Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: As I watched Kevin Hart on The People’s Choice Awards grow introspective about second chances and feelings of morality after fracturing his spine and nearly dying in a terrible car accident, I wondered if he might reconsider hosting the Academy Awards.
His messy exit last year – which came after old homophobic social media messages were unearthed and served up for scrutiny as soon as Deadline revealed that Hart was getting the job – perpetuated a flawed notion that awards shows are better without hosts. I thought the pace of the last Oscars suffered without a host and that the recent host-less Emmys were damn near unwatchable. I am glad to hear that after last year’s dull Golden Globes – where hosts Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg seemed terrified of offending anyone – Ricky Gervais is back to let the air out of the balloon of Hollywood’s ego machine. Hart can change an epitaph that would have said, he almost fulfilled his dream of being the host of the Academy Awards. Ah, second chances.
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If Hart won’t bite, the Academy might re-engage Eddie Murphy, who was set to host the show produced by Brett Ratner the year they did Tower Heist together. Ratner was dropped by the Academy for saying a bunch of inexcusable things and Murphy dropped out in solidarity. I just watched the Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name, with Murphy as self-made Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore. I felt the same way watching Murphy as I did when I saw his breakout performance in 48 Hours. Basically, now that is a movie star. Maybe Murphy would make an Oscar stint part of his comeback, and help Oscars swing the focus back to an entertaining celebration of great movies, at a time the industry badly needs it. Both Hart and Murphy are funny stars who aren’t stamped by polarizing political positions on President Trump that have hurt Oscar ratings in recent years. Peter, do you agree this would be better than the prospect of another dull host-less Oscarcast?
BART: In discussing hosted vs. un-hosted shows, let’s consider the phenomenon of today’s jaundiced juries. A hosted Oscar show would fly in the face of this reality: our society has fractured into a maze of self-anointed juries that take it upon themselves to decide the fate of anyone unfortunate enough to pop into public view. They plunge into that person’s past, both physical and emotional, exploring every possible shadow cast by the social media. They are basically jaundiced juries, their decisions poisoned by pre-existing antagonisms, political and sexual.
FLEMING: Most of the detritus of powerful people banned for abhorrent actions against women has been washed away, and we are all reading the postmortem books by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohy and Ronan Farrow, with the terrific Roger Ailes pic Bombshell about to open. We have to get past the idea that imperfect people must be ended if they offend us with words, and there should be some retroactive grading curve for dumb things said long ago. Eyeing a return to the stand-up stage, Murphy has said that a lot of his early routines from 1983’s Delirious would never fly today; nor would he be comfortable saying them, as they don’t reflect who he is now. Hart has said much the same thing about his indefensible past social media comments. Neither he nor the Academy handled last year’s controversy particularly well. He came off angry at those who unearthed the controversial comments he said he had apologized for previously. Ironically, had Hart issued the apology he did in announcing he was bowing out of the Oscars, all this might have been okay. Instead, the dust-up reiterated that hosting the Oscars is as thankless a job as directing a Star Wars film. Worse, it created the notion that not having a host is the trendy safe play. I don’t think it is. Also, I suspect if you put all the angry unforgiving people in one corner, and measure them against the number of people who might enjoy watching the show with Hart as host, the latter would be far greater and might help liven up the show and boost the ratings.
BART: I simply don’t believe adolescent misdeeds or misstatements should be grounds for terminal disrepute. Nor do I think that random jokes or critique, real or facetious, are grounds for ostracism. Given the power of these jaundiced juries, I think that anyone who is put forth as a host sets himself or herself up for the nightmare of social annihilation. Even revered figures from the past, Johnny Carson or Bob Hope, would face attack, if not onslaught. I had the good luck to have spent time with both individuals, and there was certainly enough grist from their past to trigger potential attack.
I became a journalist at a time when the media arguably was too protective of public figures. There was an unwritten and unspoken code to protect JFK and his various girlfriends. I read accounts of how reporters covering Franklin Roosevelt resolved never to write about his extra-marital relationship. I covered the political rise of Ronald Reagan for The New York Times and, once again, his private life was off limits. Besides, we all liked him so much (me included) that we’d never expose him to ridicule. But that was a different world. And a different time. Reagan would have been a great Oscar host.
FLEMING: So, if the Academy isn’t already doing so, should it get busy trying to tempt Hart, Murphy, Tina Fey or someone else funny to host, since universally liked Tom Hanks seems unwilling to do it?
BART: Do I favor a host? Yes. It lends a sense of structure and continuity to a show. It sets a mood. But would I ever urge someone to take the job? No way.
