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 week the indie crowd undergoes its annual mood swing: Disdainful of the summer movies, they exult in almost everything they see at Telluride. And more goodies await at Toronto. So was Hollywood’s summer really such a letdown? Summer movies are about commerce, and box office returns were down a mere 0.52%, a pretty good bottom line considering the major flops. Suicide Squad to me was the metaphor for summer. It’s heading for $650 million worldwide — it is a damn good return for a pedestrian superhero movie, which at times played like a cynical trailer for future DC product. It may even break even some day.
But the indie side of the business has little to crow over. The release of the summer’s best indie movie, Hell Or High Water, was uniquely inept: It finally went wide over Labor Day weekend, the slowest weekend of the season. The critics raved about The Lobster, a pretentious satire in which humans are turned into animals of their choice. It tanked. And then there’s the inert weepie titled The Light Between Oceans, which wastes the talents of Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender. This is a period piece (1919) about a lonely lighthouse keeper and his wife who are desperate for a baby until, yes, a row boat with a baby rolls ashore. Vikander cries a lot and Fassbender broods. Here’s the skinny on Light, however: DreamWorks delivered it to Disney as part of its vaunted distribution deal. Disney executives promptly regurgitated, declining to release the movie and also scrambling out from under its overall DreamWorks deal. So DreamWorks product is now released by Universal along with a pledge that there won’t be any more movies like Light. The irony: Disney still got stuck with The BFG, the Spielberg project it most wanted, which has yet to reach $60 million U.S.
FLEMING: I think we are meditating on what worked and what didn’t this summer, so it’s odd that you are focusing on the smallest movies in the bunch. But since you brought up Hell Or High Water, I have to disagree with your assessment. CBS Films and Lionsgate surfed the platform wave in an enviable way on this picture. The film started on 32 screens and has broadened into the top art house movie of the season. Its gross is now $16.5 million, and it will pass Eye In The Sky‘s $18.7 million to become the top limited-release pic of the year, and then it’s expected to pass The Witch and become the biggest art house release of the year. It is also poised for awards consideration as its slow roll stretches into the fall season. Now, you’d expect a movie with a 98% Rotten Tomatoes critical ranking to thrive, but you and I have seen plenty of worthy prestige films disappear without a trace. As for the big summer films, I have read all these sky-is-falling stories. As long as we’re armchair quarterbacking, allow me to blow hard here. You cited stats about the business being down a little, but how could it not be when summer 2015 powered an all-time record year for Hollywood, helped by summer sleepers like Straight Outta Compton? The problem this summer was 14 sequels, many of which did little but revive story lines and didn’t feel fresh enough. The first Independence Day, with the visual of the spaceship over the White House, made you feel you had to see the film. The sequel felt like a 20-year-old rehash with no Will Smith. My impression: studios have to take it to heart that moviegoing isn’t a natural part of the weekly routine of young people anymore, not when they have so many other options at their fingertips in the digital age. Last weekend, my wife and I intended to see The Light Between Oceans, until we realized a whole second season of Narcos just landed on Netflix. We stayed home with a bottle of wine and Pablo Escobar. We were not disappointed.
This places a greater burden on movie makers to find seams with movies that hit pockets of moviegoers. I thought Ghostbusters was pretty funny, and don’t really understand the haranguing of loyalists. After all, Bill Murray was never going to do the other film Sony wanted him to, the one where he turns into a ghost and carries the movie as an apparition. In hindsight, though, wouldn’t it have been a better idea to have let Paul Feig off the PG-13 chain? We’ve seen what he has done, armed with an R-rating and his terrific actress casts, in Spy and Bridesmaids. Instead of making an overpriced appeal to four quadrants — and finding that the male audience for Ghostbusters wasn’t going to turn out for this femme-centric version — wouldn’t it have been better to make a balls-out, bawdy, R-rated romp that delivered laughs you only find in R-rated films? The studio is now trying to recover with an animated movie, but here was a squandered chance to build momentum for a franchise universe that hits different demos. Sony had another Ghostbusters iteration with the Russo Brothers, scribe Drew Pearce and Channing Tatum, and that could have complemented the R-rated Feig film and the animated picture. Instead, you had an overpriced movie that didn’t draw nearly enough to feel like anything other than a missed opportunity.
Then there was Suicide Squad, which I liked, but which also would have benefited in being an R-rated film. Because once Deadpool came out of nowhere to gross $782 million, there was no way Suicide Squad could avoid being measured against it. That anarchy seemed to be what Warner Bros was promising with its strong marketing campaign, but fans railed against the movie when that promise wasn’t delivered. But the studio made out just fine with a $678 million global gross. On the positive side, you had Bad Moms, which found a seam with women who found an irreverent fun night away from whiny kids, spouses and bosses with a movie perfectly designed for them. The genre thriller Don’t Breathe and the audacious animated Sausage Party also found seams. Unless you are making those animated movies that hit big this summer — serving the only reliable movie audience of parents who want to take their kids out for a reasonably priced entertainment experience — you can’t just assume audiences will turn up. Why not pause and ask, why would audiences take the trouble to come to the movies to see this? You mentioned The BFG. My kids loved the Roald Dahl books and so did I. But you were asking parents to take their kids to a movie where the adorable star spends the entire picture being hunted by ugly giants who want to eat her. Who’s going to take their kid aged 3-8 for that ride, knowing the nightmares that await for the next week? There were exceptions, like the highly entertaining Captain America: Civil War, but I think some of these movies’ tentpole plays were dulled creatively by studios trying to reach the widest possible global audiences. It’s clear audiences want something different, with enough familiarity to be able to identify and feel the movie was made for them.
BART: So was it a bad summer? The critics hated two of the best written movies of summer, Bad Moms and War Dogs. Both films, to be sure, were both disturbing and vulgar. The Telluride crowd, by contrast, found its comfort food in Sully – old reliable Clint Eastwood delivering a feel-good picture starring old reliable Tom Hanks as the stalwart hero. The audience testified that it felt good to feel good, especially amid the frenzied expectations of a film festival.
FLEMING: Telluride seems a nice place to show films — the accompanying photo shows how overstressed industry titans can drop their guard — but it doesn’t portend all that much. Sully will have its work cut out for it, despite another prestige performance by Tom Hanks as the hero pilot. A moment on The Light Between Oceans, which I do hope to see if it’s around when I return from Toronto. Because I like Vikander and Fassbender, and Rachel Weisz. But a lot of the difference between success and failure seems to be scheduling. I recall the movie was finished long ago and could have been platformed as an Oscar picture late last year. There was no rush because Vikander had The Danish Girl and Fassbender had Steve Jobs. She won an Oscar and he got nominated, so it worked OK for the actors. The casualty is The Light Between Oceans. It didn’t have the critical scores of Hell Or High Water, so where else are you going to slot that picture, other than a lackluster Labor Day weekend?