Bart & Fleming: Selling Summer Sleepers Like ‘The Fault In Our Stars,’ ‘Jersey Boys’ ‘Begin Again’ And ‘Boyhood’

By Peter Bart, Mike Fleming Jr

FlemingBartColumn_badge__140510005503Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly Sunday column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.

faultinFleming: The success that Elizabeth Gabler’s Fox 2000 had with The Fault In Our Stars has me entertaining the unthinkable. Is it possible that between the giant lizards, robots and superheroes that populate studio tentpoles, there is room for thoughtful sleeper films in the summer? The Fault In Our Stars might be the most stirring summer sleeper success I can remember since 1990’s Ghost, another movie about loss. The Fault In Our Stars was particularly sad, young teens facing their mortality because of cancer, struggling to seize life while they can, and helpless parents who’ll never recover from outliving their kids. By the way, the big star is John Green, writer of the book. How’s that for a blockbuster formula in an escapist summer season? Next up is Jersey Boys, where the starpower comes solely from director Clint Eastwood and Frankie Valli’s famous falsetto!

jerseyboysBart: If John Green is unexpectedly the Man of the Moment, Clint Eastwood has every right to wonder how some of that zeitgeist can be transferred to Jersey Boys. Clint’s new film, out June 20, is not tracking well and his rather melancholy take on the brash musical hit has elicited mixed reactions from screening audiences. But I have to admire the venerable filmmaker: He cast unknowns, not stars (contrary to Jon Favreau’s earlier approach) and he dug into the sobering back stories of the characters while audiences were waiting to hear “Oh, What a Night.” But can filmgoers get teary while also tapping their toes? The marketing of the film ties it to the play, but it is quite a different animal.

johngreenFleming: I attended the New York premiere of The Fault In Our Stars. The collective sobbing in the theater was eerie, all from kids who’d read the book. At the party, kids carried copies of the books to shyly ask Green for an autograph. I brought my daughter and niece and asked my daughter how she could get so crazed about an author. My high school junior said that aside from his books, Green and his brother give web tutorials and they were remarkably helpful in getting her through AP History. She looked at this guy like he was Paul McCartney. Isn’t this what you went through with Love Story back in the day?

lovestoryBart: Comparisons of Fault to Love Story have been inevitable, which amuses me because, in my Paramount days, Bob Evans and I wallowed in the ample tears spilled by young movie audiences that lined up to see the Ali MacGraw-Ryan O’Neal weepie. While cancer was the common denominator of the two films, Love Story began its life as a screenplay (every studio rejected it) written by a professor of classics who’d never heard of ‘young adult’ novels. I persuaded the professor, Erich Segal, to rewrite it as a novel, then fired the first director who tried to change the story by turning it into an art picture (Arthur Hiller replaced him). But the studio shed tears when it saw the first cut of the movie; it was awful. Bob Evans and Arthur Hiller did a brilliant job of re-shooting, adding scenes and changing the structure. The movie had legs because it was one of the great aphrodisiacs in film history. Young men knew they would score if they took their dates to the film and cried together. And Paramount knew that big grosses meant never having to say you’re sorry.

beginFleming: Placing a thoughtful film in the summer is a risk. When I saw Can A Song Save Your Life by Once director John Carney at its Toronto premiere, to me it was a cross between Love Actually and Jerry Maguire, grounded by the filmmaker’s love for music. Buyers scrambled out to crunch numbers and The Weinstein Company paid $7 million for domestic rights. I don’t love the new title, Begin Again, like I did the old one, but this is an unforgettable film that will put Adam Levine on the movie map, and you won’t believe how well Keira Knightley sings and how good Mark Ruffalo is. But it opens June 27 against Transformers: Age Of Extinction, going into a July 4th weekend which has been a woodchipper for films that don’t make the grade. I am going to be bullish here and predict that the movie thrives as counterprogramming, because it is that good.

favreBart: I’m glad you feel optimistic about Begin Again because the summer box office thus far has not been friendly toward “specialty” pictures. While the studios have fared well with most of their tentpoles, art films with good casts and credentials like Belle and Words And Pictures have failed to perform. My guru of specialty films, Ted Mundorff, who runs Landmark Theaters, tells me that, by contrast, Chef has held its own for several weeks. I loved Chef but its success carries a certain irony. The movie features a nasty critic (albeit food critic); Jon Favreau, who both stars in Chef and directs it, has taken a beating from critics for his last tentpole, Cowboys And Aliens, and also for Chef — some critics resented the fact that Chef is a “feel good” movie and critics seem to like being brutalized. Like several movies of the summer, both big and small, Chef arguably has not been well marketed. The movie’s clout reflects its affectionate father-son story. The title and campaign suggest it’s about food.

boyhFleming: The specialty market should embrace Rick Linklater’s Boyhood, a coming-of-age story in the extreme in that he shot it over 12 years so you can actually see Ellar Coltrane physically age. It’s a singular achievement for a narrative effort and it should become the buzz title in the specialty marketplace when it platforms July 11 — the same weekend as Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes opens on probably 5000 more screens than Boyhood will get. At least IFC and Linklater have the novelty of a time-lapse drama to sell. Like Green was, Linklater will be most accommodating in selling Boyhood. John Green and his youth following is an anomaly; it’s hard to find something to stand up and get these fragile films some attention and love.

segalerichBart: Your comments about the emergence of John Green as a “star” fascinate me, because Green continues to enhance his image through his YouTube classes. To Green, there’s no contradiction between writing novels aimed at teenage girls and conducting online Shakespeare classes. He is an off-beat Renaissance man, and proud of it. By contrast, Erich Segal, who wrote Love Story, was embarrassed by writing popular fiction. He was convinced it would destroy his academic career — which it did. While John Green goes on every TV show that will have him, I had to twist Segal’s arm to submit to an interview on the Today show. To my amazement, Segal used his TV time to tell audiences that Love Story was based on a true encounter he had had with a girl. His emotional tale succeeded in selling out his first edition overnight. He later confided that there was no such girl — the fiction writer had indulged in some convenient fiction. John Green, best I can tell, admits he made up Fault, though he vaguely references some cancer victims he has encountered. Bottom line: His story, real or invented, has moved millions of readers (and film audiences) and made him a very rich man.

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