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: Since I first read John Steinbeck’s novelized version of The Acts Of King Arthur And His Noble Knights taken from Thomas Malory’s Winchester Manuscripts, I’ve longed to see a new movie version that would meld advances in VFX into the fantastical elements of John Boorman’s Excalibur. I’ve closely covered what must have been five different projects developed by Warner Bros, even an Excalibur remake Bryan Singer wanted to direct. And guess what? Seemingly no one but me and those Warner Bros production regime heads who spent millions on specs and script drafts wanted to see it. How disappointing to see $175 million invested in King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, only to see it go splat as summer’s first big box office casualty, even if it is a pretty good movie? I’ve read one story after another trumpet the film’s pending demise before it came out, and now come the autopsies. My takeaway? It has become nearly impossible for studios to launch anything that isn’t a remake or a spinoff. I wonder if part of it is the way we are eating our young.
BART: What does that mean?
FLEMING: There is no nurturing of franchises anymore, no patience for an imperfect movie in an intriguing universe to trigger a sequel that evolves and improves. Maybe it’s the fault of decision-makers who like me are too old and not connected to the youth market enough to realize kids aren’t clamoring for sword-swinging sagas, even if Game Of Thrones succeeds on TV. But maybe it’s the cynical digital world we live in that can render as disposable a $175 million budget movie half a decade in the making. I wonder if all the advance pronouncements of failure left moviegoers convinced the film wasn’t worth their time. That kind of rumoring isn’t new, and films from Terminator 2 to World War Z overcame them by delivering the goods and marketing imagery that audiences had to see. I didn’t see any of that in the King Arthur ads, even if there was some in the movie that seemed evocative of video games. But those who dismissed the film as not worth their time missed out on a pretty good ride that certainly deserved to open at better than a $15 million gross, a figure routinely hit by micro-budget genre thriller that cost $5 million or under to make. King Arthur isn’t the dazzling launch that The Fellowship Of The Ring was for The Lord Of The Rings, even if it borrowed LOTR‘s giant war elephants. But Arthur did introduce some nice twists to a well-worn mythology. It had a strong hero performance by a likable and ripped Charlie Hunnam, and a delicious villain in Jude Law, whose king character pays an unimaginably high price to hold onto his ill-gotten crown.
BART: Here’s our only problem on King Arthur: You clearly saw a different movie. The movie I saw was a jagged mish-mash of clashing plots and characters. Studio executives have a shorthand critique of movies like Guy Ritchie’s: “They’re cutty.”
FLEMING: What does that mean?
BART: Every time the filmgoer starts getting into a scene, a blizzard of cuts intrude on his consciousness.
FLEMING: That’s a Ritchie style signature, where he takes to the narrative express lane with fast cuts that compress storytelling into humorous vignettes. His storytelling tics are an acquired taste, but I liked them in Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and Sherlock Holmes.
BART: There’s also a deeper problem. The subtitle of a newly published book on King Arthur is: many faces, one hero (the book is by John and Caitlin Matthews who are authorities on Celtic myths). According to the book, no one can agree whether King Arthur legends were based on historical truth or random gnostic fairy tales. I think the movie’s confusions reflect the fuzziness of its central character.
FLEMING: Not sure their theories are relevant here. Joby Harold, the screenwriter who wrote the script that hooked Ritchie, and hatched a bible for six films, borrowed the Biblical story of Moses. Ritchie didn’t tell the whole Camelot story in one film, leaving the Lancelot/Guinevere love triangle, and Merlin, for future exploration that now will never happen.
BART: But let’s face reality, Mike. It wasn’t as if millions of moviegoers saw this movie and, having seen it, rejected it. For whatever reason, the vast audience of filmgoers out there found fragments of what it’s about and simply weren’t interested. In my studio days I remember seeing the first cut of a film and hearing the plaintive voice of the marketing chief declaring, “What we have here is a conceptual problem.” That pretty well sums up King Arthur.
FLEMING: I worry for upcoming franchises launches like the long-percolating The Dark Tower, the Nicolaj Arcel-directed film based on the eight-volume novel series that author Stephen King feels is his answer to JRR Tolkien’s LOTR. It will take six films to tell that whole story, if the first one’s a hit. I’m also concerned for Luc Besson’s Valerian And The City of A Thousand Planets. Only because each is trying to hit a narrow moving target by launching something fresh in the teeth of studio summer sequel spinoff season. Dark Tower just unveiled its first trailer, and I heard and read catty comments wondering if they’d spent enough money. Its budget is $60 million, a far more reasonable number than King Arthur’s hefty tab, but just as risky because sometimes it seems easier to throw money at the screen. Valerian is Besson, the most commercially successful director France has produced, swinging from his heels. Infusing every creative molecule in his body, and 20 years, to bring to life his favorite childhood comic book. He has put his company EuropaCorp and its overseas relationships to the test, gambling a $180 million budget that Besson acknowledges is the most ever for an independent European film.
