Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly Sunday column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.
BART: It’s been a year, Mike, since you broke the story about the Hack Attack on Sony, so it’s time to think about the repercussions, specific and general. Start with the specific: Sony paid a lot of money to buy a book titled Hack Attack, which George Clooney is developing. You can bet there will be a change of title (the Clooney project is about the hacking by Rupert Murdoch’s London newspapers, not about Sony). Another more important specific: the management of Sony’s movie operation has been reconstructed. Amy Pascal’s long regime is history. Ironically, her successor, Tom Rothman, has been lucky that his famously aggressive management style during his long reign at Fox was never captured in a hack.
FLEMING: That pre-Thanksgiving ominous image on Sony servers presaged the most bizarre six weeks of all the years I have covered Hollywood. We watched these embarrassing stolen documents get funneled to web outlets and gossip columns that suddenly had access to intimate dialogue and off-color language from execs at studios who ordinarily would not give these outlets the time of day. Talk about being caught with your pants down. And then the other shoe dropped; that the emails were leaked to validate a terror threat to blow up movie theaters playing The Interview with a pointed reference to the blood of 9/11. It gave credence to the notion Sony was hacked by North Korea, and made those who wallowed in these emails seem like children distracted by a bright, shiny object. In their zeal to embarrass Pascal, Scott Rudin and others with off-color private chatter, did they unwittingly aid cyber-terrorists? Studios showed a collective lack of courage not seen since the Blacklist, letting Sony twist in the wind, alone, for weeks. George Clooney and his agent Bryan Lourd tried to rally support with a petition they said nobody would sign and the press spin was they made up the whole thing. Some studio higher-ups still say they were never asked to sign, but when I then ask why they just didn’t speak up on their own against indecency, they acknowledge they didn’t want to risk seeing their dirty laundry in Page Six or on Buzzfeed. The MPAA was mute (though Chris Dodd did help behind the scenes with that petition), and the White House only stepped up to bash Sony for pulling the movie from theaters. And then everybody went off for the holidays, and poof, it all vanished like it never happened. But the remnants are still very evident in Hollywood.
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BART: Now some generalizations: I think Hollywood’s hyper-caffeinated players have become, well, more polite. At least more cautious. Now that they have seen some of their diatribes publicly exposed, they are wary about random insults. Put another way, they don’t want to look like assholes. So while hacking clearly is immoral and despicable, it can also have a constructive impact.
FLEMING: I think people still yell at their employees; they now just do it in person or save the biting stuff for personal emails not sent on the company server. The Interview was interesting to observe; it became a badge of patriotism to see it, and it started off on Netflix with five stars. That dropped when people saw it and realized the movie kinda sucked, especially underwhelming for a movie that fueled an international incident. It still seems remarkable Pascal and cohorts didn’t force the Seth Rogen gang to make Kim Jong Il a composite, or else shelve the movie. But that was their choice and it blew up in their faces. Sony’s lasting souvenir of the hack is courtesy of WikiLeaks, which found a reason to seem relevant by cataloging and indexing the hacked e-mails. I watch credible journalism outlets now freely use them to build stories on everything from the upcoming Bond auction to gender pay disparity. I didn’t want Deadline to do that, but rivals like THR and Variety do it so often now, it has become commonplace. I don’t know who’s right; I just know it doesn’t feel right, in my gut. If the Pentagon Papers fell out, we’d have to cover them, but these emails are mostly salacious, and the stories that grew out of them have been flawed because the emails paint incomplete pictures. That happened on the American Hustle salary situation. I think it made The New York Times look bad to publish a front page story alleging Sony and the makers of Concussion softened the film to appease the NFL. People are catching up with the film now and it’s clear the league is depicted harshly for trying to discredit Dr. Bennet Omalu after he autopsied the brain of Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster and found abnormalities that have since shown up in the brains of other dead ex-players. The NYT took as weakness a batch of emails in which execs discussed the handling and vetting of hot-button subject matter, and the paper put itself in the unenviable position of appearing to carry the NFL’s spin in trying to bury a film months before its release. Now, the only question is whether the NFL will try to stop the makers of the film from being able to advertise it during football game telecasts.
