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.
BART: Congress can’t get anything right. In its effort to slam Oliver Stone’s new movie, Snowden, the House Intelligence Committee will, I hope, prompt a far wider audience to see the film. I think it’s an engrossing, highly original film (contrary to some critics) and am grateful to the Congressional idiots for releasing their report condemning Edward Snowden last Thursday, the day before Stone’s movie was released (a coincidence?). To Stone, Snowden is a whistle-blowing hero. To the intelligence geniuses, he’s a traitor.
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FLEMING: Stone humanizes Snowden, showing his growing disillusionment, but the director didn’t turn his film into a campaign for a Snowden pardon. I don’t think he will be pardoned, nor should he. Whether it’s Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem, or Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers to expose the futility of the Vietnam War, or Snowden exposing the widespread surveillance of Americans, I admire the courage of people who put themselves at risk to act on their convictions. But they often pay a price. Snowden surely knew that betraying his country by fueling an unprecedented security breach would mean a one-way ticket out of America. I say this even after spending a long lunch interview that crackled with intelligence and big ideas from Stone and Bill Binney, an NSA wiz who invented the Thin Thread program and whose upward trajectory halted after he spoke to politicians and media about abuses. They sympathize with Snowden and feel he had no choice but to run; he otherwise would have been muzzled and thrown in a cell with no public jury trial until he could be convicted of violating the Espionage Act. If you pardon Snowden, wouldn’t you be obliged to do the same for Chelsea Manning (who, as Army soldier and intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, is charged with violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years for leaking classified documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks)? And wouldn’t that make it okay for any covert agent to share dirty secrets if they ran afoul of their conscience? The movie might make you glad Snowden isn’t rotting in a cell like Manning, but I don’t think this movie will change his current mailing address, which is Russia. Stone and Binney said Snowden’s oath was to the Constitution, not the NSA, but how can it be OK to take it upon oneself betray high-level secrets and then be told, all better, come home?
BART: Civil liberties advocates will love Stone’s movie because it buttresses their campaign calling on President Obama to grant Snowden a pardon. Snowden is self-exiled to Russia because Washington has decided he is a traitor for having leaked as many as 1.5 million documents from the NSA. In depicting Snowden, Stone has made a fascinating, if chilly, movie about a brilliant nerd who rebels against the government’s massive invasion of privacy. Some critics found it “curiously banal” (Los Angeles Times), others wished it was “angrier, crazier, more frightening” (New York Times), but Stone exercised an unusual (for him) restraint in telling his story. The film is a passport into a nether world of lies in secrecy inhabited by antisocial nerds with freaky techno-gifts (Joseph Gordon-Levitt is both empathetic and spooky as the nerd protagonist, who, according to the House report, is a “serial liar” whose acts damaged national security. But then Congress admires James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, who lied by testifying in 2013 that the NSA did not collect records on millions of Americans. That was a lie of Trump-ian proportions, which elicited no official denunciation. Except from Oliver Stone.
FLEMING: Remember how shocked we were when Sony got hacked and all those private emails dispersed? Now it seems commonplace, from the DNC emails to the ones from Colin Powell that disparaged Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It is hard to take Powell’s rebukes that seriously: he was, after all, the chief salesman for the Bush Administration post-9/11 war ambitions who sold to Congress and the world the Iraq invasion, based on what proved to be bogus intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. In our discussion of actions and consequences, Powell is in some ways as unfortunate a figure as Snowden. Were it not for Shock and Awe, how appealing would Powell have been as a Republican Party presidential candidate, compared to Donald Trump and those he bested in the primaries?
BART: I disagree with you on several counts. I think Colin Powell, on balance, deserves our praise, not our ridicule. On Snowden, surveying a list of people who’ve been pardoned in the final days of an administration, I think this man deserves consideration. But it will never happen. At least he got his movie.
FLEMING: And the journalists and filmmakers who took his statement got Pulitzer Prizes and Oscars. Next topic. I am fascinated by how Ryan Kavanaugh and his Relativity cohorts have taken to social media as they try to rebound from bankruptcy. All this is my opinion, but it seems odd to me that instead of showing humility, and keeping a low profile until hit movies and TV shows fuel a turnaround, Kavanaugh has gone on the attack with a different platform: Twitter. Mainly, it seems, to blame Deadline and Variety for his woes, and to helpfully call the company’s first post-bankruptcy release a bad film, and to brag about the spaciousness of the new Relativity jet.
Kavanaugh started out blasting me personally (he spells my name wrong, but I assume he means me), then moved on to Brett Ratner, and now he is pummeling Variety’s James Rainey. Even though THR is tough on a lot of people, Kavanaugh somehow uses that publication like his stenographer (their trumpeting of Relativity’s launch of an indie division at Toronto seems in my opinion like the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic). Kavanaugh lauds THR and The Wrap because they serve up his blather, but he seems to be trying to declare war on Deadline and Variety.
