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.
BART: Before we plunge into 2015, it’s worth revisiting the Sony Saga one more time to acknowledge that some things will never be the same. If studio executives in the future feel inhibited about sending prematurely ejaculated emails, for example, how are they going to they keep their cool? Calling Adam Sandler an asshole and Leonardo “despicable” was clearly an important form of emotional release. The human resources apparatchiks likely will recommend meditation (I’m dubious). Or anger management (more dubious). Pot might help (less dubious).
FLEMING: I am reasonably sure that nothing in those emails surprised the people receiving the abuse. Or at least not their reps, who probably heard the same thing verbally. We’re all so time-pressed, isn’t it better that we know what people really think of us in any professional situation? Transparency is more expedient than passive aggressiveness. And how can you be changeable if all you have are people lathering your butt? Let’s say I was being eyed as the star of Cleopatra. If its producer felt I was a minimally talented spoiled brat who was ruining his other movie by trying to pluck its director, and was mad I’d delayed Cleopatra 18 months to make yet another movie, I’d want to know it! And by the way, a few harsh lines in a stolen private email won’t keep me, Mike Fleming, from seeing through my Queen of the Nile dream, going full toga and golden dreadlocks to rule Ancient Egypt and frolic with Marc Antony, and get my death scene by asp bite. Wait, 2015 has just begun and this has already gone so horribly wrong. I forgot to say ‘spoiler alert’ with that asp crack. Jolie, by the way, hasn’t wavered in her determination to play Cleopatra.
BART: Reading the email chains reminded us how far people will go to avoid face-to-face confrontation. Perhaps the only hope for improved communication will reside in device-to-device meetings. It should be socially acceptable to attend a meeting, sit across the desk from someone, dispatch a message on a smart phone (or device of preference), receive your response from the other party and then depart – no direct comments need be exchanged at all, no glances, no awkward social exchanges. That way we can maintain a Starbucks-like impersonality and still get some business done.
FLEMING: I truly hope this hacking crap is behind us, mainly because it created reportorial anarchy; you work years to make and maintain sources in Hollywood and then see bottom feeders who’d never get a call returned suddenly get handed scoops, even tawdry ill-gotten ones that validated a terror threat to blow up theaters that evoked 9/11 bloodshed. I hope the 15 minutes are up for those catfish. My concern is for past and present Sony staff, who live paycheck to paycheck and find themselves first on layoff lists. I hope they used the steps Deadline published to protect themselves after their Social Security numbers, financial and personal data were served up for criminal exploitation. The Interview revealed itself as a mediocre comedy hardly worth an international incident; these people will have to live with the prospect of identity theft long after that movie is forgotten; indeed, people there will have to keep their eyes open for the rest of their lives.
BART: New topic. As a voting member both of the Academy and SAG, I dutifully cast my electronic ballot today. I say ‘dutiful’ because 2014 has not witnessed a passionate awards season, despite the myriad celebrity speeches and Q&As. I’m not running into fellow voters who are so exuberant about their favorites that they’re twisting my arm. Even the studios seem less aggressive (or more disorganized) about sending screeners – some important ones never arrived. The only parts of the race that seem more passionate are the lawyer-written admonitions on every screener demanding that we nuke the discs once we’ve viewed them or risk lifetime imprisonment – these legalisms become longer and more illiterate every year.
FLEMING: You sure do have to click a lot of buttons to watch these things; I’m reminded of the opening of the ’60s series Get Smart, where he had to get through all those doors to go to work. I didn’t get every screener but enough to plug back in with films I’d watched earlier. Of those, American Sniper, Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game just continue to haunt me. All three of those endings were unexpected gut punches. The Theory Of Everything also holds up strongly. And by the way, I saw Begin Again, just to see if I’d caught festival fever after being so delighted at its 2013 Toronto premiere. I liked it even better, despite it being an award season non-factor. I’ve now seen a good number of these films, save for Unbroken, which never arrived and I’ve just not been able to get to the theater to catch it. People tell me the movie ends without showing what saved Louis Zamperini’s life after his post-war plunge into drink, despair and revenge fantasies against his captors that haunted his dreams. Finding God as a Born Again Christian at a tent meeting organized by Billy Graham led to his incredible decision to forgive his captors and that saved his own life and is the payoff to his story. Was that omitted because Hollywood had such an unpredictable year trying to figure out what faith-based audiences wanted, after films like Noah and Exodus? Was it right to avoid opening that religion worm can even if it meant an exercise in brutality and suffering without that redemption? Graham’s group has turned a docu about that part of Zamperini’s story into a fundraising effort. Either way, after writing so extensively about the film for so long, I’m delighted to see that audiences respond to a movie about an American hero, same with the terrific American Sniper. Best crop of year-end biopics I can ever remember.
