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: Summer forecasts are risky. In the year-end stories of 2016, studio mavens predicted that summer 2017 would embrace a parade of hits. Whoops: box office last weekend was down 32% from a year earlier, and summer overall was down 14%, the worst summer in 25 years by some calculations. Though the majors hoped to be wallowing in sequels heaven by this time of year, box office to date is down 12% and everyone seems resigned to a blah year (the exhibitors say it’s “sub-blah”).
FLEMING: You can get lost in statistics, but are you providing the global picture? It feels like you and others might be sounding alarm bells too loudly for a summer where too many of the pictures didn’t work. But you might be overlooking the studio end game, which is global receipts. The fall Oscar season movies might not mean as much at the box office as they do on the prestige front, but the season will see Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok, Jumanji and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, as well as the Pixar movie Coco. Isn’t it possible that by year’s end, everybody will be high-fiving over a 2017 that sets a record for global grosses? This is not at all meant to excuse the lackluster performance of high-priced summer sequels like Pirates Of The Caribbean and Transformers that just seemed indiscernible from earlier iterations, and pricey launches that misfired like The Mummy, King Arthur and Valerian. Sometimes, that happens. More vexing is the tectonic shifting going on all around us. While movies are stuck in arcane operating structures, Netflix is spending $7 billion on content and Apple will spend $1 billion in new content and Amazon falls somewhere in between. A lackluster summer is just a small setback compared to what is coming that will further disconnect young consumers from spending Fridays at a movie theater. But we disagree on everything, Peter, so tell me why I am wrong about summer.
BART: Let’s start with sequels: are they still the magic answer to summer? Sure, there were some solid winners – Wonder Woman, Despicable Me 3 and Spider-Man Homecoming among them (only two of them sequels). But they were canceled out by the disappointments (the latest Transformers, Pirates, Alien and Apes sequels) and disasters (Mummy, Valerian).
FLEMING: I thought the storytelling in Alien: Covenant ($97M budget, $$232M global gross) was cynical fun, and that War For The Planet Of The Apes ($150M budget, $323M global gross) was so clever. But there is no time to consider the subtleties of summer films, when there is another behemoth a week later. The real seasonal bright spot was Dunkirk, which could have opened in Oscar season but got lucky and capitalized on the summer misses.
BART: The success of Dunkirk (it has crossed $150 million domestic) served as an important reminder that there is a substantial audience out there for serious filmmaking. Baby Driver and Girls Trip zipped past $100 million, underscoring audience preference for cool original entertainment over sequels. The delightfully oddball The Big Sick passed the $35 million mark though Detroit, heavy-handed and arch, landed with a thud.
FLEMING: A moment on Detroit. The premise was so raw and shocking that this movie was never going to make beyond specialty film returns. It was not targeted to an audience the way that Baby Driver or Girls Trip was. But I have to say, the depiction of the cavalier disregard for human life by those cops deserved to not be forgotten, especially after they were acquitted. I saw it in my local theater with a mixed-race crowd. A woman walking out behind me said with a level of hurt, “This is America, this is white America.” I thought it took courage for Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal to portray such a ringing indictment, and for Megan Ellison’s Annapurna to launch her company’s distribution operation with it. I do think they should have saved it till fall and I also think they let it out of the gate too soon, platforming on 20 theaters instead of just a couple to build that must-see buzz. And then opening wide on a weekend that offered more commercial choices, including Dunkirk.
What I found disconcerting was the criticism that Bigelow and Boal should not have been the ones to tell the Detroit story, because they are white. Bigelow and Boal did not take the bat out of the hands of another filmmaker of color who wanted to tell this story, as was the case when Norman Jewison stepped aside on Malcolm X and Spike Lee made that movie. Detroit might be the least commercial film premise you’ll see this year, and Boal and Bigelow used their clout — and relationship with Ellison — to get the movie made. I fear that the Hollywood narrative has become too much about political correctness and making skin color and gender identity obligatory factors for inclusion in movies, Alec Baldwin catches flack playing a blind man, because maybe some visually impaired actor deserved a chance? If this trend bleeds into creative decisions, it will likely become another reason for a studio or financier to steer clear of the provocative subject matter. Artists have to be artists. For Bigelow and Boal, this seemed like something that burned in them the way The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty did. It is too bad the film hasn’t succeeded enough to become part of the conversation on race in this country, particularly after the events in Charlottesville, and President Trump’s shocking support for white supremacists. All showing that racism is as alive now as it was in the Algiers Motel that night in Detroit, 50 years ago.
BART: Detroit is a very courageous but deeply flawed movie, but I find the commentaries about the film to be as troubling as the film itself. First we have the suggestion that Bigelow may not be qualified to direct a film about a race riot. On page one of the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, Bigelow is identified in the headline as “a white woman.” Does this imply that “a black woman” would have made a better movie? Or that black filmmakers should not make films about “white people?” Next we find repeated references from Boal, the screenwriter, that his approach is founded on the idea of “film as journalism.” That was his approach to The Hurt Locker as well, he tells us. But my question is this: Shouldn’t “journalism” cover the complete story? In Detroit the focus is on police violence – the scenes are hammered home relentlessly. I have covered my share of race riots, and there are a lot of things going on besides sadistic cops beating the shit out of black people. The Times correctly quotes black authorities as questioning the movie’s absence of context, not to mention the absence of black women. I think the Bigelow-Boal team can provide better filmmaking, as well as better journalism.
