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.
FLEMING: Well, the most heavily hyped movie in recent memory, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has finally made its record breaking debut. Here’s an irony: the new film replicates the original’s saga that invites you to root for the rag tag rebels over an evil empire. Guess which role Disney plays in a holiday box office corridor that traditionally allows awards season pictures to cash in? In a year where there is no consensus Oscar front runner that would create a must-see prestige film, Star Wars is the Death Star to movies like Spotlight, The Big Short, Trumbo, The Danish Girl, Room, and even bigger ticket adult movies like Concussion, Creed, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight.
My distribution friends tell me that in order to get Star Wars, exhibitors had to commit to run the picture for six weeks. Even though that’s houses and not necessarily screens, Disney is dominating those, too, and will for a while. So while most big movies suck the oxygen out of the room for an opening weekend, Star Wars has made it a certainty that a lot of those movies are going to have their grosses stunted rather severely. Disney put a summer movie in a holiday slot and there is no reason that the studio should care about anything but setting records, counting cash and selling light sabers. But there will be lingering repercussions for others. After that October massacre of adult movies with pedigree directors, the prospect of more under-performing adult-themed films could leave everybody shy about funding anything but mass appeal fantasy films. That might be reflected as soon as the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, especially after acquisitions from last January barely registered at the box office.
BART: You’re over-reacting, Mike. It’s true Disney’s $350 million Star Wars blitz is sucking the air out of the tent pole market, but I think the grownups will still seek out the serious films that they want to see. And while the multiplexes are tumescent with Star Wars, there will still be screens for Spotlight, The Big Short and other quality films. If anything, I hope the Disney-fying of the movie business will trigger a reaction among the grownup film goers who realize that their kids are being brainwashed into believing that buying a ticket to Star Wars is a mandate, not an option. It’s a rite of passage. Hopefully the grownups will realize that they have a mandate of their own to support the rest of the film culture. It’s also a reminder to indie distributors of the perils of releasing all their pictures in a year end cluster. How did you like the movie?
FLEMING: I went to the premiere, which had to be the biggest production since Cleopatra. I try to be honest in this column, so this is the part where I am obliged to admit that, by the estimate of my +1, I slept through maybe 33% of the film. I guess I need to take the walk of shame here, for that.
BART: Star Wars put you to sleep?
FLEMING: Oh, it had nothing to do with quality. From what I saw, the movie was good–maybe a little short–but it ticked all the sentimentality boxes that made fans feel nostalgic about Lucas’s original. Trouble is, the street closures compelled you to come early. We got there a little after 4 PM. The movie was supposed to start 6:30. By the time they herded the crowd down several blocks of tented tunnels into three theaters and got done with the speeches, it was 8:00 when they finally dropped the puck. My time zoning was already screwed up after returning from Europe, spending a couple days in New York, and then heading to L.A. for nonstop meetings and deadlines. Once I stop moving, sit in a comfortable chair and the lights go down, staying awake to enjoy a must-see movie is only one possible outcome. This has always been a problem for me. As a reporter on a gossip column at New York Newsday, I covered Broadway premieres. The curtain rose at the time when I was usually commuting home on the LIRR train to Lindenhurst, when I was accustomed to falling asleep for an hour. I’d take my wife with me to Broadway; her job was to deliver a sharp elbow when necessary, since we were always seated six rows out in the center, close enough that the cast can see you, and how rude is that? Once, I fell asleep at some Noel Coward revival, woke up with a start and wondered why she hadn’t elbowed me. She was out cold. That show closed quick. This problem plagues me at home, too. It often takes two viewings for me to get through a movie. Once, while my wife and I watched the Magic Mike Oscar screener, my youngest daughter wandered into the room, saw me awake, looked at the hot guys gyrating and said, ‘So this one you stay awake for?’ Kids. My colleague Pete Hammond described the Star Wars premiere crowd reaction as “rapturous.” I sat next to him. Either Pete kindly gave me a pass or I will take solace in the hope I didn’t use his shoulder for a pillow or at least that I didn’t drool on his nice sports jacket. I’m embarrassed enough to promise I will go see Star Wars again. Peter, is this as bad as the Seinfeld episode where Jerry is caught necking during Schindler’s List?
BART: I liked Star Wars a lot better than you did, Mike. One likely reason is that you conscientiously went to the mega-premiere on Hollywood Blvd. I opted to see the movie in the quietude of the Disney lot. Premieres are carnivals of hype that curry blogger buzz and TV footage but I usually end up hating the film that’s being celebrated. For one thing, they always start an hour late (at least) because of the red carpet rituals and the opening speeches. At the Star Wars premiere, the strategy was to maximize the discomfort of guests by cranking up security and confiscating cell phones, thus creating long lines on a very cold evening. Trust me, Mike, if had you seen the movie at the Disney theater as I did, you would have liked it a lot better. I even enjoyed the residual hippy-dippy ‘70s dialogue about The Force. When Harrison Ford earnestly tells us that “it’s true,” I was reminded of Hemingway’s line: “There is no one thing that’s true, it is all true.” There’s really nothing true about Star Wars except that, in its mind-boggling immensity, it is all true.
