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: The story quietly crept onto the bottom of the business pages, but its impact could be formidable: China’s richest man Wang Jianlin will make a big investment in Sony with the provision — per the Wall Street Journal — that Sony’s movies “highlight the China element” in its films. Now, I’m glad the Japanese company now has a big investor from China, but the deal underscores that question you and I, Mike, have worried about before: Are more and more Hollywood pictures being made for overseas filmgoers, not Americans? Would a studio like the “new Sony” have any interest in helping to fund a film whose audience would be principally domestic? I remember when Peter Guber took over as CEO of Sony years ago, his Japanese bosses told him sternly to make only hits – don’t make those other movies that aren’t instant hits. Will the new Sony, with its major Chinese clout, only make hits with a “Chinese element”?
FLEMING: We broke that Wanda Sony story last week, and my understanding of this is different than the one you just expressed. On certain Sony films that have global aspirations, Wanda will provide between 10%-15% of funding, on films like Passengers, Jumanji, Smurfs and Barbie. On others, like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wanda won’t be part of the financing mix, but will be engaged to use its marketing might to get all of those pictures launched in China through its infrastructure that includes ticketing platforms (many Chinese consumers buy movie tickets online, where certain films are pushed over others), entertainment plazas and theme parks, and of course the 18% or so theaters in China that Wanda controls. Sony has been trying to crack China for a while, as Tom Rothman remakes the film operations to be more global-minded. I don’t think this is the brainwashing you sort of make it out to be; it seems more a way to establish better footing into the Chinese marketplace and Wanda showed what can happen when it gets behind a movie, with Warcraft.
BART: The Dalian Wanda conglomerate already owns the AMC Theater Chain and has agreed to buy Carmike, so it could become the biggest theater owner in the U.S. Rothman, the Sony chairman, heralded the Wanda deal as “a huge boost to connect with its audience.” To which I ask, whose audience? Sony’s co-productions with Wanda will have to be partly made in China and at least a third of its leading actors will have to be Chinese. Wanda already is co-producing The Great Wall with Legendary Pictures, a $150 million epic that stars Matt Damon as a European mercenary in medieval China.
FLEMING: I understand your caution here, and if an entity backed by the Russian government was doing what Wanda is, there would be a lot more skepticism. You can bet the government will scrutinize all this, because it is such a magnet for headlines and attention for these politicians. It feels like these moves come down to the nature of these conglomerate-owned movie studios, where it is all about using Other People’s Money. I appreciate the skepticism Hollywood would be less inclined to make a movie about struggles in Tibet, and that there will be no picture called Tiananmen Square! But studios aren’t making those movies anyway. Look at the Best Picture roster last year and most every year. Spotlight, Room, The Revenant, all financed from independent sources. Oliver Stone told me how disappointed he was when no studio would make Snowden, anticipating political troubles from domestic and foreign distribution partners and governments. Polemics live in the independent space now. Studios are for taking big swings on superhero movies, and then scouring far and wide to cushion the risk. Even that example of The Great Wall that you provided has to come with an asterisk: It looks from the trailer like Matt Damon is fighting monsters that look like they escaped from Jurassic Park.
You and I have been around the block long enough to remember the same skepticism and concern when Sony bought Columbia Pictures and Matsushita paid $6.5 billion for MCA and Universal Pictures. We were at Weekly Variety then, and didn’t we do a front-page banner headline written in Japanese? There was the same skepticism when Giancarlo Parretti out of Italy bought MGM. And then there was India-based Reliance became the principal financier of Steven Spielberg’s films and staked other A-list talent in development deals. There have been others but what happened most times is that rather than outside countries changing Hollywood, they ended up retreating with lighter wallets. These savvy Hollywood dealmakers with their distribution fees and accounting methods fleeced many of these outside investors. I don’t think Reliance got a single movie out of all those production deals they funded with the biggest talent in the business and DreamWorks was a mixed bag. Sony is still in the game, but remember that $2.7 billion write-down in 1995? Feels like there have been more of those. You have to follow the history here. Hollywood is always looking for new money, but Hollywood is like the casino owner; the odds always favor the house. The only thing that changes is the type of currency that is coming in.
BART: Next topic. I have never understood why studios are hung up on remakes, and the events of this week underscored my doubts. To me, The Magnificent Seven plays like what it is — a pedestrian remake of a remake. Another remake, Blair Witch, was dead on arrival. And MGM acknowledges that its remake of Ben-Hur could spell a $100 million write-off. To cap it all, Relativity announced this week its intention to remake (re-ruin?) another classic, High Noon.
FLEMING: I got what I wanted from watching Magnificent Seven, an opportunity to see Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt strap on the six guns and, along with their colorful co-stars, take on an army of sneering bad guys. Many of those Westerns were simple good guy-bad guy tales, and those Clint Eastwood movies still hold up despite the simplicity. The original Blair Witch Project, arguably the most profitable film of all time, birthed the found-footage genre pic but it was an anomaly, and if you watched that movie now, all you’d get is a frightful headache from the camera work. Making another was just a bad idea. I didn’t see the new Ben-Hur, but it seemed like a case of crossed wires. MGM, which ran production, played up the parallel storyline involving Jesus Christ. Paramount didn’t seem to get that memo, because there was minimal awareness in the mainstream and within the faith-based crowd that also didn’t show up.
