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: Shari Redstone finally succeeded in dumping Philippe Dauman over the weekend—a bountiful $72 million exit package helped persuade Philippe to go away. But now comes the tough question: Who will be entrusted to bring Viacom back to life? Having myself worked for three of the majors, I can testify that turning around a media empire is as tough as reviving a sports team. The Lakers and the Knicks may still be a generation away from respectability.
FLEMING: Wait, let’s dwell a moment on Dauman before we get to Viacom’s future. Whether it was The Birth Of A Nation’s Nate Parker, or smurf-haired American swimmer Ryan Lochte, or the former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette (who gave $6.6 million on his bin Laden assassination book No Easy Day back to the government), or Dauman, a dizzying number of people have seen their fortunes fall precipitously the past few weeks — but Dauman has the softest landing. Until Deadline revealed in detail the evidence in that rape trial 17 years ago, Parker’s movie seemed a prohibitive favorite for a Best Picture nomination; after all the coverage that followed, who knows? Lochte concocted a porous robbery tale and while his teammate had to pay over $10,000 to return from Brazil, Lochte will lose millions of dollars from drowned sponsor deals. Bissonnette lost a fortune for not properly vetting his book with the government, and when you figure that any bad guy could have claimed the U.S. government’s $25 million reward for diming out the Al Qaeda leader, is it fair that Bissonnette and his SEAL mates not only got nothing, they can’t even brag about it? Then, there is Dauman. What was the hardest part of losing a long power struggle over Viacom? Renting the Brinks truck to cart away $72 million. To most, that’s not a loss, it’s a winning Powerball lottery ticket, especially considering Viacom’s stock dropped 50% over the past two years. Now, this wasn’t as costly as the $130 million severance Mike Ovitz got from Disney after one year in the job, but that is small consolation.
BART: The racial connections of the Nate Parker situation seemed to spill over into the reporting of the exit of Larry Wilmore, who also finds himself in the summer loss column when he lost his slot as Colbert’s replacement on Comedy Central. Pundits have made a big deal about the racial element of Wilmore’s firing, but the fact remains that Wilmore, a black comic, framed much of his show around racial humor. The mainstream audience did not respond to his humor or to his low-energy delivery. Trevor Noah still holds his gig as Jon Stewart’s replacement, but he, too, has lost much of his audience (nearly half). He’s a talented guy, but why would Comedy Central (a Viacom company) chose a comedian who was not born in the U.S. to run a show during the general election and who has little context for political humor?
FLEMING: Wilmore can get another job (I never saw his show). The Nate Parker situation has weighed so heavily on me after Michael Cieply and I revealed this brewing controversy in keeping with Deadline’s industry-oriented editorial mandate, with all the relevant legal details from the 1999 trial (Parker was acquitted, co-story writer Jean Celestin’s sexual assault conviction was overturned on appeal and wasn’t retried) and subsequent civil suit. My heart aches for how difficult the road must have been for this young woman before she killed herself 12 years later, and how powerless and disrespected and harassed she must have felt after being treated in such a loathsome manner that night in 1999. And then there is Parker: after getting out of the Virginia projects and onto a major college campus on a wrestling scholarship, he sat in a courtroom, facing a jail stretch, until a jury found him not guilty. Then, years later, after putting that behind him and remaking his life (the oldest of his five daughters is off to college momentarily), the whole case resurfaces because his potential breakout film is an Oscar contender, and the outrage among women is overwhelming. The Women’s Law Project (we linked to the civil suit they filed against Penn State in the original Deadline story) just issued a statement declaring that “the criminal justice system…free itself of pervasive bias and victim-blaming.” Posters for The Birth Of A Nation with the word “rapist” are visible around Hollywood, and a hostile greeting in Toronto seems likely when Parker introduces his movie next month. This has the potential to become as much a tragedy as anything Shakespeare could have thought up.
BART: Let’s get back to my original points about Viacom. Under Philippe Dauman’s 10-year reign, Viacom’s vulnerabilities have become deep-seated and systemic. But will Shari and her new board prove more adept than Donald Trump in choosing new leadership? The temporary CEO, Tom Dooley, is an amiable numbers cruncher. The apparent new board chairman, Thomas May, is an energy executive.
FLEMING: It sounds like you think someone else will steer the ship going forward. You mentioned Trump and it sure seems like he’ll be available this November.
BART: The list of potential CEOs contains four obvious names. Jim Gianopulos, who was unexpectedly ejected from the House of Murdoch, would bring instant respect and clout to Viacom. At 65, would he want the job? Jeffrey Katzenberg spent last week bidding farewell to his top executives at DreamWorks Animation, who will now work for Comcast. No one doubts Katzenberg’s ability to energize a company, but he is busily setting up a new media empire that will be closely tied to the Silicon Valley. Katzenberg believes that content designed for smart phones will become a major revenue source — five- to 20-minute segments rather than full-length features. Brad Grey, 58, has succeeded at every level of show business, but has he been smothered by working under the Dauman regime?
FLEMING: The weekend failure of Ben-Hur illustrates Paramount’s problem, which has been a lack of a reliable stream of homegrown product. The studio has long been very cautious: Deadline revealed Friday it put the brakes on early pre-production of Mission: Impossible 6 while deal points are still being haggled with Tom Cruise, Bad Robot and Skydance. That movie will happen. To fill its slates, Paramount has relied too heavily on co-production deals (like MGM’s Ben-Hur), and pricey festival acquisitions like the Denis Villenueve-directed The Arrival and the Chris Rock-directed Top Five. The studio just hasn’t found a way to make enough of its own films. They owned DreamWorks, until the divorce, they released Marvel movies until Disney bought that company, and animated films from DWA until they left. You wonder if Paramount’s caution was dictated from above. Also, it’s still unclear if a company like Wanda will buy a piece of the studio.
BART: And then there’s Les. Few doubt the extent of Moonves’ ambitions or challenge his achievements at CBS. But what internal challenges would his ascension pose within the struggling Viacom bureaucracy? Would Moonves, 66, agree to work under the eclectic assemblage that constitutes the new board? What sort of cosmic deal would he command?
FLEMING: The moves made by Viacom didn’t make sense, going back to when they split the company in two pieces. These media conglomerates use their size as ballast, and for leverage. Why cut your film studio off from a major network like CBS, or the ancillary value of Showtime output deals?
BART: On this there is agreement: Viacom has nowhere to go but up. It’s symbolic that Paramount’s big release this weekend is Ben-Hur. Like the movie, Viacom is a wobbly old brand in desperate search of a new idea.
FLEMING: A couple things on your other Viacom candidates. Let’s start with Gianopulos. Watching the Summer Olympics in Rio, I found myself wondering about whether the bacteria-infested waters will cause problems for athletes who ingested them, and the inevitable debt that seems to plague every country that commits exorbitant sums to win hosting rights. I was reminded of a good pre-Olympics column written in my hometown paper, Newsday, by Michael Dobie. Noting all of the corruption, crime, sewage, Zika and the $11 billion burden Brazil will likely spend years trying to absorb, he suggested the IOC establish a permanent home and maintain the permanent facilities. Participating countries could subsidize these venues and bid on the rights to host the opening and closing ceremonies to vamp their countries and cultures. I like this idea. I’ve been to Greece and Russia and have seen the hulking facilities built for past games that now sit dormant and rusting. Why not put the Summer Games in the country where it all began, Greece, and put Gianopulos in charge of the whole thing? He loves the country and his political and entrepreneurial skill sets would be a match for the job. The city of Athens has ancient ruins, and more recent ones — abandoned commercial real estate is all over the place. That city sure could use the boost, every four years.
BART: On the Olympics, I think your proposal is intriguing. But irrespective of the Rio location, I personally found the Olympics demanding for a viewer. The placement and mega-abundance of commercials prevented any emotional involvement.
FLEMING: Also, you mentioned Katzenberg. I don’t know about the short programming you mentioned, or if he would be interested in the Viacom post, but he’s an original thinker. Do you realize it has been 25 years since he wrote that 28-page mission statement on the woes of the movie business while he was at Disney? I re-read it (here is the link) and it is remarkable how thorough it is and also how priorities have shifted at every studio. Katzenberg, who arrived at moribund Disney with Eisner in 1984, wrote his missive at a time when Disney had risen from worst to first. Even though he noted how Robin Williams joked that Disney cast its movies at a discount by waiting for actors to exit Betty Ford, Katzenberg was sure that the fixation on blockbusters and superstars would lead to ruin. This epiphany came after the release of Dick Tracy, which Katzenberg felt cost too much at around $47 million. He espoused a re-dedication to originality, to the “singles and doubles” business, where creative execs came up with big ideas and paid writers $50,000 to $70,000 to draft them, so Disney wouldn’t be at the mercy of agency-driven star packages. Studios now line up to pay fortunes for agency-generated packages, and only want to come to the plate to hit mammoth home runs on sequels and remakes. They would rather take swings so big it corkscrews them into the ground, than go for singles and doubles on challenging films. The list of this summer’s pricey casualties would have left the 1991 Katzenberg spinning in his grave, if he were dead. Now, you could argue with Katzenberg’s solution — that Disney hits could come from Andy Vajna’s Cinergi and incoming producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (unless Katzenberg was so prescient he could see Pirates Of The Caribbean on the distant horizon), but the memo is memorable. It’s a piece of Hollywood history, right down to the first CC’d exec (after chairman Michael Eisner), Frank Wells. Wells’ death in that tragic plane crash set off a chain reaction that led to Katzenberg’s exit to start DreamWorks (along with a $270 million lawsuit settlement) and the hiring of Ovitz (and $130 million more in exit fees). Here is a snippet of Katzenberg’s bluntness:
“As profitable as it was” Katzenberg wrote, “Dick Tracy made demands on our time, talent and treasury that, upon reflection, may not have been worth it. The number of hours it required, the amount of anxiety it generated and the amount of dollars that needed to be expended were disproportionate to the amount of success achieved. As a company trying to bring to market 25 to 30 films a year, we simply can’t afford to indulge in the blockbuster mentality, even as a sidelight, even as a hobby. Even if one accepts the homerun approach to moviemaking as valid, consider what it does to the other films on the agenda — the singles and doubles. When there is so much at stake with the $40-60 million films, an inordinate amount of time must be lavished on them in an effort to protect the massive investment. But, with a finite number of development, production, distribution and marketing people, this time has to come from somewhere else and inevitably must come from the less costly projects.
The result is a few mega-budget projects that have to do well and a bunch of smaller projects whose full potential may be jeopardized because the big projects drained away the executive attention the smaller ones needed and deserved. That is why, when Warren Beatty comes to us to pitch his next movie — a big period action film, costing $40 million with huge talent participation, directed by the man who is arguably the most brilliant filmmaker today at making movies that are successful commercially and artistically, owned and controlled by Beatty and Levinson — we must hear what they have to say, allow ourselves to get very excited over what will likely be a spectacular film event, then slap ourselves a few times, throw cold water on our faces and soberly conclude that it’s not a project we should choose to get involved in.”
I don’t think any top executive in Hollywood today would have the balls to put those words to paper — Dick Tracy star-director Warren Beatty was infuriated by the memo — especially after the leak of the Sony emails. But you have to admire Katzenberg’s willingness to tear the system down to the ground, even in success.
BART: The irony is that Warren Beatty’s long-delayed next movie, to be released this fall, is by definition a “double” — a mid-budget film that defies genre. Beatty plays Howard Hughes in the movie and also directs. The film was financed principally by Steve Bing, Brett Ratner’s Ratpac and Arnon Milchan, all of whom may ultimately end up longing for the day when Beatty was making blockbusters with big stars like Reds. Next topic. You’ve occasionally accused me of being hyper-critical of worthy movies, Mike, so let me rise in defense this week of an intriguing new film that’s being trampled upon. War Dogs is a brilliant if bizarre satiric glimpse of the global arms trade – a truly off-beat topic. It traces the true story of two young con men (played by Jonah Hill and Miles Teller) who make millions in buying and selling military weaponry. The story is based on a book by Guy Lawson.
FLEMING: I saw it. This was The Hangover’s Todd Phillips evolving from broad comedy to edgy political satire the way that Adam McKay did with The Big Short and Austin Powers’ Jay Roach did with Recount and the Sarah Palin pic Game Change. War Dogs is an exceptional movie with two wonderful performances by Teller and Hill, the latter of whom just keeps surprising. It is the kind of film that Katzenberg was talking about — original, well executed idea with performances by fine actors who aren’t the biggest names. I am disappointed it didn’t get a better reaction, so far.
BART: War Dogs has not met a warm reception. The critics tend to review directors, not their individual work, so they discount War Dogs because it was shot by Phillips, who made millions from The Hangover series. Now, it’s true Phillips compromised his film’s credibility by turning it into a buddy movie, but it’s a funny buddy movie.
FLEMING: It’s the opposite of a buddy movie. Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours are prototypical buddy movies, where mismatched partners build grudging respect. Hill’s character is so dark, War Dogs is the opposite of a buddy movie.
BART: Then comes the distributor, Warner Bros: That studio clearly doesn’t want to market anything except superhero films. There were zero print ads in the major newspapers for the movie and a minimal campaign. I paid to see the movie –I never heard of a screening. War Dogs deserved better. On one level, it’s a hipster political satire that takes some delicious shots at the military, Dick Cheney and the conduct of the Iraq and Afghan wars. Why shouldn’t the director of The Hangover movies get respect for portraying our military hangovers?