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: I just can’t get past that a superb Super Bowl shaping up as one for the ages fell off the cliff so abruptly. Seahawks down by four, little over a minute left, both teams with timeouts. A miracle catch by Seattle by Jermaine Kearse who’d fallen on the ground. Seattle hands to the best goal-line back in football, and Marshawn Lynch gets to the half yard line. I’m already thinking he scores on the next run, Seattle kicks off and Tom Brady, now down by three, has to race the Patriots up 40 yards for the game-tying kick and overtime. No! Instead Seahawks coach Pete Carroll okays Russell Wilson to pass into the teeth of the Patriot defense. Interception. Game over. It was as awful as that earlier insurance commercial with the dead kid that buzzkilled countless Super Bowl parties. Later, I heard former Jets coach Herm Edwards say it was like watching a fantastic movie that goes off a cliff, making you scream, why did you do that?
Upfront Week 2019: The Good, The Bad & The "Did That Just Happen?"
I tried to think of our business’ equivalent of the Pete Carroll call, and came up with these candidates (spoiler alerts). TV: The Sopranos sudden fade-to-black series ending (which I kind of liked); and the How I Met Your Mother series conclusion. After nine seasons promising us an answer to the show’s title, we learn mom croaked.
On the movie side: there was that Peter Fonda 1974 crime caper Dirty Mary Crazy Larry where they literally Pete Carrolled it by driving the getaway car into a moving train and a fiery fatal explosion (it wasn’t that good a movie, though); Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, which sucked me into caring about these steroid-dealing muscleheads, only to see them turn vile. One lug (Dwayne Johnson) is told to incinerate the mitts of victims so they can’t be fingerprinted, and next you see him turning over the severed hands on a charcoal grill, like he’s barbecuing steaks. Yuk.
Some suggested that any of three M. Night Shyamalan endings (The Village, The Happening, Lady in the Water) were Pete Carroll-worthy. And let’s not forget the 1987 pic Fatal Attraction. The original ending: Michael Douglas takes away a knife from stalker Glenn Close after she cuts herself and threatens suicide. She subsequently offs herself; his prints are on the knife; game over for the cheater. But test audiences hated it. A million bucks of re-shoots later, audiences got what they wanted: a glorious death for home-wrecker Close — she boiled the family bunny, after all — killed by the scorned wife. Huge hit, six Oscar noms. If only Carroll had called reshoot! Got any Pete Carroll-quality movie gaffes where defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory?
BART: I admire your total recall on movie endings, Mike. To me, the going-off-the-cliff moment first plays out in the offices of studio execs when they see the director’s cut of a movie — one that clearly self-destructs. Prime example: I am convinced The Lone Ranger could have been a success had 30 minutes been chopped. Alan Horn, a very smart guy, had just arrived at Disney to inherit this nightmare and I’ll bet he knew where the cuts had to come. But that meant open war with Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, who were in love with their exercise in onanistic overkill. The cuts were not made and the movie was a turkey. Too many films this year also would have worked better at shorter running times.
Next topic. Crazy week at Sony, but what gets me is how, even though Sony Pictures has fallen behind in market share recently, it leads the field in rich production deals. If Sony’s ‘goodbye’ deal with Amy Pascal guarantees $30 million to $40 million as reported, she joins the ranks of Tom Rothman and Jeff Robinov in closing major production deals at the company.
Michael De Luca, another former studio chief, also serves as a co-president with considerable spending authority. That would suggest major pressure on the surviving chairman, Michael Lynton, to fulfill his commitment to cut costs.
The Robinov deal entails outside co-financing and there is some of that in Rothman’s deal, but the pressure for prime release dates and marketing spends will be intense. One wonders whether Lynton, who came out of the book-publishing business, will want to remain in this hot seat. In a profile in The New Yorker a decade ago, Lynton described Hollywood as a “black hole.” That was after his earlier difficult tour of duty at Disney. Is that hole growing bigger? Lynton is a very wealthy guy who has flirted with other offers, including a university presidency.
FLEMING: I spent all last week analyzing Pascal’s exit and have little to add beyond a personal yarn that seems relevant in light of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams burnishing his own hero legend. I was lucky enough to break Pascal’s exit. I bring that up not to brag but it seemed funny to me that it happened while I was on this breathing device after a test for sleep apnea showed that I have been gasping for air 42 times a minute while asleep, which is probably why I never seem to sleep.
