By David Poland email@example.com
Universal Pile-On Is Now Vulture-istic Bullshit
Ya know… I wrote piece on Universal and the box office results of the current leadership on Tuesday. Just felt the need. Others bounced off of it Wednesday and Thursday.
And then, today I read a piece in Vulture, which has become a (mostly) legit place, by Claude Brodesser, and I was kinda sickened. I mean, it is just about as irresponsible and often inaccurate a piece as a former Variety writer could write.
Here is the deal. Donna Langley and Adam Fogelson have been at Universal a long time. They were both there when Stacey Snider was still there and exited in early 2006. (In doing research for this piece, I looked back at NYT for Snider’s exit date… and found this gem from Waxman, “(Snider) will report directly to Mr. Grey.” HA!!!)
Universal released 19 movies in the year – those were the days! – after Snider left and Shmuger & Linde took over. Only 6 of those 19 films broke $50m domestic (Inside Man, The Break-Up, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, You Me & Dupree, Miami Vice, The Good Shepherd). Only 1 cracked $100m (The Break-Up). There were almost as many movies (5) that didn’t crack $15m domestic in that period. Those were all Snider’s movies… though Langley and Shmuger and Fogelson were all party to them during her tenure.
And yet, DreamWorks, under Snider, kicked ass at Paramount.
Who deserved credit for the 4 $100m-plus hits in the summer of 2007, almost a year and a half after Snider left? Good question. A responsible journalist knows that unless they have done a lot of research, they do not know. (I have done a little, not a lot) Two were sequels (Evan Almighty, for which $100m wasn’t nearly enough, and The Bourne Ultimatum, which was, obviously, an opportunity based on a series Snider greenlit and suffered a lot of grief in the process of getting the first one to be a hit. There was Knocked Up, a second film from Judd Apatow, whose The 40 Year Old Virgin was greenlit at Universal by… Snider. And I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was at least 8 years in the making.
Flash forward to 2009, when a run of State of Play, Land of the Lost, Public Enemies, Funny People, and Love Happens, plus major production issues on Green Zone and The Wolfman forced The Boss’ hand on Shmuger & Linde.
And where did The Boss turn for replacements? The guy who replaced Shmuger and the production exec who survived the Snider shake-out (With Stuber & Parent onto production companies and no interest in the job).
Now… here is Brodesser’s spin on them: “Over nearly three dismal years, the entrenched team of chairman Adam Fogelson and co-chairman Donna Langley has made and released such high-priced failures as The Wolfman, Green Zone, Robin Hood, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and now Battleship…”
Well, can’t pin Wolfman or Zone on them at all, unless you want to make the argument that those films, both of which were originally scheduled to release before Fogelson/Langley, and were dumped less than six months after Fogelson/Langley took over, were somehow directly connected to their mistakes as lower-ranking execs Brodesser does not. Likewise, Robin Hood and Scott Pilgrim were greenlit under Shmuger/Linde (both started production in March 2009).
So after he got up that big head of empty steam, all that’s really there is Battleship… and some projected, ridiculous math on Snow White & The Huntsman. Firstly, I don’t foresee a “$150 million write-down on Battleship” Maybe $75m. Maybe even as much as $100m.
Secondly, the projection of Snow White taking “a $75 to $100 million write-down,” a) before it opens and b) with no apparent regard to international, where it seems likely to be much stronger than it is here, even if it hits here, is irresponsible piling on.
I don’t know why Brodesser, who is most often a reasonable reporter, is going so loud on this and overreaching so carelessly. But my guess would be page views.
For what it’s worth, $400m worldwide in theatrical is about the tipping point for a $200m movie, taking all other ancillaries into account. It may have gone up to $450m for some, depending on the DVD situation. But $500m doesn’t match reasonably with anything in Brodesser’s math offering.
As for the yammers about “first time director” and Kristen Stewart not being box office enough… just lazy and stupid. Have we heard anyone complain that Rupert Sanders was out of control or delivered an inferior product. Or is this just left over stupidity from John Carter? Did Peter Berg’s solid track record open Battleship? Did Joss Whedon’s terrible theatrical track record fail to open The Avengers? Come on. Grow up.
It is unusual for a first-timer to helm a massive production. WB made The Wachowskis make a sample movie, Bound, to show they could handle The Matrix. But whatever overages have been gossiped about on Snow White, they are nothing compared to the numbers connected to some of the most veteran, most successful directors. And as I said before, no one I know of has accused him of not delivering… even if some people don’t care for the screenplay (which he didn’t write or greenlight).
As for stars…there are a grand total of none that assure a profit on a $200m movie. None. Not even Will Smith, though he is as close as it gets. There are twelve billion-dollar grosses. Downey (maybe), Depp in 2 Pirates films, and the voice of Tom hanks in Toy Story 3 mean that 1/3 of the films have bankable stars. And if you look at Depp’s career, aside form Pirates, Alice, and Wonka, he’s never hit $300m worldwide. That doesn’t mean he can’t make you money at lower numbers. But expectations for Dark Shadows were outrageous.
Inception has post-Titanic Leo and that’s the only name brand star in the $800m – $1b class (20 films). You don’t really start hitting star-driven titles until the 600ms.
Taylor Kitsch ain’t no movie star. But he didn’t bring down Battleship or John Carter, just as no actor could make or break Snow White… though it is hard to imagine any better casting, to draw audiences to something that feels right, than Charlize Theron… who’s not a big opener herself.
I spent the first half of the week being told, in some quarters, that I was a bit of a prick for my Tuesday piece. And now, I am looking a piece that seems to be enthusiastic in tearing down Universal, using false notes, bent facts, and the darkest possible projections. Just unacceptable.
Yes, heads may roll before too long. But need I point out of the obvious? If Brodesser had the courage of his convictions on this, he would have named – and he’s not named once – the person in control of all of this for a long time… Ron Meyer. He lost Snider. He replaced her from within the structure. And then he replaced another set of leaders with another pair from inside the structure. $200m movies are not greenlit without The Boss signing off. Universal’s status over the last six years is a direct reflection of Ron Meyer’s choices.
Some think that Josh Goldstine will be forced to put the metaphoric gun in his mouth. Others, Donna and Adam. But the former would be a joke and the latter would be misguided, unless there is a bold move in replacing them. And coming from The Boss, that would be unexpected. So when does anyone start looking at The Boss and his choices? And God knows, he’ll be just fine. His golden parachute would made a Battleship writedown look lightweight.
But for God’s sake… let’s wait until something actually happens before burying an entire studio.