Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu told me he sees superhero movies as right-wing poison and cultural genocide for their simplistic values that stamp out human truths. Warner Bros’ Kevin Tsujihara told Wall Street his slumping film studio will turn around via a full program of 10 DC Comics tent poles to be released 2016-2020.
Will Smith and Tom Hardy are in talks to star in Fury director David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, and 2016 also brings Batman V Superman; 2017 brings Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and Justice League; 2018 brings Ezra Miller as The Flash and Jason Momoa as Aquaman; 2019 brings Shazam and Justice League 2; Ray Fisher stars in Cyborg and a Green Lantern reboot arrives for 2020.
Besides the fact these performers are anonymous and some DC titles (Green Lantern and Jonah Hex) have whiffed badly in the past few years, the course is clear. Warner Bros is devoting its creative and fiscal currency to spandex, three Harry Potter spinoffs and three LEGO Movie spinoffs to make Wall Street feel warm and fuzzy. Birdman co-writer/playwright Alexander Dinelaris Jr told me his formative movies were The Great Santini, Kramer Vs. Kramer, And Justice For All, Norma Rae, Breaking Away, Network. All studio staples that no studio would make now. Everybody looks at Bob Iger as a brainiac for contracting out Disney’s film program to Marvel, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Pixar. A long way to a question: will there be any room at studios for thought-provoking non-spandex films in five years?
BART: I think your conclusion is correct: The majors are fixated on tentpoles as their corporate product. Movies for grownups will have to emanate from a new generation of production entities, funded principally from overseas, and a new set of distribution companies that understand how to reach the more sophisticated filmgoer.
FLEMING: Inarritu says people should grow out of the superhero fixation at age seven. Call me a latent adolescent; I go see every one of these superhero movies and loved Guardians Of The Galaxy. But I see his point. He laments the right-wing message of putting a black hat on those you disagree with, making it permissible to destroy them—the Axis Of Evil from George W’s days—and Inarritu hates the pretend notion we will be saved by rich, powerful magnates like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, who in real life care would only care about the common folk if they need a taxpayer bailout.
BART: Personally, I understand superhero movies, even enjoy (somewhat) seeing a few of them. Being in Berlin at the moment, though, I empathize with those Germans who simply don’t ‘get’ superheroes. Movies of this genre don’t do well in Germany, relative to China, for example. Comic-book heroes have not developed a following among young Germans, as they have in the U.S. It’s ironic, of course, that a nation that once aspired to become a ‘master race’ of superheroes now disdains that sort of character as depicted on film.
FLEMING: New topic. Lynda Obst announced she and Ridley Scott will re-purpose Richard Preston’s New Yorker article Crisis in the Hot Zone (later expanded into a nonfiction book called The Hot Zone) into a limited-run TV series, about Ebola.
It was a shame the Hot Zone movie adaptation got beaten to the start line by the comparatively silly Outbreak. But that Hot Zone event took place in 1992, when researchers just miles from DC tried to quell a potential outbreak in a lab, unaware the viral strain was as harmless to humans as it was fatal to monkeys. Hollywood usually tackles hot-button stuff after the third act plays out, when there is distance and room for reflection, from Vietnam (Platoon) to AIDS (The Normal Heart). My question: is it too soon, too exploitative and borderline creepy to make an entertainment show on a global pandemic, when Africans are right now dying of disease and starvation and the world is panicked?
BART: I am always skeptical about films or TV shows that try to exploit a headline, be it war or pestilence. Audiences weren’t ready for Vietnam films until well after the war. I personally would do my best to avoid seeing an Ebola movie – even though I’d applaud a filmmaker who delivered a good one.
FLEMING: Another thing that has bunched my knickers. I see how well the underrated summer Tom Cruise action film Edge Of Tomorrow is doing on DVD under the title Live. Die. Repeat. That title, or even the original All You Need Is Kill is far better than the generic domestic movie title Edge Of Tomorrow, which says nothing. I also hate that John Carney’s whimsical and accurate title Can A Song Save Your Life got changed to Begin Again. I would argue both movies got hurt by dropping intriguing titles in favor of generic labels that must have tested well with focus groups. Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia was a better title than a movie; today it would be Edge Of Cranium or Seeking Alfredo. You’ve been involved on the studio level in choosing titles. Why does it seem that the best way to title that collective effort would be Benign Again?