BART: In the press accounts of Amy Pascal’s departure, frequent references are made to her “talent relationships.” Yet Pascal herself has always been realistic about these ties, as was evidenced in some of her leaked emails. A few years ago, Pascal candidly described her attitudes toward talent in a TV interview with Peter Guber and myself. She observed that when a star or a star filmmaker first pitches a project to a studio chief, detailing story, budget and projected cast, “he listens attentively to your comments.” Or seems to. “The filmmaker always tells you how smart you are and how he agrees with all your suggestions,” Amy recalled. “Then you make the deal, he starts his movie and you realize he hasn’t heard a word you said.” Concluded Pascal: “They bullshit you. That’s the game. You learn it.” Now Pascal will discover how that game plays out in her new role as producer, not studio chief.
FLEMING: So anyway, I am telling these respiratory technicians, please, I have to break the biggest story in Hollywood. You must wait. They are laughing at me, but getting impatient. This is the real world, and they’ve got a waiting room full of wheezers. Finally I get what I needed and call my right-hand man Patrick Hipes and we splash it. I hone it with my teeth clamped tightly over a tube on a breath-nebulizer device, woozy and frantically sending emails and texts. It was bizarre and the opposite of the conflated heroic exploits of Brian Williams, more embarrassing than anything. Final thought: if you’ve packed on weight (I’m up 60 since taking the Deadline job), have a size 17 neck, snore like a chainsaw and wake up several times a night in a sweat, good chance you’ve got sleep apnea. They tell me if you treat it like I am, your energy level increases, it’s easier to shed the weight, and your fantasies turn to things other than mid-day naps.
BART: The Brian Williams mess puzzles me in several ways. I do not understand why he told his macho stories to begin with. My point of view is affected by my own experience in reporting prior to my Variety years. I was shot at as a journalist on two occasions, once covering the Watts riots, once in Israel. We’re talking guys firing directly at me, bullet holes in my car, running for cover — that sort of stuff. Candidly, I never spoke about it publicly because I know lots of fellow journalists who have taken hits. To ‘boast’ about it is naive, as though you thought these incidents made you heroic. There are newsmen all over the world who are in physical danger at this moment and I have enormous respect for them. The so-called celebrity journalists should shut up and apologize. Having done so, no one should lose their anchor jobs.
FLEMING: I cut Williams less slack than you. All these network anchors try to live up to the “most trusted man in America” legacy of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite when there were no 24/7 news networks and the evening network newscast meant something. A man’s memory can be tricky. Once, I forgot my anniversary (I’m still reminded of it) and sometimes the kids’ birth dates get fuzzy. But I’ll tell you this: If I was on a chopper that nearly crashed while taking on enemy fire, or if I watched bodies float by in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, these are things I would never forget.
This comes down to trustworthiness and it’s different from the infidelity of married 60 Minutes’ correspondent Steve Kroft, who is now having his pudding eaten daily by the New York Post as the tab bares sexts and sexy selfies that are embarrassing but not fatal because they have little effect on his job as reporter. I always questioned Williams’ obsession with showing up on Saturday Night Live and other entertainment shows; it had a look-at-me, notice-me aspect a serious newsman shouldn’t covet.
But I’m also not one who runs with that torch-carrying crowd screaming “anchor away” either. Getting back to my Super Bowl opening, NBC should treat him like a naughty football player. Take a half year of his salary—a million dollars—and give it to a worthy charity. Since NBC is all abuzz about the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, how about Pathological Liars Anonymous, that dubious organization headed by Tommy Flanagan (Jon Lovitz)?
BART: Since you display more patience with talent agents than I, Mike, give a read to the piece on the WME-IMG deal in next month’s Vanity Fair. Written by William D. Cohan, the piece is stuffed with data on Ari Emanuel’s $2.4 billion acquisition of IMG but also poses some intriguing questions: Will Ari find the $156 million in cost savings at IMG required to satisfy his financial backers (he already promised $50 million in cuts at WME)? Will the surviving entity hit its earnings marks despite the exodus of key agents? The story states that Silver Lake, which specialized in tech deals, had invested $250 million for a 31% stake in WME and that Ari and Patrick Whitesell have ten-year deals to steer the combined new venture – plus the right to sell their stock at a handsome pre-set price. WME agents, meanwhile, reportedly were asked to take starkly lower bonuses in return for equity.
FLEMING: I haven’t paid enough attention to Ari’s big sports play to add anything meaningful. All I know is that neither WME nor CAA will skip a beat if a Hollywood labor union ever decided again to go on strike. The margins are very hard on traditional core Hollywood agency businesses. TV packages aren’t as lucrative, and first-dollar-gross movie deals are as dead as disco. Diversification seems a smart long-term play to me and Ari will figure it out.
BART: The big question I have: Did WME pay too much for IMG (beating out other offers involving Peter Chernin and ICM)? Will an ultimate public offering on the combined company turn Ari and Whitesell into the first agent-billionaires? The Vanity Fair story ends with a ringing endorsement from David Geffen that it will ultimately prove to be a smart deal, suggesting his fingerprints on parts of the article.
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