Separately, I hear that after the Sony hack, the volume of wannabe hackers trying to get past the security walls of studios jumped exponentially. It’s also still a nightmare for those who found their Social Security numbers and other personal info made public, and who’ll pay annual fees for identity theft protection services like LifeLock for the rest of their lives.
Next topic! I can imagine what the conversation going on right now at the dinner table for people looking for a good movie to see. “Honey, how about this movie called The 33, where a mine collapses and a bunch of guys get buried alive for three months? Or hey, what about this one called Room, where this woman is shackled in a shed by a psycho and they have a child? And, hey, Julia Roberts is back in Secret In Their Eyes; her daughter’s been murdered and the Pretty Woman is gloomy all the way through? Or what about that Spotlight deal about pedophile priests in Boston? Or we can stay home and watch that Netflix movie everyone’s talking about, Beasts of No Nation, about a child soldier in Africa who’s sexually abused by his mentor after being forced to participate in unimaginable atrocities! So which movie do you want to see after we finish dinner, dear? And why am I no longer hungry?”
Honestly, the movie marketers of many of the current films out there ought to get combat pay for trying to find appealing handles to sell the most inherently downbeat collection of picture plots I’ve seen in a good long time. I’m not even counting next week’s lauded entry, The Danish Girl, about the first transsexual operation, or the upcoming In The Heart of the Sea; it’s marketed as a mano a mano match between Chris Hemsworth and a giant whale; as I recall from reading the Nathaniel Philbrick book on which the movie’s based, cannibalism and starvation are the more dominant themes. What do you think of how Hollywood is judging what audiences want to see when they leave their homes to go to the cinema this time of year?
BART: Your comment spurred me to re-read the A.O. Scott New York Times review of the new Seth Rogen movie, The Night Before. Scott railed, “Do we need an R-rated holiday caper that wraps its gooey, good-cheer core in layers of profanity and nervous sexual humor?” Well, maybe we do. I haven’t seen Rogen’s picture (directed by Jonathan Levine), but, as an antidote to the movies you mention, maybe it would be worth a visit. I agree, Mike, that we are confronting a somber agenda of films this fall at a moment when news about terrorism already weighs on the public’s mind. One key reason, of course, is that it’s November and the stars and star filmmakers have a big appetite for nominations. Comedies are rarely contenders. Nor are summer tentpole movies.
FLEMING: The other day I interviewed Ryan Coogler, who followed Fruitvale Station with Creed. He described how his passion for Rocky movies is wrapped up in his relationship with his father, and how it elevates it beyond just another installment of a tired franchise. You wish more franchise extensions could be driven by this kind of filmmaker passion; Creed sure gives you someone to root for. I was being glib in my cut to the core description of these Oscar season films. Spotlight, Concussion, Room, Beasts of No Nation, The 33 and Secret In Their Eyes — all are stories with worthy protagonists who overcome. But I am not sure that Hollywood realizes that with all the awful things going on in the world right now, it is very possible that people want to suspend cynicism and be entertained. Maybe they just want somebody to root for, and to temporarily forget the problems all around us.
BART: From the marketing standpoint, it’s damned hard to sell “downbeat” films in this market. Thoughtful, well-made projects like 99 Homes get lost in the melee. It’s about people losing their homes – not a laffer. Some filmmakers, of course, mindful of the “downbeat” stigma, try to tack on feel-good endings. I didn’t feel it worked for Concussion, even though it’s hard not to root for Will Smith. The audience suddenly is asked to feel good that his character lived happily ever after and overlook the villainy of the NFL. The ‘good guys’ won in Spotlight, but it’s dubious whether their journalistic victory changed the institutional behavior that they exposed.
