Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: In a former career, I covered two race riots and one war, but I cannot recall a time when newsmen faced greater obstacles. In this moment of divisiveness, every story seems to be a potential landmine; even reports about salaries on a TV show that I haven’t watched in years. News stories about the departure of two Asian actors on Hawaii Five-O suddenly revive a two-year-old imbroglio about two other actors, Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc. They became vulnerable when bloggers claimed that CBS was hung up on shows about middle-aged white guys, ignoring the need for diversity. Does every story about pay — or programming — have to become a story about diversity? Here’s the headline on Page 1 of the Los Angeles Times: “For Asian actors, few leading roles and lower pay.” Yes, it’s about Hawaii Five-O.
FLEMING: I was surprised to see that the exits of Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park got turned into a referendum on race, but that seems to be the way it goes in these highly sensitive times. The anti-Asian narrative was fueled by Twitter fire from several who took the exits of Kim and Park as some evidence that their race was why they didn’t get paid as much as show leads Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. It looked to me no different than every news-making TV show salary re-negotiation. It is always about leverage than anything else. It must have been awkward for CBS, whose chief Les Moonves is married to Julie Chen. Angry tweets aside, Moonves has a track record of being a tough businessman. Remember when he sacked George Eads and Jorja Fox, two supporting actors on top-rated show CSI in 2004, after they didn’t show for work in what was perceived to be a renegotiation tactic? They were re-hired, but this was pretty shocking at the time. My understanding of the Hawaii Five-0 situation was this: Believing that O’Loughlin was a TV star in the making, Moonves kept putting him in series – Three Rivers and Moonlight came first and failed – before Hawaii Five-O hit. It was the same tactic used for actors including George Clooney, who bounced from one series to the next until Moonves-run Warner Bros unlocked his stardom with ER. CBS built Hawaii Five-O around O’Loughlin in a version of the iconic Steve McGarrett character and cut him a piece of the backend that has made him millions. I believe he’s the only star on the show who got that, despite reports that Caan is in the same boat. Caan’s fee does match O’Loughlin’s $200,000-per-episode salary, because the show is a two-hander. From what I’ve heard, CBS offered Kim and Park close to that salary for Season 8, but the network wasn’t cracking open the backend on a mature series that already reaped its syndication windfall. We’ve seen versions of this over the years as supporting players tried for parity with top-billed stars. On Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards performed characters as indelible as Jerry Seinfeld, but it was his show and they had to console themselves with raises that got them $600,000 an episode after the final negotiation. Seinfeld’s backend was worth tens of millions of dollars, by comparison, and made them seem underpaid. It’s all leverage. I remember when George Litto, the former rep of Hawaii Five-O creator Leonard Freeman, shopped that property initially as a movie. Every studio wanted it. Litto had total control, too much for the liking of those studios, which is why it languished so long. I recall him telling me once he intended to make a deal that would allow his family to steer the ensuing movies/TV shows long-term the way Cubby Broccoli handed down James Bond to his family. He subsequently got in a legal battle with the estate, and he isn’t steering the series now. He had leverage, until he didn’t.
BART: A cantankerous comment on diversity was offered this week by Mike Hale, a TV critic for the New York Times, who argued that supporting characters who are Asian tend to have duller roles and more boring lines on TV shows. On Hawaii Five-O, Hale says, one of the two leads originally should have been Asian or a Pacific Islander or even a native Hawaiian. The two Asian supporting actors who have left the show, he notes, are of Korean heritage – Koreans represent a mere 2% of the population of Hawaii. Grace Park is of Korean descent raised in Canada and Daniel Dae Kim was born in South Korea.
FLEMING: I often watch Hawaii Five-O and Blue Bloods right after because you get to a certain age and that’s a happening Friday night. Kim and Grace are fun to watch, and I’ll miss them. CBS will find out soon enough if they are indispensable. As for what you said of criticism about white-guy sitcoms with Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc — what part of that isn’t sound TV business judgment? Each guy starred in one of the most successful and lucrative sitcoms in TV history. Who wouldn’t try to re-create that magic with either of them? In the case of James, his King of Queens TV wife Leah Remini is poised to join Kevin Can Wait as James’s first-season Kevin Can Wait wife Erinn Hayes exits. If 30 Rock‘s Alec Baldwin decided today he wants to do a sitcom, don’t you think every network will back up the Brink’s truck to his doorstep, with not even a modicum of this white guilt you cite?
It seems naive to convey Kim and Park as suffering in oppressive roles they now are liberated from. It’s rare when supporting players reach pay parity with stars who scored big original deals, and if reports like the one in Saturday’s LA Times is right, Kim and Park got close in the per-episode pay grade to O’Loughlin and Caan. One of the few examples I can remember where things went differently was when The West Wing ensemble banded together and were brought up to the pay scale of Rob Lowe, who was the big star name when the series launched. Whether it’s David Caruso on NYPD Blue or James Gandolfini on The Sopranos, TV re-negotiation is bruising business that is all about leverage and profit, not skin color. Kim has gone to pilot with another show as producer; ABC has picked up The Good Doctor, and if that one hits, or if he is the top-billed star on another show after runs on Lost and Hawaii Five-O, he’ll be in the money as a back end participant.
