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: We haven’t done this back and forth for a while, but it’s worth addressing the dangerous corner Hollywood studios have been backed into. At the risk of feeding my arm into a wood chipper, I would like to offer a contrarian view of the Scarlett Johansson Rub & Tug thing, and a conspiracy theory on Disney’s stunning banishment of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn from the Marvel Comics Universe.
I believe those LGBTQ advocates who claimed victory after shaming Johansson into withdrawing from Rub & Tug don’t realize they have made it nearly impossible to get made films like Brokeback Mountain and Dallas Buyers Club – the kind that open hearts and minds. At least not with any kind of decent budget and P&A spend. Not when film companies know they might be shamed on social media by groups who now feel empowered to demand who plays the lead role, even if their candidates have no bankable value. So the chance to see their struggles and triumphs played out in anything but a micro budget indie movie or TV show has been extinguished.
On James Gunn: in a piece I wrote Saturday lauding Dave Bautista for being the lone voice of support for his Guardians of the Galaxy director Gunn (his co-stars have since condemned Gunn’s firing), the reaction I got from top industry folks to my concerns for the danger to a creative industry created by rushing to judgment made it clear to me that many are concerned. But I need to withdraw a major point in that piece. I wrote that Disney was put in an untenable position when confronted by an avalanche of decade-old vile and indefensible tweets by Gunn. I now feel Disney made a terrible mistake by so quickly banishing Gunn, and I think they should consider bringing him back. Gunn’s tweets were unearthed by right wing conservatives using it as ammo to silence him. After seeing these same groups serve up to Deadline and other outlets last weekend video footage of Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon acting in a Dexter spoof, pulling down his pants and simulating the rape of a baby (in the form of a child’s doll), I smell a conspiracy. Creatives were cleaning out their social media postings after they read about Gunn, but I suspect that conservative forces have already screen captured the tastefully questionable social media rants from Trump-bashing creatives. I’m just waiting to see more of them dished out to click-hungry media who’ve become the shaming delivery system. Gunn criticized Trump and mocked conservative pundit Ben Shapiro; Harmon likened Trump to Hitler. Before the Harmon video finally gained media attention, anonymous commenters on Deadline’s Gunn stories wondered when we were going to run the Harmon video. These take downs aren’t random acts; they feel like the Sony hack, where people were shamed by emails stolen by North Koreans for backing that Kim Jong Un comedy The Interview.
BART: To my mind your comments reflect the suffocating effects of the double tyranny at work in our pop culture. On one side we confront the impact of giant corporate cultures like Disney and the tech leviathans, which exercise their own form of tyranny (intended or unintended). Their power is absolute – witness the Gunn incident. On the other side we confront the tyranny of the social media, where reputations can be instantly incinerated without due process, or any other sort of process. And here’s the tension: Most of us go into the movies or TV or the media because we instinctively know we are not mainstream individuals with mainstream tastes and opinions. And then we find ourselves walled in by the constraints of the double tyranny. And we feel suffocated.
FLEMING: My personal opinion: Gunn’s provocateur humor was as indefensible and unfunny as what Harmon was depicted doing in that spoof. But comedy is subjective, and edgy comedy always offends someone or other. The notion people should be banished for words or creative misfires is dangerous. Would it have been so bad if Disney had simply waited, since Guardians 3 is two years out, at least? Should Disney have tried to find out whether it was being set up to react rashly by conservative forces out to silence a critical voice? I wonder if Disney, still needing to curry approvals as it inhales Fox, unwittingly stepped into a trap here. If the most powerful and still growing entertainment conglomerate – which post-Fox will have the closest thing to a film and TV monopoly since we’ve seen in the days of Lew Wasserman — shows no spine in making a knee jerk dismissal like this, who is going to show corporate courage when the next take down is served?
I say this with the benefit of hindsight. Disney execs were reacting in the moment, as we are all forced to do in the #MeToo age. But the Magic Kingdom would not have collapsed had it let a few days go by, and waited to see if things calmed down when the angry mob moved on to the next outrage. I don’t accept it when people liken Gunn to Roseanne. There is a huge difference. After Roseanne made blatantly racist statements about a former Clinton staffer, her coworkers on that show condemned her, starting with consulting producer Wanda Sykes quitting in disgust. Roseanne had to go. Guardians of the Galaxy is now imperiled because its entire cast has come out in defense of Gunn and what they feel was an unjust and rash decision.
I expect more provocative old social media posts to surface from artists who at the time were filled with hubris and a feeling of invincibility and freedom to make social media rants that defy logic today. I realize this conspiracy theory reflects the plot of the last season of Homeland. Am I just paranoid?