Next topic. I’m increasingly empathetic toward those top women executives who find themselves under attack by other women. The charge: That they’re not channeling their power to help other women get directing gigs or achieve equal pay with male stars. I agree that women should be directing more films. But the key issue, as Kathleen Kennedy pointed out, is that more women have to get their credentials together and hustle for the jobs. Female production chiefs like Kennedy, Stacey Snider and Donna Langley want to find more female filmmakers but they need candidates to push. During my years at studios I personally went out of my way to foster opportunities for women directors — it’s the responsibility of guys as well as women.
FLEMING: Raising the awareness level of this gender disparity is good, but I fear it has turned into a convenient sound bite and there is no room for anything more thoughtful than the same benign PC response elicited by every actress, actor and director asked the question on a red carpet or junket. I hear Sandra Bullock say it’s a crime the way women are being paid. This from an actress who deservedly made $50 million or more in the success of Gravity. Had Clooney earned more for his bit part, that would be outrageous, but I don’t think that happened. Jennifer Lawrence’s condemnation of the American Hustle negotiations, based on those Sony hack documents, well, we covered several columns ago why that wasn’t a good Exhibit A for gender discrimination and our readers reacted indignantly even though numerous people involved said what I wrote reflected reality. NYT’s Maureen Dowd just wrote a long article on gender, and she told The Wrap that Hollywood’s treatment of women is akin to the way women are treated by the Catholic Church or Saudi Arabia. Really? What’s vexing is all these articles, including the one by Dowd, regurgitate this notion of some conspiracy by unnamed males to keep women down. How can that be when, as you note, there might be a greater concentration of women in power positions at studios right now than at any other time? You mention Snider and Langley, and Kennedy, who runs the Star Wars factory. Add to that Hannah Minghella at TriStar, Emma Watts and Elizabeth Gabler at Fox, Sue Kroll at Warner Bros, Holly Bario at DreamWorks, Terry Press at CBS Films and there are probably others I’ve forgotten.
Though it didn’t get nearly as much pick up, Spike Lee made a stronger case during his Governors Awards acceptance speech when he decried the lack of opportunities facing people of color. There are virtually zero executives of color in Hollywood at decision making levels, and while Langley should be lauded in seeing something true and special in Straight Outta Compton after Warner Bros kicked it to the curb, how much can you rely on an all-white studio hierarchy to make a priority of this kind of thing? These articles wrap themselves in PC polemics and don’t delve into what is important in the decision making processes of these harried, insecure execs of any gender. They want hits and talent they don’t have to worry about. I watch a series like Showtime’s The Affair, and come away so moved by the storytelling and genuine emotion, that I want to follow Sarah Treem wherever she goes from here. She can write her ticket, I think, based on this accomplishment. I will follow whatever Coogler does next, because his movies have heart. Gender and race have nothing to do with it. Dowd is right in citing as outrageous the figure that 1.9% of movies are directed by women. But then she builds a case around aggrieved directors like Leslye Headland, and I think playing the victim card is too superficial.
I have nothing against Headland, but I covered the Sundance premiere of Bachelorette a couple years ago. Every distributor wanted to fall in love with her film, and overpay for it. But she chose to make every character in the film so unlikable and borderline vile that it ended up a VOD title. She made those polarizing choices that limited its audience appeal, and I watched and spoke to buyers who were very disappointed when they walked out of that screening. Had Bachelorette been a bit funnier, more like Bridesmaids, she would be high on the director lists. Studio chiefs, male or female, are obliged to make films that make money. They respond to success, and attributing Headland’s limited opportunities simply on some fog-filled gender conspiracy is too convenient. Nobody wants to hear this, but I think this issue is becoming like last year’s boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel to protest the Sultan of Brunei and the adoption of Shariah Laws in Brunei. Hollywood was whipped into a froth to ostracize that hotel and it really only sapped the tips of waiters and valets. I had meetings at the Polo Lounge recently; industry people were all over the place. What longterm gain was realized?
BART: Among the many confusions in the Dowd article is this: Hollywood is no longer a monolith. It isn’t all about the studios and the “shlubby” guys who want to stay 15 years old. The real opportunities for women — and aspiring artists in general — is in the specialty film world, where sensibilities are quite different. So is the business plan. Also I find it weird today to talk about film as if it were the dominant medium — Dowd still thinks she is in the 1970s. Look at the different mind set in cable or digital. The media universe is changing. Opportunities are plentiful. For all kinds of folks. Especially smart folks. Even smart women folks.
