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: Last week’s big seven-figure pitch deal — Universal bought a vehicle for Josh Gad that Jeremy Garelick will write/direct with songs from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz – will pay eight figures to that quartet if the movie gets made. It’s just the latest of a bunch of recent deals that had lit agents telling me that writers are seeing more love from studios than at any time since that disastrous writer’s strike. Well, I should qualify that. If you write on assignment, you still take what studios are willing to give you and if you haven’t delivered drafts that got any recent movies made, you’re all but unhireable. But if you can come up with a pitch, write a spec or make a proof-of-content short film like the sci-fi Sundays, and are repped by an agency that has enough talent to encrust your creation with elements, you stand a really good chance of making a lot more money than you usually get. Every studio bid on the musical, which had an intriguing pitch process; it was Universal’s second seven-figure pitch deal of the week after The Judge scribe Bill Dubuque’s Chris Pratt-attached The Real McCoy, which spiked Dubuque’s writing fee to $1.5 million. Landing on both projects as producer was Michael De Luca, who during his short run as Sony Pictures production president bought more of this kind of material than anyone in town.
BART: I admire anyone who has the guts to develop a musical. Over the years I have listened faithfully as talented artists played and sang their shows in their search for funding and I have come to this conclusion: I have no idea how to predict what will work and what won’t when it comes to musicals. Reading the reviews of Finding Neverland, I wonder if Harvey Weinstein has come to the same conclusion. I have not seen the show; it may attract a broad family audience, but critics and non-critics tell me the songs are instantly forgettable. Years ago I visited the home of the great Fritz Loewe to hear him and the equally great Alan Jay Lerner perform their next movie musical. It was called The Little Prince. Loewe played piano and Lerner sang (sort of). I was anticipating a return to My Fair Lady. They told me it’s a hit; I told them it’s a miss. Unfortunately I was right. I lived through the dailies of Paint Your Wagon. I told the director, Josh Logan, the idea of casting Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood in singing roles was weird. He told me it was brilliant. Alas, I was right, but the movie has become a sort of cult favorite. Clearly the studio executives who bid against each other for the rights to the new musical you reported on, Mike, have more confidence in their predictive talents than I. And I sincerely hope they are right.
FLEMING: I too wondered why so many studios got excited for a musical that right now only has a concept, and whose book hasn’t been written yet, nor the songs. Gad and Garelick pitched each studio with Menken in tow, and Schwartz participating via Skype. While the star and director (who developed the pitch together) set up a storyline that has Gad working as a domestic in a household led by a busy single mom, Menken and Schwartz chimed in at moments that begged for a song. And they described the emotional core of each tune they will write. Menken has more Oscars than anybody alive, and Schwartz has several and also did Wicked, which was important because that is minting money for Universal and a stage musical for this one is part of the plan. I think what made this very intriguing is that it was presented as two parallel collaborations, script and music, that have to be done hand in hand, just like they do it for the stage. Gad knows that process from stage work in such musicals as The Book Of Mormon, and that was a big reason Menken and Schwartz became involved on the ground floor. It seemed preferable for a studio to buy in on a detailed explanation of concept, rather than on a spec script to which those songwriters would have added tunes. I’m told that just doesn’t work. Hollywood hasn’t generated an original movie musical since Newsies. Fox hopes to end that streak with the Michael Gracey-directed PT Barnum musical with Hugh Jackman, but I can see why this pitch was so enticing for studios looking for something different. You are right, though. Musicals are hard. Remember, that Wicked was a movie project languishing in development hell when they decided to go to the stage first. It pours cash at such an astonishing rate that Universal and producer Marc Platt have been in no hurry to make the inevitable movie.
BART: The other night I saw Jersey Boys a second time and realized that, contrary to initial reactions, Clint Eastwood had made a damn good movie. His big risk was in totally restructuring the show. On the level of drama, it was a smart decision; on the level of entertainment, it was a mistake. Again, that’s what’s so perplexing about crafting a successful musical. So again let’s sing a chorus of There’s No (Risky) Business like Show (Risky) Business.
FLEMING: I’m tracking several other material submissions that will end in deals. Studios have differing priorities but everybody’s buying. Universal’s development funding is bursting at the seams after Fifty Shades of Grey and Furious 7, with several other big hits coming. They are spending large. Paramount is eager to show it’ll be a friendlier and more prolific place under Marc Evans (the studio was in it to the end on that Gad/Garelick musical). Fox, which just bought the Paul Feig-attached Play-Doh package, wants more big swings, and so does Warner Bros’ Greg Silverman and New Line’s Toby Emmerich. MGM is also aggressive; Sony will have to make statement buys, which Tom Rothman did to launch TriStar; and don’t forget Lionsgate. Bottom line, these studios have cut internal development and gutted producing deals and they need to fill slates around their tent poles from middle of 2016 and beyond. Everybody saw how Sony bought the Jonathan Spaihts script Passengers and quickly got the hottest filmmaker in The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum, and hottest talent in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.
Jonathan Levine and Miles Teller aligned with Home Is Burning and the book sold in four days. Even better if the agencies do the packaging, which is why the majors – CAA, WME and UTA – have become the studio president’s best friend. Studios are happy to have the agents assemble projects while they focus on the global tent poles. It seems odd that studio execs would leave those decisions to deal makers but that is what is happening. The cupboard’s bare, and we want packages, studios are telling agencies. Everything with strong source material and elements seems to be selling lately, often with multiple suitors fighting for it.