FLEMING: Premieres really aren’t the best place to see films, but it was nice to see George Lucas recognized from the stage for birthing the franchise. I tried to compensate for my ill-timed nap by getting his former lawyer Tom Pollock to recount in Deadline the original deal that gave Lucas Star Wars sequel and merchandising rights, made him a zillionaire and made the Disney deal possible. And another story where Peter Jackson, Ron Howard, Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro and Luc Besson recounted seeing that first film. I love Scott’s yarn about how he walked out of a theater in 1977, dropped the film he was going to do after The Duellists, and lobbied for and got Alien, which to me is Hollywood’s real space classic. The premiere’s real hero gave the first speech and I really have to give a shout out to the deal making and big picture vision of Bob Iger. The Pixar deal I understood. I thought Iger was crazy paying $4 billion for Marvel because all the big superheroes had movies; and again when he paid a similar amount for Lucasfilm, because I didn’t like the three prequels I figured had doomed the franchise. Iger has made Disney the envy of every other studio, and set his studio up for years worth of global hits that will cushion the inevitable ebbs and flows that have seen Universal soar this year and Warner Bros falter. And Disney hasn’t yet cracked the whip on the Indiana Jones rights that came as an afterthought in the deal. Surely, Steven Spielberg will bring back Ford to take another bow, he’ll pair him with Chris Pratt, and the director won’t allow his best pal Lucas to be shut out of the creative process as he was rumored to be on the Star Wars resuscitation. Based on Jurassic World and Star Wars, how much wannasee is there for a franchise that seemed dead with Lucas and Spielberg nuked the fridge? As for my original point about Star Wars killing the competition, maybe the high screen count will see demand for the movie sated quickly, and maybe crowds will gravitate to other films if they find Star Wars screenings sold out. But rivals sure got crushed this weekend.
BART: Next topic. The fact that Hollywood’s awards voters are actually seeing Star Wars in theaters or at formal screenings itself is a contrast to the way they’re viewing other contenders. True, there’s been a major effort to lure voters to screenings by adding a multitude of Q&A sessions with stars and filmmakers. “I feel like I’ve been campaigning against Trump in Iowa,” one star told me after his umpteenth Q&A. Still most voters depend on their screeners to prep themselves for final decisions. And the rumors are out there again this year that screeners may be phased out in the future. I can envision the year when voters will be viewing Oscar candidates on their mobile devices—the ultimate filmmakers’ nightmare.
FLEMING: Fortunately, the voting body of the Academy is comprised of mostly older folks who, if they even figure out how to work a secure link, won’t be able to see what is happening on a tiny iPhone screen. Voters who watch The Revenant, The Martian or The Hateful Eight or Star Wars on anything less than a giant movie screen are doing the film as big a disservice as those who watched Avatar or Life of Pi in 2D. If they kill screeners, Academy screenings will become more vital. Already on the rise this season is the Academy screening followed by a free meal at a spectacular restaurant. My advice: feed them afterward, because they could fall asleep with a belly full of grub from Le Cirque or Le Bernardin.
BART: Next topic. Everyone feels obligated to come out with their Ten Best lists this week, which prompts me to reveal my Ten Worst of the Ten Best lists. Film critics like to display their erudition with these lists, coming up with the most obscure films to prove that they know more than the rest of us and have superior sensibilities. My winner this year for producing the worst list is Todd McCarthy, who now works for the Hollywood Reporter. His Best Picture is The Tribe, which is set in a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf and has neither dialogue nor subtitles and is more violent than The Revenant. OK, Todd, I’ll wait for the screener.
FLEMING: If I dozed during Star Wars, I’d need a Red Bull intravenous drip to make it past the first establishing shot of that Ukranian boarding school. Good for Todd for consciously seeking out obscure films to love, and then staying conscious when the lights drop.
BART: Another tradition at this time of year, Mike: Predictions for 2016. I’ll advance a few: Paramount may actually release a few movies next year. Warren Beatty will finally finish editing his film in 2016 to get his financiers off his back – he’s been working on this film since puberty. As a result of the Star Wars phenomenon, the word “awesome” will finally disappear from our vocabulary – that’s the first word every kid utters upon seeing the movie, and even they are finally getting embarrassed about their pathetic lexicon.
FLEMING: Let’s save the predictions for our year-ender. We’ll take off next Sunday for Christmas and come back before New Year’s with that column, but I’ll toss you one prediction that will probably make many think I am still dreaming: Michael Bay is going to have to be reconsidered as a serious director early next year for 13 Hours, the Benghazi siege tale I’ve heard is terrific and which starts a strong 2016 for Paramount. Okay, wait…I’ve gotten into the fetal position, ready to take the blows from commenters who love to hate Bay and who love Star Wars and hate anything that blasphemes The Force, and from the Oscar voters I’ve accused of being near-blind. Hopefully they will remember it’s the holidays.