BART: If diversity stories are radioactive, so are pieces about sexual harassment. Last week a Fox sports executive and the host of a Fox Business Network show both were fired or suspended on charges of sexual harassment. The defendants insist that the articles themselves are career death sentences. The reports point to other cases (Ailes, O’Reilly, etc), suggesting a possible contagion at Fox. Which, alas, might be the case.
FLEMING: You hope these companies have satisfactorily investigated these claims and verified patterns of bad behavior by the time these stories go public. I have zero tolerance or sympathy for boorish behavior by men toward women in the workplace. I’m not sure it fits with our current discussion, which is really about diversity and business. Hawaii Five-O has one of the most diverse casts on TV and fits in with an organic diversity groundswell. Female directors are being hired all over town; success stories like Wonder Woman and Get Out reinforce that this is not philanthropy, and soon comes Black Panther, the first major-studio movie about an African-American superhero since Wesley Snipes in the Blade films. I just feel that the knee-jerk race card play by media and observers on Hawaii Five-O seems misplaced. The contracts of two supporting players were up; they couldn’t work out a deal, so they exited Honolulu.
BART: Next topic. In one sense, a visit to the new Spider-Man represents an antidote to the diversity intrigues. The movie is an opera of diversity – every couple represents mixed ethnicity, every scene seems color corrected to emphasize the great multi-cultural mix. It’s almost too strategic – but nonetheless downright refreshing.
FLEMING: I thought the ethnic blend of that film was one of the smart things about a movie that wonderfully captured the youthful exuberance of the new Peter Parker. The Jon Watts-directed Spider-Man: Homecoming to me was the most fun of Sony’s Spidey efforts, the closest to how I remember the Marvel Comics character as a kid. The two previous series, with Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, had characters so marinated in angst and guilt over complicity in the death of Uncle Ben that they felt leaden compared to this new one. Rather than tell the same basic story a third time, Spider-Man: Homecoming had an unpredictable plot with cleverness, humor and nice twists. And what about Michael Keaton? The guy who ushered in the blockbuster superhero with Batman delivered, hands down, one of the best villain turns as Vulture. His is a grounded and morally complex bad guy who is more fully realized than the cartoon villains we usually get in superhero movies. Swinging this back to a business context, Peter, do you realize that at $175 million, this picture cost $90 million less than the last one? Coming on the heels of the continuing strong performance of the $40 million-budget Sony/MRC sleeper hit Baby Driver, do you think maybe Sony chief Tom Rothman’s strategy of “fiscally responsible, creatively reckless” film making will become his narrative, as opposed to the notion he is hands on and too tough?
BART: I tend to roll my eyes when I hear about budget cuts in tentpole pictures. I don’t really care whether a superhero movie costs $175 million or $275 million — that money could still finance a half-dozen movies about real people in real situations and pay actors who really act, not just romp around in spandex. Besides, what has a comic book movie to offer besides special effects? If a filmmaker spends too much on stunts, maybe he hopes the CGI stuff will cover up the fact that the movie is not about anything. I am glad Peter Parker is a likable character in the new Spider-Man, but he’s still an absolutely ridiculous character who has a talent to sticking to things. Now, that is a major talent, to be sure — even worth a hundred million or so in production costs. Maybe.
FLEMING: Don’t get highfalutin on me here as I pack for Comic-Con. This is important. Why make these tentpole spectacles if not for the bottom line? Remember when the last Spider-Man grossed over $700 million, and it was still an open question of whether it turned profit for Sony because the $265 million budget was so high? We see potential franchises launch like King Arthur. Designed to hatch a series of movies, it saved crucial Camelot mythology items like Merlin and Lancelot and Guinevere for future installments that will never come. Its $140 million worldwide gross made sequel talk pointless, but they sure set a high bar with that $175 million budget. That is about the cost of the Luc Besson-directed Valerian and the city of a Thousand Planets, but sometimes that’s unavoidable. Besson went in eyes wide open, needed all those VFX shots and knows that film needs to do Lucy-sized global business to launch a sequel. By comparison, Sony and MRC’s The Dark Tower, at $60 million, doesn’t have to gross $1 billion for Idris Elba’s mythic gunslinger to fight another day. Sony sure likes Tom Holland, BTW; director Shawn Levy is rebuilding the Uncharted franchise as a prequel, with Holland playing treasure salvage man Nathan Drake. I bet that budget will be reasonable, too. The Spider-Man universe, with thousands of characters, suddenly seems viable again, with two spinoffs coming and more in the R&D stage.