BART: Study the list of major hits over the decades, and you find that almost all represent a fortunate convergence of the right story, the right director and the right cast at the perfect moment in time. It would be lunacy to remake Casablanca without Bogart drinking quietly amid the worldwide tensions of 1942. D.W. Griffith unfurled the initial Birth Of A Nation in 1915 to good reviews and a positive White House screening despite its blatantly racist overtones. A few years later he would have been blasted off the screen. According to one survey, only one-fifth of the sequels or remakes released last summer grossed as much as, or more than, their original versions. The original Ghostbusters was a perfect fit for its moment in time, but not this year’s remake. I occasionally welcome the gimmick of switching roles in remakes, but I don’t want to see the characters reversed in the remake of Splash.
FLEMING: I don’t think “remake” is a bad word, but they are execution dependent. When an exalted play like August Wilson’s Fences is revived on Broadway, with Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Scott Rudin, it is a rapturous occasion among the stage crowd. Same with Death Of A Salesman when Rudin did that with Mike Nichols, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield. Why can’t the movie crowd see remakes as anything but a betrayal and a lack of imagination? I just saw the first trailer of the movie version of Fences that Denzel Washington directed, and stars in with Viola Davis. It looks terrific. It reminded me how that actress really had no movie career, and was a stage actress when Washington put her in Antwone Fisher as the drug-addicted mother who abandoned the title character. When he finally turned his life around and confronted her to find out why, Davis barely said a word in playing the scene. But she nonetheless conveyed shame, regret, anger and sorrow just by sitting there, and you just knew she was going to go on and have a movie career. I saw her in the revival and she was terrific. But since Denzel Washington has directed a movie that is essentially based on a play that was a revival of an earlier play, should I be less excited? After seeing the trailer, I understand why some figure that Fences will be firmly in the Best Picture mix. Going beyond that, the first Scarface remake was a cult classic, with Al Pacino as the Cuban immigrant caught up in the cocaine-fueled excesses of 1980s Miami. Magnificent Seven director Antoine Fuqua will make as his next film another Scarface. This time, Tony hails from the world of the Mexican drug cartels. I’m in.
BART: To return to Magnificent Seven, I liked Denzel as the lead; he’s always great, swathed ominously in black like Yul Brynner in the 1960 version. I don’t have the vaguest who played the role in the Akira Kurosawa versions or in the CBS television iteration; Lou Ferrigno starred in The Seven Magnificent Gladiators in 1983. Sure, they were all magnificent. But how about some fresh ideas, guys? Next topic: studio executives seem to be on the endangered species list, Mike, and this column has been keeping tabs of the fallout. The latest casualty, Rob Moore, is an especially interesting case in point. Originally a finance guy toiling at Disney, Moore became a movie maven in 2000. Moore, 53, has been vice chairman at Paramount for over a decade where he has presided over distribution, marketing and virtually everything else. Before that he held a similar post at the disaster-prone Revolution Studios, under Joe Roth.
FLEMING: Moore found himself on the outs because he backed the 49% minority stake sale of Paramount to Wanda. He thought it would lead to a massive infusion of capital that could have fueled a turnaround for the studio. Wanda wasn’t looking for editorial controls, it was just looking for a place to put a lot of money. Paramount hasn’t made nearly enough movies, and while Philippe Dauman was spending so much money buying back shares that are worth half they were when he repurchased them, Paramount watched Marvel and DreamWorks Animation walk away, and had that divorce with DreamWorks. Interim chief Thomas Dooley liked Moore, but when he left, it became about loyalty to Sumner. Since Moore pushed for Dauman’s Paramount proposal, his goose was cooked.
BART: Moore has always stood out among his confreres. Over the years, top distribution executives have tended to be of a certain cast – a close fraternity of mostly ethnic characters who talk the same language and toss around the same data. Moore, a devout Christian, had his own style; I’ve always found him press-friendly and congenial, but here’s the rub: Between his tours at Paramount and Revolution he has managed to preside over the distribution of an absolutely terrible list of movies. Sure, Paramount made Transformers and some Mission Impossibles, but by and large he has been extraordinarily unlucky in his projects – Teenage Mutant Turtles, Zoolander 2, etc. And he goes out holding the candle for Ben-Hur, this week’s woeful Goat, and a mysteriously delayed Monster Trucks. No one has seen that mystery film and the studio won’t talk about it, but Viacom already has announced a $115 million “impairment charge” on the film. Was it that “impaired”? Now, I’m not blaming these flops on Rob Moore. But I wonder, how did he last that long? And, given all the bumps in his distribution career, will he hopefully sign up for another line of work – both for his good and for the good of the industry?
FLEMING: Don’t forget Paramount let go of the Twilight Saga novels, which built Summit Entertainment. These decisions are easy to criticize later, but hard when they are happening. You wonder where Brad Grey fits in this equation, since he and Moore presided over Paramount together. There were published rumors that Jim Gianopulos might take the Moore job, but I think they are not true; he’d only take the top Viacom job. As for replacements for Moore, Rob Friedman is now on the market, after his Summit/Lionsgate exit. It is going to be very interesting to watch the next moves made by Shari Redstone.