FLEMING: We broke a story this week that I predict will further dissolve the barriers between TV and feature films. Brad Pitt sets his next star vehicle at Netflix. It’s different from past Netflix deals like the Crouching Tiger “sequel” or a four-pack of Adam Sandler comedies, because who knows what the theatrical release value of either of those really is. We know Pitt is one of the few globally bankable stars who matter anymore. Also an enterprising producer, he realistically assessed the risky commercial prospects of a prestige passion project, and bypassed the enormous P&A and foreign sales and uncertain theatrical penetration for a slam dunk at Netflix. Ted Sarandos and Reed Hastings are busting down doors all over the world and will be in more countries by the time this film rolls out in late 2016. And they were only too happy to pay a premium for a game-changing coup. And so a potentially huge global audience of Netflix subscribers will see the David Michod-directed War Machine, with Pitt playing a character modeled on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who ran the war in Afghanistan until undermined by politics, and some indiscreet quotes in a Rolling Stone article. This turns the traditional theatrical feature model on its ear and creates an alternative to what often proves to be an incredibly costly and inefficient strategy; who not bring movies directly to an audience satisfied to stay home and watch it on the 60-inch TV screen.
Game Changer! Netflix Lands 'War Machine', Brad Pitt's Next Star Vehicle
BART: Don’t knock the “inefficient” strategy so aggressively — it’s still the strategy that has kept Hollywood purring for generations. Still, Pitt’s venture should be studied by every star. The ever-increasing obsession of studios on tentpole pictures has sharply reduced the opportunities for top actors to find a challenging role (unless they like ants). The situation is vaguely reminiscent of that moment in the ’40s and ‘50s when the studios abruptly terminated their contracts with top stars. Suddenly every actor was desperately trying to develop his own films — a very few, like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, showed any talent at it. Today, the big stars find that new platforms are beckoning and need to find ways to access them. Since agents look upon their stars as “brands,” perhaps they should follow the lead of the top fashion brands that pursue down-market labels. Think of Valentino, Armani, Missoni and Ralph Lauren. Why shouldn’t Clooney have a Clooney Red (like Valentino) or Di Caprio a Di Caprio Exchange (like Armani)? Liberated from the pressure of finding a decent part in a superhero movie (Downey is a very lucky man), they might come up with some fascinating projects for Netflix or Amazon or some sharp-edged short form pieces for other platforms – think mobile! I don’t yearn to see any more Adam Sandler movies, but he could still be likeable in six-minute chunks on my smart phone.
FLEMING: Here is what I like about this. Had that Entourage movie been made for and shown on HBO, it would have cost less money, and it would have created enough of a ratings bang to have birthed an annual visit with Ari Gold and the boys. It would have been a win. Instead, its $25 million domestic gross (and minuscule overseas tally) puts it in the summer casualty column because these niche movies just cost too much money to launch to the mass market. Netflix got its TV game changer with House Of Cards (Kevin Spacey is a guy who has shown the flexibility to gamble on platform-disruptive projects, including Margin Call), and he needed one big movie star to take a gamble, and now he got it and it will open the door to all kinds of things. When I saw Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson peel the layers on complicated characters over the course of 8 or so hours in True Detective, I felt the ground shifting. I love mystery-novel series, but you never see them turned into movies. Michael Connelly battled in court for years to get back his Harry Bosch novels that languished forever at Paramount, and then Amazon Studios turned it into the streaming service equivalent of a page-turner novel with Titus Welliver playing Bosch.
I would love to see Netflix revive Robert B Parker’s Spenser For Hire series with a great actor like Kyle Chandler playing the boxer-turned-gumshoe, serving up a new mystery every year. The possibilities here for quality are enormous. You can never replicate the shared theatergoing experience on something like Jurassic World (which will hit break-even in days, Universal’s fourth film this year to recoup within 30 days of release) and even certain smaller movies where you shut out the world for a couple hours. It can be a great business that pours off cash at an astonishing rate. But until movie makers and exhibitors figure it out with windowing and find a way around the spectacularly inefficient manner in which marginal movies are marketed, I’d call War Machine constructive progress. I caught up with John Ridley at our Awardsline Emmy party last week. Hadn’t seen him in forever, but we kind of grew up together, me covering him when he was struggling and his Three Kings script got taken away and refashioned into a memorable movie by David O Russell and his book Stray Dogs got overhauled by Oliver Stone into U-Turn. Ridley has since won the Oscar for 12 Years A Slave and spends much of his time on the series American Crime. He said he loves movies but relishes the authorship given a TV creator/showrunner that isn’t part of feature films. We both agreed this whole golden era of series occurred because Hollywood stopped making edgy mid-budget films, forcing guys like Ridley to the small screen so they could feed their families. Pitt/Netflix is another iteration of a creative business adapting and finding a way for quality to rise. Some lessons will never be learned — how is it they’ve made four Jurassic Park movies and still go into each one not realizing a dinosaur theme park is a bad idea? — but Hollywood is evolving fast and Netflix is forcing the issue. My question is how much longer the Academy will require award season “qualifying theatrical runs” for Oscar consideration, which means you show it in a theater in New York and Los Angeles. Netflix will provide that for War Machine, but it is beginning to seem silly and meaningless, since it’s not how this project will be consumed globally.
