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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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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin