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 recently spent time immersed in meeting agents, and then took in Comic-Con in San Diego. Talk about a dichotomy. I started with the dealmakers, trying to get a feel for the movie business. Summer brings an inevitable slowdown anyway, but it seems downright depressing out there. It is harder than ever for studios to predict what’s going to be a hit — one sequel after another is doing less business than the previous film it cost more than – and it has made picture pickers incredibly wary. That is reflected in the glacial pace at which deals are moving, and in how several movies with casts disappeared this summer, agents told me.
Three were mentioned. There was The Something, a Rodney Rothman-directed film at Universal that had Seth Rogen, Zach Galifianakis and Bill Hader ready to star, until, agents told me, the brakes got pumped. Or the New Line comedy Paternity Leave that had Adam Devine and Jake Lacy set as slackers who pose as new dads to get time off work; or MGM’s The Set Up, which had Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke and Glen Powell in a Claire Scanlon-directed comedy about workers who set up their abusive bosses for a romance. Maybe these pictures shoot down the line, but it is unusual. Even the big tent poles are fraught with uncertainty; they keep news about Star Wars locked up like Fort Knox, but I heard on those Rogue One re-shoots, it was Tony Gilroy behind the camera and not Gareth Edwards. When I saw Suicide Squad two weeks ago, I don’t recall The Flash being in it; though maybe he’s so fast I missed him. He was reportedly a last minute addition who’ll be seen when the film opens Friday.
BART: Don’t you think all this is inevitable in this environment? Every project carries more financial weight. Every decision involves more levels of bureaucratic input. Vastly more projects are co-financed, so the number of decision-makers increases. But the same issues exist in television, exacerbated by regime change. It’s fine to talk about the golden age of television, but it’s a very nervous golden age. Look at the new decision-making tier at HBO as an example, with all the programming changes that entails. I think this is a moment when creatives have to keep a substantial inventory of projects under their belt, in the firm expectation that anything can happen. And likely will.
The basic reality of deal-making is that every project needs a champion—a dogged advocate who keeps plugging away on a movie until it becomes reality. This is especially true at a time like the present when the decision-making process is hopelessly constipated. But here’s the problem: Champions, too, are in rare supply. You’ve been talking to agents about this issue, Mike, but I’ve been talking with directors and writers and they see things differently. They (and I) recall the era when agents usually took the lead in championing projects, shuffling elements and pitches until a buyer was found. It was once dangerous to get in the way of Sue Mengers or Stan Kamen if they wanted to get a project made. Talk with creatives today, however, and many will tell you that agents rarely fill that role any more. They’re too busy building brands and businesses. Some producers yearn (and qualify) to play the ‘champions’ role but studios have marginalized their role in the dealmaking hierarchy.
Which bring us to managers: With a growing number of projects, it’s the new cadre of managers who are leading the charge for creatives. They are banging on the doors of financiers and distributors, and are also demanding producer credit and a bigger piece of the action. There was a time when I resented the incursion of the manager, but today it’s clear we need their energy and their unrelenting zeal to get the process rolling again. I date back to an era when the majors would release 30 or 40 movies a year and there was fierce pressure on executives to get them off the ground. Today each decision seems like a melodrama of committee meetings, research surveys and executive intrigue. Each movie has to be a potential franchise, a self-sustaining brand. That’s why champions are needed – and why they are on the endangered species list.
FLEMING: Managers can certainly be catalysts to get projects made, but I think you’ve got it wrong here, Peter. Unless you come with financing like a Megan Ellison or Black Bear’s Teddy Schwarzman, you still need someone to say yes before anything happens. That brings me to Comic-Con and Luc Besson. He showed the first footage from Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets, the $180 million dream project franchise play on which he has gambled his EuropaCorp company. Comic-Con, with its panels of forthcoming tent poles, is always about hope and hype. This time, it was a nice antidote to the depressing movie business tales I heard in Hollywood. I attended Hall H presentations by Warner Bros with their DC superhero offerings, and Marvel’s always impressive panels. They paraded the best and brightest filmmaking talent along with casts, and it was hard not to be drawn in by the trippy footage showing Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, or feel that Marvel’s influence on Tom Holland and Spider-Man might be result in the best iteration of that franchise so far. A scene from the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel featuring The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker and Baby Groot was hilarious (that small tree will move merchandise), as was the panel that featured all the stars and villains. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler also promised the goods, even though he doesn’t start shooting till January.
