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.
BART: The cyber attack on Sony may set back the company tens of millions of dollars at a moment when it’s ostensibly in full cost-cutting mode. But even as cyber-forensics experts probe the breach, a certain dark humor is festering about the event. If the payroll data is to be believed, for example, inevitable questions are raised as to why James Franco was paid only $6.5 million for his role in The Interview while co-star Seth Rogen received $8.4 million. These guys have often worked together in the past but does the pay differential reflect this spirit of camaraderie?
FLEMING: You bring up a point I want to take in a serious direction, an issue that has vexed me since Sony got hacked and these cyber terrorists began disseminating stolen files containing everything from internal documents to employee Social Security numbers. Deadline has been all over this story, breaking the news of the hacking, and many other stories. We’ve stopped short of what some competitors have done; assigned teams to dissect pages and pages of stolen documents the hackers sent to every journalistic outlet. I’ve divulged my share of internal memos, star salaries and scandals over the years, and it somehow felt an honorable reward that comes from working hard-won sources.
I see no honor in dining out on documents that were stolen and released to destabilize a studio and embarrass people who work there. Don’t you magnify the wrong by using the stolen goods to scorn the victim whose house was robbed? Reports have used this ill-gotten intel to demean Adam Sandler movies, to divulge which Sony pictures made money, and question the gender implications of what Sony pays its movie executives. To me, it lacks the higher purpose evident in the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the early Wikileaks documents that bared footage of incriminating incidents covered up by the government. We’ve covered Sony as aggressively as anybody and I’ve got no cause to coddle them. What’s happening here feels slimy to me, but I have to question when an editor exercising his morals hurts his publication and deprives its readers. I look at the way this fusion.net has dined out on analyzing hacked Sony documents. I think of how they are part owned by Disney and wonder if they would so gleefully wallow in stolen documents if Disney was the hacked party and Bob Iger the one left red-faced.
Are they right to go hard after a story that might be newsworthy? I wish I knew. Handling these Sony hacked documents has been a hot-button topic at our editorial meetings; several colleagues think we should devote resources to analyze these stolen documents; none of them has yet convinced me. I believe Sony doesn’t deserve this and that there is room for sympathy here. Only if we can’t avoid some story that is unearthed by those wallowing will we note it, with a minimum of salaciousness. We ran a snapshot of pre-bonus Sony salaries of its top executives that was part of the hacked document trove, under the guise it was news, it was everywhere and Deadline readers deserved to know. I have since tossed and turned over that decision. You ran Variety 20 years and we had our share of stories run past lawyers. What’s the right move here?
BART:The basic criteria in judging stories have remained the same over the last generation even though the media universe has become vastly more chaotic. Our basic mission is to inform people, not to hurt people. Here’s what made things seem fuzzy: the social media has become a massive garbage re-cycler. So if someone writes something for the wrong reason, by the time it’s recycled enough times a ritualistic acceptance sets in. Misinformation is respectabilized by repetition.
FLEMING: I can imagine this kind of soul searching is going on at publications all over and I am not trying to posit that we are more virtuous than anyone else. I don’t know who’s doing the right thing. But I want to be able to look back and feel I was on the right side. When Michael Egan began holding press conferences implicating filmmakers and executives that he said had sexually assaulted him at debauch-filled parties, we only mentioned it when there were valid industry implications,and there weren’t many. Some rivals reveled in it.
I’m sure we lost traffic. When Egan recanted, did that make Deadline better for sitting out a scandal because we could not verify the accusations and because it had little to do with business? Did others lose credibility? Does it even matter in this age of rapid-fire decisions? I don’t know. I admired NY Times columnist David Carr recently falling on his sword when he flatly said that he was wrong and so was a Bill Cosby biographer and others who wrote flatteringly of the comedian without scrutinizing the trail of sex assault charges he left in his wake. That kind of introspection is valuable. It’s also something to behold, that after sidestepping horrible drugging and sexual-abuse accusations for decades, Cosby’s reckoning came after a fellow African-American comic, Hannibal Burress, called him a rapist in a tirade that went viral and brought the accusers back to the forefront. It has destroyed what should be a pioneer’s legacy of a man who broke color barriers on television. What a crazy world we are trying to navigate.
BART: I agree with your basic points, but I’d remind you of one historic phenomenon: the media, indeed society as a whole, judges public figures much more severely today than in, say, the ‘70s. Stars indulged in appalling behavior at that time and the press basically ignored it. In the era of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, the media tended to look the other way on sex and drugs and while enjoying the rock’n’roll. The most obvious example, of course, was the media’s code to ignore John F. Kennedy’s wondrously lurid private life. Should we forgive the bad guys for this reason? Of course not, but a little context never hurts.
FLEMING: I have come through this existential crisis with the realization that I need to be careful to not impose moral judgments that are carry-overs from the JFK Administration. There clearly is a need to nut up in this digital age, and I suppose the variable is when to work empathy into that equation.
BART: You and I have been in the news business a long time, Mike, and we both understand that when you’re chasing a good story you sometimes have to make a deal to protect your sources. But here’s basically the deal made by Rolling Stone to secure its headline-grabbing piece on gang rape: It agreed not to check the story. The “victim” demanded that no one approach her accused attackers at the University of Virginia. And now it’s turning out that her story doesn’t check out.
FLEMING: I’m a subscriber, and I raged when I read the account of that frat-house sexual assault. I felt the embarrassment in the tweets sent subsequently by a crow-eating editor, but I’m surprised they didn’t see the fallacy of running such serious allegations unchecked. The alleged victim’s credibility has been damaged. If her account is anywhere near true and gets debunked on technicalities that could have been avoided through thorough reporting, then she has been victimized twice. Editors have to make a lot of hard calls these days and Rolling Stone is a brave magazine. Here, they blew it.
