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.
FLEMING: Studios test the daylights out of finished films to hone audience appeal. Looking at the failure of Our Brand Is Crisis and Burnt this weekend, and the ho hum reaction given Steve Jobs, The Walk, The Truth, Crimson Peak and so many other fall films that should have done better, I have a question for you. Should studios audience test risky movie concepts before green lighting them, to see if they even remotely appeal to the masses? Or is that suggestion unseemly and they have to trust filmmakers to generate quality artistic statements, and then pray the marketing team will find a sale-able handle? Lately, it not only seems execs don’t know what audiences want; they don’t even realize a film has art house and not mainstream appeal until it bombs.
BART: I understand what prompts your question, Mike, even if we both know that great movies don’t always find validation at the box office. Too many promising films have crashed and burned this fall. And some of those movies seem to have especially opaque topics and settings: A Bolivian presidential election, a 60 Minutes expose, a Florida real estate scam, even a biopic of an Apple CEO.
FLEMING: I love risky movies that pay off, and there is no way a focus group would have told you to make Gravity, or Pan’s Labyrinth, or American Beauty, Birdman or Life Of Pi. But Steve Jobs is a head-scratcher, because Hollywood’s best and brightest steered this film. I remember the thrill I felt breaking the story that Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography was bought for the screen by Sony, right after the Apple genius died in 2011. And followed how the package got prestige validation when Social Network’s Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher and Scott Rudin boarded. Then, Fincher stepped out, and the great Slumdog Millionaire helmer Danny Boyle replaced him. It was to be Leo DiCaprio and then Christian Bale and finally Michael Fassbender to play Jobs, and then Universal replaced Sony. Maybe all this just took too long; despite the A-list pedigree, the movie so far has done no better than that unheralded 2013 Steve Jobs movie that starred Ashton Kutcher. Did any of the bright people behind this consider that while we voraciously consumed every Apple gizmo Jobs sprung on us, we don’t care so much about the complex, eccentric man behind them?
BART: Since Hollywood’s beginnings, studio chiefs have explored ways to test story ideas. None have succeeded. I spent time with the production chiefs of two important companies this week and asked them to list their criteria for picking their projects. Had anything shifted? In both cases, their main objective was to keep their filmmakers happy. “If you create a supportive environment for your creative talent, you will come out ahead,” said one. OK, but you may also come out behind.
FLEMING: This topic was on my mind when I spent an hour on Friday with Sam Mendes to discuss the upcoming 007 film Spectre, a film that will get the box office turnstiles going again when it opens Friday. He’s a sophisticated storyteller, and I admire how Mendes and Daniel Craig and the writers have turned the last couple movies away from campy action romps, into a slow peel of the layers of an existentially tortured stone killer. When I watched Spectre, I found an action payoff in even the most emotional scenes, and then read blogger reactions that the film dragged. I asked Mendes if there was a formula to how much emotion and storytelling one could employ while upholding the franchise requirement for spectacle action set pieces. Mendes said there can’t be. He gave kudos to Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale for starting Bond’s slow bleed that has run through Quantum Of Solace and both of Mendes’ Bond films. But Mendes said he won’t follow formula and instead relies on his own instincts honed over a number of films and blended with a love for 007 that began in his childhood. His gut tells him the right thing is to elevate character and storytelling, and that is what he has done, naysayers be damned. If he’s wrong, he’d rather fail following his gut, and not input from some focus group. Now, the stakes couldn’t be higher than on a 007 film where a $250 million budget number gets thrown around. But he was certainly right on Skyfall, which topped all Bond outings with $1.1 billion, the 13th biggest grossing film of all time.
BART: Again, the bottom line: There’s basically no way to pre-test story ideas. Even when a movie has finished shooting, the process of testing audience response is uncertain. Remember, it was exactly 100 years ago that D.W. Griffith took his epic movie, Birth of a Nation, to Riverside, Calif., to see how it would play to an audience. A brash self-promoter, Griffith already had lied about its cost. He claimed it cost a then outrageous $500,000 to produce; it actually cost half that much. He said his giant movie had used 25,000 extras. Another lie. In Riverside in 1915, the audience looked at Griffith’s movie and liked what they saw. Mind you, the movie heralded the virtues of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was shown riding to the rescue of hapless Southerners in the post-Civil War era. The cards from the screening were positive (there were two or three blacks in the audience, representing 1915-style diversity). Advance reviews were also laudatory. Griffith had a hit on his hands. Albeit a racist hit.
FLEMING: Quentin Tarantino puts forth a much different view of how people were feeling post-Civil War in The Hateful Eight. That film deals with the residual of slavery and racism and that awful war, though those themes don’t overwhelm the film. Tarantino said that at that moment in time, everybody had reason to hate everybody else and be pissed off. He’s created hurdles for that film with his recent comments, but back to our thesis. Mendes said audience testing is as helpful as an out of town stage play run in showing him when an audience gets restless, for instance. But he’s not going to abandon his own creative judgment and it’s not ego. It’s because just as people will forever debate which actor was the Best James Bond, they argue passionately over every other aspect of the 007 films. Maybe my point is reserved for the producers and studio execs who’ve perhaps spent so much time in a privileged ivory tower environment that they’ve lost connection to people all over the country who struggle and won’t spring for just any movie. I saw Sicario yesterday and paid $7 for popcorn. Medium size. Moviegoing is a commitment. Should execs be sent to pour coffee for two weeks in a diner in Milwaukee or Detroit and see what’s on these peoples’ minds? Maybe it would have told them that while they might tune into a political candidate debate on free TV, they’re not going to shell out to watch a campaign satire even if Sandra Bullock is fronting it. These execs don’t seem to know what the public at large wants, and I feel sympathy for the frustration those execs must be feeling right now.
