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: Talk about being smacked in the face by the contrast between art and pure commerce. I returned from Cannes where I saw four spectacularly different creatively ambitious films, and went to the multiplex for Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I was struck by the polar opposites between the offerings from Cannes (filmmakers telling stories they hoped might find an audience) and studio tentpoles (squeezing every drop out of a tired franchise where a drunk Johnny Depp is straying into Russell Brand territory). The sameness was reinforced by the six trailers that preceded Pirates. All sequels: Cars 3, Despicable Me 3, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Transformers: The Last Knight, War For The Planet of the Apes, and the third Spider-Man reboot. This is hardly a new observation, but it does make you wonder when audiences will start insisting on something, anything, that isn’t reheated. Cannes provides a contrast on just how much original ideas are in short supply during the summer.
BART: Get over your jet lag, Mike. Summer movies spell agony for critics but joy for filmgoers. There was a contagion of laughter at the megaplex where I bought my ticket to see the latest Pirates iteration, yet A.O Scott of the New York Times called it “the perfect opposite of entertainment.” CinemaScore exit polls disclosed a strong A- rating, so someone found it entertaining. So do critics matter? “Critics really hurt Baywatch,” says Paramount marketing chief Megan Colligan, but the movie itself was arguably a dumb idea, keyed to a show no one remembers; I doubt if the critics mattered. The critics seem lined up to support Wonder Woman, but again the “zeitgeist” will determine its fate, not the critics.
FLEMING: Haven’t caught up to Baywatch, but I do think people remembered the series. Unless you nail the comedy as the first Brady Bunch film did, or elevate the premise with strong drama like The Fugitive did, there is a long list from Bewitched on down that indicate these TV remakes fail more than succeed. As for critics, Rotten Tomatoes has raised its importance in making or breaking a movie, while neutering the importance of their words by boiling their importance down to an aggregated collective consensus. It’s like skipping the reasoned analysis that used to go into the Siskel & Ebert show, and getting right to the thumbs up/thumbs down conclusion. I now see the Rotten Tomatoes consensus included in online movie timetables. It is rendering so-so or bad movies as perishable as vegetables. If you go splat on the tomato-meter, you’re done, no matter how strong your internal testing or what CinemaScore says.
Meanwhile, Cannes was an interesting trip. The deal-making was varied but not that all that bustling, giving me time to attend the premieres of Netflix’s Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories, Wind River, and a buyers premiere screening of The Florida Project. I also did favors for directors Michael Moore and Oliver Stone and moderated buyers-only presentations for Moore’s docu sequel Fahrenheit 11/9, and Stone’s four-hour The Putin Interviews special where he goes one on one with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. I agreed not to say much about the specific contents of either because each had a press blackout, but both filmmakers seemed very much on their game as they spoke to rooms full of foreign buyers. Moore did his via Skype, materializing on a big screen in an office on a high floor with Trump Tower on 57th and Park as his backdrop. He broke down in detail where he was going with a movie that should be ready to be viewed by buyers in July, even as HBO and streamers mull the possibility of a short theatrical run and a quick event-worthy broadcast. Stone’s The Putin Interviews will premiere June 12 on Showtime. From the footage I saw, Stone confronted Putin on every relevant issue; buyers must have liked what they saw, because UK rights sold yesterday.
The blurring between theatrical and premium TV was an ongoing theme all during the films that played at Cannes, and in the marketplace. I watched Netflix’s Okja, this visually ravishing film by Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho, and found myself very conflicted because you and I grade films partly on audience potential. The director had final cut and I found myself wondering what a challenge Okja would be for a traditional distributor. Giant pigs are experimentally bred by a quirky entrepreneur (Tilda Swinton) to combat world hunger and turn profit. The first two acts build the relationship between the adorable over-sized title creature and the equally adorable young girl (An Seo Hyun) who romps with him in the forest near their home, and who then tries to rescue him when the prize pig label is placed on Okja, who is now destined for the dinner table. What plays like a fable for a young audience then takes a third-act turn I can only liken to the Pawn Shop scene in Pulp Fiction, followed by a polemic on the meat industry. I enjoyed seeing on a big screen the fully realized vision of a director who had final cut, but I wondered if this $50 million-plus budget film could thrive anywhere but Netflix. The black-tied audience at the Palais ate it up, but how to get an audience for this R-rated film? Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories was a more traditional art house film that had laudable performances by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, and I imagined prestige distributors griping about what they could have done with the film in a standard theatrical play.
