, where the focus has been less on sports and more on things like the Zika virus, or bacteria-infested sewage in the waterways where marathon swimmers and rowers and triathletes will compete to the high risk of their long-term health. Body parts washed up in the waters in Rio on the beach where the volleyball competitions will be held. Numerous athletes have bailed on the grounds that Brazil is ground zero for the mosquitoes spreading Zika, even as the country’s health experts argue minimal risk because it isn’t high season for these flying virus-spreading bugs. One look at the potential horrors of that virus in newborns is enough to give pause to anyone planning to start a family, whether it’s athletes or broadcasters and media that will be covering what was always viewed as a plum assignment. Add the growing move toward banning Russia from competing because of a doping scandal, and the heightened security in the wake of brazen terrorist activities, and this could be an Olympics where the narrative is about everything but athletic achievement. Whether that is good or bad for ratings remains to be seen.
On another front but related to unwieldy media narratives, it sure seems that after a masterful career crafting the message for a litany of Republican presidents, Fox News chief Roger Ailes risks losing control of the narrative surrounding the sexual harassment allegation charges brought against him by fired Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson. He seemed to have the matter in hand initially with a strong denial by the network, followed by testimonials from Fox News fixtures under his employ, and an appeal to keep the trial out of the public eye by putting it into arbitration. You’ve saw little or no coverage in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, a tabloid that feasted on these kinds of stories when it was David Letterman or 60 Minutes‘ Steve Kroft in the cross hairs. And you saw most Fox News stars except its biggest talking head Bill O’Reilly, who chimed in late, and Megyn Kelly, leap to Ailes’ defense, undoubtedly because O’Reilly settled a $60 million sexual harassment suit against his producer Andrea Mackris a few years ago that makes him a dubious character witness. It seems carefully choreographed, but I wonder if this campaign to bury Carlson has backfired. Brit Hume, for instance, wonders in tweets why Carlson didn’t come forward until she was fired. I don’t know if those testimonials are true that New York Magazine unearthed, but all of the women who said they rebuffed rather crude and overt sexual advances, said their careers suffered or ended, as a result. If this stuff is true, the expectation that any woman would voluntarily speak up is ridiculous because it would have been a career-ender. That prospect is the only power that a serial harasser would hold over a woman. Again, I don’t know Ailes at all or whether any of this is true, but it’s hard to argue that the volume of allegations made against Bill Cosby reached a critical mass that obliterated his reputation, even though none of those allegations have been convincingly proven.
Cosby broke the color barrier on primetime television, something that has been completely obscured because of the litany of tawdry testimonials made against him. If more women come forward with sordid allegations about Ailes, Peter, do you think that he could possibly survive this, even if it’s he-said, she-said Rashomon stuff? After Rupert Murdoch’s sons James and Lachlan shook up its stable film division with the coronation of Stacey Snider at the expense of entrenched chief Jim Gianopulos and other film division heads, they seem unlikely to stand on ceremony. How much patience will they have if more Ailes tales surface in the coming weeks?
BART: I would be wary about making predictions on the fate of Roger Ailes. Fox News is a major profit center and we are entering a period when the revenues are rolling in. Secondly, it’s always impossible to analyze a company that is undergoing generational change. Who knows where the power rests in the Land of Murdoch? I’ve had dinners with Ailes and his wife; it’s great fun to talk about journalism and the media with him, less fun to talk politics. Ailes is a survivor and a showman.
On a lighter note, you interviewed Paul Feig and asked whether, in this world where everyone on social media is waiting to be offended, could a movie like Blazing Saddles even get made? The fact that filmmakers of sequels seem so dependent on recycling comedic ideas and characters from the past would have especially annoyed the great Billy Wilder. It was Wilder who was most defiant practitioner of original and politically incorrect comedy. Who else would have built a comedy around a guilt-free French hooker (Irma La Douce) or elicited laughs from the black-market activities of American soldiers occupying 1946 Berlin in A Foreign Affair? Even The Apartment was a send-up of corporate mores. Wilder’s best work came in the 1940s and ’50s when comedies about adultery and corporate hypocrisy were considered dangerous. That led Wilder once to declare, “the entire movie industry is in intensive care.” Wilder was a brilliant wordsmith, but he encouraged actors to contribute their comedy bits. “You can tell a good actor by looking at his script,” Wilder once told me. “If he’s no good the script will be neat. If he’s talented like, say, a Charles Laughton, his script will be so filthy it looks like a herring has been wrapped in it.”
I was once invited to a meeting with Wilder and Jerry Weintraub when Weintraub was president of UA. He’d begged Wilder to see a new UA comedy that wasn’t working and perhaps fix it. The great filmmaker told Weintraub: “Your movie is a piece of shit. I could tell you how to make it a smaller pile but it would still be shit.” Weintraub wasn’t used to that sort of candor. He thanked Wilder and said he didn’t need his input.
FLEMING: Feig said these trends ebb and flow in movies, and you saw it when superhero pictures were getting too noble and boring and then came irreverent successes like Guardians Of The Galaxy and especially Deadpool, and now Suicide Squad. I don’t think Mel Brooks could get Blazing Saddles made right now, honestly, not with all the N-words and other stereotypes he lampooned. It just doesn’t feel like the right time, and I imagine he’d see it that way, too. We will get to a place eventually where a movie like that will come out of left field, succeed in a big way, and then we’ll see more.
Meanwhile, I get to escape all the madness by heading to San Diego for Comic-Con. Wait, they reinstated the Zombie Walk after the terrible traffic tragedy two years ago, and I always wonder as costumed attendees come with menacing looking fake weapons they dutifully line up to have inspected before they parade them through the convention center. Oh, my.