BART: You brought up Rub & Tug. With respect to Scarlett’s dilemma, I respect her decision but feel that, in her haste (everyone these days seems to act in haste) she failed to consider the ominous overtones. But here’s the point: stars have always had passion projects and have been willing to pay the price for doing them. Years ago liberal stars like Paul Newman and conservatives like John Wayne stuck out their necks and made ‘message’ pictures that brought them satisfaction, and massive disapprobation. They survived. Given the fact that most starring roles these days are wrapped in spandex, stars today will have to pay that price if they want to liberate their careers and get their passion projects made.
And they cannot expect the majors to endorse them or release them. The reality is that the future of the movie industry resides with the indies – entities often funded by billionaires who themselves have something to get off their chests. In 1937, eight studios released 403 pictures while in 2016 six majors released only 176. This means that 400 or so movies each year are being funded and/or released by indies. Call Me Your Name last year was a perfect example of a successful indie film based on a topic no major would touch. It grossed over almost $60 million worldwide and yielded a formidable profit for a few courageous investors, for gutsy producer Howard Rosenman and for Sony Pictures Classics. Pictures like this cost a lot less than the $30 million you cited. So, Scarlett, get back into the movie, drop your price and find the right indie funding source. And don’t consult the social media.
FLEMING: But let’s face it, Call Me By Your Name would raise hackles now because its leads weren’t gay and Moonlight would have the same problem. I suspect people have sidestepped the Rub & Tug controversy because LGBTQ performers have been ignored by Hollywood and the bitterness is understandable. But I find it wishful thinking and not reality, the claims of victory by LGBTQ groups for shaming Johansson into withdrawing. The PC followup stories are misguided, the ones about transgender actors and all the opportunities in store for them now that the template has been established that no one but them can be cast in those roles. I broke the story of Rub & Tug when it sold at auction to New Regency for a $30 million budget film starring Johansson and directed by Rupert Sanders. There were five suitors in the mix. The movie got funded on the strength of its creative elements, and an appealing obscure story that execs who read it said presented as its lead a lesbian who battled the mob for dominance in the illicit massage parlor prostitution business in Pittsburgh’s red light district. Jean Marie “Tex” Gill dressed as a man and competed in a male-dominated trade, and there was a great love story with Gill’s girlfriend Cynthia. All this in a tense drama as one of Gill’s massage parlors was blown up and another set ablaze by mobster rivals. Leading to an Al Capone take down for tax evasion when the question became who would end Gill first, the mob or the law.
I read Gill’s obits in the Pittsburgh papers before I posted, and they described a larger than life figure who rose with the help of the gay community and whose penchant for dressing as a man prompted The Pittsburgh Press to award Gill the “Dubious Man Of The Year” and “Dubious Woman Of The Year.” I recall one obit mentioned Gill might have begun gender reconstruction surgery after serving a 13-year prison stretch, before dying at age 72. This was long after the story that the movie was going to depict. People who considered the script found Gill an intriguing fulcrum for an unusual and compelling crime tale.
I was asked not to break the story but did anyway, because these transactions with multiple suitors never stay quiet. I noted in the article the claim that Gill supplied the Pittsburgh Steelers with the steroids that fueled its ’70s dynasty and four Super Bowl wins. I thought that might create some ire.
Boy, did I misread things. Johansson’s statement of withdrawal, after a social media shaming campaign, caught everyone by surprise. It made me sad. I should have let them do their damage control before divulging the deal. I believe the filmmakers could have given onscreen opportunities to LGBTQ performers, but there was no time for compromise once Johansson got attacked. Fresh from being accused of whitewashing a fictional anime Asian character in her last outing with Sanders, Ghost in the Shell, it’s understandable she would exit and drill down on her Black Widow movie, which just got a female director in Cate Shortland and where Johansson can be hailed as an empowering force for women, instead of someone who took a job from a transgender actor.
If Johansson had actually done that, or if Rub & Tug had crushed a small competing project built around a transgender actor, I would understand the criticism. But the transgender community didn’t even know about Jean Marie “Tex” Gill. There was no rival project, maybe because these films don’t get made without stars to propel them. Gill was consigned to the dustbin of history until screenwriter Gary Spinelli or someone else dug up that story and turned it into a Goodfellas-style drama. New Regency and producer Joel Silver love the script enough that they aren’t giving up yet. But there will be more outrage if a transgender actor doesn’t play Gill, so many think it’s as dead as disco.
The execs I spoke with think we’ll never see another $30 million budget project like this again, because of what happened. Maybe Gill’s story gets told as a micro budget indie or on TV or documentary, but this was a big movie with a start date. “It was a miracle that it got as far as it did with that budget commitment for a challenging subject with no sequel potential,” said one exec. Movies once got graded when they opened. If they are now evaluated and killed in the casting stage with demands that leads be played by unknowns who physically fit lead roles, the result will be something closer to reality TV. Complaints about Dwayne Johnson playing a war vet with a prosthetic leg in Skyscraper or Emma Stone playing part Hawaiian in Aloha? The easy fix is to scrap the prosthetic and mention of ethnicity and keep the characters generic.
