Hot Button Archive for June, 2008

Star Maps

I feel a burning urge to respond to Anne Thompson’s “Fluke Zone” piece, but I am having a hard time nailing down what she is actually arguing.
First, the idea of a “Fluke Zone” is demeaning to the efforts of the talent being discussed and misses the point… it’s anything but a fluke.
There is no such thing as “can’t miss.” There is such a thing as being “can’t miss in a vehicle that connects with your primary demographic.”
There are almost never more than 2 such stars in the business at any one time.
There are stratifications of this principle as well.
Adam Sandler and Denzel Washington are completely reliable stars in America… and reliably have not translated overseas, though Denzel seemed to be improving his standing with Déjà Vu… but then crept back with American Gangster, even with Russell Crowe by his side.
The reason Brad Pitt is “such a big star” is not America, but overseas. He hasn’t had a film perform better in the US than overseas in many years. He has 15 titles with over 60% of their revenue from outside North America, including a 73% overseas stake on Jesse James last year. As a result, he’s only had two films do less than $100 million worldwide in the last 15 years and 10 that have done at least $100 million overseas alone.
Will Smith is the biggest star in the world right now because his films play worldwide and has had just two of his thirteen movies starting in 1996 (ID4) come up short of $100 million domestic and $220m worldwide. And it’s now been seven years since Ali, the last “flop.”
Part of this run, however, is that he’s only gone away from his base once in these last seven years… for The Pursuit of Happyness, which did over $300 million worldwide.
Being a mega movie star is, in great part, about knowing what people want to see you do and doing it.
The decade-long run of Tom Hanks was 13 movies long, the only box office “underperformer” being Philadephia, which did $77 million domestic, $202 worldwide, and won him an Oscar. It was also the only film that Hanks did that was out of the two stock characters he player – Earnest & Goofy.
Tom Cruise’s big run was 14 years and 14 films, though he had two underperformers with Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, two efforts to work with top drama directors and/.or to win awards that were not won. But aside from that, a dozen $100 million+ domestic/$200m+ worldwide hits.
Conversely, Julia Roberts run was four years (1997-2000), seven films… with only four of the films cracking $100 million domestic and all for doing over $30m internationally. While she became as star in 1990 with Pretty Woman, she never seemed to be able to deliver the nine-figure grosses more than a couple times in a row. Sleeping With The Enemy would be followed by FlatlinersHook and Pelican Brief by I Love Trouble and Something To Talk About. That kind of thing.
Harrison Ford, by the way, always felt huge. But he was forever coloring out of the lines and never had The Big Run. The only time in his entire career when he has done $100 million domestic back-to-back were the two times he did Star Wars and Indy back-to-back. In fact, aside from those franchises, he’s had only four films gross $100 million domestic… and one of those was a franchise movie (Jack Ryan). And only three of those four cracked $200m worldwide. Beloved movies like Witness and Working Girl and Presumed Innocent were hits, but not blockbusters. And he always had the tendency to throw some real duds – often ambitious duds – in between the hits.
Stars are valued by their ability to open movies. Mega stars are valued by their ability to open and then deliver $100 million-plus consistently.
Robert Downey Jr. and Shia LaBeouf are talented, but there is no indication that either one is a sure opener. Not even close. The only film LaBeouf has ever opened to real business was Disturbia ($22m) and the film didn’t manage $100 million domestic in spite of great reviews and it came up short of $120 million worldwide. Good for Disturbia, but not a money-in-the-bank star. And anyone who even tries to argue that he had any significant role in opening or delivering on Transformers or Indy 4 needs shock treatment. He may become a star – I imagine not – but he is not close to being money now.
As for Downey… love the work… but if you would gamble money on him delivering a $100 million gross in anything but Iron Man, I’ll sell you a bridge and the papers on Tobey Maguire to boot.
Anyway… this is why this is a difficult conversation. Perception is not reality… but it is real.
And Hollywood wants us to believe in stars because that makes them more valuable as commodities. But as commodities go, very, very few ever have even a remarkable short run, much less the decade or so that the very biggest stars manage to get through.


The Indie Thing

There have been very good – and very repetitive – pieces on The Indie Meltdown of 2008.
I am not of the belief that we are at the end of indies, but that we are at the end of a certain kind of cycle, particularly regarding theatrical distribution.
I am not of the belief that this is a “sky is falling” moment in which people are panicking for no reason, but that there is a real paradigm shift going on and that indie distributors are as slow in adjusting mindset at the major studios.
I am not of the belief that the shutdown of studio Dependents is deadly to the indie world, but that it is simply a natural coming to sanity that “indie” movies are not mainstream movies and cannot carry the budgets of mainstream movies.
Every door that closes opens another door. That is the nature of the world, not a showbiz issue. Nature abhors a vacuum. But what the next door is going to be, no one knows. Let me restate that… NO ONE knows.
In the last five years, we went from a Dependent standard of $12 million per film, set by Searchlight, growing into the 20s by way of Focus, and then into the 30s and beyond via Vantage in the last two years. Higher budgets mean more risk, which to the people who oversee these companies means more ad dollars are needed to insure the risk.
The three rock solid Dependents as of this writing are Fox Searchlight, Miramax, and Sony Pictures Classics. But neither company followed the Dependent trends of the last few years. Searchlight started to head down that road – it was their success that created the opening for bigger budgets and higher profile – and then backed off… they could feel it was wrong as they were doing it. Meanwhile, the studio has become as sure an annual Oscar bet as any, ever… and cracked the $100 million ceiling last year for the first time with Juno. Still, we are in one of the company’s down years, with just 4 releases due this year, none of which seem likely to be terribly significant in any way.
Disney’s Miramax has been very cautious in its approach under Daniel Battsek. He will spend money, but he won’t through a lot of cash at the wall and see what sticks. He’s gone acquisition and production funding pretty evenly. He’s taken his hits, but he’s never risked so much that a failure threatened the division’s profitability for the year. And with No Country for Old Men, The Queen, The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, and Gone Baby Gone (plus foreign on There Will Be Blood), no one has had a better high-profile run in recent years (though Searchlight has had bigger hits).
Sony Pictures Classics has never much played that game, though they stepped towards a bigger production slate – that seems to be over – and they do act as a domestic distribution and marketing arm for some of Sony’s international efforts, like the Stephen Chow films.
Clearly, there is an opening for popular movies that have a likely audience of a size that suggests that grosses between $5 million and $15 million are reasonable… and only more than that when magic strikes. But at that price point, how do businesses proceed and succeed?
“Too full a marketplace” is, to my ear, a gross simplification. It’s not how much competition there is, but how the product competes.
Unfocused competition is an issue. Last year, there were 156 releases onto 1000 screens or more. There were 123 such releases a decade ago (1998) and 127 five years ago (2003). So we’re looking at an increase in wide releases of roughly one extra release every other week. This is clearly not what is clogging the system’s arteries.
Most of that 20% increase is in the range of 1000 screens to 2000 screens… which is where The Weinsteins and the Dependents often live and majors dump their junk. Just seven of the thirty-eight films released in 2007, on between 1000 and 2000 screens, grossed more than $30m domestic, the biggest being Sweeney Todd, which hit $53.9 million. In distribution, anything can happen, but “anything” doesn’t often happen.
There were only another 81 titles last year that opened on between 100 and 1000 screens.
We’re looking at 156 wide releases over 2000 screens and 125 releases between 100 screens and 2000 screens. Yet only 147 total films last year did as much as $10 million. 33 films opened on more than 1000 screens and didn’t hit this modest goal.
Just 280 titles – or 5.5 a week – that get significant releases… it’s a lot, but it isn’t the cause of drowning.
There is a fascinating grouping of films right around the 300 screen release level from last year; Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Lars & The Real Girl, The Assassination Of Jesse James, and Away From Her. All four films had much higher ambitions. The highest domestic gross in the group is $7.1 million.
You can’t blame the failure of these films – released with stars, recent Oscar-nominees, an avalanche of press, and lots of acclaim – on marketplace overcrowding.
When people write about “no one wants to go to the movies,” they should be writing, “I no longer care about going to a theater, paying a lot, being bothered by kids and ads and popcorn prices… all-in-all, I prefer my living room.” Nothing wrong with that. But, it is time for us all to acknowledge is that the audience for indies is EXACTLY the audience that is actually abandoning the theaters. Teens aren’t. Lower income people aren’t. It is people over 30 with busy lives who can afford bigger TVs, a wide array of pay cable channels, and DVD rental and purchase.
Ironically, it is their disinterest and the success of DVD that has caused the sense of a theatrical glut.
Have you noticed that few of the “too many film”ers talk about the number of films in release seem to acknowledge that at least a third of the titles are released theatrically by contract, going through the steps to a better life in ancillary markets, which is where they were intended to earn their keep in the first place? This is a phenomenon of the last five years in particular.
258 films were released in 2007 that didn’t gross $100,000. A tiny number of these films were expecting to find a stronger theatrical life after dipping their toes in the water. Many “opened” only in New York City… which is what drives the New York Times a little nuts. But the vast majority was just putting a floater out there on the way to DVD.
It is these films that roughly doubled the overall number of annual theatrical releases from a decade ago to today, not serious players in the distribution business.
The biggest change in indie theatrical is the size of the releases competing in that realm. Between Lionsgate, MGM releases – which were all independently made in the last couple of years – and the studio Dependents (not the genre arms, like Screen Gems or Rogue), there were 48 releases of over 1000 screens last year.
But that only taps the most overt part of the problem. When you have a major “indie” at every studio, how does anyone who isn’t a major going to get space at the top art houses, with less marketing power?
What’s playing on the five screens at Landmark’s Magnolia Theater in Dallas? A split between The Fall and The Promotion, Lelouch’s Roman de Gare (Sam Goldwyn), The Weinstein Co’s release of Argento’s Mother of Tears, Sony Classics’ When Did You Last See Your Father, and, uh, Get Smart.
Lamdmark in West LA? De Gare, Father and Fall (split with daytime shows at LAFF) again, Overture’s The Visitor, Picturehouse’s Mongol, IFC’s Savage Grace, and… The Love Guru on 2 screens.
Get the picture?
There are some great and ambitious exhibitors in NY, LA, and even in some smaller towns. But the bigger the nut the theater is carrying, the more tempting to just roll forward in the most obvious way… bet on the movies that have the most marketing might behind them.
So where does it all go from here?
We already discussed the “answer.” No one knows.
But like any situation in which change is afoot, there are, in the broadest sense, two paths to travel. The internet, for instance, can empower… or it can be a way to avoid life and to isolate oneself in a very destructive way. A nuclear weapon can force peace by being a deterrent… it can kill millions when used to the end for which it was created. And the void that is about to hit the indie-minded exhibitors can make room for more films from a wider array of distributors or it can just mean more playdates for the ongoing Dependents and Lionsgate.
The thing is, much as I love seeing movies on screens, it’s probably time to reconsider what success looks like for these movies that have a smart but narrow market. Some companies, like IFC, have mostly abandoned theatrical, but the signal that that isn’t a step down hasn’t really be accepted by the intelligentsia. Cinetic is reaching for the future with its digital delivery program, meant to take hold of the long tail and shake it up, but that nagging wish for a theatrical life is still writ large on the soul of most young filmmakers.
But it seems more likely that some large amount of money will come flying in from whatever new sucker there is out there and will continue to feed the lust to do things as they have always been done. And I can just recycle this column again in five years.