BART: I’ve been surprised these last few years to hear one studio executive after another tell me they were sharply cutting development. The ultimate result of this strategy, I felt, would be to trigger a studio dependence on pickups or packages. A secondary result would be to drive many writers out of the market. Yet the cutbacks have now taken place with the predictable damage. Why? One reason relates to the corporate desperation to reduce spending any way they can, even if it means curtailing research and development. A secondary reason: development has been mismanaged by inept studio executives. One studio chief confided that only 10% of his projects in development would ever come to fruition. That’s not a program, it’s an ‘oops.’ So now we have a situation in which frantic bidding breaks out as fully developed projects hit the market. That’s an expensive way of doing business for the studios. I hope it nonetheless gets some good movies made.
FLEMING: The difference between the old spec script boom and now is that studios are buying things they are sure they can practically pencil in on the release calendar. Maybe that is why they don’t just want a naked pitch or spec. It makes the agents and managers assembling these projects some kind of hybrid between studio exec and producer who can either sell these pictures directly to the studios or instead to the monied companies like Teddy Schwarzman’s Black Bear, confident that studios will pick them up later. That company plucked Graham Moore’s script for The Imitation Game after Warner Bros let it go. They packaged it and sold it to The Weinstein Company in a record deal at 2014 Berlin. Schwarzman just did it again with the Stephen Gaghan-directed Gold with Matthew McConaughey, which TWC bought for $15 million with a P&A commitment north of $20 million. Guys like Schwarzman have become integral cogs in the way that studios line their slates, particularly with the prestige pictures that thrive at year end.
BART: Next topic. How liberal is Hollywood – and how vocal will its “big names” be in the coming presidential election? Republicans have always felt Hollywood was a liberal bastion, unlike your right-wing Long Island neighborhood, Mike, and, on cue, the Spielberg-Katzenberg camp has already started lining up fund raisers for Hillary’s newly announced campaign. Still some activists wonder whether the “big names” – the Clooneys and Penns and Streisands – will be as ardent (or vocal) as they were during the first Obama campaign. Some liberal-leaning actors like Mark Ruffalo, admit they’re leaning toward Elizabeth Warren. And some are just bored by the prospect of a Bush-Clinton campaign that seems like another case of Hollywood’s sequel-itis.
FLEMING: Well, I’ve got to correct your misconception about where I live. We’re a liberal lot. So far, Hillary Clinton seems to have a lot of backing. You mention Barack Obama; Hollywood played a role in empowering the election of America’s first black president. Whether it’s the former First Lady/Secretary of State, or the Democrat Senator from Massachusetts, I can see them sparking to the idea of helping elect the first female president and shattering another barrier.
BART: It was interesting that while companies like Apple and Walmart spoke out in defense of gay rights a couple of weeks ago, the major Hollywood companies were silent. It’s as though Hollywood doesn’t want to offend anyone. Does that go for its stars? Some of the new wave of pirated Sony emails released last week by WikiLeaks reveal that company’s over-aggressive political fundraising efforts of recent years (including ‘collectives’ to get around finance limitations) – a disclosure that may put a damper on new initiatives of that sort.
FLEMING: During the Sony hack, other studios and the MPAA were pretty gutless in taking any position of support that could have put them in the cross hairs. They want their product to appeal to the widest possible audience and don’t want to polarize anybody. I moderated a Tribeca panel yesterday with Harvey Weinstein and asked him the pros and cons of being a larger-than-life company figurehead. He said he doesn’t covet it; he’d rather the content generated by his company speak for itself but he is accustomed to taking the punches. He’s been outspoken on a number of hot-button issues, including gun control, when we saw a spate of massacres in schools by wackos with semi-automatic weapons. You can’t help but imagine critics have Harvey’s ambition in mind when they are judging the merits of something like Neverland. As for the political fundraising, I wonder how different what you just described is, compared to other studios and industries that didn’t have their emails stolen by North Korean cyber-terrorists and dispersed. I just don’t know.
BART: I was a reporter for The New York Times during the Vietnam era and was surprised how many top stars were eager to take controversial public positions. John Wayne was passionately pro-war and spent a lot of time talking with me about The Green Berets (he was actually rather fun to argue with). Charlton Heston and Bob Hope were also in touch with me to express their pro-war positions while Paul Newman and Robert Vaughn were ardently anti-war (Vaughn became a top dog in the Democratic Party and blew off a couple of sponsors for his TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as a result). But I also remember sitting down with Walt Disney, who told me, “I had my fling supporting Barry Goldwater and I decided I don’t like politics. I‘d rather build a theme park.” I think some Hollywood liberals may follow Walt’s inclination this time.
FLEMING: I think you want to be on the right side of things when current events become history. You can do that by not leaving a footprint like Disney (though a lot of negative aspersions were cast his way by the likes of Meryl Streep that undercut the awards-season momentum of Saving Mr. Banks), or you can courageously take a position. And sometimes, you find later that you didn’t consider all the angles and were used as a shiny propaganda toy. Do you think Colin Powell regrets sacrificing his stellar rep by being the front man for the invasion of Iraq after he pressed the case there were WMDs? In the minds of many, Jane Fonda will never shed the Hanoi Jane label she got for visiting and showing solidarity with the North Vietnamese; she wanted to protest a war that history now tells us was wrong, so her instincts were right. But who forgets the photo of her posing on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi, so close to the infamous Hanoi Hilton where, unbeknownst to Fonda, American POWs were being tortured?