He claims I write false stories about him, and that I coerced $50,000 from him to kill a story that was false anyway. This is completely false; why would anyone pay to kill a false story anyway? I have never had a financial transaction with Kavanaugh, and not that many interactions. A few years ago, I agreed to omit info one of his execs told me in Toronto about a plan to take Relativity public. In exchange, Kavanaugh later sat with me to detail those plans. I never published our interview; I guess I just didn’t believe it, and he seemed like an OK guy and I didn’t want to embarrass either of us. Good call on my part, it turns out. I did take him to task when THR lathered his bum with a cover story interview and allowed an unchallenged forum for him to blame everybody but himself for Relativity’s Chapter 11 plunge. I think you have to own your failures and that when you raise money and then turn investors into creditors and lay off many people, it can’t just be everybody else’s fault but your own. Kavanaugh’s taunts at Ratner were weird in that they disappeared so quickly they reminded me of too many Relativity releases, most recently The Disappointments Room.
Now, Kavanaugh is hammering Variety’s Rainey for being tough on Relativity, and for being escorted by security when he came to the Relativity offices looking for comments from laid-off staffers as they exited with their belongings. That is called journalism, and it certainly led to meaningful stories with a human touch when reporters spoke to suddenly jobless and crestfallen workers at big investment banks after the 2008 crash, even as their former bosses told them to keep quiet. That Rainey felt it important to show how the little guys always pay when wealthy higher-ups screw up, that seems laudable to me. I never met Rainey, but I think the fact Kavanaugh doesn’t like him is good material for his resume. I don’t engage in much social media myself, but sources sometimes send me the most brazen of his tweets and those of his top production exec Dana Brunetti. I scrolled through Kavanaugh’s tweets to prep for this column and notice his promise to start a site for people who hate Deadline and Variety. I say, bring it, but it also seems to me like a waste of time when he should be repairing a ship that got hit with a torpedo. Peter, why do you think Relativity has chosen this attack mode for its rebound campaign?
BART: I don’t think Relativity has a “rebound” plan. From the outset it’s been a company in search of strategy. Ryan Kavanaugh acts on instinct, which worked great for him early in his career, but has betrayed him over the past year.
FLEMING: I suppose a big test comes September 30 with the release of the long-shelved comedy Masterminds with Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig and Owen Wilson. Instead of picking fights with journalists (Deadline has nothing against Kavanaugh, and we have only covered him with the right amount of skepticism) and bragging about the lavishness of a new corporate jet, how about drilling down and trying to build a good company? Hollywood can certainly use another viable production/distribution portal, and last night’s Emmycast showed how a single great TV series can turn around anybody’s fortunes. Despite their “big” Toronto announcement, I didn’t see anybody sell Relativity a film up there, and those I speak to say Relativity is currently the port of last resort for finished films. Maybe Masterminds will start to turn that around, but what message does it send when the Teflon CEO of Relativity takes to Twitter to call his latest flop, The Disappointments Room, “just bad”? What filmmaker would want to sign up to be part of that shit show?
BART: It’s easy to chart the troubles that have overtaken a few of the “indies” like Relativity. It’s more difficult, explaining the turbulence that is overtaking some of the majors. A case in point: Rob Friedman, who suddenly is out at Lionsgate without explanation. It’s reminiscent of Tom Staggs, whose disappearance from Disney never was accounted for. And who will shortly disappear from Viacom/Paramount? Friedman, 66, is a major player in town. He is very rich; he knows everybody; he’s had top jobs at Warner Bros and Paramount. With Patrick Wachsberger at his side, he made Summit a huge hit, nurturing the Twilight franchise, then Hunger Games. Why is he now history?
FLEMING: We’ve been hearing for a while Friedman might step out and take some other job. Lionsgate is a company waiting for another big wind to hit their sails. Summit was built on a Paramount mistake, when that studio let the Twilight Saga franchise go. And then Lionsgate had the same kind of success with The Hunger Games. The merged companies have tried to find the next youthful franchise but catching lightning in a bottle three times is so hard for any company. I was so busy covering Toronto, I don’t yet know why Friedman exited. If he has time, I would welcome his advice in helping me look less like a sartorial slob at these Toronto premieres. That guy is always rocking a good look and I’ve never seen him have a bad fashion moment.
BART: Lionsgate is either dynamic, or embattled, depending on who you talk to. It recently devoured Starz. John Malone now controls 7.5% of its stock. Interesting pictures (and flops) continue to emerge from it – La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell Or High Water on the one hand, Blair Witch and Gods Of Egypt on the other. Rumors of corporate conflict have kept brewing: Feltheimer loves TV, Wachsberger loves movies, co-chair Michael Burns loves deals. And now Friedman, the most credentialed executive in terms of marketing and distribution clout, and industry contacts, is kaput. Who’s on first?
FLEMING: All of these companies are trying to set up digital-savvy leadership to guide them into the future. Lionsgate’s La La Land and Hacksaw Ridge are very strong movies coming out of the festivals, and Hell Or High Water goes down as the biggest prestige film release of the year. Relativity, Broad Green or any other indie struggling to find hits would kill to have three films on its slate like those. This isn’t the first shake-up to happen this year and it probably won’t be the last.
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