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Tony Picks

Okay… now that I have finished off the vast majority of the Broadway season with a few last additions, a quick Tony rundown for tonight in the obnoxious Will Win/Should Win schtick that is as cliché as thanking God or mom or your “significant other.”
Will Win: August: Osage County” (Tracy Letts)
Should Win: August: Osage County” (Tracy Letts)
There was a lot of straight plays on Broadway this year and a high percentage were very good… this one was easily the best.
Will Win: In the Heights
Should Win: Tie: Xanadu and Passing Strange
I am amazed that people refer to Spring Awakening as “groundbreaking” and can’t see how clearly Passing Strange is the same show… for adults. Passing Strange kicks ass… but my heart belongs with Xanadu, the show that people are still scared to see… and scared to vote for. I guess the tie-break, for me, is that Passing Strange is so much about Stew while Xanadu is a show that can play – with deceptively talented people – anytime, anywhere like a Broadway classic. Unlike A Chorus Line, it will still be perfect when someone brings it back in 20 years.
You can’t help but to enjoy In The Heights, but it is not a great show and will never be a great show. It’s got enormous energy and the choreographer deserves a Tony… but the show and the lyrics are nothing more than mediocre.
Will Win: Xanadu
Should Win: Xanadu
Douglas Carter Beane dreamed this thing into what it is, which is not a retread of the movie. Stew’s story is a worthy book, to say the least. The others are not.
Original Score
Will Win: Passing Strange
Should Win: Passing Strange
The only real competition is In The Heights… and there is not a lyric in that show that comes close to Stew’s work.
Will Win: Boeing-Boeing
Should Win: ?
This is one category where I am most blind. Macbeth came and went before I could see it. The strike caused me to miss The Homecoming. And very soft reviews for ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses kept it from being a priority.
Will Win: South Pacific
Should Win: South Pacific
Gypsy is a truly great show… a firmament of Broadway… and not very exciting this time around. And I was not the fan of Sunday in the Park that others were, mostly because I was not thrilled by the male lead. If there is an upset – and South Pacific has them all wet with joy – it will be Sunday… but there won’t be an upset.
Will Win: Mark Rylance, Boeing-Boeing
Should Win: Mark Rylance, Boeing-Boeing
It’s real simple… Mark Rylance gives the performance of the year. In this very broad period farce, he manages to keep to full speed without ever once looking like he is acting. It is very, very challenging and he is truly spectacular in this turn. He will be the next Brit who Hollywood doesn’t want to make a movie without in support.
Will Win: Deanna Dunagan, August: Osage County
Should Win: Amy Morton, August: Osage County
Dunagan is spectacular. This is no insult to her. But she has the show pony role. And Morton has to build what seems to be a very simple character into a match to go toe-to-toe with Dunagan. She is the lead of the best show of the year. And she deserves a Tony for it.
Will Win: Paulo Szot, South Pacific
Should Win: Stew, Passing Strange
SP is the show they all LOOOOOVE. But Stew is not only giving a great performance that demands his physical, vocal, and emotional presence for virtually every second the show is on stage, but he grabs us all by the heart. I could see a Daniel Evans upset. If Miranda wins for In The Heights, it will be tragic… he is a very talented kid… and the weakest lead performer in his show.
Will Win: Patti LuPone, Gypsy
Should Win: Kerry Butler, Xanadu
I wish I loved LuPone in this role like I was supposed to… but the real star of the show was her daughter.
You have to believe Kerry Butler is magic in Xanadu. It is an epic piece of comic acting, in addition to the singing and dancing and skating.
If there is a LuPone upset, I wouldn’t be surprised by O’Hara in the Love Show or Russell, who makes Sunday work.
Featured Actor-Play:
Will Win: Jim Norton, The Seafarer
Should Win: Jim Norton, The Seafarer
Many think that Raul Esparza will get make up sex for the absolute theft of his Tony last year. (I finally saw Curtains… love David Hyde-Pierce, but puh-leeze! Esparza was epic in comparison.)
Norton was the guy everyone was talking about coming out of The Seafarer and I like to think it will stick. David Pittu had two great turns in the last year, also as the one great thing in LoveMusik. A star. But not his year.
Featured Actress-Play:
Will Win: Mary McCormack, Boeing-Boeing
Should Win: Mary McCormack, Boeing-Boeing
Rondi Reed is great and the show will win the most awards tonight, but McCormack is a showstopper in Boeing-Boeing, doing what might be the hardest thing for an actor to do these days… committing 100% to a farce. Great performances all around, but…
Featured Actor-Musical: Daniel Breaker, “Passing Strange”; Danny Burstein, “South Pacific”; Robin De Jesus, “In the Heights”; Christopher Fitzgerald, “Young Frankenstein”; Boyd Gaines, “Gypsy.”
Featured Actress-Musical:
Will Win: Laura Benanti, Gypsy
Should Win: Laura Benanti, Gypsy
Ladies & Gentlemen… your next Broadway legend in the making.
Benanti, simply, is amazing. The title role in Gypsy is one of the most challenging ever because of its range. Most actresses do well with one of the halves of the personality and overact the other. No Benanti. She not only gets them both right, she brings the audience through her transition with fluid grace.
Will Win: Anna D. Shapiro, August: Osage County
Should Win: A 4 way tie
Every single one of these turns by a director is complex, almost impossible, and close to perfection. Really. The 39 Steps is unlike anything you’ve seen in a theater and must be seen. The Seafarer is such a work of focus, but because of the stage full of men, the whole things needs to remain compresses. August: Osage County is a massive epic, both relentlessly verbal and physical with a huge cast and a runtime over 3 hours. Shapiro maneuvers the full-stage and empty-stage moments to perfection. And Boeing-Boeing is a farce of over 2 hours that isn’t just a door slammer, but a constant color chameleon of styles.
Will Win: Bartlett Sher, South Pacific
Should Win: Uh…
I would really be okay, though not all that enthusiastic, about any of these directors. It shows the lack of imagination of Tony voters that Passing Strange and Xanadu are not included. Even though I think the show overrated, I would be more than comfy with Thomas Kail getting it for In The Heights… he gives the audience all the reasons to have a great time at the theater.
Will Win: Andy Blankenbuehler, In the Heights
Should Win: Dan Knechtges, Xanadu
Heights is all energy… more choreography than anyone can consume in one sitting. Well done. Xanadu makes the impossible work… on skates.
Will Win: Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, In the Heights
Should Win: Stew and Heidi Rodewald; Passing Strange
I feel I have explained this already. Both are exhilarating… one is just better.
Scenic Design-Play:
Will Win: Peter McKintosh, The 39 Steps
Should Win: Peter McKintosh, The 39 Steps
Not even close.
But I won’t be shocked by an upset.
Scenic Design-Musical:
Will Win: David Farley and Timothy Bird & The Knifedge Creative Network, Sunday in the Park With George
Should Win: David Farley and Timothy Bird & The Knifedge Creative Network, Sunday in the Park With George
The theater they put YF in, which ate some great work, cost Robin Wagner a Tony this year.
Costume Design-Play:
Will Win: Rob Howell, Boeing-Boeing
Should Win: Peter McKintosh, The 39 Steps
Great costumes for the women in Boeing… sexy as hell, but just the right side of obscene, they play a real role in the storytelling, as does our reluctant hero’s suit and moth-bitten sweater.
But the flexibility of the costumes on 39 Steps is a sight to behold.
Costume Design-Musical:
Will Win: Catherine Zuber, South Pacific
Should Win: David Zinn, Xanadu
Not an exciting category this year… again, Xanadu was the real story. Cheesy is not easy.
Lighting Design-Play:
Will Win: Kevin Adams, The 39 Steps
Should Win: Kevin Adams, The 39 Steps
I’m not sure why I believe this show will get these craft awards… but it really deserves them.
Lighting Design-Musical:
Will Win: Donald Holder, South Pacific
Should Win: Donald Holder, South Pacific
Sunday in the Park could upset.
Sound Design-Play:
Will Win: Mic Pool, The 39 Steps
Should Win: Mic Pool, The 39 Steps
Really? 3 Tonys for The 39 Steps? This one is the one that should be the lockiest lock.
Sound Design-Musical:
Will Win: Sebastian Frost, Sunday in the Park With George
Should Win: Sebastian Frost, Sunday in the Park With George
Enjoy the show.

