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: What a terrible week for old-guard journalism. First, 60 Minutes’ stalwart Bob Simon dies in a senseless car crash. Then, New York Timesman David Carr dies at his desk after moderating a CitizenFour panel with Edward Snowden.
BART: We will all miss David Carr’s churlish commentaries, but the evolution of his role at The Times again points to that nasty topic of celebrity journalism. Brian Williams take note: The Times wasn’t content with Carr’s weekly columns; they wanted him to give speeches, make TV appearances, moderate panels, host documentaries and, of course, fulfill his social-media obligations. In short, they wanted the gawky, raspy-voiced Carr to be a celebrity journalist. Brian Williams felt destined to become more than an anchor man. He wanted to be an entertainer. Maybe this was in recognition of the fact that the three network nightly news shows have turned over so much time to entertainment rather than to hard news.
FLEMING: I only knew Carr through his byline, one of the few must-read columns you find anymore in a newspaper. I respected his obsession with print outlets and the stories he wrote about their survival struggles. You could tell he was rooting for them, as I do. I only saw one of his webisodes, where he wore a Batman mask. I didn’t care for it, but newspapers do need larger-than-life characters and after he stood out as the star of that NYT feature docu, I guess his bosses felt he found a calling. I never felt the self-importance in his writing, so maybe he was just filling a role his bosses felt necessary.
BART: Most news organizations want their top journalists to build a wider following – to become celebrities. This helps ad sales and hopefully augments the income of the newsmen. But then come the problems: Is it possible to function both as a celebrity and as an objective reporter? Would even the Silas Marner-ish David Carr have run into credibility problems as the community increasingly viewed him as a media star? I remember a crusty old journalist at The Times named Jack Gould, who covered TV. He said, “reporters should report, celebrities should celebrite.” He had a point.
FLEMING: I didn’t see Carr as an objective reporter; he alternated between critic and advocate. Can you name a famous newspaperman these days? It’s hard. I wanted to know what was on Carr’s mind. I know he rolled himself under the bus in his drug-addiction memoir – admitting he left two small children in a car to score drugs – but I admired it when Carr castigated himself and a biographer for not properly grilling Bill Cosby about the stream of sexual abuse accusers when Carr profiled the comic for an in-flight magazine. I actually sent him a fan letter. I hear your point about fame and ego and I most admire those who resist being seduced. I wasn’t fully aware of Bob Simon’s bravery and journalistic accomplishments until I read them after he died. I just loved his 60 Minutes segments; he told great stories without needing to be the focal point. If Brian Williams survives, he might consider how gracefully Simon carried himself with a quiet dignity, which is how a journalist ought to. I’m not sure Williams can survive; that need for adulation — a $10-million-a-year salary and network news anchor job wasn’t enough — hints at a deep hole that can’t be filled. Indeed, his long trail of exaggeration on the talk show circuit might be his undoing and if so, the autopsy will say death by narcissism.
BART: Bob Simon will be missed, but his passing reminded us of that show’s problems in nurturing a new generation of hosts and of viewers. 60 Minutes had its distinctive voices going back to Mike Wallace. Bob Simon first came to viewers’ attention during the dark days of Vietnam. He had an idiosyncratic sing-song way of talking but he also had enormous credibility. Though exec producer Jeff Fager has expertly steered the show through the years, his efforts to build a new on-air team have often seemed confused (even beyond Lara Logan). Will 60 Minutes become a chorus of anonymous voices? If so, perhaps it should range wide and invite Jon Stewart to do an occasional piece. Or Tina Fey. Or Brian Williams. Perhaps it would be informative to hear a variety of distinctive voices since it seems all but impossible to corral a new cluster of Bob Simons, Lesley Stahls and Steve Krofts. That 60 Minutes clock keeps ticking away the seconds. I hope it won’t tick away the viewers.
FLEMING: What you are suggesting is a TV version of Interview magazine, and boy, I hope that never happens. I think the 60 Minutes formula of a handful of great journalists must be retained and Fager’s task will be to find new talent. Get a guy like Sebastian Junger or some other photogenic real journalist who puts himself at peril like Simon did. Journalists are an inherently bitter, jealous bunch – I remember once thinking Barry Sonnenfeld was talking about journalists when he described the Hollywood attitude that “Every time a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies.” But I look at an outlet like 60 Minutes with fanboy adoration. Imagine, shining a light on important global issues in non-exploitative ways that are entertaining enough to get big ratings! I like all of the correspondents on the show, Logan included, and so admired her courage in baring what happened to her in Egypt.
Since we are mentioning journalists we like, this got me thinking of some who work in my sandbox, whose bylines always make me want to be better. I’ve always thought Michael Cieply an ethical, hardnosed guy whose doggedness hasn’t faded over time. When it comes to profiling stars, Esquire’s Scott Raab is the rare guy who just always gets personal revelations — Will Smith is the latest example — without any of that passive-aggressive stuff I hate in the gotcha journalism age. You know stars hear every question, but he always finds a way to create intriguing conversation. I remember a 2007 Raab piece, when he asked Drew Carey the best question ever: ‘Does the term ‘Red Right 88’ mean anything to you?’ It was the 1981 Browns’ equivalent of Pete Carroll’s horrible Super Bowl call, and some 26 years after it ended Cleveland’s best chance at a Super Bowl, diehard Browns’ fan Carey bled all over the page like Raab had gotten him to open up about a freshly dead relative. All because he pushed the right button. Enough of this sweetness, before I cause cavities.
