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: We broke news Thursday that Universal is setting James Foley to direct the second and possibly the third (if they shoot back to back) installments of the Fifty Shades Of Grey juggernaut. Remember him? Starting in the ’80s, he got great performances out of Sean and Chris Penn and Christopher Walken in At Close Range, same in Glengarry Glen Ross with Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, and of course Alec Baldwin. And he directed Fear, which announced Mark Wahlberg would be hanging up his tighty whiteys and career as rapper/underwear model for something more lasting. Foley had some misfires after, and then you don’t hear about him anymore, as tends to happen when studios move on to the next hot helmer.
Why am I bringing this up? I love the idea that this talented filmmaker gets a second wind, thanks to television. David Fincher swears by him, after Foley directed many pivotal episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards. This actor’s director seems the right guy to help guide Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan through difficult character arcs for relative newcomers. Fifty Shades is a polarizing film and novelist EL James has crazy controls over the creative process, but the first film grossed $569 million global gross on a $40 million budget, and so this is big business. The same resurgence is happening with Carl Franklin, who directed that great atmospheric indie One False Move back in the 1990s and also got a second wind through House of Cards. He’s trying to mount the long gestating biopic on Tupac Shakur. This golden age of television was fueled by writers of edgy mid-budget dramas, who headed to the small screen because studios weren’t hiring them or making those movies anymore.
While Hollywood studios are plucking newcomers based on limited bodies of work for better (Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow) or worse (Fantastic Four’s Josh Trank), TV is creating an ecosystem for mature, experienced writers, and directors who peaked early, to be rediscovered. Edward Burns, the Sundance darling behind The Brothers McMullen, is getting a second wind with his TBS series Public Morals this week. In an interview I did recently with William Friedkin, he said he’ll direct all the episodes of the series transfer of his gem To Live And Die In L.A. Friedkin argues that if you want to find an equivalent to the maverick work of the 70s, the closest cousin is what is being done on pay, basic cable and streaming services Netflix and Amazon. It’s another reason to love this TV Golden Age even more. How’s that for optimism instead of the usual Sunday crankiness?
BART: I prefer your crankiness. There’s some excellent work being done on basic and pay cable TV, but the critics are kinder and audiences more forgiving than they are with film. Despite the Golden Age pronouncements, TV across the board is sustaining ratings declines so let’s see whether the pressure will mount for work that is more commercial and “accessible.” Look at all the applause being accorded Show Me A Hero, a miniseries that invites audiences to get caught up in the political adventures of the Mayor of Yonkers (well-crafted adventures, to be sure, but it’s still Yonkers!) And a miniseries like Blunt Talk from Jonathan Ames and Seth MacFarlane (yes, him) contains some great moments, but it screams so frantically for attention that it becomes cartoonish. You guys are trying too hard to be Golden Agey. While we’re on the subject of Golden Ages, let’s turn our attention to the Golden Age of Universal Studios.
I’m always intrigued (perhaps perversely) to see how studios respond to failure – or success. Universal is taking an “aw shucks” attitude toward its present winning streak, for example. In years past other studio regimes have crowed about their hits, only to eat crow when their next slate bombed. But Jeff Shell, Donna Langley and other Universal-Comcast functionaries are ducking interviews and downplaying sleepers like Straight Outta Compton. This hasn’t inhibited the media from heralding Universal’s success and even taking it a step further. Their message: Universal won because it didn’t bet on superhero movies while other studios are betting the house on the genre.
FLEMING: I hope they are enjoying it, but the film team at Universal should be understated. Next year, the narrative will be how far down they are, compared to 2015. I don’t buy the notion superheroes are out because they haven’t underwritten Universal’s record year. Universal doesn’t own any spandex. Warner Bros is taking a turn in the barrel this year—summer sucked for them, with the exception of San Andreas–but next year they’ve got two DC Comics films including Batman V Superman, more Harry Potter, Tarzan, and the start of the King Arthur series. You hear all these rumors, but their three chief execs, Greg Silverman, Sue Kroll and Toby Emmerich, are seasoned and smart and have seen it all. If Kevin Tsujihara is smart, he might consider staying the course. Last year, Fox’s Emma Watts had a golden year, and this was after we heard all kinds of rumors about her. Tom Rothman will have his year, one of these years. Marc Evans got his first victory since taking over the production reins when Paramount landed the next Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration Devil In The White City (Brad Grey helped). If Evans can increase the volume of movies Paramount makes, and manage them better than was done in the past, maybe one of these years they’ll be giving him a curtain call.
Media seizes on trends, but you can’t get too carried away with perception. You hope higher-ups realize that studio success is cyclical, and that movies that got pulled off the current release schedule will strengthen next year’s slate. All you can to is choose skilled execs and producers and fight the self-preservation instinct to roll them under the bus when things don’t go exactly right. Look how Viacom spent all its money buying back shares, and not enough investing in programming and production, and they are now getting hammered for it and deservedly so. If you’re trying hard, sometimes it’s your year, and some years, somebody else wins and you take that Walk of Shame like Cersei Lannister did in Game Of Thrones and hope you survive it. Everything clicked in 2015 for Universal, which was No. 3 in the domestic market share rankings at the start of summer and is now responsible for nearly 30% of all domestic grosses this year, with Disney and Warner Bros in the rear view mirror. That is hard to do, and impossible to repeat.
BART: Writing in The New York Times, the savvy James B. Stewart, who wrote the excellent book Disney Wars, quotes analysts as theorizing that Hollywood could self-destruct trying to emulate Disney’s tent pole model. Superhero movies will dominate next summer’s slate, while Universal’s winning slate this year, by contrast, focused on home-grown franchises like Jurassic World and sleepers like Compton and Pitch Perfect 1 and 2. I’m sure the Universal team is enjoying the media buzz. And they should continue to do it with a studied detachment.
FLEMING: You think about how the Universal team left Jurassic World in development until they got the script right, and how they didn’t panic when Paul Walker was killed in a fiery car crash that could have doomed their most valuable franchise. They waited until they found a way to continue and gave the cast time to mourn, and saw Furious 7 double the gross of the previous film. There are lessons there, about patience and not hurrying because of the pressure of release dates. Maybe the best compliment paid Donna Langley came from F. Gary Gray in his Deadline interview when he described the meeting where he, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre pitched her Straight Outta Compton after Warner Bros found the subject matter, budget and no-name cast too risky. Gray said she connected to the themes of rags to riches, brotherhood and betrayal. After listening for 45 minutes, Langley said, I want to make this movie. Right there, in the room. Warner Bros is being raked over the coals for not making Compton, but honestly what other studio would have said yes? That is a reminder that good executives line slates with obligatory tent pole plays, but now and then they have to swing from their heels. Compton is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year and Universal now is figuring out the Oscar campaign for the picture and its director.
Superheroes are hot right now because those Marvel movie successes were filtered through Kevin Feige, just as Pixar filters through John Lasseter, Illumination through Chris Meledandri, DreamWorks Animation through Jeff Katzenberg. Hopefully Kathy Kennedy provides the same quality filter for the Star Wars re-launch that will make it better than those disappointing prequels that seemed designed mostly to sell toys. Jurassic World has Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall, the latter of whom was a steadying influence on the Bourne Identity series with all its ups and downs and creative skirmishes. Bob Iger’s being lauded, but he had better succeed after spending a massive $15 billion to buy Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars. That bought him the franchises, but it is those filters that turn them into successes. If reports about Trank’s dour dailies are true, I can’t imagine the director would have lasted long if Feige was running point on Fantastic Four.
BART: Since we’re heading into September, Mike, I hope most people reading us are on vacation or otherwise playing. So let me focus for a moment on someone who is proficient at playing. He is Phil Rosenthal, who wrote and produced Everybody Loves Raymond but who spends his time on two things he loves the most — food and travel. Phil starts a show Sept 28 on PBS titled I’ll Have What Phil’s Having where we can watch him patronize exotic restaurants in Tokyo, Paris, Barcelona and other cities. He is both funny and hedonistic. As he puts it, “why work when I can eat?” He has put his money where his mouth is, investing in such LA foodie haunts as Bouchon, Providence and Red Bird. He says he’s even come out ahead. So at this time of year we should ponder Phil’s philosophy: Are we doing what we really like? Like eating well? Or too much? You like to eat, Mike. So instead of eating, watch Phil’s show.
FLEMING: Wow, did you just take a Sunday morning shot at my waistline? Its not as big a target as it was late last year; why would I want to watch a show about food, when my relationship with it is so dysfunctional and dark? As for travel and holidays, I was just told by my parent company they can’t roll over any more vacation days for me, and gently gently chided me to start taking days off. I tell them when I take a week off, I work anyway, so what’s the point? This was the busiest, most chaotic and competitive August I can ever remember while covering this business. My travel excursions mostly follow a route that begins at my office door, to the pantry closet in the back of the house where my wife stores whatever junk food she buys for the kids. After verbal collisions and conflict, or when I do long interviews with filmmakers and actors that suck the life out of me…well, dysfunctional eating is how I’ve always handled it. Followed by the inevitable battle with regret. Some story needs breaking, every time I sit down to dinner New York time, which means I inhale it while typing. I don’t taste the food and eat more after the deadline crush is over. Late last year, I found myself 70 pounds heavier than when I moved from Variety to Deadline—there were a couple stressful volatile years in the middle there when it got particularly bad–but I’ve lost a third of those pounds this year because I was in the HOV lane to Heart Attack City. Food isn’t a pleasure, it’s an addiction, though it is an ideal way to feed the self-loathing that motivates me as I continue my career-long wait in vain for consistency to be confused with something more laudable. I imagine that most guilt-plagued Irish Catholic guys go through some semblance of the same routine. Wait, I see how this column works. You poke the bear, and the bear punches himself in the face. Hey, Peter, do you think there’s a Food Network series somewhere in all this?
BART: Next topic. The final week of summer is always a sad dumping ground for lost movies. Almost twenty films were “released’ (or abandoned) last week, many to fulfill contractual mandates – projects like After Words, Guidance and Learning to Drive (none of them inviting titles). A couple even got good reviews, like Grandma with Lily Tomlin. The Weinstein Company bought full page ads for a release called T.S. Spivet, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who did Amelie), but reviews were all but impossible to find. Of course, the releases of early fall carry higher hopes, with distributors mobilizing for the frenzy of festival season. Every filmmaker covets the prospect of good buzz from Toronto, Telluride, Venice and the New York Festival at Lincoln Center, but finds it demanding to navigate the fierce competition of festival season. A quality movie like Trumbo, which brings high drama to the era of the black list, must do battle with festival releases from Spielberg, Zemeckis and other luminaries. I am often puzzled why some films are tossed into the festival circus – She’s Funny That Way is a prime example. Peter Bogdanovich’s frothy farce is not a critics’ picture. It even stops to make fun of itself, and other Hollywood farces, along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But its distributors tossed it into the festival circuit last year (it got beat up) and is releasing it (you guessed it) during the end-of-August dumping season. It deserves better. So does Bogdanovich.
FLEMING: Most of these end of summer films don’t make it to theaters around LIE Exit 62 where I am, so I will have to take your word on all of this. I’ve liked some of Jeunet’s films, but didn’t that movie come out overseas and get nominated for prizes in France last year? I do think this is going to be an exceptional fall for great movies, though, and that’s got my focus. Bring on the festivals.