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Former Critic On Former Critic Violence

Wow… what a goofy series of exchanges about the state of criticism today-ish.
You have Glenn Kenny on a blog reading a Brooklyn Rail report by Vincent Rossmeier about a blog entry by and an interview with Michael Atkinson and going ballistic.
But let’s step back a few steps, being as this is allegedly a conversation between three journalists.
First – since he wrote first – you have Atkinson, who wrote in a much more complex way about the status of film criticism in his blog, Zero for Conduct, than Rossmeier reports on or Kenny gives him credit for.
“Of course, those jobs existed to begin with because publishers and editors thought writers were valuable, and paid them to sit on their asses (like they still do at The New Yorker) because they wanted those writers’ availability and flow of copy. But today that’s far less important. The pancaking financial burden, and quarterly losses, of newspaper and magazine publishing is certainly one aspect of it. So is the undeniable sense that critics in general, being the last independent defense standing against a full-court press of consumerist ideology, may be doomed because of their adversarial position toward the corporate sell-machines that pay them.”
This is a completely fair observation. The conclusion within it happens to be dead wrong. But what would Atkinson know about it? He’s a film critic.
Yes, writers are valued in a different way than the people who print the papers, sell the papers, and even, to some degree, edit the papers. The work of a daily Metro writer or a daily political writer is something else. A daily byline is a special kind of grind that is more like a traditional job. But that’s not the part I have a problem with.
What Atkinson misunderstands – and by dint of his own exit from the print work, understandably as an ego protection – is that “writers’ availability and flow of copy” is every bit as valued today as it ever was. What is quite different is that publishers expect to see some cause and effect from those they keep on board. If you are a film critic or highly paid entertainment journalist at a print outlet, you better have a following that cares about what you say – which doesn’t necessarily translate to ticket sales – or you are dead.
What Kenny misunderstands, belligerently, is that no publisher or major editor read The Brooklyn Rail or Michael Arkinson’s blog for insight into the value, or lack thereof, of film critics… I was going to say, “until Kenny brought it up,” but no, I think a simple “period” would do. And Glenn can rage about it. And I can write about the both of them. And still, Sam Zell could not give two of the tiniest little shits about our little intramural argument.
Publishers are trying to figure out how to keep making a buck (and thus, keeping power). Editors are trying to keep their newsrooms (and thus, their power) intact. Journalists of all stripes are trying to survive the boys upstairs.
The hero of this story will be the editor who figures out how to make things look rosy for the publisher or the publisher who has a real vision for the future which includes respect for the cheapest part of the Traditional Media machine… the writers.
The lesson that we all have to learn is that in a niche future – and in spite of Gawker’s Nick Denton foolishly trying to spin that niche is not still the future… he of the most niched (and increasingly so now, with multiple voices on more and more of his blogs) media business in the world – building a personal brand, aka a star profile, is critical in distinguishing any one of us from another. Because as much as none of us want to admit it, determining what “good” writing in a newspaper is comes down to opinion, not objective analysis. Good editing – any editing! – can keep standards much higher. Really… give Nikki Finke an editor who she would actually show respect to and she could do some good work, just as Sharon Waxman – a much saner reporter – could have if the NYT had ever been able to get a handle on her wilder proclivities. And make no mistake, I know my work would be improved a lot by a strong editor pushing me. No question.
But as long as writers keep acting like petulant children, we will mean nothing.

