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 on the movie business.
FLEMING: A little news to break here, followed by a point. Selma director Ava DuVernay is right now being courted simultaneously to direct two major features. Disney has offered her A Wrinkle In Time, an adaptation of the 1963 Newbery Medal-winning Madeleine L’Engle fantasy classic novel that has a script by Oscar-winning Frozen writer and co-director Jennifer Lee. At the same time, she’s in the conversation at Amblin to direct Intelligent Life, a sci-fi thriller scripted by Colin Trevorrow and his Jurassic World collaborator Derek Connolly. A Wrinkle In Time revolves around a young girl whose father, a government scientist, has gone missing after working on a mysterious project called a tesseract, which involves being transported to a fifth dimension with mysterious inhabited planets. Amblin and Trevorrow have lobbied DuVernay for Intelligent Life. It’s a fable about a UN worker in a department designed to represent mankind if there was ever contact with aliens, who falls for a mystery woman who turns out to be an alien. 12 Years A Slave‘s Lupita Nyong’o will play the woman. Why am I revealing all this here?
BART: I know you enjoy sitting at the center of the world of transactions, Mike, rather than the world of rhetoric, so I know where you’re going with this — the Fleming version of a reality check. OK, let’s have it.
FLEMING: I don’t know if DuVernay will do one, the other, or both of these. Thing is, I worry that the repetitive press narrative about diversity doesn’t give enough credit to what has propelled DuVernay, or Nate Parker, Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, Gary Gray, Ice Cube, Kevin Hart and others to success in the last 12 months. It’s hustle, betting on oneself and not waiting for a level playing field. The droning narrative from the trades has this “Kumbaya” tone to it, a trendy chorus that will die right after the Oscars. Changing the makeup of Academy voters helps, but you can’t legislate opportunities in showbiz, unfortunately. There are big problems — Oscar host Chris Rock brought up a perspective I hadn’t thought of in Essence when he pointed to all the attention Jennifer Lawrence got for complaining about pay disparity on American Hustle; he said Gabrielle Union, Nia Long and other black actresses would kill for such problems. They get paid a pittance of what Lawrence earns from studios that have told Rock point blank they would prefer white actresses when possible.
Anyway, I was thinking about DuVernay, after returning from a Sundance where the big story was how, after kicking around for a dozen years, Nate Parker stopped waiting for Hollywood to recognize his worth. He tore apart his whole career and devoted himself to The Birth of A Nation. I’m told that movie cost under $10 million and sold for $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, with Parker owning like 51% of the film. He’ll be in the Oscar mix next year (maybe Don Cheadle will too for the Miles Davis movie he struggled with forever). F Gary Gray’s perception was “helmer for hire,” until his auteur turn in Straight Outta Compton. After Warner Bros rejected it, Gray, Cube and Dr Dre gave a powerful pitch to Donna Langley, who didn’t see an urban film with limitations, but a splitting-of-the-atom film about a cultural movement. She also recognized the passion of a mature director ready to seize his moment. Coogler was told no repeatedly by Sly Stallone but kept knocking, and Jordan put a year into developing the physicality that made him such a believable ring hero in Creed. I recall Will Smith telling me he once worked for his father, fixing the refrigerators in supermarkets, and how once, they got under the unit only to find a dead rat stuck to the floor where Smith’s father’s head needed to be. He moved it aside, and got to to work, and Smith said he’d think of this when he needed to be reminded what real work ethic meant. It sure got him far, even if his work in Concussion was ignored by the Academy.
I believe in hustle, and that this part has gotten short shrift in the current conversation. The temptation would be to attribute DuVernay’s good prospects to this recent outcry; after all, she’s female and black. I can tell you, it has zero bearing. Disney exec Tendo Nagenda spent the past half year courting DuVernay after Selma, and president Sean Bailey has a relationship with the director as they both serve on the Sundance Board of Trustees. Here’s why DuVernay is in demand: many studios and filmmakers tried and failed to make an MLK movie. DuVernay, a former publicist who previously had only made a $200,000 feature, directed a critically acclaimed period picture about a seminal moment in American history, at a cost of $20 million. She was resourceful: while other MLK films got hamstrung over the estate of Dr. King and speech copyright, DuVernay changed the words and kept the essence that powered David Oyelowo’s oratories. She did this because she would not have been otherwise able to make the film on budget, which meant it would not have gotten made. Selma grossed more than three times its budget, worldwide, and it won an Oscar. That’s the reason she’ll get to paint on a larger canvas, whether it’s A Wrinkle In Time or Intelligent Life. Or both. Just wanted to celebrate that.
BART: You’ve made your point, Mike, and I concur. So let’s move up a few notches from the people who deliver the product to those who make the decisions, good or bad. CEO maneuverings dominate industry chatter at the moment, especially Philippe Dauman of Viacom, Steve Burke of Comcast, Shane Smith at Vice and Donna Langley of Universal. Dauman sustained his record for generating the worst press of any CEO since Giancarlo Parretti (who had to leave the country). True, after a week of power plays, Dauman ended up as chairman of Viacom but he had to survive the vocal opposition of Shari Redstone and a blast of warnings from major investors. The investors kept pointing out that his $54.2 million compensation package has kept rising as share prices kept falling. So while CBS sustains its focus with Les Moonves remaining top dog, Paramount and other Viacom units may face continuing unrest.
At the other end of the spectrum, Comcast’s Steve Burke, who is notoriously press shy, agreed to a rare interview with none other than James B. Stewart of The New York Times, who has a history with Burke and NBCUniversal. For one thing, Stewart acknowledges his role as a regular commentator on CNBC, owned by NBCUniversal. Further, Stewart wrote a bestselling book, Disney Wars, which was pretty tough on Michael Eisner but was gentle with Burke, who worked for Eisner, and Burke’s father, Dan, who had run Cap Cities ABC before Disney acquired it. While Stewart’s Disney book was critical of Eisner’s management style, his Times interview was basically a Valentine to Steve Burke, yet doesn’t contain a single substantive quote other than “there is still growth potential in the old media.” The thrust of it: Burke brings both smarts and stability to Comcast.
To be sure that stability had a bouncy start: Of the 16 NBCUniversal executives inherited from GE eight years ago only four remain (Comcast first bought a stake in NBCUniversal in 2009 but the deal was completed in 2011). And the turbulence may not have ended given the sudden dismissal of the highly respected Peter Schlessel as CEO of Focus Features, the key specialty film unit of Universal. Schlessel, who succeeded James Schumus, was given a mere two years to establish his slate (one anticipated film, London Has Fallen, a follow-up to Olympus Has Fallen, is about to be released). Focus itself is a symbol of the headwinds facing specialty units, embracing the remnants of USA Films, Good Machine, October films and other wannabe indies. The dismissal of Schlessel, once president of a key Sony operating unit, reflects the efforts of Donna Langley to consolidate specialty films under Universal International and its boss, Peter Kujawski. But it doesn’t do much to sustain the Comcast theme that turmoil is over and stable adults are now running the show.
FLEMING: While Langley was decisive picking pictures that hit big last year—it was she who bought Straight Outta Compton in the room –the unfocused vision of Focus Features has led to a dizzying array of missteps and throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as some of the sector’s most accomplished executives were shown the door. Under James Schamus and Andrew Karpen, Focus had one of the sharpest global prestige film operations in the game. They had a genre arm in Rogue Pictures under Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman, which was getting going when Universal abruptly sold it to Relativity. Then, Uni brought in FilmDistrict, which had been started by Graham King, Schlessel and Bob Berney, and soon Focus became genre first, prestige pics second. Schamus was fired, with perception was he wasn’t generating enough commercial films (he argues the business made profit every year, though not as much in the last two). A strong infrastructure run from the New York beachhead was summarily disbanded, with 75 out of 100 staff fired. Karpen didn’t want to move his family, so he left to form Bleecker Street, a prestige film shingle that in its first year brought Trumbo to a Best Actor nom for Bryan Cranston, maybe the first new company since DreamWorks to score a big nom like that right out of the gate. Schamus made his directorial debut (solid in a splashy Sundance deal from Summit for Indignation), he is working with Ang Lee on the 3D Thrilla In Manila at Studio 8 and is getting his new company off the ground; Jeb Brody stayed on and guided Fifty Shades Of Grey through production before leaving to join Alex Kurtzman and is working on Uni’s monster franchise including The Mummy with Tom Cruise; Rona and Heineman started The Picture Company with Studiocanal backing and they are putting big pictures together, with Jaume Collet Serra just set to direct Liam Neeson in The Commuter, their first big one to go into production.
Now, Schlessel and his marketing exec Christine Birch, acquisitions exec Lia Buman and COO Adrian Alperovich are out of jobs as Focus moves away from genre (Universal now has Jason Blum’s Blumhouse for that), and back toward the prestige track. All this horse switching gets in the way of momentum—Schlessel, a great deal maker, had a track record that included acquiring and releasing formative films of directors Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow and James Wan; the first two are doing Star Wars films, and Wan directed Furious 7. Schlessel was just re-establishing momentum on the duel genre & prestige track, the latter of which was helped by Uni-based producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner’s Working Title. Their film The Danish Girl has four Oscar noms, including Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, and last year’s The Theory Of Everything got five Oscar noms and a Best Actor win for Redmayne. Now, Schlessel’s gone as Focus takes on a new identity, again.
On the plus side: even with all this corporate schizophrenia, the presence of Focus was incredibly helpful to Langley when she bid against Sony’s Amy Pascal for rights to Fifty Shades Of Grey, the first installment of which grossed $571 million worldwide. That’s because author EL James and her agent wanted to elevate the movie trilogy above the smutty perception of the books. Slapping the Focus pedigree on it won the deal for Langley. Now, Universal has world on Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, the most coveted title and biggest deal of 2015 Cannes. Schlessel brokered the deal on the ground for Focus, with Langley and new Focus head Peter Kujawski also very involved. Schlessel will do fine, as have all those ousted execs. But my, what a weird, twisty road that company has followed.
BART: Back to my CEO point, which brings me to Shane Smith, the Canadian King of Swagger. Smith seems to regard the entire media landscape as his potential launching pad. He’s about to start Viceland on February 22 on what was once an A&E channel. Then there’s his new HBO news show. And his new season of Vice documentaries. And his movies, vids and other random escapades. In the process, Smith has dipped into the pocket books of Disney, A&E, 21st Century Fox and anyone else who happened to be standing around, all the while dropping f-bombs and promising that Vice will not just be viral, it will be visceral. OK, Shane; at least you’re more fun to quote than Philippe Dauman or Steve Burke.
FLEMING: Last one for me. We’ve seen movies make a big difference in the world before, from the way that HBO’s Paradise Lost kept the West Memphis Three alive until they were finally freed for murders they clearly didn’t commit, or how HBO’s The Jinx put creepy real estate scion Robert Durst behind bars, finally. The Vatican just made a screening of Spotlight the opening event in last weekend’s commission on clerical sex abuse. That’s just the latest imprint this little indie movie has made on the shameful pedophile priest cover-up by Catholic Church dioceses, a shameful secret until those Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe reporters blew it wide open. What’s most surprising is how the movie hasn’t just forced reforms and transparency in the clergy; it has put the onus on the importance of investigative reporting, which was imperiled as newspapers continue cutting costs. The recent scandal over drinking water in Flint, MI left papers like the New York Times publicly questioning why it didn’t work that story harder. All this has allowed Spotlight, an early awards-season front-runner and Best Picture nominee, to weather the momentum of more recent releases like The Revenant and The Big Short.
Director Tom McCarthy told me there’s not much you can do in trophy season but believe in the movie you deliver and properly promote it. “Then you sit around with your hands in your pocket and see what happens,” he said. “But these other things have reminded us why we made the film in the first place. Michael Keaton drove it home brilliantly when he mentioned flint Michigan in the SAG Awards acceptance speech. In Flint, there was no transparency; if a Spotlight team had been there, it might not have happened. There are greater themes here of transparency and social accountability, and the role journalists play in pursuit of that.” As for the Vatican showing, McCarthy said they were surprised by it, despite the film previously drawing appreciation from diocesan officials around the world. He hoped it framed the stakes before the work on reforms began in Rome. “That council is there to do serious work and if the movie reminds them of the seriousness of that work and the humanity, and the lives at stake, it’s a great thing,” he said. “It might have been more fun for them to watch Mad Max: Fury Road, and if they need to use that on a double bill to lift their spirits, it would be understandable.”
BART: I agree that Spotlight has had a formidable impact, but I’d argue that Concussion this year importantly focused attention on that controversy as well. It’s difficult to assess impact: Arguably the “social conscience” films of the Great Depression era had a greater impact because, at that moment, the movie audience encompassed virtually the entire population. Just about everyone read How Green Was My Valley when the book was published in 1939. But that year everybody also saw Gone with the Wind at least twice.
FLEMING: Concussion has made an indelible mark on the discussion of brain injuries in sports; I thought of it with every crunching hit in last night’s Super Bowl. Speaking of football, someone might want to offer a special screening for Johnny Manziel of A24’s Oscar nominated Amy Winehouse documentary Amy. Johnny Football seems to be circling the drain right now, with his own father saying he can’t get his son to stay in rehab. Maybe that would help the talented quarterback realize the tragic alternative to not getting one’s demons under control.