Deadline did its second annual print issue to be released in Cannes tomorrow, and once again it celebrates Disruptors, which is why I haven’t been available to do this column for several weeks with you, Peter. Besson is one of our signature interviews; spending an hour with him is a nice antidote to cynicism. He wears his ambition and optimism on his sleeve and said his biggest wish is to succeed enough so he can reunite with young stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, Rihanna and a slew of VFX creatures to make the two Valerian sequels he already has mapped out in his head. But he’s a realist. He knew right off that The Fifth Element (which hit its 20th anniversary last weekend) would not get a sequel because American audiences didn’t get it, and while global audiences did, they weren’t clamoring for more. Valerian only gets sequels, he said, if the first does box office comparable to his last directorial outing, Lucy, and if it is clear that global audiences wants to see more of that universe. I hope his Valerian, and The Dark Tower, get a fairer shake than I watched King Arthur get. The audience, and media that reaches them, hold so much sway here. How do you convince them to give new ideas a chance? Do they really only want sequels, remakes and spinoffs?
BART: I don’t believe any film schools teach courses on “franchise films,” but perhaps they should because they occupy an ever more important role in the Hollywood ecosystem and their rules keep changing. The trailers for this summer’s franchise films showcase a far raunchier and more violent R-rated brand than in the past – Atomic Blonde, Hitman’s Bodyguard and even Baywatch (we find Zac Efron searching for evidence in the most intimate regions of a corpse). Deadpool and Logan set a new standard.
The new franchises are all built on a central “sell” and their trailers underscore that focus. Wonder Woman is far from the usual damsel in distress; the trailer is a study in gender dynamics. As with Atomic Blonde, this is about a formidable woman. Yet I wonder how the studio feels given the implosion of Ghost In The Shell, the Scarlett Johansson vehicle that could lose a projected $60 million. The Wall Street fixation behind franchise films is that they are less risky than conventional releases. But as costs continue to rise, and “franchise fatigue” sets in, is this dictum still valid? Last summer’s sequels almost uniformly produced weaker numbers than previous iterations – Star Trek, Independence Day, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, etc. Could this pattern repeat itself this summer with the fifth (or more) versions of Pirates Of The Caribbean, Spider-Man, Aliens, Transformers and even a pricey bet to revive The Mummy with Tom Cruise?
FLEMING: Look, I am intrigued to see Cruise revive The Mummy for the umpteenth time, and if Mel Gibson says yes to directing, I am all in on Suicide Squad 2. I also realize even sequels are hard to mount: King Arthur probably doesn’t help George Miller’s cause to get Warner Bros engaged in two more Mad Max films he has mapped out, the first of which Miller wants to direct himself after a last movie that was disruptive and remarkable. But I watch these Fast And The Furious films get bigger in scope and further away from street racing and I wonder if we’ll soon see Vin Diesel and crew driving their cars around the rings of Saturn. The continued futility of launches like King Arthur makes it understandable that true studio creative risks are limited micro-budget genre films like Get Out, Split and Don’t Breathe. It’s the only place where directors prove themselves and are given more creative freedom than any other studio film: the misses don’t get P&A spends, and the cost of flops is washed away ten times over by one blockbuster (Blumhouse’s Jason Blum and directors Jordan Peele, Fede Alvarez and M. Night Shyamalan are also in the Disruptors issue, explaining how they do it). Beyond that, studio decision makers have placed themselves in a corner where the only acceptable big budget risk is a sequel or a spinoff. It is all making Netflix a desirable place for anything else: there isn’t near as much media scrutiny on costs, and viewership info is so proprietary it’s hard to know the difference between a flop and a hit.
BART: Peter Guber always had a smart take on the care and feeding of franchises. When setting up his first Batman movie at Warner Bros in 1989, he set out to stir initial studio interest among the merchandising and marketing teams, rather than pitching it to the production and creative mavens. Franchises are an exercise in commerce, not creativity, he explained to me. He had a point. This was not so clear to another friend of mine, Bob Evans. He was responsible for some remarkable films over the years, but luck eluded him when he tried his hand at franchises like The Saint and The Phantom. Were they ahead of their time? Surely they will be revived once again in other iterations – as commerce, not creativity. Another veteran of the film wars, Ron Meyer, also acknowledges that franchises can be a blind spot. In a commencement speech last week at USC, he freely admitted having turned down Titanic.
In former years, studios were wary about announcing new franchises. They would try something out; if it worked then a sequel or two would emerge. Studio executives these days proudly unfurl new franchises with predictions that they will result in multiple future iterations. Will a semi-horror adaptation of The Dark Tower work with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey? Who knows? I’ll admit King Arthur deserved deserved better than 27% on the Tomatometer. Ritchie is a talented filmmaker, but sword and sorcery isn’t a genre that works for me and I was always skeptical it would trigger franchise fever. If I have to spend my life watching franchise films, I think I will wait for Atomic Blonde II.
FLEMING: I agree that the Atomic Blonde trailer that preceded King Arthur, and Wonder Woman, seem better bets for sequels than King Arthur. They ride a female empowerment wave that studios hope will translate to ticket sales. But Atomic Blonde to me felt like John Wick, with Charlize Theron racking up the body count instead of Keanu Reeves. And Wonder Woman has the protection of the DC imprimatur. It’s the closest thing to originality as one can find at studios these days but of course I have forgotten about the impending launch of Baywatch, the screen version of David Hasselhoff’s TV show.