Then there was Wind River, where Hell Or High Water and Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan made his directing debut on dark subject matter. That was one where I found myself saying, so that’s what it feels like, to have writing talent. Sheridan lost about seven minutes from the version he debuted at Sundance and still has time to refine it if he wants, but it is taut and pretty fully realized right now. If TWC plays it right – which they didn’t on the awards-caliber performance by Michael Keaton with The Founder last year — Sheridan and his film could make noise during Oscar season.
BART: You mention how Netflix is taking movies off the big screen and putting them into living rooms. I would like to have seen War Machine with an audience since, as the New York Times said, it “crackles with irreverent wit.” But this was a Netflix picture, hence you see it at home. I’m glad Netflix had the guts to make this $60 million satire starring Brad Pitt, but a generation ago this would have become a “water cooler” movie. It didn’t today. Consider the timing: President Trump apparently is about to dispatch 5,000 more troops to fight this 16-year-old war. War Machine shrewdly points out the folly of this mission and Pitt portrays the egotistical general who is convinced he can “win the war.” This would be a high-risk movie because satire is such a hard sell (I survived Catch 22 at Paramount). The majors turned down the movie because they couldn’t see the opening-weekend grosses. Netflix, of course, doesn’t care. If I had seen it with an audience I would have enjoyed sharing the laughs prompted by from Pitt’s hilarious performance. But it was me and my TV. Netflix has to figure out how to market its big and interesting slate. Perhaps reflecting this, Pitt himself came out a bit desperate in his interviews. “I’ll talk about anything,” he said, “even my children.” War Machine itself is a hard sell but a brilliant movie.
FLEMING: I found the stiff and awkward character tics Pitt injected into his general to be distracting; he didn’t seem like a real person. But the film’s turn from humorous satire into a depiction of warfare that showed the futility of the Afghanistan conflict? That takes on added resonance with yesterday’s devastating bombing in Kabul. But as you say, how does Netflix make its hot-button films part of the larger cultural conversation? It is just one of the hurdles facing the streaming service, which found some new ones even after it broke new ground getting two films placed into Cannes competition. The story line quickly became about the festival capitulating to French film purists by declaring no more competition slots for movies that don’t play theatrically in France. That is a near-impossibility not only for Netflix but also Amazon because of the ridiculous Chronology Law that keeps French theatrical films off VOD for three long years. Despite this, Netflix cast a long shadow on the Croisette; it was the story. Netflix closed the first big deal, paying near $20 million for the stop-motion animated movie about Michael Jackson’s chimp companion Bubbles; it made progress on a Twitter-inspired movie with Rihanna, Lupita N’Yongo, director Ava DuVernay and Insecure‘s Issa Rae writing. Deal is far from done, but that package will cost Netflix north of $50 million. Netflix threw the glitziest Cannes party, and twice lined the Palais red carpet with shimmering stars. Netflix has tasked Scott Stuber with generating upwards of 40 movies per year — twice the output of most major studios — and with that investment, who’s to say it can’t in a year lobby for repeal of the Chronology Law or find a compromise that might include contributing to the government subsidized French film industry? I think Netflix’s feature film infiltration and its growing pains is perhaps the most disruptive and compelling story line in Hollywood right now, and it was gutsy of Thierry Fremaux to invite them.
