A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 begins streaming today on Netflix after a brief run in theaters that are open around the country, not L.A. or NY obviously, and receptive to playing it. In a conversation I had with its Oscar-winning writer-director this week, Sorkin sang the praises of Netflix coming to the rescue of the film by releasing it before the November 3 election, something original distributor Paramount felt it couldn’t do in the current climate. But Sorkin hopes it isn’t going to be the rule once COVID is behind us and the exhibition business can get back to some sense of normalcy. “I hope that people don’t get in the habit of this. When it’s safe to go back to theaters, I hope people remember that there is no substitute for the experience of watching a film with an audience,” he told me. Sorkin added that he doesn’t have a single complaint about how this solid awards-season contender has been handled by Netflix but nevertheless remains a champion of the theatrical experience. “This will be the end of my PSA, but it’s going to be you, and people like you that lead us back to theaters. So, you have that responsibility. Tough luck.”
AN ELECTION SHIFT FROM PARAMOUNT TO STREAMING
No pressure, Aaron. I do wish I had the chance to see The Trial of the Chicago 7 in a theatre, a movie set in the tumultuous political air of 1968 and the aftermath of a divisive presidential campaign that has remarkable relevance for today. It would have been great to share that rousing, stand-up-and-cheer ending with a packed movie theater audience. As it is, I got to stand up from my couch, but it still had impact. As a film critic, much less awards pundit, I generally host one or two “premieres” nightly of new movies now on my 85-inch TV — no substitute for a theater, but it will have to do — but I promise I will remain a champion for theaters, if there still are any once we get through this. The studios have it on themselves to provide the movies though, and without them it will be a grim task. But in the meantime Sorkin explained how his Netflix moment came about.
“We’re able to come out when we were scheduled to come out because of Netflix,” he said. “The film’s distributor was Paramount, and several months ago, I was on a marketing Zoom call that included Jim Gianopulos, the chairman of Paramount, and at the end of the call, Jim said, ‘You know, guys, we really don’t know what the exhibition business is going to look like in the fall. Shouldn’t we dip our toe in, and just see if there’s interest from the streamers?’ And that’s what we did, and along came Netflix, which was a lifeboat coming along, that has luxury cabins and a buffet. You know? It’s a great place to be. Paramount was a great place to be, but Netflix is why we don’t have to wait a year, and Steven Spielberg gets his wish of it coming out before the election.”
Spielberg’s DreamWorks is a production entity of the movie, along with Paramount and Cross Creek, and the film has been 14 years in the making ahead of its streaming debut today — an idea that was hatched by Spielberg, who got Sorkin interested in writing it in the first place. Enough time went by before they finally could do it that Sorkin became a director with Molly’s Game and was ready to take on both tasks. Then, with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the need for this movie became even more urgent. Sorkin initially didn’t want to confess he had no idea what this trial and the Chicago 7 were all about.
“And I said, ‘Count me in, sure.’ It was a great idea, and I left Steven’s house, and I had to call my father to ask him who the Chicago 7 were, and what was this crazy conspiracy trial? So I had a lot of learning to do,” Sorkin said, “but the last thing Steven said to me before I left his house was, ‘It would be great if we could release this movie before the election.’ He didn’t specify which election. So I feel like I’m coming in right on time,” he laughed. And boy, with the recent racial unrest and other events, has it ever become timely.
“We thought that film was relevant when we were making it. We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but it did,” he said. “We saw a candidate for president, and then a president getting nostalgic in his rallies about the good old days, when they’d carry that guy out of here on a stretcher, and ‘I’d like to punch him right in the face, beat the crap out of him,’ and the demonization of protests, and then, with the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the protests in the streets that were being met with tear gas and night sticks. Like I said, you know, I’ve been asked if I changed the script to mirror events in the world, and no. Not at all. The world changed to mirror the script.”
