Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on movies.
BART: Though this year’s Oscars will be remembered for the big screw-up, I thought it was a very well-produced show until that point, and I’ve been to 20 of them. The tour bus stunt worked well, popcorn-from-heaven was a hit, and even Jimmy Kimmel’s political material was effective and deftly crafted. Pollsters predicted in advance that two-thirds of Trump supporters would turn off their TV sets if speeches “got too political,” but my bet is that this didn’t happen. Even the commercials — Cadillac in particular — carried a social message that was effective but understated.
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FLEMING: What you are saying is true, but it is never good when the outcome brings up the old joke about Mrs. Lincoln otherwise enjoying the play. Oscar is Hollywood’s Super Bowl, and there is comparison to the one played a few weeks ago, when the Atlanta Falcons lost a seemingly insurmountable lead to the Patriots because of bad coaching and quarterback decisions.
Sunday night was different. The producers drew up a winning game plan, including the choice of a quarterback who executed every play. Everything worked Sunday night for Mike De Luca, Jennifer Todd and Jimmy Kimmel, even that risky tour bus play. The show was helped by the diverse selection of winners that made you feel that progress has been made in addressing issues of diversity; and the speeches were touching but not polarizing. And then, in the final play, a couple of star-struck accountants lost the game. I feel badly for De Luca, Todd and Kimmel and hope they return next year. I can’t remember a more enjoyable Oscar broadcast…up until the final moment, when, if the reports are true, a tweeting accountant drove the 89th Academy Awards off a cliff.
BART: Oscar shows always die around the time the sound editors collect awards but that’s the process and Kimmel managed to revive the torpor.
FLEMING: As usual, you’ve slowed my roll with a big word there; didn’t torpor get nominated for Fiddler On The Roof? Kimmel and his writing staff were smart to make Matt Damon their secret weapon. Damon was unsung in keeping Manchester By The Sea afloat as producer when he had to bow out as director and then star; but his willingness to take center stage as Kimmel’s punching bag was funny from start to finish. From Kimmel’s dissection of Damon’s work in We Bought A Zoo to being brought out as “guest” alongside Ben Affleck to present a category, and getting played off by the orchestra each time Damon spoke. The mean celebrity tweets were funny. The bus tour people were charmingly starstruck. The idea that all this could be undone by distracted accountants handing out the wrong envelope? I can’t get past it. You look back now and see them glamour-posing on the red carpet, with the glowing pre-Oscar write-up in Forbes, and the now-deleted backstage tweet photos by PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Brian Cullinan, when the accountant should have been paying attention and handing the Best Picture envelope to Warren Beatty. Whose idea was it to turn accountants into celebrities? Weren’t there enough stars in that auditorium? I always thought of accountants as hunched over in a back room, maybe wearing a visor, punching numbers on an adding machine.
The Academy moved quickly to correct its diversity crisis. Its first order of business should be to find new accountants, ones who don’t need to stand on the red carpet holding briefcases — like the Blues Brothers – but who instead will be content to be regarded as functionaries focused on doing their jobs, and not getting swept up in glamour. The idea that such a carefully choreographed Oscars, seen around the world, could have been destroyed by bean counters…Peter, I just can’t get past this. It was like a replay of Election Day, and once again, Donald Trump gets the last laugh about the ineptitude of the Hollywood elite.
BART: Moonlight’s win was a vivid reminder that the Oscar show has become a black tie replay of the Indie Spirit Awards, honoring films that the TV audience has not seen and likely never will. Distributors always hope that a big box office “bump” will justify their ad spending, but this year may prove uniquely “bump-less.” Had Hidden Figures or Arrival won more awards, they might have had the biggest bumps, according to two box office gurus I spoke with.
FLEMING: That’s just the way it’s always going to be; the best films usually aren’t the most commercial. All the nominees benefited from Oscar season, though. My big takeaway was how films that launched latest, hoping to draft off Oscar momentum you cited, found themselves on the outside looking in. If you didn’t launch at Toronto, Telluride, Venice or New York last fall, you didn’t make a dent in the Oscar race. Just look at The Founder, moved from August to early this year. Michael Keaton’s performance was a nomination waiting to happen; Keaton got as screwed as those burger-making brothers fleeced by McDonald’s impresario Ray Kroc in the movie. How does Martin Scorsese not get nominated for a movie that burned in his gut 20 years? Silence opened too late, at a time other films were established and more were clamoring for attention. After The Big Short launched as an Oscar film out of the AFI fest last year, Patriots Day tried the same strategy and came up short.
BART: While the Oscar show was well produced, the acceptance speeches (with two exceptions) were blah. I thought lists of agents and PR reps had been informally banned. At least the maze of La La Land’s unrecognizable producers was interrupted before they could read off their lists and ham things up. More than ever, I missed Charlie Chaplin’s dignified “thank you.”
