Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together occasionally and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: It seems like every month now, a Game Of Thrones episode breaks out at some Hollywood studio, with new kings crowned and old ones toppled. Most recently, that was Legendary, with Thomas Tull ousted and a report Jim Gianopulos might replace him. One recent evening, we ran two fire drills on hotly rumored stories, neither of which we could confirm to publish. At Sony, Michael Lynton was rumored out, went one rumor, and Tom Rothman and Jeff Robinov were rumored to be on the move. All flatly denied. Days later, Lynton announced he would leave in six months to run Snapchat. That seemed mostly his decision. It took many by surprise even though they felt Lynton never really recovered from the devastating Sony hack. Same night came the rumor about a fused AT&T-Time Warner with Peter Chernin and Gianopulos in the mix. More flat denials. Then came the rumor Gianopulos might build Legendary into a full-fledged studio. Gianopulos has a performance record to rival anyone, but at this point in his life, would he really want to start from zero, backed by Chinese money and all the complications that brings in a Donald Trump world? Especially when the Game Of Thrones mentality might open up a major studio job he really wants sooner or later?
Some signs of stability in the chaos: After going through its own GoT episode last year with Stacey Snider crowned by the Murdoch boys (which prompted the Jim G exit), Fox seems to be stabilizing under its film division chiefs. The big question was whether Snider and Fox production chief Emma Watts could co-exist. I keep hearing a re-up is in the works, one that will possibly give Watts oversight on international and animation production. No one is confirming, but they would be crazy to let her get away. I’ve heard Netflix is just one company coveting her services. At Fox she’s doing repeat business with strong filmmakers and the franchises she has built are thriving. The final Wolverine installment Logan looks good and there is strong buzz on the next Planet Of The Apes directed by Matt Reeves; Matthew Vaughn has another Kingsman slated for this fall; the Deadpool sequel is moving along, and that character and his irreverence seem likely to become a cornerstone for future X-Men. All this to go with James Cameron’s Avatar sequels. Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler has the Best Picture nominee and sleeper hit Hidden Figures, and Searchlight’s Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley came out of Sundance with two of the most coveted titles: Patti Cake$ and Step. Who’d want to dismantle that team?
BART: Your analysis of executive turmoil reminds me of the time when an unofficial Tokofsky Award was voted each year by studio insiders. The inspiration was a man named Jerry Tokofsky, a charming but over-ambitious studio executive who managed to get firm offers (well publicized) from three studios simultaneously to become production chief. He got his balls caught in the wringer and ended up with none of the three gigs. Years later, Michael Ovitz was enveloped in a similar situation when the CAA chief negotiated simultaneously with Universal and Disney — Ovitz once arrogantly boasted he effectively ran every studio anyway. Ovitz ended up a short-term boss at Disney. Jim Gianopulos is far too savvy a guy ever to get caught in this kind of a muddle. He’s also a Renaissance man who has abundant interests to keep him busy outside of show biz. I will say this about the new Chinese bosses: they may be even tougher to work for than the studio tyrants of old like Louis B. Mayer or Harry Cohn. Tull’s Legendary tenure was short-lived; Robinov boasted about his $250 million-plus in financing but his China-funded company has gotten only one movie off the ground in two years when he’d forecast over 20 in five years. China-backed STX has released nine films with mixed results. All of which reminds me of the admonition given to Peter Guber when he took over Sony – make only hits, not flops, his Japanese bosses instructed.
FLEMING: You have to be more precise here. The Japanese are different from the Chinese. It’s hard to know what the Japanese are thinking with today’s $912 million write-down explanation. Sony seemed to endorse the global strategy and fiscal management that has been a cornerstone of Rothman’s regime, but he wasn’t named in today’s note from Kazuo Hirai and Lynton. Is that a veiled vote of confidence while all hope the 2017 slate works? Elsewhere, several power brokers told me Brad Grey bought himself time to bolster Paramount’s fortunes with the massive slate co-financing commitment he secured from Chinese companies Shanghai Film Group and Huahua Media. You knock STX; they proved how a part of their cost-conscious model could succeed by hitting a seam with Bad Moms, and they are into big films like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and distributing Luc Besson’s Valerian. Finally, you mention Robinov; he doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who’d spend several years building a new company from scratch, only to bail for a studio job because it’s taking longer than expected. But anything is possible in what seems to be a year of studio upheaval — we haven’t even addressed scenarios involving Lionsgate and MGM — especially if Apple gets into the content game as is expected. All the studios seem to be trying to replicate Disney, which owns the prime slots on the distribution calendar now, all through the year. What kind of fresh ambition and alternative thinking might a progressive Silicon Valley company bring to the traditional creaking Hollywood movie machine?