BART: I, too, have believed that titles are important to box-office results, but traveling around Europe, I’m beginning to wonder. The two biggest hits here this year have terrible titles. Fack You, Goethe is a giant hit that grossed $75 million in Germany, and it’s winning fans in France. The biggest hit in France is a comedy about a Dad whose several daughters bring home a variety of prospective husbands, all of different nationalities and races. The movie appeals to all the quasi-racist sentiments of Europe. Its French title translates to What Did We Do To God. The distributor may call it Serial Bad Weddings for its international release. Neither title will help but the movie doesn’t need help. It’s a blockbuster.
FLEMING: At least those titles make you think or feel something…
BART: I don’t feel titles mean as much in Europe as they do in America. My worst experience with titles occurred in my Paramount days, when a dreary film about period automobile racing turned up on the schedule. No one could come up with a title. The studio held a contest: Anyone who came up with a winning title would receive $5,000. The suggestions were as boring as the movie. The final winning title was Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies. The movie bombed.
BART: New topic. The line between features and TV continues to grow blurrier. As I trek around Europe (London, Paris, Berlin) every film producer I run into has shifted his focus to TV. The top executives at Studiocanal, who play a vital role in co-funding American films, are increasingly intrigued by miniseries. The very savvy President of Warner Bros. in Germany, Willi Geike, who has co-funded some 200 films for the German market, also is now also involved in television as a result of Warner Bros acquisition of Eyeworks. In London, veteran film producers like Marc Samuelson and Eric Fellner busily explore miniseries opportunities. The same is true of major film stars in the U.S. and Europe.
FLEMING: I think when movies stopped using edgy writers like Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, these guys found a foothold in cable and are underwriting this TV Golden Age. Of course movie companies now want to get into this exciting new business they created through neglect.
BART: Reviewing all this, I instinctively rebel against the idea of Neil Patrick Harris as Oscar host. As the host of the Emmys and Tonys, he has become the king of Media Blur. The Oscars should have a movie person speak for movies as a reminder that the feature is still a distinctive genre onto itself. Give us Gregory Peck (oops, he’s not available). I know – we used to have Bob Hope or Johnny Carson run the show, but now we need a Movie Star.
FLEMING: Clearly, the Academy waited for NPH to be in an important movie before they could put him in the Oscarcast; all he needs is the Grammys to achieve the rare emcee EGOT. They couldn’t do it when his film resume was dominated by Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, or Smurfs 2.
Once he got the job as the creepy rich guy in Gone Girl, it was Hello Hedwig. I would have preferred Chris Rock, a ferocious stand up who’s movie relevant after directing, writing and starring in the Toronto sensation Top Five. I now look forward to the Golden Globes to see what Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will say (last year’s gems were Fey’s “like a supermodel’s vagina, let’s give a warm welcome to Leonardo DiCaprio” and Poehler’s observation that after 12 Years A Slave, she would never look at slavery the same way again). I’d rather see a comic spice up the Oscarcast than a song-and-dance man who best serves the Tonys. The shows become indistinguishable.
BART: Traveling Europe these days is a study in mixed messages. The economic indicators across Europe continue their descent. Yet prices continue to go up. News stories warn of the possibility of recession or deflation. Yet the best hotels and restaurants are packed with cheerful people.
Producers tell you stars in film and TV are demanding sharply richer deals because so much is shooting around Europe. There’s also a concern about increased demands of crews, especially in London where studios are packed. Tell this to the typical blue-collar worker or middle-income wage earner in big cities around Europe and you get a blank stare. I suppose this is all yet another manifestation of the worldwide “one percent” phenomenon – a small number of people at the top are making and spending all the money while the rest of the work force watches. In the entertainment business, the one percent are enjoying themselves. My favorite hotels are almost 40% more expensive than they were a couple of years ago.
FLEMING: I bunk in places where the perk is coin-operated bed massagers, so this is not my wheelhouse. But it sure sounds like art, or those making it, imitating life. The one percenters always live well.
BART: Maybe this is one more reason why the biggest local hits around Europe are comedies – especially dark comedies. Filmgoers want to laugh. They need to laugh. And they shouldn’t watch the headlines.
FLEMING: Not when they can wait for Ebola: The Series. And then panic.