BART: To be sure, Netflix knows so much about its audience it can even predict at what times of day viewers will see War Machine. A global viewership survey released by Netflix to USA Today reports that the Netflix audience overwhelmingly prefers comedy in the morning, thrills in the evening and, after midnight, documentaries. In some genres, however, preferences differ; Americans like to see their horror genre entertainment after 9 PM, while in Spain horror works best after lunch, between 2-4 PM, which does not speak well for Spanish luncheon fare. Data was not released specifically on War Machine, which is a sort of comedic documentary (there’s a great deal of voice-over explanation in the first half-hour). Perhaps a post-midnight showing would work – with takeout Spanish food.
FLEMING: This efficiency is admirable, but the inefficiencies of the traditional theatrical P&A spend has the tangential benefit of putting stars in the cultural zeitgeist, creating a visibility boost. With Netflix, stars are mostly confined to a Costco-like private club, albeit one that is now 100 million members strong. Also, those stats you cite are selectively doled out by Netflix when it suits them. Box office reporters assign halos and goat horns each Sunday to hits and misses; when will Netflix come clean on how many people are watching these films?
One final observation on Cannes: It was intriguing how much things changed from the days when it was just theatrical deals. Transactions seemed to be flying on everything from digital to China to TV, as well as movies. For instance, the CAA Film Finance and Sales Group had a crushingly successful festival that the agency said yielded $190 million in sales. These deals went way beyond the standard domestic distribution pacts (though there were plenty of them). There was the near $20M Netflix deal for Bubbles; the $80M commitment by China’s Bona Film Group to finance Roland Emmerich’s WWII pic Midway for all but domestic rights, followed by the announcement of a $150M film fund by the same company; the sale of China rights to nine Wild Bunch titles (eight of which competed at Cannes) to the ambitious Chinese online ticket brokering/marketing giant Weying. The agency’s deals touched 28 films. It amazes me how much these major agencies — CAA, WME, UTA and ICM Partners — have become the fulcrum for the global indie film/TV business there.
BART: Next topic. There is a lot riding on Wonder Woman, on which Warner Bros has bet at least $150 million – a bargain compared to Pirates. The studio predicts $65 million in opening-weekend ticket sales; projections originally were closer to $90 million but the studio is playing it safe. And hopes already are building that “Wonder Woman power” will translate into reality. The movie’s success “can close the pay gap in Hollywood,” Laura Martin, an analyst for Needham, told the Los Angeles Times. That may be placing too much weight on the still new super-heroine genre.
FLEMING: Back when movies like The Long Kiss Goodnight and Elektra failed, conventional wisdom held that unless you had Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron or Sigourney Weaver, with rare exception action was a young male domain and fanboys wouldn’t turn up to see actresses performing their wish-fulfillment heroics. I always figured that was why Marvel didn’t make a stand-alone Black Widow movie with Scarlett Johansson and instead contented itself putting her in its male-dominated franchises. But at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, the place was cluttered with females, kids and adult, wearing Wonder Woman costumes. Hollywood seems finally to be making a concerted effort to be more inclusive and hiring more female directors. Even though Sofia Coppola just became the first woman to win Best Director at Cannes since the early ’60s for The Beguiled, it feels like is a moment of opportunity is at hand.
I haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet, but the marketing has been strong and the reviews indicate that Warner Bros finally has made a DC Comics crowd-pleaser, with a strong dynamic between Gal Gadot’s title character and co-lead Chris Pine, who does more than hold her purse. Deadline’s box office guy Anthony Dalessandro says the film could hit $90 million this weekend. Marvel is now developing its own female superhero with Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, and Sony just hired Gina Prince-Bythewood to direct Silver & Black, based on two antiheroes from the Spider-Man comics. Added to the Ryan Coogler-Chadwick Boseman Black Panther, where we will have the first major Marvel franchise built around a black actor since Wesley Snipes’ Blade, and this counters the argument that started this column. Studios are seizing a rare opportunity to serve up something that doesn’t feel entirely reheated. Lets hope audiences respond.