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, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: Let’s have a talk about how social media can help and how it can hurt, and why it is making movie executives more cautious in trying to appeal to the widest possible audience. First, the good part of the sway that social media offers: you might have seen this past weekend’s press photos of Bradley Cooper, taking a motorcycle ride to a restaurant for dinner, with none other than Lady Gaga hanging on to him for dear life. Reports first questioned if they were an item — both are happily spoken for — and so I’m going to throw out something that is a little speculative, but is being discussed right now behind the scenes. What better way to road test the potential pairing of Cooper and Gaga in the remake of A Star Is Born that will mark Cooper’s directorial debut at Warner Bros. Deadline revealed over a year ago that Cooper had targeted this for his first behind-the-camera turn, and in February we reported the film had been chosen for tax credits from the State of California, so it’s real. Beyonce was once circling the ingénue (played by Barbra Streisand last time around), but that cooled. That opens the door for Lady Gaga, whose participation guarantees a killer soundtrack and who won a Golden Globe acting in front of a camera in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story series. So just watch these two turn up together here and there as Cooper gets serious about making this film. He’s got offers in other places to make his directing debut, and it’s a priority for him after learning a lot at the side of Clint Eastwood in the making of American Sniper. Cooper produced that film, which was brought in at a reasonable budget. A Star Is Born will probably cost $40 million; just the pairing of those two and the budget ought to prompt a quick yes from the studio.
But things aren’t that simple anymore, and a groundswell helps. It can work in the opposite direction. Just look at the way that the trailer for Ghostbusters was today trumpeted by THR as “one of the most disliked trailers on YouTube.” I was the first one out there to take a chauvinistic position lamenting that one of my favorite guy films was getting an estrogen makeover (I got killed for it). So I was skeptical when I watched that trailer: It seemed pretty funny and inventive; and it has Paul Feig, who made Bridesmaids with Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig and one hit comedy after the next. Feig added SNL talents Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, who all have moments in this trailer. They veered from the original, showing McCarthy possessed as a swivel-necked demon, with Jones slapping the evil right out of her. Does the YouTube throng want a shot-by-shot remake with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man? I’m sure it hasn’t been easy behind the scenes, relaunching an iconic film with Ivan Reitman being the producer, after he directed the original. This kind of behind-the-scenes tension and questioning and honing is healthy for a film, not bad. I wish more had questioned beforehand the unrelenting serious tone of Batman V Superman; the movie did fine, but it would have benefited from some light moments.
Now, we’re seeing a version of this rush to judgment with Doctor Strange, in an extension of the ethnic casting police raids that engulfed Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, Ridley Scott’s Exodus and Alex Proyas’ Gods Of Egypt because indigenous actors didn’t play key roles. Peter, you and I know damn well that movies won’t get made without stars, or at least recognizable actors with established track records. This digital throng deserves its opinion — you don’t want your studio execs and movie makers to be insensitive to the point they’re tone deaf — but at some point don’t you have to shut all this out?
BART: Doctor Strange is stranger: even all-powerful Marvel Comics seems to be intimidated by China. That is testimony to the power of the box office buck — but Marvel is putting a different spin on it. The key character in the forthcoming Marvel superhero movie, Doctor Strange, has been re-cast as a woman from Britain, not a man from Tibet. The Ancient One is played by Tilda Swinton, a willowy actress who, in her past roles, sometimes seems like she’s from outer space but never from Tibet. Scheduled for a November release, Doctor Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the superhero who discovers magic by meeting a fabled Tibetan. The problem is that Tibet was occupied by the Chinese in 1951 and its sovereignty remains a sensitive issue – not one that the Chinese bureaucrats would like to re-ignite. A Marvel press agent told the New York Times that the company has an excellent record on diversity and fears that on-the-nose casting would represent stereotyping. The solution was to re-write The Ancient One as a Celt, not an Asian. Swinton says she wasn’t even aware of the switch. And Marvel clearly isn’t planning on a big premiere in Tibet.
FLEMING: You raise a tough issue. As Marvel’s global ambitions grow, they can hardly afford to offend China, which could make it harder for its superhero films to tap into vast Chinese moviegoing audiences. So a film company would not be compelled to make a principled stand on the ethnicity of a fictional character only comic book readers know hails from Tibet. If a studio made a film that whitewashed the volatile history between China and its bullying of Tibet, to curry favor in the Middle Kingdom, that would be much different. Sometimes, a public outcry does help, like the way Will Ferrell was in and suddenly out of a movie where he was purported to portray Ronald Reagan in a comedy that made light at the onset of Alzheimer’s disease that began to afflict Reagan in his second term. Yowza, what a potentially insensitive idea. But social media is also having a vicious impact, as well. I sat dumbfounded, watching the NFL draft last Thursday as an offensive lineman thought to be the best non-quarterback athlete in the draft saw his stock plummet when someone hacked his social media account and posted a picture of him inhaling marijuana through a bong with a gas mask. My Giants passed right over him, even though we are in desperate need of a cornerstone offensive tackle. Whoever sabotaged this college student — suspicion it was a member of his own family — cost him millions of dollars, and labeled him a risk. I just watched Apple’s CEO make a principled stand on the sanctity of privacy as they refused to help override the security of the phones left behind by those San Bernardino terrorists; and then the government made its own screw you announcements that it bypassed Apple phone security and would not tell Apple how it was able to hack its phones. The digital world is getting to be such a crazy place.