BART: What’s especially painful this fall is to see quality movies bumping into each other during “contenders season.” There are even too many movies about writers and journalists – Spotlight, Trumbo, Truth, etc. Who’s at fault? Distributors assure us that audiences are more receptive to specialty pictures in the fall. The multiplexes need product now that the comic heroes have moved on. Then there are the stars: When a star takes a salary cut to help negotiate a green light for his specialty picture (or vanity picture) he likely will insist on a fall opening. That increases his or her chance of a nomination. If a studio decides to open it in April, the star suddenly becomes unavailable for promotion when awards season comes around… So everyone’s to blame for the clutter. It’s the audience that suffers. And some of the movies.
FLEMING: The other thing about this weekend’s bloodbath is that both Our Brand Is Crisis and Burnt are clearly meant for adults. Did anyone consider that audience was mostly preoccupied with kids needing Halloween costumes, trick or treating and rides to parties? As for the collision of like-minded films, I still shake my head that Bob Zemeckis’ worthy 3D film The Walk had to compete against Ridley Scott’s worthy 3D film The Martian. There were few memorable 3D movies all year. Was there no way these could not have been spaced out so they weren’t fighting over IMAX screens? Instead, the result became a scene from Scott’s Gladiator, with Matt Damon’s space botanist standing Maximus-like over Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s French wire walker on the Coliseum floor. Why did it have to come to this bloodsport? Before we blow hard on something else, let me ask you a specific question from when you were faced with the dilemma we are discussing. The Godfather must have smelled like a hit, but Harold and Maude? What was it like when you delivered that film, a romance between a senior citizen and a kid, to the marketing staff? How did the campaign evolve?
BART: You hit a nerve with Harold and Maude. It was one of my favorite pictures and it opened with no ad campaign at all. Literally a blank page. Actually a black blank page. The marketing gurus at Paramount went into shock when, at the eleventh hour, Harold and Maude was substituted for The Godfather on the release schedule because the latter just wasn’t ready. By this time Bob Evans and I had learned the hard way to look outside the studio for the “big idea” in marketing. Steve Frankfurt of Young & Rubicam came up with the “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby” campaign, among many others. Fox Searchlight could have used that sort of outside inspiration with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Or Warner Bros. with Our Brand Is Crisis.
New topic: The awards season seems to pick up in intensity year to year with stars all over town this week proudly running their films and dutifully showing up for their Q&A sessions. It’s remarkable how normally inaccessible celebrities become instantly outgoing at Oscar and Globe time. To be sure, the ‘Q’s at these Q&A sessions are pre-screened. No one is going to ask Tom Cruise about Scientology – especially now that yet another Scientology expose has hit the market. In this one, Leah Remini (of King of Queens) renounced Scientology after a 30-year commitment on the grounds that it is repressive and punitive. And Cruise, as always, will greet these charges with stony silence. What puzzles me is why the Scientologists, led by David Miscavige, don’t follow Cruise’s example. Yet again, the ‘church’ is denouncing Remini and threatening retaliation, thus seeming to confirm her allegations. Tom Cruise is the master of PR – brilliant at promoting his movies and dramatizing his stunts. And there’s no expectation that he’ll abandon the billion dollar business that is Scientology. Or murmur a word in its defense.
FLEMING: The attack mode we see from Scientology is a move to scare dissenters from speaking up, and it is the opposite of how the Boston Catholic Church has chosen to deal with the revisit of the shameful pedophile priest scandal exposed by Boston Globe journalists whose accomplishment is the basis of Spotlight, which Open Road bows in limited release this Friday. Peter, I cannot remember a fact-based Oscar contender movie that will open on as charmed a track as this film is following. The day after that Boston premiere, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, head of Boston’s Catholic Church archdiocese, pointed to the film and used it as reason to apologize once again for the shameful scandal. His words: “The media’s investigative reporting on the abuse crisis instigated a call for the Church to take responsibility for its failings and to reform itself — to deal with what was shameful and hidden — and to make the commitment to put the protection of children first, ahead of all other interests. We have asked for and continue to ask for forgiveness from all those harmed by the crimes of the abuse of minors.”
Now, the Spotlight team investigation led to the forced resignation of reigning Boston Cardinal Bernard Law for presiding over a hierarchy that paid hush money to victims and shuttled predator priests to other parishes, where they molested more kids. And the film notes that instead of a disgraceful comeuppance, Law got a cushy post at the Vatican. But we’ve seen Steve Jobs bashed by Apple, and Truth get bashed by CBS News and it seems to happen with every important true story brought to the screen, from Zero Dark Thirty to Argo, American Sniper and Foxcatcher. By comparison, isn’t this church blessing of Spotlight the equivalent of if Richard Nixon or the Republican Party had given two thumbs up to All The President’s Men? Most of those Globe reporters are still hustling for that newspaper, and the stars that play them have been selfless in basking in an ensemble and not trying to position themselves for lead actor awards. There is a lot to like here. In a year with no consensus Oscar front runner, you just watch how Spotlight sneaks up on everybody in the Best Picture race.