BART: Let’s not get carried away, Mike. A theatrical release is still a smart and reasonable mandate. There are elements of the Academy process that don’t make sense any more — an example is the requirement that documentaries need a New York Times review to qualify for Oscar nomination. But leave the movie stuff alone.
FLEMING: Another compelling story this week, written by my colleagues Anita Busch and Ali Jaafar, concerned Ryan Kavanaugh’s desperate attempt to borrow $250 million to get debtors off his back and allow him to stay at the reins of his heavily leveraged Relativity Media. It’s not the first time Kavanaugh has been up against it, but he might not make it this time. He catapulted to prominence co-financing the slates of several major studios, only to see an erosion of the relationship with Elliott Management that required him to be bought out. He now has a sports division and a pretty successful TV operation, but he has run Relativity’s film program like Japanese ballplayer Ichiro Suzuki has run his career, slap hitting to where the defenders aren’t, and getting on base with mostly singles, with the occasional extra base hit a bonus. Relativity’s formula has been to make moderate-budget niche movies that squeeze out small profit, hoping to get lucky with a breakout like Twilight Saga or The Hunger Games. The results are underwhelming. If you look at the last couple years of film releases — The Best Of Me, The November Man, Brick Mansions, Three Days To Kill, Out Of The Furnace, Paranoia, House At The End Of The Street, Mirror Mirror, etc — most barely appear to have out-grossed their budgets. The only real hits were The Fighter (Paramount released it) and Limitless. I read these trade stories that Relativity makes money on all its releases because it lays off risk. I recall hearing the same thing from Dino De Laurentiis before his DEG went bankrupt, and from Elie Samaha before his venture cratered. It’s all spin. You have to make hits. I hope Relativity survives; Kavanaugh is a character and execs like Robbie Brenner and Tucker Tooley are bright, and some of their movies are very good — the Scott Cooper-directed Out Of The Furnace was one I loved even though it was too dark to draw a wide audience. But if you spent lots of money, and over-leverage your assets, it’s very hard to last a long time, no matter how many trade stories you plant about equity investments and shrewd deals.
BART: The Ryan Kavanaugh story is like a soap – once you start following it, it’s hard to stop. And it’s impossible not to root for him. He’s both personable and persuasive. Whenever you think he’s cornered, he’s back in the fray. But personally, I never understood the Relativity business plan. I don’t think a company can survive on “singles and doubles” because there are too many inevitable strikeouts along the way. And I don’t think an indie company can survive on overseas advances because distributors have a habit of not paying their bills and always claim to be strapped for funds. The nasty reality of the film business is that companies need things like sequels and libraries and talent deals and the clout to get their trailers played and to steal some prime release dates away from the majors. Now that savvy Warner Bros. is releasing films like Gravity and The Lego Movie in supposedly slow times of year, is there room for a Relativity to sneak in its singles or doubles? More urgently, does Relativity have the resources to survive one inevitable “down” year?
Next topic: since we spend lots of space dealing with filmmaking as a business, I want to take a moment to focus on filmmaking as an adventure; specifically to tip my hat to Art Jones, a guerilla filmmaker based in Brooklyn who went “off the grid” to shoot a gripping dramedy called Forbidden Cuba. Eager to tell the truth about the this fast-changing island nation, Jones and his small French-American crew flew into Cuba without permits (a nightmare to obtain) or studio advances and managed to shoot for a month without getting arrested or deported. Inevitably, they were detained for hours by Cuban bureaucrats who confiscated much of their equipment. I talked at length with Jones yesterday and he told me that, through it all, he has retained a deep affection for Cuba, calling it “the last place on earth that the U.S. has not been able to change.” But change is forthcoming and his story concerns the search for an American businessman who, dispatched to Cuba to find investment opportunities, “went rogue.”
Jones, who made several indie films before Forbidden Cuba (Lustre, Dodgeball, Going Nomad), has now completed editing and is trying to raise the remaining $45,000 needed to complete post production. So it’s Kickstarter time (his deadline is June 27 with $30,000 to go). “I felt welcome in Cuba,” he reflects, “but the cops were watching us and sometimes chasing us away. Everyone needs a cover story so officially we said we were shooting a movie about exotic birds. Between takes we shot lots and lots of bird footage to show the authorities.” Since I enjoyed a two-week journey in Cuba last month I hope Jones manages to get his movie into the mainstream.. There’s a great story to be told, albeit by necessity an exercise in guerilla film making.
FLEMING: Sounds noble, but Kickstarter is no guarantee, as evidenced by Rampage 3. That one crashed and burned last week. German filmmaker Uwe Boll needed $50,000 but only got $35,000 by the deadline and so we won’t get to see this monumental hat trick, though come to think of it, did anybody see the first two? When Boll — who has been called the worst director since Ed Wood — realized he wasn’t going to make it, he was of no mind to make a gracious concession speech. Instead, he posted two diatribes on YouTube lambasting everyone in Hollywood, and anyone who enjoys movies, only not his. I’m attaching his final f*ck you here, because it was so entertaining. I hope the crowd funders spark to Forbidden Cuba more strongly than they did the third leg of Rampage. But Boll’s YouTube films might be the most memorable cinematic work of his career and I can’t stop watching.
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