FLEMING: That Oscar finale made me feel like I’d fallen down the rabbit hole, but the privilege of disagreeing with you consistently puts me back on familiar ground. I certainly recognized La La Land producer Marc Platt, a longtime exec-turned-producer who made a gazillion dollars producing Wicked on Broadway and maybe has an Oscar in his future with that upcoming movie musical? I loved all the speeches, especially the one given for The Salesman director Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director who stayed home to protest President Donald Trump’s travel ban (and possibly boosted his chances when it seemed a vote for his film was a vote against Trump). If I didn’t have my TV dinner in my lap, I would have stood when Kimmel asked for a standing ovation for that overrated actress, Meryl Streep. I wasn’t bored once, the whole night.
The producers promised a stripped-down Oscar that celebrated love of movies and inspiration. They delivered…until those damn accountants snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. How about A24, this upstart distributor that last year guided Room to a Best Actress prize for Brie Larson, and now Best Picture for Moonlight, the biggest underdog winner since The Hurt Locker? An achievement that was totally obscured by this gaffe. Enough of this, already. I hope De Luca, Todd and Kimmel pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and come back next year. And hey, what’s the name of that accounting firm Jon Hamm is shilling right now in tax season commercials? Maybe they can count Oscar votes? Maybe they can even send Hamm, with one set of envelopes, and he can hand them to presenters like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway who shouldn’t even have to wonder if they’re reading the correct cards. Just tell Hamm: accounting while texting can be dangerous.
BART: New topic. Jim Gianopulos, Rob Friedman, Greg Silverman, etc, etc – the list of former studio chiefs presumably lined up to audition for Brad Grey’s Paramount job is testimony to the startlingly high rate of corporate turnover. It’s likely none of them has ever heard of the man they’ll be meeting, Bob Bakish, a relatively obscure distribution executive who is Viacom’s new CEO. Given the corporate turbulence, is the Paramount job worth fighting for? I think this would a good moment to establish a Ron Meyer Trophy for Corporate Durability. After all, Meyer has sat atop Universal for 22 years through five ownerships. And this year’s trophy winner would have been Brad Grey, honoring his 12-year Paramount run. Oops, we need a new candidate.
FLEMING: Nobody noticed when Paramount – which for years didn’t have the resources most other studios were given — underperformed consistently. There was so much dysfunction, power struggles and debauchery going on at Viacom that the atrophy of the movie studio and TV networks was a sidebar story. And just when things finally settled down, Grey had the misfortune of posting his most dismal fiscal year showing in his dozen-year run. When Bakish wanted more input in greenlights, Grey resisted, or so the story goes. Bakish then began asking around Hollywood and didn’t like what he heard. Why are guys like Rob Friedman, Scott Stuber, De Luca, Jeff Robinov and the others so covetous of this job? Because these gigs are few and far between. And what better time to come in and overhaul than when the previous regime lost over $400 million, and when new Viacom bosses seem eager to spend what past bosses held back? Also, Paramount has a storied and disruptive history of comebacks; who wouldn’t want to follow in the glorious footsteps of Diller/Eisner/Katzenberg, or Bob Evans and that New York Times reporter, the one who persuaded Francis Coppola to direct The Godfather. Hey, wasn’t that you?
BART: You have some memory. Back on the track: Why the turbulence? Executive jobs at studios used to be great gigs, yet I’ve talked with several top executives about the reasons for this growing instability. Here are their theories: (1) conglomerates that own the studios tend to manage by quarterly results, not by long-term vision. (2) Starting with the demise of the video market, conglomerates have fixated on pursuit of the magic franchises that would produce instant, risk-free largess. There’s no energy behind the mid-level projects that feed the library and build a talent pool. “The purpose of a studio is to build a content machine that can advance other divisions and product streams. Expectations of giant and consistent profits are misplaced,” comments one senior executive. It’s no accident that seven of the nine Best Picture Oscar candidates were produced by entities outside of the six majors. Arrival was a Paramount release and Hacksaw Ridge was distributed by Lionsgate, but the funding came from indie sources.
FLEMING: You couldn’t have been this much of a pessimist when you and Evans saved the Paramount lot from being turned into a graveyard! Branded IP is certainly in short supply, but every studio chief wakes up with a puncher’s chance of unearthing the next Harry Potter (found in a producer’s slush pile). Paramount let go of the Twilight Saga books and the resulting four films built Summit Entertainment, whose ex-chief Friedman met Bakish last week. Find the next Hunger Games, and you can change the face of your studio in a hot minute. Look how little time Chris Meledandri needed to launch Illumination into a billion-dollar enterprise: Despicable Me was his first film! Jason Blum’s genre division just had another low-cost smash in the Jordan Peele-directed Get Out, following on the heels of Split, which resurrected M Night Shyamalan. If a Robinov, Stuber or De Luca makes some bold choices and guesses right, they can be heroes.