Netflix, which has a ton of Oscar contenders this season, hosted a theatrical premiere in the L.A. area this week — well, a drive-in screening with a packed crowd of cars at the Rose Bowl (about 250 vehicles and 600 guests, I am told). Netflix film head Scott Stuber offered an in-person introduction, and Sorkin did a Q&A afterward. According to a spokesperson, it was very well-received, if you go by the new measure of satisfaction with the return of the drive-in: Honking is the new applauding — the film received several rounds of “honks” in the middle, including during Michael Keaton’s show-stopping scene when Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) drops the famous line, “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before,” and, of course, when Tom Hayden reads the names in court during the final scene.”
THE URGENT RETURN OF ‘THE WEST WING’
Sorkin is very busy this election season. HBO Max just dropped another of his projects also aimed to have an effect on the outcome and to energize people to vote. That would be A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote, which will run continuously on the new streaming service right up to November 3. The special reunited the entire cast of the iconic Emmy-winning show that represented a very different kind of administration than what we have now. The idea started as a benefit for the Actors Fund, especially since Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was among closures on Broadway, affecting so many who work in live theatre. It was to be just a Zoom table read, but then, as he said, the ground started shifting.
“And it really continued shifting between our feet faster with the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery,” Sorkin said. “With the protests in the streets, and as worthy an organization as the Actors Fund is, I felt like this is too small to meet the moment, and we were put together with a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called When We All Vote, and our Zoom table read turned into something else. Thomas Schlamme, who was my producing partner on The West Wing and the principal director of the show, took an episode of the show, and it kind of ends up being an ode to voting,” he explained. “He restaged it as a play at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown LA. — without a word of the script changed. He restaged the whole thing as a play, and then filmed it in the style of a modern Playhouse 90, and that’s what started showing last night and will continue through Election Day,” emphasizing it was done in the spirit of non-partisanship.
“They just want people to vote, and they are combatting voter suppression, OK? They want you to know that voting by mail is perfectly safe, perfectly secure. Voter fraud is not something that actually exists, and that Election Night this year is going to look different than what we’re used to.”
And with that he again reminded me to help the exhibition business, “Lead us back into theaters when it’s safe.”
OSCARS: NOW MORE THAN EVER
I have been thinking about that admonition from Aaron Sorkin, the idea of leading the charge back to the movie-going experience, and in concert with all the talk from various corners this week sparked by a dopey Washington Post piece calling for the cancellation of the Oscars this year, I got to thinking, au contraire. Over the past weeks, I also have gotten some calls from Academy members asking if I had heard that the Oscars were going to be canceled — a rumor that was put out on the Internet somehow. I say no way. An AMPAS source called it “silly” when I asked, and I agree.
In this age of COVID, and especially by the time the 93rd Academy Awards roll around on the delayed date of April 25, Oscar is going to be more needed than ever before.
The Academy actually will have the opportunity to do some very urgent cheerleading on a global platform to usher in the return of the movie theater on a large scale, not piecemeal as it is now across much of the country and the world. Now, for the triumphant return of the theater business, you have to have the movies that draw people into those seats, and who better than Oscar to do that by enlisting every major star in the stratosphere to participate on a broadcast that can highlight better than anything else what we love about actually going to the movies. Tom Cruise tried to do it on a smaller scale by attending a screening of Tenet in a newly reopened London theater over the summer and putting it on his Instagram. Now he, and everyone else on his superstarry level, can do the same on an Oscar show that can act as a public service, one giant infomercial for the industry.
Of course, this all is contingent on a sunny outlook that things will be rounding the corner seven months from now. We can only hope. And to those naysayers who claim there aren’t enough good movies, well, try another line of work. I predict when the extended eligibility period ends on February 28, the AMPAS membership will actually have more films in competition than ever before because there are a flood of them coming fast and furious every week. All aren’t “Oscar movies,” not remotely, but enough of them are, and if we are sorely lacking films of the blockbuster variety, so be it. The Best Actress race alone is already one of the most competitive ever, at least on paper, and I have seen at least three films this week alone that easily meet the success criteria of past awards seasons. The show likely will have to be done virtually, but the Emmys proved that can be a big boon creatively at least. This is a year no one should be worrying about ratings, only the survival of the industry as we know it.
To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin, “Lead us back into theaters, Oscar!”
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