BART: Next topic. There are always certain realities about voting that we prefer not to talk about. The Academy’s online voting process is still clumsy. Further, listing my favorites always gives me qualms — how about those excellent films that I know will never make the list (Calvary, for example) because no one has supported them. Attending the Variety directors-to-watch brunch in Palm Springs Sunday, I had to admire Chris Rock’s candor. After listening to polite speeches for half an hour, he told the guests, “I’m not here to take home a Variety award, I’m trolling for Oscar votes. I told my mother I would take her the Oscars if I won a nomination and I have to come through for her.” Then there’s the so called ‘dirty tricks’ chatter that always comes to pass at this time of the season. I am pretty good about filtering out this stuff but the 11th-hour comments about Lyndon Johnson’s role in Selma were persuasive and relevant to someone (like myself) with a journalistic background. Did the movie slight his immense role in the civil rights movement? Movies should be ‘true’ as well as dramatic. Now all we need is a good hacking scandal about the process. I’d like to learn how some of those Globes voters really came to their decisions.
FLEMING: From what I’ve observed of the accuracy complaints about the biopics, Selma is likely to be the one most dogged for the disparity between how LBJ is depicted (reluctant and benign) and how his flame keepers say he was MLK’s partner in engineering that historic voting-rights march in Alabama. The other films seem to hold up against the criticism. The Foxcatcher situation is just a flat out tragic. I interviewed Bennett Miller, who got a lot of help from the Schultz family, and I got the impression if there were creepy vibes between Mark Schultz and John du Pont, they all came from the latter. Mark Schultz’s belated social-media tirade — based on reading reviews that focused on John du Pont’s motives with Mark – had just the kind of brooding anger prevalent in the way Channing Tatum played him. The development is sad – Mark lost an older brother who seemed like the greatest guy in the world – but it doesn’t lessen Foxcatcher‘s power. As for the eggheads who are out there challenging Zamperini’s survival abilities, give me a break. Did any of those nerds make the U.S. Olympic team with a final lap in the 1936 Munich Olympics so fast that Hitler sought him out? What have they themselves done to sneer at Zamperini’s fortitude and endurance? I’m going to assume that Laura Hillenbrand did her homework. According to Unbroken producer Matt Baer, Zamperini’s 57-year wait for a movie was made palatable because such a renowned historian validated stories he’d been telling for years, when nobody really believed him.
BART: Next topic. There’s been a big divide in the tone of year-end pronouncements from the big entertainment congloms. Staring at the 5.2% decline in 2014 box office, the distribution chiefs are putting a positive spin on 2015 – the superhero pictures will be even more heroic and audiences will revisit old franchises like Star Wars and The Avengers. The bankers, however, are singing a different tune. They’re revisiting their favorite problem-solving formula – cutbacks. The problem is that austerity doesn’t work for governments and doesn’t really work for corporations either. Economies don’t grow because workers are being laid off. What was once AOL Time Warner has become HBO-Warn. Is that a vision for growth? Production may be cut back further this year and development curtailed, but that alone won’t produce profits. Some companies already are unable to provide documentation for the few deals they’re making because infrastructure has been reduced so sharply. One theory about Sony’s hacking disaster traces problems back to cutbacks: The IT staff was hobbled by staff reductions, according to this theory, and some laid-off workers may have allied themselves with the hackers.
FLEMING: Sony fought me on that theory vociferously, but people I trust tell me that plenty were laid off since 2010, and plenty was outsourced to India, and I just can’t believe an isolated government like North Korea knew what documents to steal and how to get them to all those news outlets. They had help. What IT person is going to feel protective of a company that just sacked them while continuing to pay production execs outsized salaries? We might never know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody was pissed enough to leave the back door open.
BART: Hollywood, on the other hand, always provides its share of surprises – this is show business, after all. When I was working at Paramount, the chairman of our then parent company (Gulf & Western) suddenly announced that the studio was shutting down. “No money, no start dates, no deal making,” was the mandate. No one would be laid off but nothing could get done. I took a month off, went to Kauai and did some writing. Suddenly I was informed that money had started flowing again and finished films would be released after all. The first picture out of the gate was The Godfather. My instant conclusion: That was a weird way to turn things around, but it worked.
FLEMING: You mentioned last year’s tepid box office. Remember, a Fast & Furious sequel was scratched as was a Pixar film. They will be 2015 releases and there will be an Avengers sequel and new Star Wars. Here’s a bold prediction: if 2015 doesn’t set an all-time record, I’ll walk down Wilshire Blvd in a grape-smuggling green singlet like Sacha Baron Cohen wore in Borat. Or I’ll go as Cleopatra. Trust me, or ask my wife. Neither will be a pretty sight. Thankfully, I’ll be spared the embarrassment as happy days are here again. We already know the Sony hacking ordeal will rob studios of courage to make hot-button geopolitical movies. Hopefully, the 2015 box office uptick will at least slow the desire to slash more costs. Maybe it will even instill some bravery?