BART: New topic. We cannot let the new Amy Pascal story pass without a mention: If the reports of her Sony ‘bye bye’ deal are true, will the corporate activists and whistle blowers pay attention? The noise is building over mega-rich CEO salaries and severance deals and Amy’s package is good fodder. Will she receive up to $40 million over the next five years? Will she also take away producing deals for the Spidey and James Bond franchises, among others? Peter Chernin was awarded a rich deal in departing Fox, but he decided to step down as CEO, he wasn’t fired. He got to produce the Planet Of The Apes reboot, but not Spidey and Bond. Look, I’m glad that Amy will be well taken care of, but from the stockholders standpoint, are there limits to corporate philanthropy?
FLEMING: She publicly admitted this week she had been flat-out fired and there are complexities in cherry picking established projects, but I don’t see it as philanthropy. Clearly, Sony brass felt they needed new leadership after the myriad missteps Pascal and Lynton made in managing an unprecedented mess. She still has a lot to offer, creatively. Why let Pascal and her spectacular Rolodex go elsewhere? The dollar figures are estimates of what she’ll earn, as opposed to the $20 million paydays that a slew of Sony toppers walked out with in the past. She’ll produce projects she helped architect including Spider-Man, 007, Barbie and Ghostbusters (she spent years trying in vain to tempt Bill Murray). The trick for her: will producers she’s stepping over resent when her name goes above theirs in the credit roll, after all the sweat equity they’ve put in to get films this far? Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad will take the exec producer backseat on future Spider-Man installments to Pascal and Marvel’s Kevin Feige. You could say they didn’t make the most of Amazing Spider-Man in making it an asset in need of shoring up, but Pascal presided over every decision.
I think setting the director of (500) Days of Summer guaranteed Spidey would lack for spine and edge. I liked the Andrew Garfield choice when it happened, but it turned out his status as the most empathetic actor alive made for a reluctant superhero too nice to kill a bug, much less a thug. That reboot was hastily executed because of a ticking rights clock that apparently has stopped ticking with Sony’s recent deal with Marvel. Despite a great villain turn by Jamie Foxx as Electro, the last film just felt like more of the same, and they punched the ticket for Emma Stone, who was the best thing about the whole thing. And it cost so much money that even a global gross north of $700 million wasn’t enough to call it a big win.
I am so tired of teenage angst Spider-Man and hope they aren’t doing that yet again. Why not get someone fully formed like American Sniper’s Bradley Cooper, pair him with an edgy director like David O Russell or Clint Eastwood, and make a kick-ass action film with a great villain or two that veers from the Gwen and Mary Jane subplots? Marvel found a way to bring Captain America from period to contemporary, so why must Sony be shackled by Spidey’s formative years mythology? As for Pascal landing on plum projects she helped bring in as studio head, this is a little different from how John Calley handled it when he transitioned out of the Sony job. When he oversaw the acquisition of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – Sony paid $3 million against 3.5% of back end – he assigned no producer and took that post himself when he stepped away from the top job (Brian Grazer and Ron Howard joined later). Calley was a rarity, and there is a long history of ex-studio chief nest-feathering. I recall when Alan Ladd Jr. left MGM, he was allowed to take two projects, and his first pick was eventual Best Picture winner Braveheart, which he took to Paramount. I grant you that Pascal will enjoy one of the best cushioned exec-suite exits in Hollywood history, and other producers getting shoved aside on these projects will just have to grin and bear it. But she wouldn’t have gotten all this if she didn’t have something exceptional to offer. There aren’t many like her.
BART: Next topic. I am greatly amused by the ‘big divide’ over Fifty Shades Of Grey. Some critics, like Ken Turan, were outraged. A.O. Scott was vaguely disdainful (who else would quote W.H. Auden in a film review?) Candidly, my wife and I found the film entertaining, given its (very) limited objectives. And going to the first public screening reminded me of the opening of Deep Throat in 1972. Huddled in the darkness were celebrities, important political figures and the editors of top magazines, all looking embarrassed at being there (I was working for Paramount at the time). Deep Throat, of course, was porn; it was also the focus of a major censorship debate. Fifty Shades is pseudo-porn: Still, some top media people seemed embarrassed about being there. Deep Throat was one of the most successful movies of all time, but most of the money went to its Mafia backers. I am glad the Fifty Shades bounty will flow to a more respectable destination.
FLEMING: Critical disagreement was inevitable, but to me the most interesting part of this is how author EL James became the dominatrix wielding the whip in this screen saga. Consider she: exorcised a midlife crisis by writing Twilight Saga fan fiction; turned it into an S&M relationship story I’m told was inspired by Robert Pattinson fantasies; sold 100 million bawdy books; and won movie creative controls unprecedented for a first-time author. She used them to make sure the movie would please her book fans. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has bristled over being creatively handcuffed; speculation is she won’t return. Usually the author is the one powerless and left bitching; James is keeping quiet, because she is the rare author who had contractual final say on every spat. Universal seems most focused on the seductive sound of a ringing cash register. I’m told that while most profitable pictures don’t hit break-even until their home entertainment window or later, Fifty Shades of Grey is an anomaly. Thanks in no small part to its global grosses driven by worldwide book sales, the racy pic will recoup its negative cost plus distribution expenses within seven days of its theatrical release. That is a victory for Universal’s Donna Langley, who paid $5 million against at least a 5% back end, and gave such creative sway to James; I assure you, Pascal and others were ready to do the same thing. Big win for Universal, which has two, maybe three sequels to slot over the next few years. That’s the kind of victory that would have saved Pascal’s job, had she prevailed in winning Fifty Shades.