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 on the movie business. The column, which usually runs Sunday, will give Monday a shot.
FLEMING: Hope you had as nice an ending to your year as did the movie business, Peter. Box office got out of the gate quickly with the overachieving American Sniper, and the climax of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the equivalent of handing the relay race baton to Usain Bolt for the final record-breaking lap. I have to say I was shocked by the lack of grace shown in victory by George Lucas. Those comments on Charlie Rose, when he slagged the new “retro” film for its lack of originality, and labeled Disney “white slavers” to whom he’d sold his children, made him seem like an embittered anachronism despite his apology. He has grown so accustomed to having his bum lathered all those years that he seems a throwback to an extinct time. Now, the contraction of the business has made everything about moviemaking harder, despite 2015’s record-setting year. Everybody struggles more and sleeps less and the stakes of failure have never seemed higher; money and perks don’t flow like they once did, and there’s every possibility that even bad email decorum will be served up for public consumption.
It must be very difficult for Lucas to observe the Star Wars juggernaut from the outside with his nose pressed against the glass. But it was Lucas who made those forgettable prequels, and insisted on making those the first up when Fox began converting them into 3D for theatrical release. You rarely heard about films being converted, after that. And, while Disney is already making it look like a bargain, Lucas got billions for selling Lucasfilm. According to Forbes, the 37 million shares Lucas got as part of that compensation have more than doubled in value as Lucas is the second-biggest shareholder behind the estate of Steve Jobs, from when he sold Pixar to Disney. I’d heard the rumors Lucas was frozen out during production of the JJ Abrams-directed film. If true, maybe they figured there was no pleasing him. Perhaps over time he’ll see that what Disney did was reconnect a new legion of fans to his spectacular first and second film, and removed the disappointing taste of the last three.
BART: Before we leave the topic of the moment – Star Wars – one further observation. Media analysts worldwide are heaping praise on Disney’s blockbuster, thus making Bob Iger the corporate superhero of the moment. But in chronicling Disney’s re-birth, it’s intriguing who is emerging as a key to Iger’s conquests: Steve Jobs. The famously enigmatic and prickly Jobs didn’t turn out to be an ideal character for a biopic, but behind the scenes he was Iger’s most important supporting player. Iger worked on Jobs for years to persuade him to accept a lavish $7.4 billion buy-out for Pixar. Some questioned at the time whether it was prudent to have Jobs become Disney’s biggest individual shareholder, but the Pixar deal turned out to be pivotal in persuading Lucas to then sell his company for $4.1 billion. And the fact that the Iger-Jobs relationship had worked successfully helped persuade the fiercely independent Israeli, Ike Perlmutter, not your friendliest of souls, to sell Marvel for $4 billion.
FLEMING: At a time when things like cable cord-cutting and Chinese backing for films is so mercurial (Wall Street’s bad day today was due to China’s economic woes), Iger has created the closest thing to safe bets when he cushioned Disney’s film portfolio with Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. It’s remarkable to think that Disney will be find when DreamWorks moves to Universal, where Steven Spielberg always seemed most comfortable. I’d like to be cynical here and say that Iger’s efforts to franchise a studio film pipeline has ruined creativity. But the movies have been too good from Pixar and Marvel to bear that out and the criticism will have to be saved for other studios that try to emulate the formula and fail. And now, Star Wars spinoffs and sequels are set with the hottest young filmmakers in town including Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow, and Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, and they haven’t even broken ground yet on the Indiana Jones rights that also came with the deal. That series seemed as out of gas as Star Wars was, but if Chris Pratt indeed gets handed the whip and Stetson by Harrison Ford, I’m intrigued. I wonder how much input Lucas will have there, given his close relationship with Spielberg. He needs to lighten his mood or risk hovering over the proceedings like a dark cloud.
BART: The bottom line: Iger’s corporate shopping list was fulfilled. And while the Big Media companies lost $80 billion in value in one month this year after Disney-owned ESPN issued its cord-cutting announcement, only Disney (and Comcast) will end 2015 without sustaining double-digit declines. Disney shares have risen nearly five fold in a decade and everyone loves Bob Iger. And some residual affection, in retrospect, should be sent Steve Jobs’ way.
FLEMING: Does that make up for the fact that mainstream audiences didn’t care much about his movie?
BART: Next topic. The awards banquet season is about to start, Mike, so before we submit to this orgy of self-congratulation, let’s briefly review the Big Lessons of 2015. I already disagree with the media’s first proposed Big Lesson – namely that the only ideas that are working for Hollywood are Old Ideas. In other words, survival rests on re-cycling veteran franchises whether they be a Star Wars, a Jurassic or a Mission: Impossible. Whenever Hollywood tried to foster new ideas in 2015, according to this thesis, they faltered – Tomorrowland, Jupiter Ascending, The Walk etc. Is this thesis valid? I’d argue that, to a degree, it’s always been true. At the same time you could summon up 2015 projects like The Martian, Inside Out and The Big Short that were truly original in conception, yet still succeeded. Not to mention an array of superb indie films. So I’m not as gloomy about 2015 as some nor as ready to submit to franchise fever.