We would all love if it was different, but there are no bankable transgender actors, yet. We are seeing slow gains with series like Pose and there have been films like Florida Project director Sean Baker’s Tangerine (a $100,00 budget film that grossed seven times its cost). But Pose exists only as an FX series because of the advocacy and clout of Ryan Murphy. After years of being the only gay man sitting in rooms full of white male writers and execs, he decided to do something about it, because he could. Two years before Fran McDormand’s inclusion rider speech, Murphy mandated that women and other underrepresented groups make up the majority of staff and cast. He empowered Steven Canals, an Afro-Latino gay male, to turn his Pose script into a series that has given opportunities to people who never got them, and the series has been renewed by FX. Bravo to Murphy. But the notion that, by extension, Hollywood should now be shackled into the requirement it only cast transgenders for films like Rub & Tug? It is a misguided quantum leap that extinguishes the chance for slow growth of movies like this.
That is the clear opinion of the executives in creative, marketing and distribution I spoke with. They fear this desire to please loud special interest groups given a bullhorn by social media will spread to the point where you couldn’t make Brokeback Mountain or Dallas Buyers Club by casting straight actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto, whose desire to stretch and win awards made these films possible. Stars always represented the underrepresented in the Dream Factory. Daniel-Day Lewis in My Left Foot? Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man? Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman? Tom Hanks in Philadelphia? I would argue these award winning performances and movies I mentioned opened eyes and organically helped create empathy and tolerance by finding common ground. Would those actors and studios make these movies now and risk the shaming campaigns?
The execs I spoke to are alarmed and see a much harder road ahead for films like Rub & Tug. Financiers are already inclined to favor films with sequel/blockbuster potential. They’ve now been given one more reason to kick to the curb these projects. This all could have been handled better but like the James Gunn mushroom cloud, these decisions are being made in real time out of fear of the white hot social media chorus, and the blaring headlines of media eager to fan provocative stories. Deadline had one of its highest traffic days ever when we broke Disney’s dismissal of Gunn last Friday and it hasn’t abated. So I’m not saying we’re immune to the appeal of provocative copy. But I don’t think anybody was helped by the outcome on Gunn and Rub & Tug.
BART: The constraints of the moment would surely have created huge obstacles for many past films that proved ground breaking. Consider Being There: Its message was that the next President of the United States would inevitably be an idiot (Peter Sellers) who could neither read nor write and who did little but watch television. Whoops. Apart from its dicey theme, both Sellers and Hal Ashby, its director, were erratic in their personal pronouncements and would have been annihilated by the social media. As it was, Being There (funded in 1979 by Lorimar Films of which I was then the President) was rejected by two distributors and suffered from clumsy half-hearted marketing. Harold & Maude (1970) from Paramount surely would have been clobbered today by suicide prevention groups. And I doubt whether any major distributor today would release a film about a love affair (consummated) between an elderly woman (Ruth Gordon) and a kid (Bud Cort). Paramount in that era operated like a gutsy indie studio that ignored outside pressures. A prime example: The President’s Analyst (1967) directed by Ted Flicker and starring James Coburn, which parodied the FBI. This was still the era when the FBI was the creature of J. Edgar Hoover, not a James Comey, and Hoover, always over-protective, assigned his agents to hover around the set and grill studio executives. The IRS also became an instant adversary. The movie was not a hit.
The major studios, controlled by the likes of AT&T, are not going to indulge in these frivolities these days. The walls are definitely closing in.
FLEMING: You touch on the final point in this long-winded diatribe, and that is how this atmosphere will promote blandness and suppress bold executive decision making. I was reminded by the creator of a groundbreaking sitcom the price paid by the Smothers Brothers when they fought and ultimately lost their attempt to politicize the Vietnam War on their network comedy series, or Richard Pryor and the battles he waged on his series, and Norman Lear and others who braved unemployment to push the envelope. This show creator believes those gains could be systematically undone by the current climate, when corporations act rashly as Disney did.
He wondered: does a movie like Airplane! get made now, where the hilariously creepy pilot played Peter Graves asks a towheaded child visitor to the cockpit if he likes gladiator movies or if he has seen a grown man naked? Will corporate owners of movie companies banish edgy fare to avoid headaches and protect stock prices?
He noted that when Mel Brooks turned in his Blazing Saddles cut, Warner Bros had a chorus of high ranking execs who said, don’t release the film because it will embarrass the studio. Were it not for the advocacy of a maverick in the making, John Calley, that might have happened. Where are today’s Calleys, execs with the courage of conviction, who won’t wilt in the face of a social media outcry that might only last until the mob moves on to the next outrage?
BART: The final point I would add to your Scarlett diatribe is this: When I see a film, I don’t want to know about its star’s personal sexuality. On Love Simon (from Fox), there seemed to be a social media effort to get out the word that its star was straight, while playing a character who was gay. Is that really relevant? Ok, on Tootsie it was good to know about Dustin, but beyond that….should we give a damn?