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: Talk about a difficult birth; I can’t recall one as troubled as that of The Birth Of A Nation. Nine months after the standing ovations at Sundance, the major critics delivered mixed reviews, leading to a soft $7 million opening. The headline-from-hell atop the New York Times review said Birth marks “a collision of Must-See and Won’t-See” while the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan said the film was long on conviction but short on “the grace of art.” And while the film scored a 77% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, critics’ comments were respectful but concerned about its polemics.
FLEMING: That movie received more rapturous praise at Sundance than any film I can remember since sex lies & videotape. After paying the record minimum guarantee, Fox Searchlight put money into Birth‘s postproduction, and marketing, to make it even more powerful. So clearly, the reviewers and audiences either suffered from thin air-induced hallucinations in Park City, or the ones who evaluated it more recently reviewed the filmmaker as much as they did his film. They felt obligated to marginalize Parker’s cinematic achievement because of one fateful night on the Penn State campus 17 years ago, or else seem insensitive to the woman who accused Parker and his roomie of raping her while she was unconscious.
BART: Having forked out $17.5 million to acquire the film, along with an obligation to open on 1,500 screens, Fox Searchlight has a right to scratch its head. Especially since its considerable investment in a succession of PR fusillades hasn’t received good reviews either. Once again, the opening salvos were misleading – operatic praise from Oprah, Gayle King, and others. PR gurus gave Nate Parker mountains of notes on “talking points,” but his TV performances, to my mind, failed to arouse either empathy in his personal dilemma or a passion to buy a ticket to his movie.
FLEMING: I’m not sure what anyone would have expected Nate Parker to have done differently, because it would have been dishonest in that it didn’t reflect how he felt. I sat with him at his house before this scandal mushroomed, when Deadline revealed all this. He clearly didn’t feel he needed to apologize for what in his mind was a consensual act even if it was a tawdry one, in retrospect. Peter, you weren’t a poor kid from the projects who sat in a courtroom, feeling your life flash before your eyes after being accused of raping an unconscious woman, until an all-white jury issued the not guilty verdict. Parker, who wasn’t even thinking of a movie career when all that happened, remade himself as a multi-hyphenate, spending the last eight years writing the Nat Turner movie and clawing to raise the money to make it. It was clear he was on course to become a major new filmmaking voice, until this case reared up and the accuser’s family came forward and revealed she committed suicide 12 years later. Parker hadn’t tried to hide his past; he told me he answered questions about it when he starred in The Great Debaters, and it was on his Wikipedia page. It was clear when I first met him that he regretted everything about that night, but he wasn’t going to apologize. Much the way that Mel Gibson wasn’t going to roll his father under the bus back when he was interviewed by Diane Sawyer after his anti-Semitic rant in the back of a cop car. That, and some other indiscretions, cost Gibson 10 years of his directing career and there is no telling where it will leave Parker’s career.
I was raised Catholic, where part of the deal is you can behave awfully and then go into the confession booth, absolve yourself of sins by admitting them, say a few prayers and move on to commit new sins. We similarly seem to now demand blanket apologies, whether or not they are sincere, before we absolve celebrities of wrongdoing. The latest example is Donald Trump and Billy Bush, latter of whom is apologizing to everyone who’ll listen for acting like an idiot frat boy who egged on Trump in his lecherous predatory tirade while on an Access Hollywood bus.
BART: Reports had 30-40 anti-rape activists showing up at the L.A. opening of Birth, but that won’t help either. And then there’s the other issue: Crafting a marketing campaign has been challenging at a moment when Black Lives Matter protests are making headlines. Birth, after all, is movie about a violent slave rebellion – is that a topic that will attract big-city audiences? So here’s the ultimate irony: Fox Searchlight would have done far better to have taken the old fashioned approach, opening the movie on a few screens right after the festival. Did Fox Searchlight get greedy in waiting for awards season and hoping for a giant build? As the NYT asked, will filmgoers opt for the “won’t see” over the “must see?”
FLEMING: I disagree with you about the timing of the release. The distributor didn’t know about the trial and clearly paid all that money for a Best Picture candidate, and those movies get released in the fall. The digital age has placed us in situations not seen before. There is no playbook to deal with some of the things that seems to come up now, on a regular basis. That goes back to the Sony hack, and all of those catty emails that were dispersed to bottom-feeding bloggers. It was unprecedented, and it didn’t feel right to me at the time to build stories from private correspondence stolen by cyber terrorists. Nobody cares now if emails were the result of computer hacks, even by hostile foreign governments. They are now regarded as fair game and the email authors don’t get graded on a curve, for thinking they had any right to privacy while they were writing messages. We broke news of the Sony hack and covered it as aggressively as anyone, but if it happened right now, how could we not follow the crowd and publish those catty emails? The Trump-Billy Bush and Nate Parker episodes takes this further down the rabbit hole. There clearly is no statute of limitations on bad behavior, in the mind of the public. All would have fared better had these incidents been scandalized years ago; the subjects were treated as if these were fresh incidents even though they were 11 and 17 years old, respectively. Parker’s attitude in interviews shows how he is clearly conflicted by the following: how responsible should he be for the suicide death of a woman he feels he had consensual sex with? After all, he had a sexual encounter with her prior to that incident, and in the morning following that incident, based on testimony at the trial. If you go by the majority of those who commented on Deadline’s coverage, he is 100% responsible, no matter that a jury acquitted him and that it was something that happened while he was a college student and maybe not reflective of who he is now, a father of five daughters. That sentiment was reflected in the film’s box office.
BART: One side observation about the Birth developments: If the top critics are now somewhat measured in their assessment of the movie, why did the Sundance screening prompt unmitigated adulation? Why do standing ovations occur only at film festivals? I’ve never witnessed one with a paying audience. I bring this up in that it relates to the entire experience of viewing movies as it undergoes radical change in the present media landscape. When I watch a film in the company of a filmmaker I admire, or an audience that admires that auteur, I react differently than when I sit alone in front of a screen or TV set. Adulation is contagious. It’s tough to dislike a comedy if everyone in the room is laughing. That’s why it’s important to book a good spot at a festival. Unless your film is a turkey and you don’t paper the room with loyal friends.
FLEMING: I disagree with you, again. We endure these festivals because we hold out hope we’ll find new worthy voices. I felt that during Toronto 2015 when I saw Spotlight, and in last month’s festival at premieres of La La Land, Nocturnal Animals and several other films. There is nothing wrong with moviegoers and even reviewers falling in love at these festivals; the only ones who need to be careful of contracting festival fever are the acquisition executives. I’ve seen many movies play through the roof at festivals and not catch on in the marketplace. In the case of Birth, remember that Netflix offered $20 million for that movie, and numerous other distributors (now breathing sighs of relief) were eager and ready to bet big on this film. I love the festival atmosphere, and all the promise that comes with discovering great films and new voices. You ought to go to these festivals and appreciate the energy at places like Toronto and Sundance.
BART: Finally, did the Fox Searchlight executives who had so much invested financially and emotionally in Birth have an intuition that there were “issues” in Parker’s past? Here’s a dirty little secret about 1970s Hollywood: Drugs and sexual escapades were so commonplace that studio executives made it a point to have candid conversations with filmmakers in an effort to “flag” potential crises. As one example, I had a dialogue with Hal Ashby about his issues with cocaine and weed before he started shooting his second film, Harold & Maude at Paramount. Mindful that the atmosphere was supportive, not adversarial, Ashby was frank about his past addiction; when a problem occurred mid-shoot, it was dealt with calmly. A decade later, however, when I was president of Lorimar Films, I discovered that the director of one film was not only using, but selling. He was fired. My point: It was part of my job to know about problems and peccadilloes – not a comfortable part, to be sure. My co-equals at rival studios had the same attitude. Has today’s Hollywood become so corporate, and HR strictures so formalized, that this sort of friendly interaction and candor no longer takes place? By the way, Ashby became a life-long friend.
FLEMING: Now you’ve hit on something. In this age of globalization, you couldn’t hire Ashby, and they wouldn’t make a movie like Harold & Maude, anyway. Clearly, nobody vetted Parker’s past after they watched his movie and started crunching numbers to prepare bids. You can bet vetting will become part of the bidding process now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if boilerplate language gets worked into deals as buyers insist on full disclosure before making big bets. This was the first time I can remember something like this happening, but there will be lingering reverberations. Anyone with any level of profile has to reconcile themselves with the following: if they say or in the past said something stupid on social media, or in emails, they should realize these things might surface and could destroy their careers.
Is it fair? It certainly is with elected officials, where character, or lack of it, is revealed. And when you see people who’ve displayed a pattern of benefiting at the expense of the vulnerable – Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes are two examples, if they did what many women say they did – well, karma is a bitch. All this might even be a good thing in that people will be encouraged to behave themselves, keep their bigoted comments or their hands to themselves, out of fear that the horrible parts of themselves they hide might be exposed in this age of zero tolerance.