FLEMING: One of the big early stories in the new year is what happens at Warner Bros. A few months ago, it seemed inevitable there would be major changes to the three-exec hierarchy; at year’s end, I became persuaded that Kevin Tsujihara would hang in there with Greg Silverman, Sue Kroll and Toby Emmerich. I say, good for Tsujihara, who also seems to be doing his best to win the James Bond franchise – -the $864 million total for Spectre meant Sony made some money, but not a ton of it. All three execs are capable and experienced, but I hope they examined the reasons why certain big-ticket movies failed so terribly in 2015. I’m talking about Jupiter Ascending, Pan and a host of others that were noisy write-offs. The studio still finished third behind Universal and Disney with 14% market share, but you really got the feeling on some of these movies they were trying to anticipate what a global audience might want, like a committee ticking off the boxes. Same thing seemed to happen on Tomorrowland at Disney, where you watched and went, WTF?
You are always going to have noble failures like The Walk, which I still can’t believe did not find an audience. All you can do there is protect your downside by keeping the budget down. But the Warner Bros crew needs to make better quality films. Beyond leading Universal to such a great year without a single superhero on her slate, Donna Langley impressed me for seeming to have a keen sense of how to see through all the bluster and make a lot of bets on movies she wanted to see. Some of her bets were risky, and not all of them paid off (By The Sea). But she saw the potential of Straight Outta Compton, when she said yes in the room to the pitch. Even though Warner Bros understandably kicked it to the curb because it had limited overseas potential and no stars. Yet, when F. Gary Gray, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre pitched it, she saw their fire and it played out exactly as everyone hoped. Maybe Langley felt the same way in recent years on disappointments like State Of Play, but it seems more than ever that movies need to have a really strong reason to warrant a green light. Hopefully, the Warner Bros team will be sharper this year in discerning those and the result will be more like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road or Creed, which just passed $100 million domestic. On paper, Creed was one more installoment of a tired franchise, but it must have been hard to feel that way after sitting with director Ryan Coogler, who made it a love letter to his father. Deadline interviewed Sylvester Stallone over the holiday — he seems poised to get his first Oscar nom in 40 years — and that Creed experience with Coogler has him thinking about altering how he makes choices going forward. He now laments the action track he stayed on too long, and seems eager to give up some of the controls he exercised in the past.
BART: Lesson Two: Indie companies shouldn’t cram all their product into the last quarter, despite the demands of stars and star filmmakers to compete in Oscar season. Films like Truth and Trumbo deserved time to breathe.
FLEMING: I don’t know that this lesson will be heeded. We’ve become so awards-centric, and some of that is due to Harvey Weinstein cleverly figuring out that a P&A and awards-season campaign spend can be the same thing. It fueled big grosses for year-end films like The King’s Speech and The Imitation Game. Helen Mirren’s performance in The Woman In Gold seems to be getting no awards buzz, because you need momentum at the time awards voting takes place. You’re right though. This fall was a bloodbath, and it won’t get easier going forward. You have to imagine the Star Wars lesson by other studios will be to place summer movie in the holiday slot and consume screens, grosses and oxygen, continuing to choke out the prestige pictures.
BART: Lesson Three: A major studio needs leadership and a sense of mission – even Warner Bros. That studio’s 2015 product line was all over the landscape in terms of budget and genre but the films had one thing in common: They didn’t work. I’ve worked for studios in the past that fell into cold spells but Warner Bros. last year set the record for Chill. I remember how Kirk Kerkorian at MGM dealt with regimes that didn’t succeed: He fired everyone. And forgot their names. Kirk’s chief attorney once approached me and asked, “Kirk wants to fire David Begelman. Can you tell me what he did wrong?” I figured, if he didn’t know, I wouldn’t tell him. Anyway, Warner Bros. could use a new boss. One who, unlike Kirk, understood what went wrong
FLEMING: Are you predicting a Warner Bros bloodbath, or do you wager someone gets hired above that triumvirate? Clearly Tsujihara doesn’t have enough experience in features to know which ones to green light.
BART: I will only repeat that Warners could use a new boss, one who sits above those three executives. Next topic. Can you afford to be funny in making an acceptance speech? We’ll soon find out because every week we’re going to listen to stars and filmmakers gratefully thanking the various festivals, guilds and academies for their awards. The Palm Springs International Film Festival this weekend marked the unofficial start of “acceptance season” and thus sets the tone. In the ’70s, acceptance speeches tended to be inebriated or dismissive. Lately they’ve become downright corporate.
FLEMING: Last time, you got the feeling Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton were honing their powerhouse acceptance speeches at one critics award show after another. Is Palm Springs better and does it indicate more spontaneity?
BART: Palm Springs speeches aren’t televised and the audience consists mostly of civilians, not Oscar voters, but nonetheless this year’s acceptances were formal and straightforward. Michael Fassbender simply read his “thank yous’ for Steve Jobs. Spotlight‘s Tom McCarthy expressed appreciation to his cast and the newsmen he depicted. Adam McKay, however, couldn’t resist explaining how he assembled his ensemble cast for The Big Short.
“I approached each actor and told him he had the lead,” he explained, referring to Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, etc. Johnny Depp also had trouble dealing with the formality of the occasion. Accepting for Black Mass, Depp singled out Sue Kroll of Warner Bros. for supporting his depiction of Whitey Bulger. “It helps when a studio executive backs you,” he said, “Is Michael Eisner out there?” Rather than expressing appreciation to his agent, Tracy Jacobs, he apologized to her for “making her crazy.” Not very corporate, but a lot funnier.