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The Runaway Argument Stumbles

I am always frustrated by feeling an issue is crystal clear… yet talking about it makes me sound like a bad guy.
But such is the nature of arguing that runaway production is, to a great extent, a non-issue when you look at the big picture.
Philosophically, this kind of reminds me of the Democratic primary fight. Clinton started as a prohibitive favorite. Then she became a prohibitive underdog. Then Clinton used the leverage of being the underdog to both propel herself and to bring the leader down to earth, while the frontrunner was unable to respond with similar tactics without looking like an ingrate.
Southern California is The Home Team… The Prohibitive Favorite… The Standard Bearer. It’s hard to maintain that position when the world wants to compete with you. There is no question that there is a benefit to other cities when the Hollywood circus comes to town. A movie is, in principle, a retail buyer.
Yes, they will make a deal with a hotel to pay less than the rack rate and get a discount at the hotel restaurant. But they will spend in ways that tourists and business travelers do not. And, obviously, when a movie shoots in a non-industry town, the entire cast & crew is renting housing for week after week, eating and drinking out for week after week, and spending on life’s needs for week after week. That is a lot difference in how a town is helped by a movie spending as opposed to the crew driving home to their houses in the Valley to have dinner with the wife and kids. A movie cast & crew out of town works its ass off… and is, in some ways, on a very long vacation.
This was all pushed to the forefront today because of a segment on KCRW’s The Business. (Note: I think Claude Brodesser-Akner is probably a funny guy in real life… but what may be funny off-the-cuff is painful to listen to when he smirkily does the jokes when he thinks they are funny on the show. Please… stop.)
The first guest was Ugly Betty EP Silvio Horta, who made – without apparently trying to – the case for what is good about production in other places than Los Angeles. The show, which has become a point of focus as they decided to move from Raleigh Studios in Hollywood to New York for their next season of production, was, Horta says, always meant to be shot in New York…. but it was simply too expensive for the studio that owns the show. Asked whether a tax break in Los Angeles would bring them “home,” Horta offered that the show’s producers think of New York as “home,” so no,
But the most important point, which was undersold, was that the New York tax break is about 35%… and the cost of production in New York is so much more that the show will do slightly better than breaking even on the move.
Think about that. Even if there is a 10% cut in hard costs by way of this tax break – and this is overly generous – the bottom line is that shooting in New York costs 25% more than shooting in Los Angeles.
This is why NY has to pay people to shoot in New York.
The same situation was true in Toronto and Vancouver. Not only was there a tax break from the Canadian government and not only was there infrastructure created to support a significant amount of production in and near those cities, but for a long time, there was an additional 10% or so bonus because of the strength of the U.S. Dollar vs the Looney. As the Dollar has fallen, so has American-based production in Canada.
What I don’t buy is the anti-CA tax incentive argument that says that it is welfare for the studios. It would be, on some level. But the benefit sought here is not for the studios, but for the employees who work for the studios and indies on production.
The industry is not going to up and leave Southern California because of tax incentives in other places. That’s obvious. We are the home team here. And I would argue that physical production is only one part of the overall local industry and should actually be done in other places when appropriate. The health of the industry should supersede many of the details of physical production. Yes, I understand that a “detail” may be a human person and that thinking in the abstract may keep someone from paying their mortgage or paying for their kids schooling. That is the cruel reality of any political or economic discussion. Sorry.
The studios that are funding the majority of dollars that are going into big production of TV and movies have a vested interest in keeping some part of production here in Southern California. Besides the more conceptual reality that having one city as the major center of production makes sense – the same way that having unions actually makes sense in this industry once you accept that there will be unions at all – there is the simple reality of real estate. I guess Universal and Warner Bros and Paramount and Columbia and Disney and Fox could all get out of the backlot business and sell their lots as they move to the cheaper environs of… uh, uh… Montana… Sacramento… North Carolina… Eastern Europe?
The reality of runaway production – which presumes that production somehow belongs at “home” – is well illustrated in this chart that I culled from State of California studies on the issue. It only goes through the first half of 2003, but it pretty much tells you what you need to know. The percentage of American film releases in the early 90s made in full or in part in California dipped under 50%… but since then, it’s been consistently over 50% of product. What you don’t see is a progression of movement away from “home.”
The question, while emotional, is simple. Does California, as the dominant “home” of TV and film production, have a financial interest in trying to keep people from shooting movies elsewhere? As much as other cities have motive for trying to bring in movie dollars – which for them are much like tourist dollars, a single film like bringing in a half dozen good sized conventions – I would argue that the “home town” paying people to stay where they are already staying – for the most part – and where at least 20% will always leave for location reasons, is simply unnecessary.
The reason so much of the film and television world stays in California is because the crews are better and more plentiful, the machinery is here in large numbers, as are actors and the rest of the “talent,” and it is financially sensible to be here for so many. There’s nothing wrong with a little competition. But this is not like manufacturing, which can go to other countries for cheap labor, easily making up for lack of quality with massive savings. There is no reason to think that the industry will leave California… until there really is a financial penalty for shooting here that is big enough to make the hard parts of being away just too unworkable.
And in the meanwhile, even the films that shoot elsewhere are tethered to this community by the studios. And there’s no running away from that.