FLEMING: Let’s switch topics to Netflix and awards season. I have written a lot about the pending demise of The Paris Theatre, Manhattan’s last single screen movie palace. Sources tell me that Netflix is far along on a 10-year lease deal that will keep the theater open and give the streamer a New York beachhead to show its awards season films in a venue credited with helping films like The Artist to Best Picture prizes. The Solow Family owns the real estate, and shuttered The Paris after its lease expired with City Cinemas in August. Word was they were going to lease the space for a medical clinic. I’ve heard the Netflix talks are far enough along that after reopening the theater last Sunday with Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Netflix will eventually move The Irishman to The Paris. The Irishman is currently being showcased in Broadway’s Belasco Theatre.
I use that bit of news to discuss the recent criticism by NATO against Netflix over failed negotiations with theater chains AMC and Cineplex that NATO said would have given Martin Scorsese’s film a wide theatrical release, if only Netflix had agreed to keep the film off its streaming service for 60 days, feeding it to streamer subscribers for Christmas instead of Thanksgiving.
NATO’s John Fithian renewed his long-running spat with Netflix by launching an assault on The Irishman in The New York Times, calling it a “disgrace” that Netflix declined the 60 day offer. This feels like smoke to me. I have trouble believing that the chains would have granted an exception to Netflix — their sworn enemy for years — while still holding members of its clique to a 90 day SVOD moratorium. If anything, Scorsese should be lauded for being changeable enough to find a path to make the version of The Irishman he wanted to. I don’t think any studio would have spent $160 million for this 3.5 hour drama because they might have lost their shirts. This film could only happen on Netlix, hungry for premium content to satisfy a global streaming audience it must not alienate, even as it draws auteurs with promises of short theatrical windows. Netflix can only evolve its model so much or risk losing subscribers and seeing its stock value plummet.
The theatrical film business is in such disarray right now. Between saving The Paris and The Egyptian in Hollywood, Netflix has done two significant things to endear itself to the Hollywood community. It ought to help remove the stigma during Oscar season, which is what this investment is all about. Peter, you wrote not long ago in this column that as an Oscar voter, you wouldn’t cast a Best Picture ballot for a Netflix film. Much has changed. How do you feel now?
BART: Sure, as an Oscar voter, I would support a Netflix contender. But, candidly, I would do so with a pang of regret. Netflix has proven its support for film and filmmakers. It has backed projects that would have been instantly rejected by the studios. It has been respectful of filmmakers and the filmmaking process, in all its agonies. As a board member of the Cinematheque, I voted to accept Netflix offer to buy the storied Egyptian Theater, albeit with the understanding that Cinematheque programs would continue to be shown there along with Netflix projects. I am persuaded Ted Sarandos’ passion for movies equals, or surpasses, that of any studio chief.
FLEMING: I feel a big “but” coming.
BART: Why the pang of regret? Call it sentiment. Guilty sentiment. The traditional concept of cinema has been eroded from all sides – by superheroes, by streamers, by the business traumas of the indie distributors. I understand why the major exhibitors are resisting elements of the Netflix deal. I also understand why hardcore filmmakers like Martin Scorsese are gratefully accepting both Netflix’ largesse and its deal making idiosyncrasies. Hollywood has had a great ride. Now it’s time to get on with the show.
FLEMING: While the major studios are distracted with streaming ventures, I keep hearing that by next year they are going to force the issue with NATO-repped chains to significantly shrink these theatrical windows. Streaming is becoming too an attractive alternative. Look at all the movies that would have worked years ago but recently tanked, with the obligatory trade stories on who does a financial face plant each weekend. If a streamer paired The Shining with the sequel Doctor Sleep (which would have benefited by having The Shining 2 in its title) they would have created an event, and saved tens of millions of P&A. It would have been a win. The optics would have been similarly different if Terminator: Dark Fate had a showcase premiere on a streaming service. Paramount just made a deal with Netflix to reboot Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy on Netflix, instead of risking the collective yawn these films are being greeted with at the box office. We are headed toward this chasm where theater going will be limited to arthouse films, and behemoths. Mid-budget fare will live on streaming services.
The inability of content makers and exhibitors to get on the same page has contributed to this crisis. There is a disconnect as the responsibility for drawing crowds is on studios and not the theater chains. If you think about it, the booming streaming market segment is helped by content creators owning their distribution platforms. There, and on TV, consumers are given what they want, when they want it. Instead of railing against Netflix, you wish exhibitors would try some enterprising things like Netflix has in evolving their model. Disney + got 10 million subscribers by its launch date, and more streamers are coming that will keep people from leaving their homes. The subscription plans that exhibition chains now sell are helpful in getting young people back into the practice of movie going. More direct relationships with their customer base would also help. Everyone has to be more changeable to figure out their place in this brave new world.
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