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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

The Film Industry Sky Continues Not To Fall

God bless the entertainment media. It loves living in the bubble where we believe the spin that each executive, agent, and publicizer tells us in their own interest.

I have nothing against these people personally, but it is the job of the media to look past its navel. When executives are in a job for 12 or 15 or 15-16 years or 18 years as Brad Grey, Jim Gianopulos, Amy Pascal and Ron Meyer have been in the major exit formation of the last two years, the idea that “these days, a studio chief is lucky to get to bat” is just a punch line for a joke about self-delusion.

(The pull quote is from Stephen Galloway’s often bizarre piece, “Galloway on Film: Brad Grey’s Paramount Exit and Studios in Turmoil.”)

Even the question about whether Kevin Tsujihara is long for his job is three years into the role with a lot of road already traveled and a studio that is expected to be sold to AT&T before his fifth anniversary in the job.

And before we get all “it’s not that way at Disney,” as things are all platinum over there, let us recall the years of turmoil under Iger before the current strategy of massive acquisitions and all-IP all-the-time finally took hold. 2005-2009 Dick Cook. 2006-2010. 2010 – 2012 Rich Ross. And don’t forget Peter Schneider and Oren Aviv in the production chief slot. Sean Bailey and Alan Horn have since become the stable base of the film division. But only after years of flailing about.

Galloway references the “good ol’ days” of the studio system when the heads of the studios were the owners of the studios… as if that circumstance has been remotely relevant since the old studio system died in the late 1960s, nearly 50 years ago.

The fact of the matter is that the tenures at the four studios in play right now were all remarkably long, not remarkably brief… or brief in any way.

And if the last time you felt this kind of intense movement going on in this town was when Frank Wells died in 1994 (which affected only one studio, really), you have been asleep.

How many times was Universal sold since 1994? (Rhetorical, but the answer is five… Six  since 1990.)

Remember MGM? When they were really in the movie business in the late 90s/early 2000s… gearing up for Kerkorian to sell the asset one last time?

And that time in 2000 when Bill Mechanic got fired just before X-Men opened, within three years of Titanic, There’s Something About Mary, Star Wars: Episode 1, Fight Club, and, yeah, Big Momma’s House?

In the last 50 years, the film industry has undergone massive upheavals. The end of the studio system as it was known, corporate ownership, distribution shifting to wider and wider releases, VHS rentals, cable television, DVD sell-thru, multi-plexing, mega-plexing, satellite, internet, DVD by mail, streaming, the internationalization of box office, and many more categories and sub-categories. The movie theaters almost all went bankrupt, many of the chains twice in this period.

1984 – Murdoch buys Fox. Eisner takes over at Disney.
1989 – Sony buys Columbia. Warner Bros and Time merge.
1990 – Universal/Matsushita. MGM/Parretti.
1994 – Redstone buys Paramount. DreamWorks SKG is born.
1996 – Kerkorian gets MGM back
1999 – Universal/Seagram
2000 – Universal/Vivendi
2004 – Universal/GE.
2005 – Iger takes over from Eisner at Disney. MGM sold by Kerkorian last time
2011 – Universal/Comcast

And let’s not forget Warner Independent, multiple realignments at Focus, Miramax under the Weinsteins at Disney, Miramax after the Weinsteins at Disney, Miramax sold by Disney, Summit pre-merger, Paramount Classics, Paramount Vantage, USA Films, Artisan, New Line, Fine Line, Newmarket, Rogue, ThinkFilm, Picturehouse, Overture, and soon to be on the remnant bin, Relativity… am I missing anyone?

Brad Grey was, for years, the guy who had a real effect on the upper echelons of other studios as he tried and failed to get a top-tier exec to run production at Paramount. Job titles, divisions built and folded, and massive raises were the order of the period at four other studios. Meanwhile, Gail Berman and John Lesher got the crap kicked out of them in public after failing in a job neither was either suited to or given a chance to succeed with.

Grey did NOT do “well to last as long as he did.” He has never been anything less than a disaster for Paramount. Not everything he did or touched was a disaster. But you can’t point to a single year since he took over that was building to anything… at least not anything that was really a part of the studio, so the DreamWorks successes count only as very expensive, temporary illusions. Paramount has never recovered from when Geffen pulled the wool over Grey’s eyes and made the DreamWorks deal with the studio.

Don’t get me wrong. Philippe Dauman was an even bigger drag on that studio since he came on board, pretty much guaranteeing future failure by aggressively seeking to maintain status quo rather than building, the same pattern as Grey but with very different motivations.

But don’t tell me (or anyone else) that these guys were victims of the circumstances of the industry. That is some epic lame excuse-making.

Turmoil is not new. It is not shocking. And it is not something to which studios do not adjust a lot quicker than those of us who cover them. How many years has it been, already, since all the majors adjusted down the price tag on comedies and drama to reflect the revenues that stopped coming from DVDs? As it was happening, journalists reported that the sky was falling because the agents who were suddenly unable to get the insane numbers out of the studios that they had been getting were squealing like stuck pigs. But things changed and the media still hasn’t quite caught up. They got distracted by Netflix instead.

“For now, it’s all murky. The future is hidden, the present hard to understand.” Galloway writes. If he believes that, it is a good thing he is not a top executive, because it would get him fired for cause.

Running a studio is a series of choices based on circumstances. The results are a combination of good choices, bad choices and fate… a lot of fate.

But a proper owner of a studio shouldn’t be basing the measure of a studio head on any one choice… or any single year, for that matter. There are chiefs whose studios have great years and should be fired and chiefs who lose a fortune on a movie or two and are absolutely the best thing for the future of the studio. There is no formula that can be qualified by a calculator (unless pockets are shallow enough that a year of failure is the end of the journey for the studio).

It’s not all murky. You are doing the job. Universal had its most profitable year as a studio in 2014 with no tentpole movies. Then it broke that record a year later with a group of tentpoles. There are different ways of doing things, different strategies, and different results at the bottom line than in the open view of the public (and media).

The financial disaster of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is undeniable. But Tom Rothman was not running Sony Pictures at the time it was made. He was running a division with a different mandate. Look at the line-up of films this year. Aside from Spider-Man Homecoming, there is not one $100 million production on the slate, except perhaps Jumanji. There are only a few over $50 million. That is, generally, what a Tom Rothman studio looks like, love him or hate him. That is why he got hired. He may get lucky, hit a mine, and make a fortune. But he is not going to bury your studio in big losses regardless. He’s not in the game Disney is in and he will not go that way. Nothing murky about it.

Fox under Stacey Snider? Perhaps riskier than Rothman. She will be better liked. We’re a year away from knowing what her studio will really look like and how much it will look like her run at Universal or if there are other plans. There are seven untitled Fox films slotted into 2018, three of them Marvel. What she makes of the new X-Men may well define her tenure at Fox. But I would bet on a lot of interesting stuff coming by then that isn’t so expensive. But murky? Nah. You don’t get that job by being murky.

Warner Bros is a bit murky because the films have been kinda murky over the last 18 months. Has nothing to do with questions about how the industry will move forward.

Universal is stable enough to bounce a quarter off of. With as much turmoil as the studio has had in ownership, it is now the second most stable in the top production job. Two franchise movies this year (F&F #8 and Despicable 3) and a wannabe reboot with The Mummy. Lots of mid-range offerings, including Pitch Perfect 3. Nothing murky there. 2018 looks a bit like a rewrite of 2015… as planned.

Disney is, obviously, riding high… doing as it pleases… no murk in sight.

And Paramount is the mess that Brad Grey made. Not enough movies. Not enough exec muscle. Not the proper backing from Dauman. Studio in massive transition.

So… Paramount and to a lesser degree, WB are “murky.” Sony and Fox are in planned transitions. And Universal and Disney are full steam ahead.

Yeah… the post-theatrical revenue stream is unclear at the moment. Too many ideas and not enough will to make real change in a hurry.

Yeah… everybody wants the seemingly guaranteed IP of Disney… but only Disney can have it… so not a realistic question.

Yeah… we don’t see the next generation of leadership chomping at the bit from here on the outside. Studios keep recycling the same old talent, all of whom come with baggage or they would still have their old jobs. But that is a very specific, unmurky problem. A lot of people who would be top execs have decided there is more money and freedom in producing. Being in charge of a studio owned by a corporation isn’t as much fun as reporting to a guy with a big cigar.

Still, all over this town, people are doing their jobs. They are working years ahead of what we will see in the theaters. Second guessing remains a deadly preoccupation.

Winners win, to every field. What happens with post-theatrical revenue or new formats, etc… not really the difference between winning and losing.

It’s the movies, stupid.

2 Responses to “The Film Industry Sky Continues Not To Fall”

  1. Hcat says:

    In Gray’s defense Paramount lost its luster as soon as it was bought by Viacom. They lucked out in the first decade by falling backwards into Titanic after Uni let it slip through their fingers, and they benefited from talent wanting to remake their catalog allowing them distribution rights (You cant make Longest Yard or War of the Worlds without Paramount). They thought they could continue to work the remake train with middling results, win for Italian Job, lose for Stepford, draw for Four Brothers. But they are still stuck in the business model from last century where you just stick Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise in a star vehicle and count the cash.

    Now the flip side to that is I love the old model and hate to see it go. If they were conforming to the times there would not have been True Grit, Up in the Air, Young Adult, Big Short, Flight etc etc

    So I cant imagine it turns around in these owners hands, the people who have been going to the NCIS, Spongebob, South Park well for this long aren’t really keen on innovation. So maybe Lionsgate makes a buy and finally moves into the big leagues? Each time they buy something they sort of morph into what it was as opposed to recreating it in their image, if there is nothing else for sale but a movie studio I don’t see too many other buyers out there.

  2. EtGuild2 says:

    Even if I don’t get all the inside baseball, it’s nice that you’re getting ahead of the curve. We’re going to run into a ton of these stories soon because March could very well get killed YOY with Disney on 3-month hiatus (BOTB can’t make up for both TJB and ZOOTOPIA). I suspect LOGAN has a hard ceiling, so we’re one underperformer (KONG) away from “the sky is falling.” I hope KONG or POWER RANGERS breaks out just to avoid it.

    That being said, there’s been a higher pile of garbage than usual to start the year. That and the weird studio scheduling (Fox has basically sat out to) has us heading into into March with Lionsgate the likely #2 studio grosser.

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