FLEMING: That they chose to focus on a specific atrocious incident instead of doing a slow burn the way Spike Lee did in Do The Right Thing is fair game for criticism. But playing the race card on the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar? I spoke with Ed Zwick about this. He directed Glory, which I thought was a worthy film on racism, and suggested to him that by today’s thinking, he should never have been allowed to direct that movie. “Shakespeare had no compunctions about writing Othello, about a Moor,” Zwick told me. “Historically, there hasn’t been a negative connotation toward an artist being able to imagine one’s experience that is not exactly like one’s self. That’s what artist of every color should be allowed to do. The piece should be judged on the merits, and not prejudged.” Zwick acknowledged this extreme PC moment we are in has impacted that notion. “The legacy of a movie like Detroit should be the emotional reaction, as you felt it,” he said. “People now seem to be subject to a Twitter-sphere echo chamber, where one ear is cocked to what the appropriate response should be, instead of the emotional response that speaks to each person, in the dark. That is what movies are supposed to be.”
BART: Let’s get back to the overall summer picture. Cineastes will likely view 2017 with a groan, inevitably comparing its meager output to that of 40 or 50 years ago when a selection of truly original films roamed the landscape. Significantly, the most important wide release over Labor Day weekend is the 40th anniversary revival of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the Steven Spielberg sci-fi epic, which is opening in 800 theaters – against effectively nothing current. There were so many good movies to see in that era that audiences were downright befuddled. Consider the summer film spectrum of 50 years ago: Bonnie And Clyde, In The Heat Of The Night, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, Two For The Road, etc. Young filmgoers have a right to ask, what’s happened? I’ll supply some glib answers: Studio resources were being funneled into new ideas, not recycled ones. Movies were aimed at U.S. audiences, not overseas markets. Filmmakers had thin budgets to work with, not limitless CGI accounts (yes, that really helped). But I’ll leave the pontificating to film historians, who can testify that there was once a time when people were binging on movies, not TV shows. Bottom line: Sequels are not the magic answer – except for Marvel. Indeed, there may be no magic answer. Hate when that happens.
FLEMING: The whole culture of moviegoing has changed since the period you mentioned. Studios are now content engines to be leveraged by conglomerate parents trying to find footing in a new-world order of cord-cutting cable and Netflix. Summer kind of sucked, but I would be most worried about the prospect of even more companies cropping up like Netflix and Amazon; Apple is reportedly readying this war chest to create content, with Facebook, YouTube Red looming. The result will further dilute the habit of going out to the cinema on the weekend. Denzel Washington has adhered to advice given him early by Sidney Poitier that was basically, if they see you during the week they will not pay to see you on the weekend when your movie comes out. If you look at all the movie stars doing series and commercials (stars only used to do them overseas), what does the concept of a movie star even mean anymore?
You look at the money that Netflix is plowing into its feature slate. Scott Stuber was brought in to basically provide a new star-driven theatrical-quality movie nearly every week. What if there are three or four of those services in the next few years, doing the same things? Who will bother going to the theater, save for Star Wars sequels and spinoffs? Netflix often outbids traditional distributors on agency-generated film packages, and I would imagine they and Amazon will dominate the acquisitions market at Toronto as they did Sundance and Cannes. Imagine being a small specialty distributor trying to match those bids because they must show profit on a film-to-film basis. Other media has control over its distribution, but movie studios can’t get in that game because of antitrust fears, and so they sit idle during the dark period between a film’s theatrical and ancillary windows. Disney’s streaming service launch will surely encompass day-and-date premieres of films that aren’t tentpoles. Maybe studios should find their way back into the exhibition game, or perhaps if they also launch their own streaming services, they can get around restrictive windowing, save on P&A and not have their movies die because of bad Rotten Tomatoes aggregate review scores. Is Okja a success? Nobody knows if a Netflix film is a hit or a flop because they choose not to tell us. As long as the subscribers who pay those monthly fees are happy, and the stock price stays high, that’s all that matters.
BART: In pondering the problems of summer 2017, the majors would do well to focus on the care and feeding of tentpoles. The first question: At what point does a studio pull the plug on a geriatric tentpole like Pirates, Star Trek or even Cars? The second question: What criteria must be established to judge the future of a prospective new franchise? Arguably, franchises-to-be like The Dark Tower, The Mummy and even King Arthur this summer weren’t ready for launch (or re-launch). The bumps encountered by Warner Bros in re-launching its DC franchises also illustrate this issue until Wonder Woman came along. So here’s a boring (but inevitable) observation: Great movies are usually the product of a filmmaker’s inspiration and passion, not the result of a corporate command. In developing new franchises, the majors have made strategic decisions and are trying to synthesize inspiration to execute them. It didn’t seem to work this year.
FLEMING: Everything you just cited is not something that can be predicted. Should The Dark Tower have gone into production on an original budget that probably would have been $150 million, or was it better to put the first one out for $60 million, watch it get clobbered and gross its budget worldwide, and then spawn a TV series that might allow another film if it succeeds? And if it was that obvious Patty Jenkins was going to bring in blockbuster Wonder Woman returns, why did she go 14 years since the last job, when she directed Charlize Theron to a Best Actress Oscar in Monster?