I say this even though the presidential election has been the tawdriest mud slinging-est affair I can remember, and even as the star new player on my favorite hoops team, the New York Knicks, is preoccupied not defending the other team’s point guard, but rather his personal fortune, in a $21 million civil suit in which he and his pals are accused of gang raping his former girlfriend. As for Parker, I don’t see Fox Searchlight recouping its outlay on The Birth of A Nation. The distributor has moved on, buying the Pablo Larrain-directed Jackie at Toronto and launching it in the Oscar race with a good shot for Natalie Portman’s portrayal as Jackie Kennedy in the days following her husband’s murder. But the lessons we’re learning from each of these precedent-setting episodes in the digital age will linger long after the elections and Oscar season are over.
BART: “When you’re a star, they’ll let you do anything.” That’s the observation of Donald Trump babbling about women on his now immortal 11-year-old tape. Inevitably my youngest daughter asked me, “Is that the way Hollywood stars talk about women?” My answer: No it isn’t. I have spent abundant time in the company of Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Bob Evans and other Hollywood figures renowned for their fondness for the opposite sex, and none of them ever talked like Donald Trump. Did these guys love “pussy”? Sure they did. Did they chase it? Unstintingly. But their private conversation about women reflected admiration, even affection, as well as appetite. There was never a suggestion of the sort of gross assaults Trump boasted about.
FLEMING: I don’t know enough about those guys you mention, all reputed legendary womanizers, to challenge you. But did we expect anything else from Trump? Anyone who has ever heard him on Howard Stern, or observed what he said about Rosie O’Donnell or other enemies, knows how he views women. I’m more interested in what was going through the mind of Billy Bush, who looked like he might finally be going places in TV journalism with a prime gig on NBC’s Today. At first blush, I thought, what was Bush supposed to do, when Trump uttered his contemptible comments? After all, he was at the time a talking head on a program that delivers gushy celeb news to a bouncy musical backing soundtrack. Might he have simply been weathering the off-camera rantings of a boorish reality show host he didn’t know would run for president? Listening again, I think Bush can’t be let off the hook; his comments were too shameful for him to ever be taken seriously as a journalist. He’s in a worse place than anchor/exaggerator Brian Williams.
You don’t expect the same kind of standards as when Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow delivered news to the masses, but the public has the right to trust in their news anchors, to believe they are good journalists who would challenge horrible behavior like Trump displayed. I watch ABC World News Tonight’s David Muir most evenings, and he seems a good example of what you want in a news anchor in a broadcast that, no matter how much bad news precedes it, always ends on an uplifting note. I hope he is what he seems, because trust still has to be the standard. I don’t see how NBC keeps Billy Bush, even if it will seem odd that his career growth on an NBC news program ends over an 11-year-old tape never meant for broadcast. His complicity in Trump’s gross comments doesn’t seem survivable. Maybe he can host a game show.
BART: My conclusion: Trump has no class. Even when it comes to sex. Next topic: The mega deals announced by Chinese companies in U.S. production and distribution are triggering concern, if not alarm, from a variety of sources. One congressman, Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, has demanded the Justice Department review “foreign propaganda influence over American media.” Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece that “Beijing could effectively dictate what is and isn’t made.” Writing an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China, reminded Hollywood that “China’s film industry isn’t run by talent, it’s run by the Communist Party”– one that is fiercely requiring filmmakers to “serve socialism.”
These and similar comments reflected disclosure of a variety of deals, among them those involving the Dailian Wanda Group in AMC Theaters, Sony Entertainment and Dick Clark Production (still in the talking stage). The Sony deal covers co-productions and marketing but its full scope has not been detailed.
FLEMING: Add to that the recent revelation that Alibaba is taking a minority stake in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin.
BART: Is the concern justified? The romance between China and Hollywood is still in its early stages. But it’s part of a more important phenomenon: Hollywood’s principal focus is on the overseas audience, not on U.S. filmgoers. And its movies increasingly reflect that fact.
FLEMING: The scrutiny is well warranted, but if I had to bet on how this plays out long term, the narrative will be that China was just the latest sucker seduced by the glamour and star power of Hollywood, only to find their wallets have been drained. For Sony, Amblin and others, this is all about gaining more control and better distribution terms to launch films in the biggest emerging movie marketplace. But it is worth asking: if movie-making is such a great business, why is it that studios are always looking high and low for money so they don’t have to use their own?