BART: I’m all for “road-testing” casting possibilities, especially in the case of a project like A Star Is Born, which has had a long history of questionable decisions. When Roger Ebert saw the 1976 version he famously asked: “What possessed Streisand to make this movie?” The relationship of Streisand and Kris Kristofferson had “zero chemistry,” Ebert said. And he was right. The one positive thing about re-making a movie that has been done several times before is that you can learn from the past.
FLEMING: I like this pairing. Cooper is one of the more interesting actors out there, with ambitions that go beyond acting. As for Lady Gaga, I only knew her for her eccentric wardrobe, until I heard Howard Stern interview her. There is a lot of substance there, and she sings like an angel, as Hollywood heard in the Oscar-nominated tune she co-wrote and sang for The Hunting Ground. I bet this all happens fast.
BART: On the social media front, it’s important to remember that high-profile movies have always had a positive or negative buzz. Gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons could kill a movie, or a career. Magazines like Confidential published scandalous accounts of stars’ political or sexual leanings. Arguably, the social media today represents a more democratic forum — there’s a multitude of voices out there, however discordant and uninformed they might be.
Next topic. One third of viewers’ time watching Saturday Night Live is consumed by commercials, national and local, and some nights it seems like more. But now, in an apparent rebellion against clutter, two of the commercial breaks will be eliminated starting next season, its 42nd. That’s the good news. The bad news is that NBC will insert “branded content” from advertisers in some of the open time slots. This material will emanate from advertisers who “partner” with the show. In the past this has meant lots of product placement and product mentions, but Madison Avenue has hinted lately that the “branded” material will become more aggressive. “By partnering together, advertisers can capture an audience that only SNL can deliver,” a network executive volunteered. We’ll wait to find out how much of our attention will be captured and how much will be forcefully branded.
FLEMING: This was inevitable; I bet most SNL viewers tape the show and watch later because it’s on so late. Who’d watch commercials if they don’t have to, unless it is a parody? Networks are increasingly hard pressed to justify ad rates that pay for programming in this climate. My personal feeling on SNL is that the show should be trimmed to an hour, period. Cut that obligatory second musical number, nix those last few skits that too often seem like creative backwash. Cutting to an hour would make the show so much sharper and tighter. If NBC needs subtle product placements to make it work, I’ll still watch.
BART: Next. The $3.8 billion acquisition of DreamWorks Animation is a vivid reminder that Comcast intends to remain Disney’s key rival in the entertainment universe. It’s been weeks since Bob Iger has bought anything. The deal also prompts speculation as to whether Comcast and NBCUniversal won as big a prize as did Disney in its $4B buyout of Lucasfilm and its Star Wars franchise. Will Jeffrey Katzenberg’s animation empire bring as much to the table? In that context, it’s interesting to examine which companies were not interested in the deal. Katzenberg had made his home at Fox for a while, but Rupert Murdoch and Jim Gianopulos apparently didn’t crave the deal. Nor did somnolent Paramount, which still is shopping for buyers, not sellers (Philippe Dauman reiterated last week that a major stake in the studio will be sold by the end of June). Time Warner once was actively looking to acquire DreamWorks Animation but then backed away: Again, Jeffrey Bewkes, too, instinctively seems to be a seller, not a buyer. Sony’s parent company is in the black once again, but revenues from the film unit under Tom Rothman were off 34% for the year as a result of weak openings for The Walk and The Brothers Grimsby, along with other factors. In years past other suitors, like Hasbro and SoftBank, also had backed away.
FLEMING: Those companies recall how hard Katzenberg made them work for their 8% distribution fees and probably were turned off by a scenario where he would still preside over DWA. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what Comcast got in this deal that it didn’t have, paying all that money to buy DreamWorks Animation and then push its driving force, Katzenberg, out of the mix. But I also would have told you that Iger paying $4 billion each for Marvel and Lucasfilm was crazy. Both of those deals seem like bargains, now.
BART: The other source of speculation: What will Katzenberg, now $400 million wealthier, do for a living? In personal style and management philosophy, he is the mirror opposite of Brian L. Roberts, the man who finally bought him out. Katzenberg is all swagger; Roberts seems intent on reminding people he’s from Philadelphia. Katzenberg is fiercely political; Roberts’ name rarely appears on any list, political or philanthropic. Though silent this week, Katzenberg likes to talk with the press. Roberts doesn’t even talk with his press agent. The two men may be very different, but they managed to make a deal.
FLEMING: Jeffrey remains the most driven man in Hollywood; he will find an outlet for his ambition and his restlessness. People have always told me they try to avoid eye contact with Katzenberg when they know he’s fund raising for the Motion Picture & Television Home. He won’t take no for an answer and is relentless in getting what he thinks you should pay. A guy like that doesn’t go away. Even with Katzenberg out of his way, the challenge for Illumination’s Chris Meledandri will be to meld the pieces of DWA and justify to his talented animation force why they should work for the reasonable sums that allowed movies like Despicable Me and Minions to be done for far below the animation industry average. My colleague Dominic Patten just reported how Sony just spent $13 million to settle a class action wage-fixing anti-poaching lawsuit, this after Fox’s Blue Sky settled. He suggests DWA could follow because otherwise it will be like selling a house with a lien on it. People tell me that many animators don’t even have agents. When a company like this sells for nearly $4 billion, you can bet the talent agencies are going to move quickly to change that. Prices are probably going up across the board in animation. It’s a good thing for the artists, but it might make the idea of delivering a 3D animated film like Despicable Me a fantasy.