Indies Brace For Summer
The big moment is at hand: It’s Tentpole Time. The Oscar pictures are a faint memory and now Batman is about to take on Superman while Captain America wages a new civil war and the X-Men face another apocalypse. I’ve been scrutinizing the studio slates, as well as those of the ambitious indies (even Amazon) and while I ‘get’ their strategies, I think they may be missing the point in one area; more on that later.
By and large the studio schedulers see the world as compartmentalized. The appetites of young (and foreign) film goers get fueled in spring and summer, then audiences dutifully line up for their franchise fodder. Sure, a few high concept action films and gross-out comedies are thrown into the mix, but not many. It’s intriguing that Warner Bros. fretfully pulled its geriatric caper film, Going in Style, starring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, from the 2016 schedule – the seniors will savor it a year from now (of course, the older demo keeps growing, the younger shrinking).
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The Broad Greens, A24s and STXs of the world tend to back away from Tentpole Time unless they can strike lightning at events like SXSW (the indie Comic-Con) where films like Sausage Party are unveiled and Richard Linklater is venerated by his Austin neighbors (Everybody Wants Some is the appropriate title of his new dramedy).
So the spring-summer corridor spells Big Bucks for the majors and often slim pickings for the indies, unless they get lucky. Or unless they’re Amazon, whose president (Roy Price) disdainfully announced that he’s not focused on the results of individual movies because “it’s the system that creates value.” Amazon spent $14 million for Woody Allen’s next film (despite two flops) and $10 million for a Kenneth Lonergan movie called Manchester by the Sea to stoke its “system.”
The mantra at Amazon and the other non-majors is to sign up “visionary filmmakers” and wait for “sizzle.” Uniformly, they point to the innovative films of the ‘70s and promise they will find the key to rediscovering that magic. I wish them well, but I would also remind them of one key epiphany of the ‘70s that keeps getting forgotten. Paramount’s epochal turnaround stemmed from an abrupt change of direction mandated in 1969 when it was decided that, instead of pursuing the next stoner hit like Easy Rider, Paramount would focus again on the classic genre – in short, re-invent the Hollywood brand. What came forth was an updated Hollywood western (True Grit), an old fashioned weepie (Love Story), a classic thriller (Chinatown), a horror film (Rosemary’s Baby) and, of course, a gangster movie (The Godfather). Sure, some dynamic new talents were brought into the process, but the talents were enticed into the genre – the studio didn’t say, ‘you’re a genius, make whatever you want.’ The studio owned the properties and controlled (sometimes ineptly) the process.
Hence the inevitable question: Should Hollywood (the majors and the indies) now turn their attention back to the traditional genre rather than fixate on superheroes or pray for instant sizzle? The moment of truth at Paramount may be worth re-examining in that light.
Ike Perlmutter, Terrible Neighbor?
While citing superheroes, it’s worth noting that the most mysterious proprietor of the superhero universe, the reclusive billionaire named Isaac Perlmutter, has finally been ‘outed.’ Perlmutter is the famously tough Israeli who sold Marvel to Disney for $4 billion. According to The New York Times, Perlmutter, who never gives interviews or shows up at industry events, is involved in three nasty lawsuits in Palm Beach, Florida, accusing Perlmutter, 73, and his wife of “sending slanderous letters, unsigned, that say a neighbor sexually assaulted an 11 year old at knife point and murdered a local couple.” Disputes of this sort normally are not worth noting, but finding Perlmutter’s name prominently in the public press is something of revelation — he is CEO of a major Disney division. No one in memory has ever made so formidable an impact on Hollywood, only to totally disappear from public view. I am impressed by the courage of the neighbor in taking on the king of all superheroes.
Viacom And VICE
Stories that ask ‘what if?’ always stir an argument. A case in point was my piece last week that asked ‘what if’ Tom Freston had remained CEO of Viacom these last ten years – he was fired by Sumner Redstone and replaced by Philippe Dauman. One detail of my piece suggested that, had Freston remained, Viacom might have controlled a portion of Vice Media. Not so, insists a Viacom spokesman – Viacom never had a foothold in the $4 billion plus media company so it would not control it today.
Here’s the story in basic terms: Sources say a deal was struck in 2006 for a 50-50 venture between MTV (a Viacom company) and Vice to set up an entity to be called VBS.tv. This would become Vice’s foray into video. Shane Smith, the boss of Vice, was unhappy with the alleged deal and, after Freston’s firing, put down $3 million to buy back the piece from Viacom. Not so, insists Viacom today. Viacom had extended loans to Vice (or its new video entity) but never became a part owner, thus refuting the argument by one stockholder-agitator who now claims that Viacom was asleep at the switch and unaware of the potential of Vice (or similar entities). The Vice deal was trivial at the time, to be sure. The drama of the moment focused on MySpace, which Rupert Murdoch acquired for $580 million (not much of it in cash) and then had to dump for a mere $35 million.
Is the argument settled? Probably not. Tom Freston, meanwhile, has gone on to another fruitful career and Dauman still rules Viacom.
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