Trying To Sprint With Billions Weighing You Down

David Halbfinger’s long piece on MGM does an excellent job looking at what the situation over there is. And he puts together a lot of the underreported elements from the last few years of the story of the studio. This piece was heavy lifting indeed.
But as is so often the problem with the NYT rotating smart reporters with no knowledge of the past of this industry, it is missing the full perspective on the story (which to his credit, Peter Bart got right to on his blog). This is a clear case of déjà vu.
What they are now doing at MGM was done, almost exactly, by Chris McGurk and Alex Yemenidjian over and over and over again until the market was right and they finally found the right suckers/buyers to cash them and Kerkorian out.
As I wrote about for years, it always seemed to me that the amount of money being spent by MGM was directly related to how close they thought they were to a sale. Kerkorian was always looking to sell, before McG&Y came aboard and every minute thereafter. The big asset was always the library, but the bait, the argument was, the idea of a major studio.
Yemenidjian and McGurk came into Kerkorian’s life in 1999, when he bought the studio one last time (we think) and was looking to do what he had done before… raise the perceived value and get someone to hand him a billion dollar profit for his trouble.
1999 was not their mess, 2000 saw just three wide releases, including Supernova, which the boys got Coppola to re-cut before giving him a deal to run United Artists with a budget of $100 million over two years covering five films. Tom Cruise needed five times that to get into business.
2001 leapt to seven wide releases, including wannabe star vehicles Original Sin (Banderas/Jolie), What’s The Worst The Could Happen? (DeVito/Lawrence), Heartbreakers (Weaver/Hewitt), and Bandits (Willis/Thornton/Blamchett). The foursome grossed $131m domestic combined. The savior was one of the lower budget hopefuls, Legally Blonde, though MGM didn’t have the juice to convert the event film for teen girls into a $100 million grosser domestically. And the one mega-hit was Hannibal, the awful Silence of the Lambs sequel, that grossed just over $350 million worldwide.
But no buyer for the price Kerkorian was looking for…
2002 also has seven wide releases. The big one was Bond in Die Another Day. Great. Barbershop was the underdog success with a $76 million domestic gross… and just over $1 million overseas. Still, a winner. After that… red ink. Windtalkers, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, Hart’s War, McTiernan’s remake of Rollerball, and Deuces Wild… $114 million domestic… it’s getting worse.
2003, the money dried up. No more movie stars, thanks. The only one MGM had in their eight wide releases that year was Denzel Washington in Out of Time… unless you count the sequel to Legally Blonde as a star turn… I count it as a sequel. The studio did nicely with cheap no-star kids movies Agent Cody Banks and Good Boy!. But the also-not-terribly-expensive, low wattage efforts to find teens (Uptown Girls, Bulletproof Monk, and A Guy Thing) all stiffed.
In 2004, Kerkorian put a part of the company’s cash in his own pocket – to the tune of somewhere around $1.4 billion – with a stock dividend scheme. The timing was most surely in line with Kerkorian interest in making his cash out with a sale – which could come five months later, in September – as tax-burden-free as possible. The cash-out represented about a third of the total value of the eventual deal to sell the company.
As for the studio, they had gone strictly low rent, with six wide releases, 2 of them cheap sequels, 1 a remake of a studio property, 1 failed attempt at another black franchise, 1 teen girl flop, and one non-starting thriller.
Throughout all of these years, whether the two aggressive years or the three fallow years that followed, the theme was “we’re in business… we’re a real studio… we’re in the game.”
But Kirk’s Boys had found a magical opportunity that no longer had anything to do with whether the studio was operational. Blu-ray and HD-DVD. The owner of the largest library in Hollywood – not just MGM’s but many others acquired over the years – was in the cat bird seat as Sony (pushing Blu-ray) and the HD-DVD group, led by Microsoft and Toshiba, were battling for position in a new technology. Sony, which had gotten beat on Betamax two decades before, primarily by maintaining its equipment as proprietary, but in some minds because they didn’t dominate and control the software.
So now we are in HarrySloanLand. What does he do? He lashes together a coalition of independent distributors – most of whom are now effectively out of business – to take advantage of the one significant asset MGM actually had, a Showtime cable output deal at a rate higher than anyone else could negotiate on their own. (Irony cubed… no Weinstein Co titles released by MGM and then on DVD by Genius have come out in any high definition format.) But Sloan was just treading water until he could grab back complete control of the MGM brand, which was blurred by the shockingly brief active Sony relationship.
In the process, according to what Halbfinger unearthed in the company’s filings, MGM’s current owners, led by Sloan, have added about $1.7 billion to the $2 billion in debt they assumed buying the company from Kerkorian almost four years ago. So far… just like Kirk would do it.
Starting from that deep hole, it’s been setting up a UA deal for Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, with a different mindset, but not dissimilar to tying the UA name to Coppola earlier. (Coppola’s deal fell apart before it was “complete,” but the UA brand was really resurrected, in the end, but Bingham Ray, who led a team (some now with McGurk at Ovation) that made small films with some Oscar heft, including Hotel Rwanda and Capote.)
Next, it was setting up the idea that MGM was still seriously in the movie business. Hiring Mary Parent was a legitimate power move (making her the Michael Nathanson of this situation). Cale Boyter is a solid high-profile hire. Money is being spent.
The problem remains the same as it was for Kerkorian, as it was for DreamWorks, as it was for New Line, as it was for Zoetrope, as it is for any small studio. You are vulnerable to the vagaries of the industry weather. With a bigger company, not only do you have a large infrastructure that supports the business if a picture of any size fails, but you have all kinds of opportunities to created additional value in the production you create, especially the big hits.
I am not saying that a Valkyrie will shut down UA if it doesn’t work at the box office… but the hard reality is that if it were to bomb too badly, it could shut the studio down. Conversely, if it hits modestly, say $180 million worldwide, then it means nothing to the studio’s future in a particularly positive way. When you are small, you are always fighting the negative and rarely get to enjoy the success… unless it’s Rings-level crazy success or Wedding Crashers or The Mask costing virtually nothing and hitting big.
I am not saying that Mary Parent needs a $100 million domestic grosser in 2009. But she does have to balance what she spends and what she earns. Bond is an existing major asset that the studio really doesn’t control… never has. Pink Panther will be profitable, but its profits won’t cover the executive contracts that Harry Sloan just signed.
On the other hand, there absolutely are advantages to a smaller company. There is an intimacy, a camaraderie, and a focus on the few films the company releases. A big part of handicapping DreamWorks as a stand-alone studio was losses they had chasing television production. That shouldn’t be a big issue for MGM.
That said, birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim. Setting up – finally! – serious marketing and distribution arms at MGM means that they need movies to sell and push out into theaters. Terry Press, if she ends up taking the marketing job, can tell them clearly. Those six-movies-a-year years at DreamWorks were brutal. There was this sense of revving this very powerful engine that had been created, waiting… waiting…
What DreamWorks did to make things work better was to find a franchise that consistently won… animation. But MGM doesn’t have a Katzenberg. And Bond only comes but once every three years. Even then, the franchise is still looking to its next film to be its first $600 million worldwide grosser, just as it took until Casino Royale to crack $500 million. The franchise is very valuable, but it’s not a studio maker. After all, Lord of The Rings – which grossed $2.9 billion in three films – couldn’t save New Line, at least not after the franchise ended.
What Mary Parent is likely to be able to deliver is a bunch of doubles, some of which can be stretched out to triples. Typical is the notion of taking a Ludlum novel and putting Denzel Washington in it. Great actor. Could be a great Bourne-like property. But Denzel has never had a $300 million worldwide grosser… ever. And Bourne went $215m, $290m, $445m worldwide over its 3 film run. And maybe this could be Denzel’s $300m break-out… in a second sequel in 2016.
Like Bond, a franchise that can be counted on to crack $200m each time out is a good, good thing. But Hannibal ($350m worldwide) and Legally Blonde ($142m ad $124m worldwide each) didn’t find a buyer for MGM. Blu-ray did.
And that buyer paid way, way, way too much. Of course, if you measure by the inanity of $900 million for the DreamWorks library of 59 titles…
But looking at that deal, which is not likely to be profitable for Paramount on the ongoing movie side, they paid $700 million for DreamWorks as an ongoing asset, beyond the library. MGM production might be worth something near that right now, as an investment, based on the Bond franchise, a percentage of The Hobbit and the Mary Parent and Tom Cruise businesses. If the library is legitimately worth $2.5 billion, then add another $700 million and the investors who currently own MGM can’t cover the $3.7 billion of debt they are carrying with a sale at a reasonable value today, much less the additional $2 billion they spent buying the assets.
Moreover, while I believe there is still going to be significant money in quality libraries, the value headed down based on what looks to be the new economies of ancillary delivery. There simply is no scenario that suggests that we are ever going back to $19.95 DVD level costs of “owning” a film or even – most likely – $15.
As a movie lover, I love the idea of chasing that long tail, but the industry has to start getting used to the idea that the more that’s available, the more easy the access, the more relentless the pricing battle will become. Some little known doc or indie will end up being sold a million times for $2.50 a pop and make its makers/marketers a nice chunk of change, but these are not the kinds of numbers that pay for studio overhead.
When Kerkorian bought MGM for the third time in 1996, he paid $1.3 billion. The one big shift in value that occurred over the last decade was DVD. And MGM’s library was there to take advantage of the opportunity. Kerkorian nearly tripled his investment. Genius… since the studio is overpriced at $5 million, much less the apparent $6.7 million it now on the books.
The Consortium could not have bought at a worse time… not unlike DreamWorks getting into the studio business and trying to build a TV business at exactly the worst time, when showrunners were being paid massive amounts upfront by everyone in town. For Sony, the investment, however oversized, would pay off if the deal led to Blu-ray winning the format war. (I would argue that the deal did help… but that Sony continues to drag its feet on hardware pricing, which is fighting an ever-narrowing window for cheaper HD home delivery, both by cable, satellite, and to a much smaller extent, internet. When the hardware price point drops under $150, the non-Blu-ray values of a PS3 – or whatever it’s called by then – will make them the standard and Blu-ray DVD sales may become the standard for a significant percentage of buyers. But the idea of buying DVDs could also be passé by 2012 – or earlier – so they better hurry.)
Thing is, building positive assets is building positive assets. Would The Consortium be happier with a way overpriced asset that is building more positive assets or one that lays there like a lox and demands a multi-billion write down?
If Sloan, with Parent, can keep this thing afloat for a couple of years, hitting for percentage, then there will be the big moment. Parent will get bored and she and her people will find The Home Run Shot and want to take it. And that one film may be the “yay” or “nay” for MGM as a production entity.
Meanwhile, the Titanic of MGM already sank. Harry Sloan and Mary Parent and everyone else over there are already on a very luxurious lifeboat. They don’t really have to bail water. They aren’t like to make it any worse in a hurry. And positives are positive, so bless them. But there are still icebergs out there. And all it takes is one.