BART: What ever happened to editorial judgment? A reporter is always sympathetic to the victim. Understandably so. But on repeated occasions now, the alleged victims of sexual assaults at elite universities have made charges that haven’t survived investigation. The entertainment press also has become addicted to stories accusing celebrities of sexual assault. The bottom line is that the list of victims is growing. Add journalistic integrity to the victim list.
FLEMING: The downside of immediacy in the digital age.
BART: Next topic: Oscar campaigning. I encountered Dan Gilroy doing a Q&A at a screening of his excellent film Nightcrawler; this interested me because in an interview with you, Mike, he confessed his misgivings about this process. A film loses some of its impact, he said, if a filmmaker sets out to explain it. Despite all this, Dan decided he, too, had to speak on his film’s behalf like just about every other director in town. And he has some interesting things to explain: Why he and his star, Jake Gyllenhaal, decided to create a protagonist who is devoid of redeeming traits and whose entire dialogue sounds like the spouting of a human-resources executive. His comments are vividly expressed, but they still embody his misgivings. “Making a movie is a magic trick,” Gilroy told me. “Something is lost when you try to explain a magic trick.” That doesn’t seem to inhibit his fellow filmmakers.
FLEMING: Dan Gilroy had better be on the stump for a small film and especially after Gyllenhaal starved himself so his sociopath character looked appropriately like a reptile. The campaigner I’m intrigued by is Robert Downey Jr., who might make a case for his performance but is instead going Bill Clinton to get votes for his The Judge co-star Robert Duvall. I still think it inevitable Downey will one day accept an Oscar, probably down the line when he’s not defined as Hollywood’s highest paid superhero. It’s charming that he’s hustling for someone else (Downey produced the film) and also that he hustled to sell tickets for his father’s career retrospective this weekend. The person I would not ask for help is Meryl Streep: she took the stage at the National Board of Review Awards to introduce Emma Thompson and her work in Saving Mr. Banks. After Streep’s diatribe about Walt Disney being an anti-Semitic bigoted creep, no one was Saving Mr. Banks‘ Oscar chances. She was like the drunk uncle who grabs the microphone to make that rambling spontaneous toast at your wedding, offering embarrassing revelations and the wish that all the couple’s ups and downs take place beneath the sheets. Thanks, Meryl!
BART: The screening rooms in this town must be on 24-hour shifts as ‘nomination season’ reaches its moment of truth. Awards junkies are already in combat mode as some anointed favorites get snubbed. Normally aloof stars seem to be rushing from one Q&A to another, like political candidates trolling for undecided voters. I’m not mad at anyone yet, but I found it weird that the documentary branch declined to place Night Will Fall on its shortlist of 15 Oscar contenders. The docu branch is famously incestuous, and Night reflects the work of outsiders, but it’s a riveting film on a subject of keen interest to Academy voters (I am one).
FLEMING: I have seen others grouse about snubbed docus, like Tom Bernard did in protesting that his Red Army hockey docu was a victim of slashing. Why don’t you drop the puck on why you are sore?
BART: The background: During the last days of World War II a cadre of camera men was dispatched to the so-called labor camps to find visual evidence of rumored atrocities. Their lives were altered forever by what they found at Dachau, Buchenwald and other camps. The British producer himself was overwhelmed by the challenge of structuring the footage and he secretly reached out to Hollywood, imploring Alfred Hitchcock to come to London and supervise the project.
The material awaiting him included surprising scenes showing American and British troops forcibly escorting German residents of surrounding villages to view the atrocities they’d ignored. The work of Hitchcock and fellow filmmakers ultimately was suppressed as bureaucrats could not resolve how to present their horrifying material. After a year’s delay, Billy Wilder was brought in to put together a shorter and tamer version that received very limited release as a propaganda film. This year, documentary producer Marie Therese Guirgis learned of a UK-German-Israeli-French initiative to restore and complete the 70-year-old film. She brought it to Ratpac’s Brett Ratner, who offered the finishing funds and set up a Jan. 27 HBO release. When Academy members ultimately see the film they will be perplexed why they were deprived of a chance to honor it because the small group of docu filmmakers didn’t include it in the 15-film cut list. What other doc embraced the talents of both Hitchcock and Wilder and encompassed such momentous events?
FLEMING: Riffing on the topic of Hollywood’s handling of hot-button material: we saw from the book The Pact: Hollywood’ Collaboration with Hitler how Hollywood diluted its movie messages so the Third Reich would allow Hollywood films entry into German theaters during the run-up to WWII. A version of this is happening in China right now, where the government will deny you entry if your film offends the sensibilities of a communist government that represses its media. I am wondering how studios will water down future politically volatile films after this recent Sony hacking episode that coincided with the release of The Interview. That film, where Rogen and Franco play bumblers sent to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is brash in its decision to not play it safe by making Un a fictional caricature. When Paramount adapted Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games, they fictionalized the book’s plot line that it was Prince Charles whom Jack Ryan saved from ambush by IRA gunmen. Unsubstantiated press speculation and timing is the only thing linking North Korea to the hack attack, and finally the government denied involvement while applauding that it happened. I believe them. Deadline and every other showbiz outlet has been emailed these stolen documents; it doesn’t stand to reason Un and cohorts are that press savvy. Every studio is right now bolstering its firewalls against future hacks, but I bet they’ll also be warier of offending foreign governments as overseas performance continues to grow in importance.