Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: Peter, you are spending some time in Europe, but here in the U.S., sounding taps for Jeff Berg’s 18 month old agency, Resolution, was a bummer. A sad but maybe inevitable outcome for a talent agency which brought in some star deal makers from places like CAA who took big paychecks, could not hang on to their clients, and then refused to take pay cuts and left. The surprise was Resolution’s collapse being attributable to broken funding promises from its Chinese backer, Bison Capital. In his long career, Berg is one of the most important agency heads in the last 30 years, and at one time repped everyone from James Cameron to George Lucas (I’ve been told he made his Star Wars deal originally.) Tough way for such a storied guy to finish. What’s the read from over there?
BART: Here in London, the demise of Jeff Berg’s talent agency underscored the unsettled conditions affecting every phase of Hollywood. London is all but swarming with emissaries from Hollywood who are filling the sound stages (and over-priced restaurants) and who also remain vaguely paranoid about the state of the business. “Didn’t Berg understand there are no third acts in the agency business,” one producer asked me. “It’s a mistake even to come back for seconds.”Oddly enough, Berg’s chilly personality went over well during his many visits here – Brits related to his Ice-Berg presentation. In contrast to Berg, agents here are enjoying banner times, exploiting the abundance of film and TV shoots to bid up prices of talent and crews. “The business is both dynamic and inflationary,” says Gareth Neame, the gifted maven of Downton Abbey. Some industry veterans like Marc Samuelson worry that rising costs could spell an end to the robust London show business economy – “London has seen many cycles before,” he told me.
FLEMING: Even when he peeled off from ICM to form this agency with funding from Jahm Najafi, I didn’t really see the long term play, though I always admire entrepreneurial attempts. The major agencies have a stranglehold on talent, and yet they’ve had to diversify into areas like investment banking and sports because the first dollar gross star business is dead in features, and the TV packaging business isn’t as lucrative as it once was, when it underwrote the big agencies. Unless you have endless resources to poach a Patrick Whitesell or five, I don’t see how a boutique works nowadays when packaging is so important and impossible unless you have the client stable. I am not sure that Resolution could have been endlessly sustained even if Bison Capital had come across with all the funds it pledged. When that money didn’t materialize, the agency was doomed. It’s a cautionary tale for the many other major companies chasing Chinese funds. One source playing that game said, “I wouldn’t do a deal with a Chinese group (or anyone) without an irrevocable guarantee for 100% of the funding on day 1. The idea of allowing a third party, especially a Chinese third party, who historically default on contracts (different culture), to cash flow a company is crazy and precarious.” I’d heard that Bison tried to invite other parties into the investment without telling Resolution. That isn’t unusual. Another who has been managing the Chinese investment platform said companies hook a Hollywood company, and then go out and try to syndicate the opportunity, without informing the Hollywood company. “All of a sudden, they are syndicating debt to 40 people and all of them are demanding dinner with the stars, something that even happens on product placement deals in China,” said another. “You have people who say they are worth a billion dollars who are actually worth $20 million. The government controls all of this, and the media. Do you know how hard it is to properly vet these people? You have no idea how much money they have, or how powerful their government friends are, or even what percentage you will be able to repatriate from the Chinese box office growth, because the government simply tells you, and that’s it. Nowhere else in the world does it work like this.”
BART: Wherever Berg did business he was respected but not revered. I did many deals with him during my years as a studio executive and appreciated his energy and intelligence — not accompanied by lots of laughs. I always felt he would move on to the presidency of a university. Academics don’t expect their dealings to be either fun or cozy. Next topic: Stars have always resisted getting “typed” but the cumbersomely named Benedict Cumberbatch seems to seek it out. I saw the premiere of his new movie, The Imitation Game, this week in which he effectively reprises the uniquely dislikeable character he played in The Fifth Estate. A key reason that movie failed was because Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Julian Assange was repelling. His new turn as Alan Turing, the fabled Brit code-breaker, is equally cruel and quirky. His admirers, however, already are pushing him for an Oscar nomination – some fans outside the rain-soaked premiere (it’s London, after all) held “Oscar for Benedict” signs.
FLEMING: I’ve seen several male star turns that make me feel this is going to be a tough year to win the Best Actor Oscar. Monday night, it was Bill Murray in St. Vincent is a delight, and he has been accessible both at the Toronto premiere and in doing press in New York. Here’s a great actor who’s due. Last night I saw Birdman close the New York Film Festival, and Michael Keaton is another respected vet who turns in a career performance, one of the most fully realized manic turns I’ve seen in recent years. He’s a former screen superhero who has no business trying to legitimize himself through a stage play, but who tries anyway. This closely follows Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in The Judge and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, all three of which turned in strong performances. And next up is three huge performances in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Haven’t seen it yet, but Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in Theory Of Everything looks important. We still haven’t seen the Christopher Nolan-directed Interstellar with Matthew McConaughey or Christian Bale’s Moses in Ridley Scott’s Exodus, which just looks a throwback Hollywood epic. Worthy actors won’t get nominated unless they go the Supporting Actor route. How is The Imitation Game?
BART: The film, headlining the London Film Festival, has its effective moments and, since Harvey Weinstein holds domestic rights, an Oscar foray will surely be at hand. Cumberbatch may be a sentimental favorite because he plays a brilliant, if doomed, genius mathematician who was persecuted by his government because of his homosexuality (in ‘50s and ‘60s England being gay was still a crime and Turing’s sentence for ‘idecency’ was chemical castration, resulting in suicide). Turing’s story has finally become better known in contemporary England; by inventing a primitive version of the computer, he broke the Nazi’s Enigma code and thus saved thousands of lives. While the film triggers a degree of emotion in the audience, its curiously old fashioned narrative style may keep younger audiences away. And while Cumberbatch is clearly a talented actor, his twitchy, Aspergery performance may fail to win followers who look for a measure of empathy in their film protagonists.