Sexism In '08

The furor is already subsiding. But the tea leaves, thinned out a bit, are showing themselves more clearly.
One pundit on MSNBC said this morning that people calling Mrs. Clinton “Hillary” all time and Mr. Obama “Obama” was a show of subtle sexism that America just can’t admit to itself. She didn’t, in convincing herself, note that Clinton’s campaign signs mostly say “Hillary” and not “Clinton,” if for no other reason than to point out that she is not her husband… she is beyond his identity. And of course, need I point out that both Clinton and Republicans love “Obama” being so easily misspoken as “Osama?”
But I take the furrowed brow commentary of zipless-fuck feminist Erica Jong more seriously, as I think she does speak to a significant, albeit deluded, group of Clinton supporters.
“I didn’t know it would feel this bad. I didn’t know it would feel this personal.”
Well, we knew.
We read it in every column you wrote for the HuffPo. We heard it in every screed by Gerry Ferraro. We got an earful of it last night when Hillary continued to manipulate your generational pain by suggesting that you and your political needs were being made “invisible” by others.
“Losing my last chance to see a woman in the White House feels like shit. And the gloating by the press is even worse. It sounds like “I told you so.” It feels like watching Joan of Arc burned at the stake.”
Yeah… I hear ya. You’re batshit crazy… Joan of Arc… but yeah, I really do hear you.
You must realize, as the fog lifts, that the “gloating by the press” is a campaign manipulation by The Clintons & Co. You must realize, as you get back from Stockholm, that every rational analysis of this race knew that Clinton overcoming Obama was a 100-to-1 shot all the way back in March, as she has never gotten as close as 100 delegates since then and the reason “the media called the race” after North Carolina and Indiana is that she slipped 25 delegates further behind that night, making her only opportunity a million-to-one shot at getting a large number of Obama superdelegates to turn on his candidacy.
This was not, to use a sports analogy (I know… more sexism!), wide right on a 40 yard field goal at the end of a football game. This was down two touchdowns and a field goal late in the fourth quarter. There was still time on the clock… anything could happen… the opposing team could drop dead on the field. But from the Obama side, it was like playing loose defense – a choice both sportsmanlike and actively defensive – and having the losing opposition score one touchdown, and their receiver spiking the ball in the face of the defender who blew the coverage… as though the wining team was being dominated… or the losing team had won.
It’s time for the Erica Jongs of the world to start looking in the mirror and realizing that it is not sexism they are suffering… it’s ageism.
She writes:
“’It’s not sexism — it’s her’ seems to have replaced, ‘I’m not a feminist, but’ in our national lexicon. This is not to imply that Hillary Clinton is faultless — far from it. But it’s clear that the faults we tolerate and even overlook in men, we see as glaring in women. The problem with sexism is that it’s so damned invisible. McCain can confuse Sunnis and Shiites and nobody blinks. Bush can admit to his press secretary that he outed a secret agent while claiming that he’d fire any aide who did so — and the press sleeps. Men make mistakes. Women are not allowed to. We are held to such high and impossible standards that the possibility of any woman penetrating the barrier again seems remote.”
Let’s not even bother spending a lot of time correcting the delusion that McCain or Bush “get away” with those mistakes. No one has impeached Bush, but he doesn’t go a day without getting slammed in the groin for his mistakes as president. And “Sunni/Shiite” is a daily talking point about McCain and his age issue.
But the reason that sexism “is so damned invisible” is that it has become so damned invisible. This is not to say that there isn’t sexism or misogyny or racism, for that matter. But for starters, women are the majority in this country. But sex and race are not what they were 40 years ago or 30 years ago.
Reagan/Bush were the last presidents of the “pat ‘em on the head and wait for ‘em to clear the dishes” generation, smiling all the way and thinking they were treating women the way women were meant – even wanted – to be treated, all the time revering their mommies. Bill Clinton was the first of the Boomer Confused presidents, charming and talking feminism, all the while looking for a girl who would don the kneepads in the back room, not thinking twice about her pleasure. (I am more offended, personally, by his treating Monica like a drunken frat house conquest than the fact that he sought sex out of a marriage in which his partner clearly was/is aware of his proclivities and sticks around for more.) W is of the same group as Willie, kicking his coke habit and apparently finding God back in his wife’s arms.
One of the great ironies of this sexism argument is that it completely overlooks Michelle Obama, who is no shrinking violet herself. She has a somewhat less impressive legal resume than Hillary did (another reason to call her “Hillary” is not to call her “Mrs. Clinton,” which seems like a diminutive), but her Harvard Law degree (at 24) matches up pretty well with Hillary’s Yale Law degree (at 26). Like Hillary was 16 years ago, Michelle is being held up as “dangerous” to the Obama candidacy. But not by the Hillary Feminists… she is pretty much non-existent to them.
Does Erica Jong really believe, “(Women) are held to such high and impossible standards that the possibility of any woman penetrating the barrier again seems remote.”
She’s writing this, mind you, on The Huffington Post, a website led by a woman that now competes as one of the top independent news sites in the world, arriving there by the actions of that woman (and many men and women in her support). The blanket, “No We Can’t” attitude of 70s feminists, who really did face impossible standards in breaking into the business and cultural worlds and being taken seriously, is as narrow and self-defeating as the idea that America should not talk to its enemies unless its enemies concede their political positions.
The notion of this is that disagreement defines the person (or nation) who disagrees as inherently evil and irrational. But at the very least, every one of our “opponents” in this world can be expected to act in their own self interest.
We are long past the point where, in the vast majority, men/businesses/voters will allow they sex or race biases to lead them into choices that are inherently self-destructive. We are still at the point where the determination of what is most effectively pro-active is blurry and when faced with that blur, many men will still choose men over women when they can’t be sure that the woman is not a significantly superior choice.
We are not sex blind. Nor are we color blind. We will need more time for that. And in that pursuit, women ARE at a disadvantage in the long run, as compared to other groups, because men and women will, presumably, continue to have sex with one another… and sex is a messy thing, either in the act of it, the pursuit of it, the consideration of it, or the denial of it. It would be nice to think that the world could never think with its groin in arenas where the groin is not the issue… but I don’t know that it is possible so long as penises are used to deliver sperm to eggs.
Jong’s internal conflicts are apparent. As she moans about sexism, she is also worrying that racism will lead to Obama getting assassinated or not elected (in that order).
I think one key reason why I – and other Obama supporters – find sexism and other excuses for the loss – the pundits got her! – so irritating is not only that it diminished Obama’s remarkable accomplishment, but that Jong and so many others are processing a personal loss in public and foisting the responsibility onto everyone – anyone – else.
Truth is, those of us who are thrilled about Obama being nominated want to celebrate! It’s exciting. He isn’t Jesus walking across water, but he offers the hope of a highly intelligent, well-intended person whose philosophies we share. We shouldn’t be asked to apologize for that. And all the second place finisher can talk about is whether our winner was on steroids. It sucks.
And in perspective, Jong is a representative of a dead form of feminism… one that asks for what it hopes to be given. The new feminism is about taking your spot… fighting for it… expecting it. As a Jew who has qualms at times with Israel’s shows of force, I also know why Israel stills exists as a nation. It’s not by whining about being hated. This is a theme of boy culture, from The Godfather to Iron Man.
You might not like Michael Corleone, but as reluctant as he is, when time comes to act, he acts. Sonny is too macho… Fredo too weak. Women in that film are still victims in that world, though Michael’s wife, Kay, is a modern woman on the cusp of feminism. Part of Michael’s tragedy is that he doesn’t know how be with her and to still be part of his Family.
A big part of what makes Juno work is that our 16-year-old female lead takes action… and it’s not easy. She makes the choice to keep and then to give up her child. She navigates all kinds of emotions. But she doesn’t spend her time looking for someone to blame.
And a child shall lead them…


From Rothman To Lesher To Chance

A very smart person commented in passing, in a different conversation, about a very interesting piece of history that is more relevant today than it was even a day ago. It’s a little hard to put together some of the details, since the memory goes back to 1996… before the web grew up and, interestingly, earlier than Variety’s archives seem to go. But…
John Lesher’s 28 month tenure at Paramount Vantage (nee’ Classics), then the move to “Big” Paramount is remarkably similar to Tom Rothman’s move from Searchlight to “Big” Fox (and then, to sharing Bill Mechanic‘s job with Jim Gianopulos).
Lesher’s first release at/as Vantage was the Sundance pick-up, An Inconvenient Truth, released about six months after he took the job. The film was a publicity bonanza, and in spite of a huge amount of spending to get all that attention, the film grossed a remarkable $24 million, making it the third highest grossing domestic doc of all time. (It’s now #4 with Sicko surpassing it by a small amount.) It would turn out to be the only profitable film of the extremely high profile Lesher regime.
Lesher’s second release at Vantage came 6 days prior to his one year anniversary with Paramount, though the film, Babel, was not made under his auspices (except as an agent, since he made the deal for the film repping his client, Alejandro González Iñárritu with Bred Grey while still at Endeavor). He fought to get the film under his banner… and succeeded. And his team, led by Megan Colligan, fought hard and long to get an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately for them, they sold off the foreign rights on the film, which is where the movie made triple what it did in America, which meant that Paramount would lose money on their first Oscar nominee since 2002’s The Hours, which was their first since Titanic in 1997.
Black Snake Moan was the second release… also from the previous administration… also a money loser, with a worldwide gross of just $10 million.
Lesher’s first release of his own (kind of… it was via Plan B, Brad Grey’s production company with Pitt and, then, Aniston) was Mike White’s Year of the Dog, 18 months after he took the job. It was the start of a run of 7 films from high profile directors that Lesher had worked with at Endeavor.
Mike White – Year of the Dog – $1.5 million
Michael Winterbottom – A Mighty Heart – $9.2m
Sean Penn – Into the Wild – $18.4m
Noah Baumbach – Margot at the Wedding – $2m
Marc Forster – The Kite Runner – $15.8m
Paul Thomas Anderson – There Will Be Blood – $40.2m
Martin Scorsese – Shine a Light -$5.3m
Five of the films would be sold as Oscar contenders. One would be nominated. None would break even. But the time the last film was released, Lesher had been promoted to “Big” Paramount and the responsibility for the future released vetted by Lesher would be on those left behind.
A similar thing happened at Fox Searchlight, created by Tom Rothman in 1994, and exited by Rothman for a bigger job before he released his tenth movie via the division, leaving the clean-up to Lindsay Law, a PBS exec and producer who was over his head in the job for about three years… years that included getting an Oscar nomination for The Full Monty, a title that would also remain Searchlight’s biggest grosser for seven years – four years into the Rice regime – until Sideways. (Rice more than doubled that top earner last year with Juno.)
Rothman’s first release was also a pick-up… Edward Burns’ The Brothers McMullen. The film would be the highest grossing film of his tenure with $10.4m. His next biggest hit was a follow-up by Burns (shades of Black Snake Moan, the follow-up to Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow), She’s The One, which grossed $9.5 million.
Everything else would lose money.
Rothman had high profile taste, like Spike Lee (Girl 6, $5m gross), Bernardo Bertolucci (Stealing Beauty, $4.7m gross), Al Pacino (Looking for Richard, $1.4m gross), Nicholson buddy and 70s legend Bob Rafelson (Blood and Wine, $1.1m gross), Bergman collaborator Billie August (Smilla’s Sense of Snow, $2.4m gross), and Dangerous Liaisons writer/conceiver Christopher Hampton (The Secret Agent, $106,606 gross).
Lindsay Law wouldn’t do much better with his 25-or-so shots at the brass ring. He and his team hit the home run with The Full Monty. But only five other films in his tenure would crack $5 million. He too would miss with some big names.
But Tom Rothman went on to the Big Show to great success while Law had to sell stuff that Rothman launched and for which he didn’t have to take the heat. Of course, Rothman’s Searchlight films were not nearly as expensive and didn’t lose nearly as much as Lesher’s… so maybe Lesher will be an even better “Big” studio exec!
The news that finally landed, that Team Vantage was being melded into Big Paramount was not that big a surprise. Things clearly couldn’t continue the way Lesher and Grey had allowed them to, no matter how much attention they got with the films. Eventually the pool of red ink would be noticed. And now we know… it was.
Thing is, Tom Rothman has remained, for over a decade now, remained very committed to the division he birthed. He and Jim G have been smart enough to let Peter Rice and his key team of Gilula and Utley have their heads.
Dick Cook and Bob Iger figured out the right role for a post-Weinstein Miramax and Daniel Battsek has been nothing short of brilliant in navigating the territory.
Focus became an international asset for Universal, as much as it was a domestic art division, and David Linde is now co-running the big show.
And Sony Classics has its own unique set of goals and expectations in its Big Sony marriage and works well within them.
This step backwards for Paramount and Vantage is indicative of the fact that they jumped in with both feet… and never had a vision for the division that went past gathering attention. As a result, there is no way to continue down the road that they were on. The company has just three releases on the schedule the rest of this year… only one that they had their hands on in the making. And it may well be that film – Revolutionary Road – a Scott Rudin-produced film – that has as much as the Vantage marketing remaining intact. They are seen as the ones who can push an Oscar film. (Par can also expect a lot more help from 42 West on this one… as it is likely the go-to film ahead of Rudin’s Doubt, which will be over at Miramax.)
There was some talk, a little while back, that the Vantage kids might knock Gerry Rich from his perch. Didn’t happen. But sometime in the fall, as DreamWorks leaves Melrose in the dust, the ranks will surely be thinned again.
In the meanwhile, the circle just keeps turning…

The Clinton Syndrome

As things wind down in the Democratic nominating process, I find that I am starting to find room for perspective. The threat of Hillary Clinton and her people changing the rules enough to take the nomination is over. And the answers to the questions of what has happened in recent months start coming into focus.
Of course the details are specific to a very, very unique set of circumstances in this race. But then again… baloney.
The same tortured logic that the Clinton campaign has been selling since losing this race on Super Tuesday remains, albeit in its fourth or fifth incarnation. It’s a logic that isn’t unfamiliar in the annals of human instinct. It’s the logic of bringing down your adversary even when you know you can’t win by any normal methodology.
The problem with “Hilary’s gutsy run” is not that she doesn’t deserve to remain in a race that was always close. The problem is not that she is, like Huckabee was, so far out that her continuing effort was nothing but a stunt. The problem is that in order to compete against someone who is in front of you in a race and who cannot be passed by your speeding up, only by their slowing down, you not only have to keep up the speed you have, but you must find a way to drag the leader backwards.
Clinton & Co have effective been running from behind for months, close enough to kick dirt on the back of Obama’s calves every yard of the way, but never close enough to pass him without his stumbling. The goal has not been to win – except by massive fluke – but to keep Obama from achieving, metaphorically, a world record speed. After all, second best is second best, even if the second-place runner’s time would have been a world record if they had won.
I believe that Obama will survive and ultimately thrive on the attacks of the Clinton campaign. But there is reason to be concerned about it. In an era with a more old-fashioned news cycle and none of the endless coverage via TV and the web that seems so out of control and repetitive at times, Clinton would have won this race by dint of the power of party insiders. There is no chance that Obama, faced with the same numbers as Clinton had coming out of Super Tuesday, would still be in the race. He would have actually been forced out. He would never have been allowed these months of hubris and rage by party leadership.
Simply, in order to “keep hope alive,” Clinton has been forced to run a relentlessly negative campaign against the Obama candidacy, turning issues of what would normally (and would have been for her) private strategy into public smears.
Obama voters are not pro-Obama so much as anti-Clinton… and for some unearned reason, not in response to Clinton’s actions in the campaign.
Older voters prefer to vote for someone they have known for a long time than some inexperienced kid.
The media is in the bag for Obama… Clinton is a victim of their bias.
Obama can’t win… or now, alternatively, he is just an inferior candidate.
By sticking with party rules, Obama is trying to take the nomination away from Clinton.