FLEMING: Look at Fifty Shades of Grey, the biggest hit in recent memory that was directed by a woman and scripted by a woman based on a novel series by a woman. Both Sam Taylor-Johnson and scribe Kelly Marcel weren’t part of the sequel of a movie that made nearly $600 million. Gender conspiracy? Hardly. They bristled at the controls exercised by novelist E.L. James — the ones given her by Donna Langley so she could win the deal over Amy Pascal at Sony. As a result, the author’s husband, Niall Leonard, wrote the sequels and James Foley was hired to direct them back-to-back. If this was about serving womankind, the scribe and director should have stayed and the author should have used her clout to ensure a woman was behind the typewriter and at the helm. But it is more complicated than that. James made sure her husband got the job. This is an industry where everyone serves their own creative agendas, nepotism included. A lot of this is about the choices people make, and not sexism or racism.
As talented as Spike Lee is, I believe his rise as a studio director was stunted by his decision to threaten to publicly disown Malcolm X if Warner Bros didn’t release his longer cut that had Desmond Tutu and others waxing on about X’s legacy. My view: the studio was right. Had Lee ended with Malcolm X’s tragic murder in that church, it’s a masterpiece and I bet Denzel Washington wins Best Actor, the movie is Best Picture and Lee wins Best Director. And his post-X trajectory would have been different. Even after Lee directed as tight a thriller as you will find in Inside Man for Universal, studios remained wary. Threatening Warner Bros brought him the hardship that Josh Trank faces after disowning his Fox movie Fantastic Four on Twitter. What studio would trust Trank again with the big budgets these films require? People make choices, creative and otherwise, and live with the consequences. Is Hollywood really as bad as the Catholic Church and Saudi Arabia in keeping women down, as Dowd said after writing a looong piece that doesn’t really move the needle or say more or even as much as Variety and THR did in their long pieces? Sure, in this PC world where we sing Kumbaya and nobody does anything meaningful and we move on to the next “cause.” No culprit has been identified in this mysterious gender conspiracy, and, like the Beverly Hills Hotel, nothing of permanence will happen. This diatribe has left me winded, and I’m going to cover up now and brace for the blows. Back to you, Peter.
BART: All this is especially relevant since the specialty film business depends on the female audience. Look at these current releases: Carol, Danish Girl, Brooklyn, Suffragette, Miss You Already, Learning To Drive. And By The Sea. That film, directed by Angelina Jolie (now Jolie Pitt) has been dismissed with surprising ferocity by critics. Jolie once said, “I didn’t think I could direct but I hope I’m able to have a career at it because I’m much happier.” Well, she doesn’t seem happier in By The Sea. In an article titled “The Maddeningness of Queen Angie,” in New York Magazine, Heather Havrilesky writes, “This is a woman who has it all but who always seems to want more. She doesn’t want to be just a world famous actress which, she hints, has always felt beneath her. She wants to be a movie director and also a guardian of human rights worldwide. And if most of her choices happen to entail jaw-dropping costs and outsize proportions and self-mythologizing acts of filmmaking, well, life is short isn’t it.” It’s tough out there, Angelina.
FLEMING: At least she isn’t whining about her lack of opportunities and paycheck due to gender. Jolie got Universal to finance a $28 million John Cassavetes-like movie everybody knew going in wouldn’t play at the box office, and Jolie had a lot to say in how it was marketed. Does that qualify as a victory for women? I’m not so sure. Beyond the PC bluster, what would be nice is if these female executives in positions of power make a conscious effort to add one movie a year to their slates that is directed by a woman or a minority filmmaker. Maybe they could sponsor more programs to provide diversity opportunities at entry level positions, and proactively make sure participants in these programs get every chance to rise to prominence. It would be nice if something tangible came out of this moment before it passes and the media focuses on the next bright shiny object, and forgets about this one.
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