Next topic. While in Sundance, I watched with dismay as a TMZ report with footage of a drowning dog spurred instant reaction and virtual condemnation of the DreamWorks film A Dog’s Purpose at a time the movie was tracking strongly. The film’s producer Gavin Polone and director Lasse Hallstrom quickly issued online statements of extreme concern as PETA called for protests. Irresistible story; lovable dog exploited! But Polone, a passionate animal activist, just about rolled his own movie under the bus until he and the film’s writer finally got to the bottom and saw the actual footage; it appeared the dog merely was uncomfortable with having his entry point into turbulent water moved from where the dog rehearsed the scene. It wasn’t near as bad as the possibly doctored footage made it seem. All this took long enough that the spin likely harmed the movie.
This instant rush to judgment and immediate need for absolution in the digital age is troubling. I saw media rush to publish a Constance Wu tweet after Casey Affleck’s Oscar nomination. Wu, who also made headlines speaking out against Matt Damon’s casting in The Great Wall, stars in the TV show Fresh Off The Boat. Why has this TV actress become a newsworthy voice in film when I’ve never seen her in one? She added no evidence, just proclaimed Affleck unfit because of a sexual harassment accusation that was filed in civil court and settled. We laid off that story: our line is criminal and not civil proceedings; in the latter, inflammatory he-said-she-said is hard to verify with certainty. I didn’t regret showing caution when the trades blared headlines each time former child actor Michael Egan held a press conference to accuse prominent Hollywood men of molesting him. He eventually recanted. We’ve made an exception with allegations against Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby; enough women came forward for a clear pattern to emerge. Affleck might have behaved like a drunken jerk on a film, but no pattern emerged. I don’t think it should have any bearing on the Oscar race, which is supposed to be about onscreen work. Are we getting to a place where the start of each Oscar season must include a criminal and civil background check of all contenders?
BART: Isn’t all this a reflection of society’s inability to deal with the echo chamber of the Internet? Every innuendo and instant apology is magnified and recycled until total trivia becomes deafening. Here’s one hopeful possibility: Given the fact that Donald Trump and Steve Bannon are so nakedly exploiting this phenomenon, a reaction may set in in other sectors of society. In short, if the federal government goes crazy, the rest of us may decide to focus on the serious issues and banish other static.
FLEMING: I read an LA Times opinion piece comparing Nate Parker to Affleck, the writer implying Affleck was treated as a non-story because he came from money and privilege and Parker did not. We covered the Parker story; it was a criminal case we felt it was going to be an issue for the then-Best Picture front-runner. Our readers who vote deserved to know the facts bared in criminal trial transcripts. Classifying Parker as underprivileged might be more stereotype than fact. When Fox Searchlight paid $17.5M at Sundance, I’d heard Parker held a heavy equity stake in a film whose cost was pegged around $6M, if I recall correctly. He might have become a millionaire that day in Park City. I believe we covered his story fairly, but it still troubles me that Parker was acquitted by a jury of his peers in a criminal trial and decades later could be treated like a movie business pariah. Mel Gibson lost 10 years of his directing career for basically saying stupid things while drunk. Only now is he back in the fold, CAA-repped, Oscar nominated for Hacksaw Ridge and being offered studio films again, like the Daddy’s Home sequel at Paramount. Parker clearly didn’t handle the media glare well, and his defiance on 60 Minutes helped bury his worthy film. I hope that someone has the courage to give him another chance. Maybe it will be Gibson, who years ago hired a struggling Robert Downey Jr and paid his high insurance premium when no one else wanted him. Gibson is readying the period series Barbary Coast; maybe Parker can direct an episode and work.
BART: Next topic: Jimmy Kimmel admits to a case of nerves about his February 26 Oscar stint, but he should take comfort in these realities: His show won’t be a ratings hit no matter how smart and funny he is. The slate of nominations has put a lid on his TV audience. It’s also eliminated the need to recycle any diversity jokes. Further, he has delivered so many biting Trump jokes on his regular late night show that nothing he says will carry shock value. And he won’t be upstaged by Meryl Streep. In his usual display of Kimmel candor, he acknowledges that “I don’t think a lot of people will have seen the nominated movies,” hence the proverbial Oscar ratings issue. The era of Lord of the Rings and Titanic has become the moment of Birdman and Spotlight. This year’s nominated films embrace some successes within the framework of the indie world – La La Land, Hidden Figures and Arrival have passed the $100 million milestone — but when voters turned up their noses at Deadpool they blew a chance to tap into the blockbuster market place.