The problem is not that some or all of these things (except the last one) are not in some small ways true. But these things are the surface text, not the recurring and relentless subtext that is so nasty.
If a voter cannot be pro-Obama without it being about anti-Clinton, then the subtext is that there is no real pro-Obama argument. And the ongoing nastiness of claiming that Obama’s support is based on fairy tales and misogyny and a lack of understanding of core values is destructive to the Party in no small way because Clinton and Obama are so close on policy.
There is no question that older, more traditional voters are change-averse, even if they are worn out by the current administration. If there was any great lesson in Bush’s second win, it was that people will cling to the devil they know against all logic. Clinton’s winning run since Super Tuesday has been based on a clear knowledge of that. Not only did they enjoy a massive advantage in uncontested primaries in Florida and Michigan – where they may have still won, but which Obama had the money to contest in a real way, and which Ohio and Pennsylvania history shows us would likely have cut the margins in half of more – but the whole rough-and-tumble Clinton schtick manipulated these people powerfully.
The Pew Research/Harvard media study about media bias in this race, which clearly shows less pro-Obama bias than pro-Clinton bias can’t read the stories that were not done. How does a candidate who paid more in taxes last year than most of the PA/OH/KY/WV constituencies she “feels the pain of” will earn in combined family income over the next decade… who is Ivy League educated… who enjoys the status of carrying the most powerful name in the Democratic Party in the last two decades… who is the machine candidate… how does her campaign turn the opponent who was raised by a single mother, just paid off his student loans, is Black, carries an ethnic name, and who has built a candidacy on a base of national private support with average donations of less than $200 per supporter into the elitist? By the silent acquiescence of the media.
The logic that Obama can’t win simply boggles the mind… especially in light of Clinton’s “gender is the hardest glass ceiling” rhetoric. Here is the obvious question… if gender is the toughest glass ceiling, tougher than race, then how could Clinton be a better general election candidate than Obama?
And if Obama can’t win the general, how did he win the primaries?
But this is the Clinton specialty… playing the victim publicly while being in control of the situation privately.
Of course the women who are most rabid about the Clinton candidacy are enraged. They have been told to be enraged by Clinton over and over and over again. They have had the opportunity to imagine one of theirs in the White House, which is not much less revolutionary than having a Black Man in the White House. They were the front-runner. The general election was the challenge. The nomination was assured. And now they are being told, “No… it’s not happening. You couldn’t even beat the first-term Senator with the funny name and the rhetoric so compelling that it makes you anxious about believing.” And then, the Clinton team has said, for months now, we’re having this taken from us… Obama’s not far enough ahead to really win legitimately… we’re still in it… switching to the “other side” is a betrayal.
The problem is that the “other side” is still a Democrat who is 90% in agreement with Clinton.
You don’t have to be a bad or dumb person to be swayed by the emotionality of all of this. But you are being lied to and manipulated. And like any great lie, there is enough truth to keep it alive. Clinton is within striking distance… but not close enough to win by any legitimate count… and she hasn’t been since Super Tuesday.
Since Super Tuesday, Clinton has run an anti-Obama, anti-New campaign that has resonated in states where there is a lot of room for it. In the meanwhile, Obama undercut the power of this in the most significant states – by Clinton’s reckoning – taking more delegates in Texas and cutting Clinton’s lead in Ohio and Pennsylvania in half over weeks of campaigning. That’s when Clinton started the “he can’t close” argument. Wherever the bar lands, keep moving that bar.
And has there been a scarier line in this campaign than Geraldine “I Once Seemed Worthy Of Respect” Ferraro’s, “It’s not racism that is driving them, it’s racial resentment”? Can you parse an “ism” any more profoundly than that? And this comes from a person who broke ground for feminists in a real way.
What is more horrifying to pull out of the bag of racial fear than “reverse racism?” Does Ferraro believe that the less-privileged core of America will be left behind by The Black Man? If not, she is stirring racism with real hate speech. If so, she is, simply, out of her mind, avoiding his policy arguments which are so close to those of the candidate she supports. Either way, is there any way to support an argument of White American Families earning under $100,000 as victims of Barack Obama?
Can you imagine anyone saying, with a straight face, “It’s not sexism that’s driving them, it’s sexual resentment”? Where do we think racism and sexism come from? Good logic? Or is it, as it always has been, from a base of fear, ignorance, and resentment? Are we really discussing whether, “That bitch took my job” is better or worse than, “That nigger took my job”?
It gets worse, the more context you get from Ferraro. “It’s not racism that is driving them, it’s racial resentment. And that is enforced because they don’t believe he understands them and their problems.” But the woman who has been in Washington for decades now and who has $50 million in the bank and who was educated in much the same way “He” was? She has spent months telling “them” that “He” doesn’t understand their and their problems.
And that has been the horror of this ongoing campaign. It is hard to unring a bell. I believe that most people who called for Clinton to get out before the six week slog to Pennsylvania wanted this not because they hate Hillary or because they were misogynists or because they couldn’t see past their Barack-colored glasses, but because they knew, logically and instinctively, that this was a problem that was about to be created. Of course there was already resistance to the new and racism and we-don’t-know-him-ism and even some real dislike of Obama in these states and cultures. But we didn’t have a force using tens of millions of dollars and mighty rhetoric and anger to galvanize them and to tell them that they were right to be afraid, right to hate him, right to resent him, and would be better off with a Republican than Barack Hussein Obama.
And The Clinton Campaign is still stoking that fire of resentment. Florida gets seated by a unanimous vote – including Ickes – and Michigan gets seated in the way suggested by the same state Democrats who decided to break party rules and to hold an un-legal election, not the way The Obama Campaign suggested, and still the Clinton Campaign comes out screaming bloody murder over 4 elected delegates… as though Obama stole them or had the power to do so.
And once again, we are looking at a DNC Rules Committee that, going in, was seen as being populated by a majority of Clinton supporters. Clinton’s campaign went in with the advantage. And they got more, many would argue, than they deserved… which is to say, counting the Michigan vote at all.
But again, the core problem is not the outcome of that procedure, but the tone of anger and “we wuz robbed” that has been coming out of the Clinton campaign since they fell hopeless behind in this election, months ago. They aren’t stoking the positive argument, but continue to undermine Obama every single day.
There is little doubt that Clinton is a tougher adversary than McCain for Obama this year, given that there are real issues between the Democratic and Republican candidates that lean heavily for the Democrat at the moment. The choice between Clinton and Obama has been, from the start, about minutiae and personality more than any real differences. Even the experience issue is a bit silly, given that The First Lady is not an elected or appointed political office. So taking sides meant a commitment. And no one likes to be spurned once they’ve made a commitment. And when one side stokes the idea that the other side hates their side… well, this is where we are.
Simply put, a Clinton supporter who would suggest for one moment that they would vote for McCain over Obama never could be supporting Clinton based on policy. If you believed in Clinton’s policy arguments, the leap to McCain instead of Obama is so distant that you could NEVER make an argument on that level… only on the anger that has been stirred by the Clinton campaign.
This has been made even clearer by McCain’s abandonment of many of his truly independent ideas in order to placate the right win of his party. Reproductive Choice, Health Care, Iraq. Can’t get any more basic than that.
If you really believe in any of the principles espoused by the Democratic Party and you are still saying you will vote for McCain over Obama, then you are either an idiot, a willful liar, or a victim of Stockholm Syndrome via the Clinton campaign.
I believe that Democrats will snap out of the Syndrome and sadly, not only vote for Obama, by really hate Hillary Clinton in time. Like reformed smokers, once people have been manipulated to this profoundly and survive and get clear, they tend to go too far to the other side.
I was never much of a fan of The Clinton Legacy… but even I see this as sad.
But this is a country in which people took massive loans they knew they couldn’t afford to maintain without an ongoing pyramid scheme, whether in 1929 or 1999 or 2007, and who damaged the economy for all the rest of us, and who we now show sympathy towards. We want to believe. We want to forgive. We want to live our illusions.
And on we go… to heaven… or oblivion… or some other undiscovered country…


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon