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.
FLEMING: Could President Trump really be this tone deaf? After antagonizing the paranoid Sony-hacking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he starts the battle that shook up football Sunday throughout the National Football League. It’s hard to imagine the president could be this blissfully reckless without an endgame, lecturing the league and its athletes about a lack of patriotism when players (mostly black) kneel during the National Anthem to protest inequality and police brutality. Then he says that policing illegal hits is softening the game and hurting the ratings, with that rant closely following the revelation that the late convicted murder and ex-player Aaron Hernandez exhibited at 27 the extreme effects of CTE usually seen in former players in their 60s. The Obama White House was a haven for athletes and artists, so how patriotic is it when a towering TV show creator like Norman Lear boycotts the White House when he is among the Kennedy Center honorees? After the NBA champion Golden State Warriors were pretty much uninvited to the White House, you have to wonder if any cultural figures with bother to visit the White House. Peter, I wonder why the President thinks that any organized sports league would seek his advice. After all, his past experience as a professional football team owner worked out so badly.
I asked Mike Tollin — who directed and produced the 30 for 30 film Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL — to answer the question posed in his 2009 movie title. Spoiler Alert! – it was Trump.
“It is a fair thing to say, that he killed the USFL,” said Tollin. “He is a guy who even then lived his life every day reacting like he has been cut off in traffic.” Tollin said the USFL formed with a spring-summer schedule of games played during the NFL’s offseason. Ambition escalated after Trump spent $6 million to become majority owner of the New Jersey Generals. “He walked into the party and immediately crapped all over the league, saying that ‘if God intended football to be played in the spring, he would never have invented baseball.’ ” Tollin said that Trump saw direct, hostile engagement against the NFL as a way to force a quick merger which would have left him with a team that would be worth a fortune today.
“The [NFL owners] didn’t want him then and clearly weren’t going to offer him ownership, but he looked at the NFL merger with the AFL, and the NBA merge with the ABA, and figured if he created enough heat, they would put a few of the USFL franchises in the league as consolation,” Tollin said. “Since he had the big team in the big city, he assumed he would be one of them. His move was to sue the NFL for antitrust violations, but his bullying and blustery tactics actually made the NFL a sympathetic underdog. The USFL won the case, but the league’s self-inflicted damage led to a judge awarding $1, with jurors talking about Trump’s arrogance and bullying tactics.”
Tollin interviewed Trump for the docu, and it sounded like he wasn’t happy wearing the collar of dooming the league. Tollin still has a framed letter that reads “Best wishes, Donald Trump. P.S., you are a loser.”
Tollin shared another letter from the USFL’s most popular owner, John Bassett, who owned the Tampa Bay Bandits along with Burt Reynolds and others. When Bassett developed a brain tumor and pulled back his involvement, Trump used the void to assert himself and force the ill-fated confrontation with the NFL. Tollin shared another letter, this one written by Bassett to Trump: “You are bigger, younger and stronger than I,” Bassett wrote. “Which means I will have no regrets whatsoever punching you right in the mouth the next time an instance occurs where you personally scorn me or anyone else who does not happen to salute and dance to your tune.”
Tollin said that the hasty confrontation certainly doomed the league. Patience might have brought a different outcome. “It’s idle speculation, but a lot of people involved in the league felt that way. Not long after, the NFL went on strike and certainly would have brought in USFL players to fill out rosters, which might have led to a merger. Regardless, the games were carried on the then-fledgling network ESPN, which broadcast two games a week and they got ratings the NBA would kill for. Had the USFL hitched its wagon to ESPN and grown with the network, who knows? Even back then, the appetite for football in America was insatiable.”
Peter, Trump moved right on to his casino forays that also cratered. What do you think of Trump’s football follies?
BART: All these comments point up two facts that are important to keep in mind whenever we consider anything Trumpian. First, that nearly all of the business adventures embarked on by Trump were flops — witness football and the casinos. The “art-of-the-deal” mythology that he sold to the American voters is, to use a favorite Trump word, a hoax. And that’s why he hungered after Russian money through much of his pre-presidential career. And probably why he won’t show us his tax returns. The only business Trump has been successful in is branding, which he learned from TV. He has shrewdly marketed the Trump brand, but even this may suffer badly from his ruinous presidency. The Trump hotels are getting buffeted by bad press, except for the Washington hotel which is supported by lobbyists and foreign governments hoping for favors. I also think Trump learned about branding from Ronald Reagan, whose financial life was rescued by his tie-in with General Electric. The GE brand and the Reagan brand became brilliantly intertwined on TV. Trump’s life on The Apprentice underscored to Trump how TV could add magic to branding.
Fact two: Are some of Trump’s rhetorical forays designed as distractions and, hence, not to be taken seriously? I always like to keep in mind a list of the things Trump wants us not to think about: His failed dealings with Congress, Robert Mueller’s tightening grip on Paul Manafort, the continued disarray at the White House. We should all learn from Trump’s strategy during the campaign against Hillary: Whenever he seemed in danger, Trump came up with a new instrument of irrelevancy to distract voters. And now we’ve learned that Russian Facebook ads augmented this strategy.
FLEMING: Next topic. I’ve covered the film industry at Variety and Deadline going on 30 years, and it has always been the prestige part of the game, compared to TV. The clients agencies bragged about were movie stars, even though TV packages were the earnings backbone of percenteries. TV now seems the sexy part of the game, with movies lagging behind. I’ve asked movie execs and agents how to recapture that mojo and the answers vary. First question: Why do real movie stars seem to have disappeared? Well, I watched the Emmys, as movie stars from Robert De Niro to Kevin Spacey, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and so many others labored for the small screen. If you count HBO and Netflix, add Robert Downey Jr, Brad Pitt, Adam Sandler and Will Smith to that list. And between programming, movie stars from Johnny Depp to George Clooney, Matthew McConaughey, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson and a swarm of others are all over the TV dial, selling fragrances, coffee, credit cards and cars in TV commercials. They only used to do those commercials overseas, and never here.
BART: Sustaining the status of stardom has become a tough gig. The major studios put their energy into their franchises, not their stars. And their franchises don’t need stars. Still, stars need great roles. If those roles occur on limited TV series, that enhances a career, not diminishes it. I admire terrific actors like De Niro and Spacey who go back and forth between TV and film. I remember Burt Lancaster once telling me that he always bitched about the studios but it was great having a studio developing material and signing co-stars. But when the studios faded, he was brilliant at developing new films (Sweet Smell of Success, The Swimmer). I like George Clooney for persisting at that, mindful that no one bats .1000 (his next is Suburbicon).
FLEMING: I was reminded of something Denzel Washington told me, regarding his view of how a movie star safeguards that status. Sidney Poitier told him early on: “If they see you during the week for free, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend.” Washington is among a handful of stars who don’t covet attention, until there is the next movie to sell. I understand why movie stars are slumming: first-dollar gross doesn’t exist anymore, and TV commercials and series mean easy money for their agents making up that movie salary shortfall. But it makes me wonder if the young audience see McConaughey as an Oscar-winning movie star, or a pitchman for cars and whiskey. Peter, how much is this contributing to the erosion of the quintessential movie star?
BART: Your point about over-exposure is valid, Mike. I’m getting weary of McConaughey commercials. Finally, let’s give a hand to Jane Fonda and Robert Redford for working the promotion circuit for Our Souls at Night. Fonda talks about sex toys with Ellen DeGeneres and does her Age Re-Perfect plugsm and Redford, stolid as ever, injects his environment messaging. At 80ish, they’re still stars!
FLEMING: On Netflix. But in a year, when Netflix has a theatrical-quality movie premiering nearly ever week, maybe it will all be considered the same and won’t matter.
BART: New topic: Remember a couple of years ago when the success of Deadpool announced the emergence of the hard-R-rated action picture? Now look at this week’s landscape: The movies people are talking about are all R pictures – the sequel to The Kingsman, It, Mother!, American Assassin. It seems you can’t make a hit without a blizzard of F-bombs, and lots of spurting blood. The distributors have apparently accepted the fact that most kids from 10 up seem to believe PG-13 translates into pussy movies for little kids. Their vocabularies and mind-sets are better equipped to accept a Deadpool than a new Lego movie. Which is intimidating.
FLEMING: ‘Pussy movies?’ You kiss your mother with that mouth? I’ll take the cussing and irreverent humor and violence in Deadpool or the Kingsman sequel any day, if the blue dialogue is clever. You lead me to another topic, and that is the volatility in studio marketing these days. First, a poignant note: I’m told that Blair Rich, the New Line marketing exec hailed for a brilliant sales job on It, carried out the vision of her late father, Lee Rich, whose Lorimar acquired the Stephen King novel decades ago when it was turned into a miniseries. More marketing: Josh Greenstein was rumored to be returning to Paramount or headed to Fox until he surprisingly signed with Sony last week, despite widespread word he and Tom Rothman haven’t gotten along. Word on the lot was that Kaz Hirai and Tony Vinciquerra got very involved at the end, and that Greenstein ended up with a whopping raise and seven-figure salary. I’ve heard it so went down to the wire that the studio didn’t know which of two announcements would be serviced to the trades. Clearly, top Sony bosses craved stability as the 007 sweepstakes soon gets underway. Now, all will be watching if Greenstein and Rothman can co-exist; the studio has exceeded its goals already for this year and Jumanji is looking like another big hit. Last week, Vinciquerra issued a company-wide memo reviewing progress he glimpsed in his first three months atop the studio, one that singled out Rothman and his division for Sony’s film turnaround.
Greenstein staying put gives Megan Colligan some breathing room at Paramount. Even though the movie hasn’t succeeded, I thought her campaign for Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! cleverly followed the Rosemary’s Baby playbook. Unfortunately, that audience got infuriated to the point they wanted to gouge out their own eyes. So success was elusive, even as the studio noted the film’s challenges in marketing and the director did interviews to explain what the heck his movie was about. Another failure doesn’t help Jim Gianopulos, but he has got hit-making producer Wyck Godfrey to shake up his production ranks and it looks like the story I broke with my colleague Anita Busch – that Texas billionaire Tom Dundon will lead a consortium that will take upwards of 25% of the slate financing burden for more than the next three years — will climax in a deal. That gives Gianopulos a hedge against the widespread expectation that the funding from Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group isn’t coming.
BART: I think any marketing person assigned to Mother! deserves a Purple Heart. Consider the bizarre critics’ quotes it inspired: Wrote David Edelstein in New York: ”Darren Aronofsky’s aim was not so much to entertain as to infect.” Anthony Lane in The New Yorker recommended that Mother! carry “a public health warning — This Movie is Insane.”
I don’t think those quote ads would sell tickets except at the Mayo Clinic.