Bart & Fleming: On Jeff Blake, Comic-Con And Chasing Moviegoers In Digital World

By Peter Bart, Mike Fleming Jr

Peter 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.

Bart: You’ve been hanging at the epicenter of pitchdom all week at San Diego Comic-Con so you have watched the masters at work (also the loser geeks). But my thoughts this week were focused on a different generation of marketing mavens — those of Jeff Blake’s generation. Blake was “let go” this week after serving as Sony’s king of marketing and distribution for a couple of decades. Another of his generation, Dan Fellman of Warners, also is set for the sidelines. These were not the Comic-Con types — they were thoughtful pros who knew how to set strategy, pick dates — and tactfully tell filmmakers when their movies were dead on arrival. They didn’t bulls*** about social marketing like their young cohorts. One studio chief told me recently that all social marketing represents is a road map for spending less money while still failing to find an audience. The Comic-Con-crowd would likely disagree.

Fleming: This is the movie business in Moneyball mode. We are seeing a profound change of the studio guard as they figure out how to tap a completely new generation that’s easily distracted by video games, social media and TV binge watching. Social media allows them to smell stink on a movie a mile away, something the old studio guard hid ’til after opening weekend. This audience insists on an open relationship with its stars, for instance. Remember when Harrison Ford sat on a few chat-show couches and went back to his ranch? I’ve heard Kevin Hart has 11 million Twitter followers who follow him on the web and into theaters. On Blake: he was so beloved at the studio, that everyone formed a human chain Wednesday night, out to his car, so Blake would realized how highly everyone thought of him. First time that ever happened. I’m sure Blake was effective in his day, but I never quite figured out last summer’s distribution gaffe of releasing White House Down right after the hit clone, Olympus Has Fallen? Whether or not Roland Emmerich squawked about his movie bowing in summer, it would have been a solid hit this summer, a season that had a wide opening when Fast & Furious 7 delayed. I’ve seen far worse films do way better in the summer. But what do you mean, the “loser geeks” at Comic-Con?

Bart: You’ve logged so much Comic-Con time that you’ve become defensive about your constituency. My definition of a loser geek is someone who saves money all year to go to San Diego dressed as Wonder Woman. Or who waits two hours in line to get the autograph of a ‘star’ they’ve ever heard of. The entire agenda of Comic-Con is dedicated to the proposition that it is easy to manipulate public taste — to set up all those summer pictures that draw huge audiences the first weekend and are promptly forgotten. The social media doesn’t reach those filmgoers (i.e. adults) who prefer to see a movie in its third or fourth week when real people (i.e. adults) have actually spoken and written about it, not just tweeted an adolescent rave.

evil jesterFleming: Fighting words! Every year I groan when it’s time to come here and then I see the crowd, all shapes and sizes in every imaginable spandex get-up, covered with gore. Polite, patiently waiting in long lines. Big menacing guys, smoking-hot gals in scant costumes, and over-sized men and women who know better but still shoehorn themselves into outfits that, for the benefit of others, could use a few extra yards of spandex material. Nobody judges them. Filmmakers have pegged it for me; these people might be comment-section trolls in their mothers’ basements, but here they have the trusting eyes of children and this confab is pure joy to them. It puts a smile on my face to see it. l am not alone. Peter Jackson, for instance, told me he walked the convention floor Friday in his homemade Evil Jester costume (he’d have been mobbed otherwise). Guillermo del Toro spent all Wednesday making sure his convention-floor exhibits for Crimson Peak and a virtual game for Pacific Rim were perfect. Yesterday I watched Thomas Tull, in jeans and a Topps Baseball Cards T-shirt, introduce a killer Hall H panel of Legendary Pictures films with big fanboy appeal, and he looked like a little boy. These guys are brilliant filmmakers and businessmen, and if they leave cynicism at the door, so will I. That car accident yesterday was an anomaly because people here seem kind.

boogerBart: So I’ll make this confession: I’ve actually been to Comic-Con three times and have enjoyed myself. It’s like a pre-Renaissance Faire. Chaucer would have enjoyed writing about it. It’s great running into the early czars of the comic scene — Stan Lee, for example — who can’t quite believe that hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in resurrecting their fragile comic characters as film superheroes. On my last visit, one group of kids carried around old posters for Revenge of the Nerds. When I told them I was an executive producer on that movie, they looked at me as though they’d run into a superhero. Nerds was released exactly three decades ago and, while it was not exactly my finest hour, it surprisingly became an iconic mid-’80s movie. There were four Nerds movies in all and the Booger character even got a reality show out of it. So you see I owe a lot to the Comic-Con crowd, even though I don’t like to admit it.

Fleming: Since you’ve thrown me a bone, I’ll acknowledge things here aren’t perfect. Some bristle about the rules after they banned Google Glasses so geeks don’t surreptitiously record presentations. I like rules, including the one that requires security to approve the armory of over-sized pseudo death weapons that geeks lug around all day. A few more: I was using the men’s room and Batman steps to the urinal next to me. Prepared to be demoralized by superhero plumbing, I found it somehow more unsettling when the hero next door underwhelmed. Instead of subjecting us mere mortals to these conflicting emotions that shatter myths, and watching superheroes try to squirm out of costumes to answer nature’s call, how about a separate restroom for the fully costumed? Gleaming urinals, each with a giant sparkling white mint to aim at, like you’d imagine there would be at Justice League headquarters? And how about knighting the royalty here like they do in the UK? Peter Jackson and Ben Kingsley can keep their dual knight status, Jackson for a career worth of fantasy creations, and Kingsley for his unforgettable turn as the gassy villain Mandarin in Iron Man 3) but the geek god roster here would be Jackson, del Toro, Hugh Jackman, Bryan Singer, Robert Downey Jr., Stan Lee, Harrison Ford, Samuel L. Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, Joss Whedon, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas. Knight them with a light saber, whatever, and we will call them Sir in our little geek universe. Final suggestion: all over San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, people walk these pretty dogs in the morning, and as we eat breakfast, we watch them urinate on everything that doesn’t move. Require those owners to carry water bottles and dilute the mess. Because let me tell you, it never rains here and by early afternoon, the streets of downtown San Diego smell like the reptile house at the Bronx Zoo. I’m sure the locals blame the unwashed masses at Comic-Con, but it ain’t us.

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