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: I am back after a post-Cannes Festival European holiday and was intrigued by another startling spec package deal that went down while I was away. This was Skyscraper, a Die Hard in China concept that was noteworthy on several fronts. Just like the David Ayer-directed Will Smith-Joel Edgerton package Bright that Netflix committed $90 million for based on the Max Landis script, or the Landis-scripted Beneath that Kornel Mundruczo will direct with Bradley Cooper starring at MGM, Skyscraper reinforced the notion that smart, timely material with the right elements can bring a writer-director far more money than studios usually pay willingly. It also stamps Dwayne Johnson as the biggest action star since Arnold Schwarzenegger left for the governor’s mansion. Skyscraper proved irresistible for Legendary, whose new owner Wanda is both the biggest exhibitor and holder of commercial real estate and wants event films that can flourish in China. So Rawson Thurber, best known for writing and directing the clever comedy Dodgeball and who just worked with Johnson and Kevin Hart in Central Intelligence, came up with a pretty clever idea. And boy, will it pay him a lot of money. Sources tell me that Thurber will receive $2.5 million to write the script; on top of that he will be paid $5 million to direct and produce. This is reminiscent of the career-best payday Ayer just got for Bright from Netflix, and the seven-figure sums Landis got each for Bright and Deeper. Johnson, meanwhile, could reach the $20 million mark here by the time his deal closes, matching a milestone I’ve heard he’ll hit on the Jumani reboot at Sony. It’s not as much as Smith will earn from Bright, because Netflix bought out his back end. It’s a big investment, but Legendary gets a coveted China-set tentpole that could launch a franchise, and Johnson’s new affiliation with Wanda positions him to further build his brand in an elusive but vast marketplace.
Even though Johnson’s back-end participation comes in cash break deals (studios don’t pay until they recoup) and not the first-dollar gross pacts Schwarzenegger signed, he’s the first action hero to reach the Arnie stratosphere. Days after that Skyscraper coup, Johnson announced he’ll do Doc Savage with The Nice Guys director Shane Black. Johnson will have to be careful about the prolific pace of deals – he’s announcing movie and TV projects often enough now to risk wearing that “he’s got more attachments than a vacuum cleaner” moniker. But if you look at his dance card, he’s got a shot at presiding over more franchises than any Hollywood star with Fast & Furious, San Andreas, Baywatch, Central Intelligence, Jungle Cruise, Rampage, Jumanji and Journey 3.
I spent time with Johnson for several magazine pieces at different points in his career, the first of which came late one night when he sat for makeup to play the small role of The Scorpion King in one of The Mummy movies, at the start of his transformation from the wrestling ring. I recall him being very aware that Hollywood didn’t take him seriously as an actor, and very determined to prove everyone wrong. He was eager and amiable, even as he told these great stories like how, as an intense Miami Hurricanes defensive lineman, he once got so angry at a teammate in practice that he tried to pull the man’s tongue right out of his head (this was a teammate). Johnson had almost as unlikely a rags-to-riches progression as Schwarzenegger. He didn’t make the NFL, and the salary from football in Canada was so paltry he and teammates had to forage Salvation Army centers for old mattresses he said were pissed stained and wreaked of the Lysol they sprayed to kill whatever was growing on them. When he was finally cut, Johnson had about seven bucks to his name (now his company’s moniker). He made a little money when in desperation he took the pro wrestling route like his father and grandfather, and only began making real money when he honed his cocky hero persona The Rock. He then worked hard to learn acting, and now, is there a bigger star in Hollywood right now not named Leo? I can’t think of one.
BART: It is nice things are going so well for The Rock, but I’ve learned that is the time you have to be careful. That shrewd old producer Ray Stark once chastised me for wearing a “worried look,” saying “the only time you should look worried is when things are going great.” News events this week reminded me of his admonition. Everything has been going perfectly for Disney of late, so why should Bob Iger be worried? Whoops! Alice Through the Looking Glass is a mega flop. On the ESPN front, Wall Street skeptics keep sending up warning flags. And then there’s China: With Iger’s $5.5 billion Shanghai theme park only days from opening, the chairman of China’s biggest conglomerate publicly predicted it will be a failure and promises to make that happen. In a pugnacious, Trump-like move, the chief of Dalian Wanda Group last week opened a rival theme park and hired actors dressed as Captain America, Snow White and other Disney characters to attend the event. To Wang Jianlin, the Wanda CEO, Iger’s venture will be defeated by Wang’s 15 new parks offering lower prices and “constant innovation.” Note: Iger still doesn’t look worried.