DC brought out its lineup of heavy hitter filmmakers including Aquaman director James Wan, Wonder Woman helmer Patty Jenkins and Ben Affleck, who will direct the new Batman films, and David Ayer. I’d already seen Suicide Squad for a Comic-Con interview with Ayer and think Warner Bros and DC have taken a big leap forward here imprinting their style, by injecting the fun and unpredictability missing from Batman V Superman. But of course, who knows how good these will be until they reach theaters and get picked up apart by the cynical audiences awaiting them? Suicide Squad looks like a smash, to me and there was very strong reception for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Many women of all sizes (and some men) came dressed as the heroine and the movie seems like it’s arriving at the right time.
There were two very interesting first timers to Hall H who intrigued me. One was Besson, whose Valerian footage looked like real world creation stuff, reminiscent of but far more fully developed than The Fifth Element. His leads, Cara Delevingne and Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan, were offbeat but they popped on the screen. Even Rihanna showed up. Besson told Hall H how he once thought he was ready to make his dream project, until he saw Avatar and threw his script in the trash because it wasn’t bold enough. He said he hopes to push Cameron with this effort, likening it to running neck and neck in a race against Usain Bolt. You don’t expect to win, but you want the guy in front of you to feel your hot breath on his neck as you round the final turn. Based on what I saw, Besson might give Cameron a run for his money. The Valerian footage was one of the most impressive things I saw in San Diego.
The other filmmaker who lost his Hall H virginity was Oliver Stone, to introduce Snowden. While Edward Snowden is certainly connected to Comic-Con enthusiasts in demo and the hi-tech that now dominates the world, it was inventive for Open Road to bring it and try to stake the Comic-Con contingent in a movie that usually premieres at a fall festival. Instead it played in a private screening.
BART: Since you got an early look at Snowden, how do you feel the character per se will be received by audiences? In The Fifth Estate, Julian Assange emerged as a nasty egocentric cyber-sleuth. Now some speculate that the leaks of Democratic Party emails may stem from him, not the Russians alone. Will the character of Snowden be damaged by this veil of controversy? He now lives in Russia while Assange is still semi-imprisoned in an embassy in London. Will audiences empathize with a figure like Snowden or will they feel that they are undermining our institutions as well as, potentially, the Democratic candidate?
FLEMING: I can’t tell you how Snowden will be received, but I liked it a lot. Stone, who appeared on the panel with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, made a movie that lets the audience decide whether Snowden is admirable or a turncoat for his intelligence breach. Even at Comic-Con, the director seemed to be still figuring it out. When Stone and his stars were asked to raise their hands if they felt Snowden was a patriot, three hands shot up quickly. None did when asked if Snowden was a traitor. When the panelists were asked if Snowden was a hero, the actors raised their hands immediately. Stone finally did, but only after vacillating. Stone’s movie leaves it an open question, but humanizes Snowden. Assange came off like a slippery narcissist in The Fifth Estate; Snowden is more likeable. He is perhaps better compared to someone like Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers; Snowden too sacrificed everything for his moral principles. It’s interesting that both Steven Soderbergh and Netflix are working on movies about the Panama Papers, which divulged secrets about corruption among the rich and powerful. That seems a less perilous narrative track than Snowden or other whistleblower films because you’ve got clear protagonists. There is a big difference between Snowden and Ellsberg: the latter helped end the Vietnam War by exposing its futility, and Ellsberg stayed to face the music, fully expecting to go to jail. Snowden left and ended up in Russia. Could he not have found another way to expose the lengths of government surveillance? He doesn’t really shed his turncoat reputation with me, but the movie makes for interesting discussion.
BART: Snowden lately has been critical of Assange for not redacting ‘sensitive’ defense information from his WikiLeaks. Snowden is trying to appear more responsible — or cautious. Next topic. So what will life be like at Fox News in the post-Ailes epoch? With Rupert Murdoch hanging around, it will be a lot more austere. At 85, Rupert still sends out signals of hard work and high purpose. Fox News has always seemed like a ‘boys club” (I have had several meetings there). That will change. I was at a studio once during a harassment suit (not involving me) and the weeks after were stressful. Everyone felt under scrutiny. That will surely be the case at the House of Ailes. Politically, however, the atmosphere at Fox News likely will stay the same. Rupert’s ideology, as reflected in the Wall St. Journal editorials, are Trump-ish. But he’s alarmed over issues like immigration and trade. Will the supposedly more moderate views of Rupert’s sons ever tamp down the Ailes-Trump rhetoric that has managed to split the Republican Party? That may be a long wait.
FLEMING: If Ailes’ scandalous exit puts us one step closer to a media world where women can rise by their smarts and ambition, and not have to suffer the kinds of testimonials detailed by New York magazine, behavior attributed to Ailes, bravo. As for the Fox boys club culture, snap out of it, guys. Mad Men was a period show. There has to be zero tolerance for this nonsense.