BART: It’s a paradox that Paramount is now the leading problem child in Hollywood’s nursery, with its $445 million 2016 loss. The studio’s parent company, Viacom, was the creation of Sumner Redstone, a one-time exhibitor who genuinely loved movies, yet couldn’t find a way to win with them. Viacom could have made some of the giant deals that Bob Iger pulled off at Disney – Marvel, Pixar, etc – but he and his apparatchik, Philippe Dauman, lacked the vision. With Redstone in decline, Bakish must face the reality that Viacom’s malaise is company-wide. Executives of several divisions tell me there are so many Viacom resumes on the street, it’s become an industry joke. “It’s a massive brain drain,” one division chief tells me. Unless Bakish flashes some sharp leadership skills, here’s my prediction: Bakish will never win a Ron Meyer Trophy.
FLEMING: I’ll just disagree with you, again. Those who met with Bakish were impressed by his directness and willingness to admit he doesn’t know movies. His international division was a bright spot when Viacom had few of them. But there are two areas where the Bakish movie agenda might run into trouble. The guys chasing this job want the authority to greenlight movies, like others who hold these jobs. And the emphasis on tie-ins with branded Viacom TV networks seems philosophically sound but hard to institutionalize. What do brands like Nickelodeon and MTV even stand for, now? If Paramount had labeled its Best Picture candidate BET’s Fences, wouldn’t it have risked marginalizing that prestige film? If Bakish will promote the daylights out of upcoming branded movies on his networks, great. But what established movie chief wants to consult with TV network counterparts on greenlights? It is a system designed to fail.
BART: Next topic. It’s been 10 years since the disastrous Writers Guild strike, and guild negotiators go to war with studios next month, with high expectations. I don’t envy them their job – at least on the film side. The number of movies released by companies affiliated with the MPAA has declined from 296 to 167 over 10 years. Writing for movies has become a lousy job – producers effectively want to read first drafts before committing to finance them. The TV business is booming by contrast but writing for the various platforms has become hazardous and exasperating. The writers want a better deal. Their health fund needs one. More power to them. I just don’t want to be in a room with them when management starts reminding negotiators of the tortuous times of a decade ago.
FLEMING: The writers have legitimate beefs, especially in TV, which has changed because of cable networks and streaming services. Those Marvel and binge-viewing series now get made in 10- to 13-episode seasons. Instead of writing on a 22-episode series, you write on a hot show, but if you make over $200,000 or $220,000, you can’t fill the down time by taking other work. You’re sidelined, and realize you’ve made scale. Residuals in the digital arena are worse than traditional residuals and studios and producers are exploiting that. That said, nobody needs a strike. The last one was an unmitigated disaster from which writers never recovered. Fee quotes were discarded, one-step deals and sweepstakes pitching became the norm. Most studios are diversified enough to be able to withstand a work stoppage; even major agencies have revenues from bull-riding, cage-fighting, music-touring and investment banking to offset film and TV revenues that now only comprise one-quarter of the revenues of CAA and WME. How long can actors and writers stay out before they’ll be forced to put for-sale signs on their lawns? Hopefully, studios will be reasonable with the creators of content and we’ll all whistle past the graveyard this summer.
BART: One more. Whenever I learn about a Chinese takeover of a Hollywood asset, I become Steve Bannon and it makes me uncomfortable.
FLEMING: So that’s why I have disagreed with you on every point here. You’re channeling Steve Bannon.
BART: The latest example: The secretive MGM deal. China was set to take control of the fabled company, according to the Wall Street Journal, until the Chinese government itself put the brakes on the deal. My reaction: Good for them. Perhaps Hollywood itself should exercise its “sovereignty” and “economic nationalism,” to use the phrases of Bannon, Donald Trump’s resident guru.
FLEMING: I’m not sure I am buying what you are selling here. You make it sound like a communist government engaged directly in a hostile takeover of an American picture-making company. Who exactly was trying to coerce James Bond into becoming a Chinese agent? Is it possible that Gary Barber simply wanted to see if he could get in on some of that drunken spending that Chinese companies were engaged in until recently?
BART: Chinese entities have lately acquired Legendary for $3.5 billion, infused $1 billion into Paramount, and are trying to close a $1 billion acquisition of Dick Clark Productions, but the Chinese government is worried about the vast capital outflow resulting from these and similar deals. For the record, MGM insists it is not for sale and has made noises of a public stock offering, but bankers say it was the target of a major takeover.
FLEMING: The Chinese are right to scrutinize what they are getting in these rushed deals. The co-fi deal with Paramount you mention might amount to a billion dollars over three or four years; we’ll see. Some of the Paramount movies Shanghai Film Group and Huahua Media got minority stakes in — xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage was one of the first – weren’t smashes. Nor was Wanda-backed Legendary product like The Great Wall and Warcraft, which led to the Thomas Tull exit. It sure is looking like many China companies are having their wallets lightened by Hollywood. If they beat a retreat, will it next be up to Silicon Valley to fill the gap, as Hollywood continues to be averse to funding its own films?
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