FLEMING: I disagree with everything you just wrote. I think Kimmel is the right guy at the right time and that under his skillful steering this could be the most memorable Oscars in a long time. You rightly point out that the majority of the global audience won’t have seen some of the nominated films. You saw the impassioned SAG Awards speeches we just heard from every winner about President Trump’s Muslim-directed immigration ban. This might be the most politically charged Oscarcast since the Vietnam War raged and Brando sent Native American civil rights activist Sasheem Littlefeather to accept his Best Actor trophy for The Godfather. Already, an Iranian Oscar nominated has pulled out, and might not have been allowed to come if he wanted to. Kimmel has the inherent edge the affable Jimmy Fallon lacked during the Golden Globes, and Kimmel is changeable and fast on his feet. He won’t make the mistake fellow late night host David Letterman did when he tried to transplant his late night talk show onto the Oscars. Oscarcast producers Mike De Luca and Jennifer Todd badly wanted Kimmel: to them, he’s as close as they could come to Johnny Carson, who hosted five times when they were growing up. Kimmel isn’t Carson, but he might be better this year as a referee to balance pictures with polemics. Even though La La Land has all those Oscar noms, the overriding presence will be President Trump, who has a full month to further inflame the Hollywood elite.
BART: Getting back to the movies, though; from Kimmel’s standpoint, jokes about Manchester By the Sea are not only difficult to shape but may go over the heads of most of the audience. Rogue One humor may be tempting but irrelevant. The Wall St Journal last week computed that the nine nominated features had grossed an average of $52 million domestic – good numbers for the indie world, but not for the mainstream Hollywood that TV viewers think they’re buying into. Over the past ten years only a few big hits (in studio terms) have appeared on the nomination list – Toy Story 3, Gravity and The Martian.
FLEMING: There’s no way around this dilemma and I disagree with your assessment about the Academy blowing it by not nominating Deadpool. Best Picture? Its disruptive and irreverent tone helped it become the biggest global R rated film ever, with a $783M gross that every studio would trade its Best Picture nominee for, in a heartbeat. The purpose of the Oscars is to reward quality and excellence, and there’s a fine crop of pictures here, and many more good ones that didn’t make the cut. Maybe more people will be moved to discover Moonlight or Manchester By The Sea, or Viggo’s performance in Captain Fantastic. To pander and try to nominate to anticipate a viewing audience, you might as well turn the Oscars into the People’s Choice Awards or MTV Movie Awards.
BART: In a sense the boundary between “indie hit” and “studio hit” has been underscored by the exuberant entry of Amazon into the feature business. Amazon released some fifteen movies last year and has been pleased by the performance of arty projects like Love and Friendship from Whit Stillman and Paterson from Jim Jarmusch (it’s biggest success was Manchester). Amazon’s agenda at Sundance indicated that it will pursue this tactic and not venture into the franchise business – an intriguing strategy for the world’s dominant distributor of all kinds of product. On the TV side, to be sure, it’s in business with a range of artists including Woody Allen — with varying results.
DEADLINE: Both Amazon and Netflix owned the just concluded 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Deals fell like snow up there in Park City, and those streaming services book-ended the proceedings with the two biggest. Amazon set the tone paying $12M for The Big Sick and Netflix last night closed it out with a slightly bigger deal, $12.5M for Mudbound. Upstarts Hulu, YouTube Red, Facebook and Apple could have asserted themselves but weren’t ready. Amazon and Netflix provided all the needed firepower. Amazon also bought Landline, City of Ghosts, award winner Crown Heights and paid $6M for the Grateful Dead docu Long Strange Trip, while Netflix also paid $8M for the Marti Noxon-directed eating disorder drama To The Bone with Lily Collins and Keanu Reeves and bought the closing nighter The Incredible Jessica James and bought a slew of docus including the Hulk Hogan-Gawker docu Nobody Speak. They were the streaming component for other distributor-driven Sundance deals. These services have changed the indie ecosystem, and Amazon will be at the Oscars for Manchester, Netflix for the Ava DuVernay docu The 13th.
BART: To finish on Kimmel. He has proven his skill in the awards business, having twice presided over the Emmys, but the Oscar show is far more accident prone. Even Letterman stumbled. Chris Rock wasn’t invited back (or disdained a repeat). The substantial black presence on the nomination list erases a prime target of Rock’s humor. So what will be Kimmel’s targets? La La Land poses a delicious challenge. Think of the numbers that could be built on dancers who don’t dance too well and singers who don’t sing too well. A New York Times critic sniped that the jazz in the movie wasn’t even satisfying, even though the hero of the film is a jazz musician. The critic has clearly been outvoted by every awards group.
FLEMING: I’ve heard the Oscar producers aren’t planning any musical numbers beyond performances of nominated songs, thank goodness. This Oscarcast will be about movies and probably President Trump. I am hopeful the “who’s wearing what dress” question will be the least interesting thing that happens Feb 26.