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David Poland

By David Poland

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.

18 Responses to “Universal Pile-On Is Now Vulture-istic Bullshit”

  1. Roy Batty says:

    It’s ironic that in a piece lambasting another journalist for similar lapses you write: “Did Joss Whedon’s terrible theatrical track record fail to open The Avengers?”

    Whedon has one previous theatrical credit, for SERENITY. A movie that cost $38M, had a non-existent “viral” (ie cheap) ad buy and in all probability limped into the black when home video/broadcast was thrown in.

    Lackluster or indifferent track record, sure, but “terrible?”

  2. David Poland says:

    Seriously, Roy?

    The movie didn’t earn it’s weight. And his track record as screenwriter was also pretty abysmal, save being on Toy Story

  3. JS Partisan says:

    Joss did do a lot script doctoring before Buffy, so it’s possible that Joss’ screenwriting track record is not as bad as some think. Serenity also made it’s budget back and seeing as how Serenity has been released 3 times on video, I’d imagine it got into the black by some what decent of a margin.

  4. sanj says:

    >Taylor Kitsch ain’t no movie star.

    kinda hard being a movie star as he’s a big tv star first.

    harc to change some people’s minds depending on where they first see you act ..

    if Battleship and John Carter made 500 million each – would be instantly become a movie star ?

    if you make 3x or 5x or 10x the movies budget back you then become movie star ?

    i’ve watched way to many dp/30 interviews and what i think is a movie star is different than most people’s

    a bad movie is a bad movie – big movie star can’t change
    it a lot .

    Jennifer Lawrence dp/30 had so many great quotes about being famoua and being an upcoming star . it worked for her. she hit some sort of jackpot lottery – the money and the fame came rather quick .

    Kat Dennings, Josh Lucas dp/30 was interesting – cause they weren’t huge movie stars and both now have tv shows
    and maybe they are happier …

    Sean William Scott dp/30 was interesting – cause he mentions several times how he got typecast into one role..
    and they won’t let him to any other types of roles other than comedy ..

    Evan Rachel Wood – Natalie Portman – Kristen Dunst are interesting cause LOOK AT THEM!!! – but it takes 5 years or longer for them to get award worthy films / tv shows.

    Taylor Kitsch never had a d dp/30 – so we’ll never know whats on his mind – apart from the usual promotion of the
    movies he’s in .

    Anton Yelchin dp/30 was interesting cause he talked about how he does photography and other short films..
    Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Green both do music / video projects other than acting .

    thats a bit more movie star power – if your an actor – you can use it to promote other projects your doing…and
    the fans should come along .

    it really worked for Ricky Gervais who is famous for the office tv series but then had a huge podcast with his friends…which then got turned into a tv series on hbo.

    the big budget movies seem great for actors – good reviews or bad reviews … then all they seem to be stuck in is the money box ..and some of the oscar bloggers are to blame for this cause thats all they talk
    about how much money it made.

    if Kristen Stewart wanted to open a store for arts and crafts – fans and movie critics would be so confused – they’d want her to star in a dozen twilight movies and not
    do what she wants.

    Britney Spears is giving up on music for awhile to be a judge on xfactor reality tv show ..Jennifer Lopez gave
    up acting to do the same thing.

    also for some reason i ended up liking Serenity more than
    the entire firefly series. the movie had some huge action pieces that involved ships and i’m sure Joss used that knowledge to create the ships in Avengers.

  5. Jerryishere says:

    Serenity — 38mil WORLDWIDE on a 39 mil budget. That is terrible.
    As a screenwriter — ?
    Hits —
    Toy Story…
    Atlantis — 186mil WW
    Bombs —
    Titan AE 36mil WW
    Alien 4 — 186 mil WW
    Buffy — 16mil domestic

    As for script doctoring? What does that matter? A panel of his peers determined thru arbitration that he didn’t deserve credit on those.

    So yeah, mostly terrible.

    But now? Doesn’t matter. He’s as big as they come.
    So Mr. Poland’s point about a track record seems a good one.
    Mazel tov, Joss. You’re big time now. You’ve left your tiny cult tv life behind.

  6. anghus says:

    let me preface this ran with: i like joss whedon. loved buffy, firefly, angel. serenity wasnt bad, nothing earth shattering.

    but dave’s right. the guy had a shit track record cinematically. Im more curious to see how he does when his next film comes out with FROM THE DIRECTOR OF AVENGERS blasted over the title.

    That’s when you know.

  7. hcat says:

    Not a big Whedon defender but the first Buffy movie was hardly a bomb. Sixteen million on a 7 million budget isn’t anything they were crying about. And seeing that the other movies on Fox’s slate that year were Toys, Shining Through, Hoffa, Night and the City remake, and Man Trouble, anything that didn’t bleed at least $30 million must have looked like a blockbuster to them.

    And 186 for the 80 million dollar Alien 4 might have been soft, but certainly not a bomb.

  8. hcat says:

    And I participated in the dogpile on Universal on the other thread, but after only 90 seconds of Les Miserables preview I have fallen back in love (Oh, I can’t stay mad at you)and have nothing but faith in the studio .

    Just pleeeease don’t ever fuck up Focus.

  9. martin s says:

    You’re right about Meyer. I used to pin the cluster on Snider, but it’s gone on way past her.

    But, seriously, David, C’mon…Alan Horn?

    Peter Chernin I could understand.

    I guess if he doesn’t have say over DW, Marvel or Pixar, fine. Otherwise, he stunk at leveraging IP at T-W.

  10. anghus says:

    Universal has sucked so hard for so long, they can throw anyone and everyone under the bus for all i care.

    Does anyone think a scorched earth policy in the universal offices couldnt hurt at this point. All everyone’s doing here is trying to find who’s at fault.

    Universal is like the Cleveland Browns of movie studios. They’ve been losing for so long they’ve forgotten what a win is like

  11. martin s says:

    Hcat – Buffy was a nothingburger as a movie, in terms of box office. It got decent reviews, but was just a quirky riff in a line of early 90’s vampire releases – Stokers, Innocent Blood, Buffy, etc…

    As for Alien:Rez, it was a bomb. Even Whedon has admitted as much, but he always blames the director. Law of diminishing returns says the formula was tapped out, which is why Fox decided on either a reboot or AvP and no more direct sequels.

  12. martin s says:

    Anghus – the blame game wouldn’t be happening if ownership hadn’t changed. If not for Comcast, it would be business as usual.

  13. BoulderKid says:

    “Snow White” is the kind of movie that studios should be making. It has a unique visual style, a compelling premise, and takes advantage of an existing property to rope in an audience without seeming tired like the comicbook films and the YA adaptations haves become. I know the reviews have not completely been there but the positive ones really champion it.

    If it does open soft around $40m i could easily see it having legs similar to an animated family film. “Battleship” basically had to open to $80m plus to be profitable if you figure the domestic slightly dwarfing the international as was the case with “Transformers.”

    It’s really not fair to right an article like Vulture did until at least the second weekend and early international grosses come in. Calling for someone’s job on conjecture is just sensationalist and feels cheap for a blogger with no skin in the game.

  14. hcat says:

    ‘If not for Comcast it would be business as usual’

    In my opinion Uni hit a noticible decline once they were bought by NBC. I thought the buy was a good fit and actually thought that is who would get them before the Vivendi deal. But might this not be one of the reasons they have had such an inconsistent go at it is that since 1990 they have been owned by Matsushitu, Seagrams, Vivendi, General Electric, Comcast. Five different masters in two decades, most often an afterthought to get the hands on the music labels, TV studio, cable operations. Not exactly a culture of stability (just as their Pre-MCA days was a mess of bankruptcy and recievership).

    As for Alien Rez being a bomb, Whedon might be talking about critical reaction, but those numbers do not scream BOMB. Now Speed 2 that was a money loser.

    ‘Universal is like the Cleveland Browns of movie studios. They’ve been losing for so long they’ve forgotten what a win is like’

    A few years ago you could have said the same thing about the Detroit Lions.

    Or farther back Paramount

    Or farther back Columbia

  15. jesse says:

    I have to say, Dave, you’re actually kind of easy on Claude Brodesser and Vulture. They sometimes have good pieces over there, but his weekly box office analysis is often absolutely terrible, filled with conventional wisdom, unsupported suppositions, and out-and-out untruths (he’s all about calling a movie a “bomb” if it posted OK-not-great box office results and was poorly regarded, say — even if it probably didn’t lose much or any money). It’s the kind of thing where I often take note of just how wrongheaded it is and I’m not nearly as eagle-eyed about entertainment journalists’ mistakes and perceived misdeeds as you are.

  16. Dan says:


    Just the other day you yourself said…

    “Theatrical Gross Without Context – A $200 million production in 2012 that grosses $400 million worldwide is likely to lose money. (Not so much in 2007.)”

    I assume your (somewhat correct) comment was factoring the rise of marketing costs and the depreciation of DVD sales.

    Now you’re attacking Claude for stating that SNOW WHITE needs to do half a billion to break even. Theres a reason were not seeing another TRON sequel anytime soon. When u invest around 300 million and bring back (on paper) not much more than 200 u loose 100 million before trying to recoup in a supressed ancillary market. It’s going to loose less than BATTLESHIP, but like that film it’s still going to loose money.

    Every film should stand on it’s own but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way for a studio chief. Coming off BATTLESHIP, you need an AVENGERS. Not a SNOW WHITE.

  17. David Poland says:

    I’m a little confused by your argument, Dan.

    I agree that Universal would be a lot better off with a hit of any size… could surely be a cheap movie that does really well against cost… than another overpriced movie that needs to get to a very big number to break even.

    But $500 million or bust – especially if Claude believes markrting will be under $100m worldwide (which I do not) – is just harsh and excessive.

    As I finished in the piece you quoted me from, “There are broad equations we can use to guess at profitability, though no journalist has all the details needed and sometimes we can get closer than other times floating on the details we do have available to us. But it’s all about context.”

    “Sometimes we get closer than other times” is not time to play the “Universal is fucked… who’s getting fired next Friday?” card before a movie even opens.

    Speaking of which, who knows what the real numbers on Tron Redux are? But yeah… borderline movies don’t get sequeled unless something thinks they can reboot at a significant price reduction or that they can do something to accelerate over a solid base audience. Almost never happens. GI:Joe 2 is an example of that effort. So is MiB3, really.

    The big problem I see for Team Universal is not Snow White sinking them, but the year they have to wait until Fast & Furious returns. Unless Ted turns into something huge and/or Bourne tops the previous films, they have a loooong wait for a big money movie. This is 40 may be great and maybe Les Mis is going to be more than Phantom… but neither is a game changer.

    That is a long time to hang in the wind, even if things go modestly well…

    Of course, what I think don’t mean shit. Its all about Comcast’s comfort zone and what the alternatives are.

    PS I should also add that I respond to tone. To me, the CB-A piece dripped with self-amusement. I may be a prick sometimes, but I am so not about sticking the knife in and twisting.

  18. cadavra says:

    All of which goes back to what I said on another thread: SPEND LESS.

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