FLEMING: Unless it’s the ongoing Viacom situation, where your CEO gets a massive raise as stock value plummets, I’m not sure you can panic over any of the things you just cited. On Alice Through The Looking Glass, you have to try a sequel, even if Tim Burton doesn’t want to come back. Of all the films that cracked $1 billion in global box office like Alice In Wonderland did, only Titanic didn’t go the sequel route and that was only because the ship went down. You launch these things to make sequels and you keep making them until the audience tells you you’ve worn out your welcome. That happened here and likely with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. The real concern here is Johnny Depp, whose personal issue headlines certainly didn’t help. Considering he’s starring in Universal’s classic movie monster film The Invisible Man, you hope that Depp can pull his personal stuff together and stay out of the tabloids if he expects studios to feel comfortable building global franchises around him, like the next Pirates Of The Caribbean film Disney has coming. As for Disney’s China theme park, it seems a good long-term bet. A rival ripping off some costumed characters and parading them around a China theme park sounds as unimpressive as those costumed Elmos and superheroes hustling tourists on Broadway. I’ve never been in a Disney park that wasn’t top quality. That always wins, even if it takes time.
BART: In the same vein, one executive who on the surface would have little to worry about lost his gig last week. Steve Mosko, the boss of hugely profitable Sony Television, had been at Sony for 24 years. He was perfect casting for his job, possessing the swagger, the charm and the growly voice to dominate whichever meeting he descended upon. Some suggest tensions between Mosko and his boss, Michael Lynton, were exacerbated by the famously leaked emails of a year ago. In any case, since Mosko seemed to have no reason to worry about his job, Ray Stark would have told him to start worrying. For that matter, another Sony executive, Doug Belgrad, the film president, also found himself out of a job this week at a moment when his services would seem most valued. Sony’s new slate of films representing the Tom Rothman era are about to roll out but there have been no casualties as yet. Surely this is the time when Sony most needs its executive staff, so why worry? Unless the ghost of Ray Stark hovers over you.
FLEMING: Belgrad’s transition out of the executive suite to raise money for a Sony-based production company had been coming for months, even though neither the studio nor Belgrad would admit it. The fact Rothman tapped Sanford Panitch so quickly showed none of this was sudden. Panitch left Fox last year to rejoin Rothman and make local-language films for Sony. His international acumen shows me that Rothman is serious in building slates designed to play around the world, compatible to his overhaul effort to make Sony’s global distribution operations more like the one he helped architect at Fox. You knew there was a personality clash between Lynton and Mosko, when the studio didn’t quickly sign him to a new deal even though he was the biggest driver of profits and revenues for years and years at that place. Mosko’s level of consistency was such that people at the studio were freaked when he exited. He leaves big shoes to fill, and he is the type of guy who inspired loyalty, and if he set up shop elsewhere quickly, he could well bring most of his team with him. That could cause Sony grief down the line.
BART: The ghost of Stark was omnipresent this week. Bela Bajaria abruptly exited her presidency of Universal Television. And hundreds of employees at 21st Century Fox accepted buyouts as part of that cost-saving campaign, one of them being head of consumer products Jeffrey Godsick, and Fox Searchlight production head Claudia Lewis. This was definitely a good week to be on vacation. By the way, the one time Stark actually told me to worry was when I was a young executive at Paramount and the studio’s slate of films were all blazing successes. Stark not only told me to start worrying, he even offered me a very good job. Alas, I turned it down. Because working for Stark was always a worry. Next topic. Talking to distributors, I detect a growing concern about Sequel Sag. And that doesn’t bode well for the already controversial Ghostbusters. Thus far Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 has under-performed, as has X-Men: Apocalypse and Neighbors 2, not to mention Zoolander 2 in February. Then there’s the biggest summer write-off, Alice Through The Looking Glass. So that raises a disturbing question: Does Marvel alone hold the key to the sequels business – Captain America: Civil War? And what will that mean for the strategy of the majors?
FLEMING: Not every sequel is going to work. I thought the Ghostbusters trailers were funny, and see no reason why that film won’t draw audiences. The preoccupation over gender is becoming a distressing distraction. Who cares, ultimately? If it’s funny and proves chauvinistic skeptics wrong, it will be a hit and hatch a sequel. X-Men: Apocalypse has so far grossed more than $400 million globally, which isn’t Deadpool, but enough to keep the gears oiled as future installments of Wolverine and Gambit are readied. You mentioned Captain America: Civil War, and there is your answer. Sequels give you brand identity, but Civil War wasn’t just spectacle, it was good storytelling. That is your real protection. Too many sequels are lazy carbon copies. That was why the off-the-wall X-Men spinoff Deadpool became the biggest R-rated film ever, and why I’m excited about a sequel to Sicario, which just got Italian Gomorra miniseries helmer Stefano Sollima to direct a Taylor Sheridan script that plays up Benicio Del Toro’s Man On Fire-style antihero, with Josh Brolin also back. They battle the Mexican cartels, but it’s about the tunnels and possible importing of terrorists. There’s a chance this might be better than the first one. It’s a movie I sure want to see.