Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: I’m trying to recall a time while I have covered Hollywood where anything caused the level of disruption we are witnessing in this COVID-19 pandemic. In my experience, the tragedy of 9/11 came closest, followed by the L.A. riots, the strike of 2007, the global economic collapse of 2008, and the Sony Hack. On all of those, you knew the business would mostly rebound, but the pandemic has shut every aspect of these industries. We don’t really know anything, in terms of when things might come back. And we can’t even say when will come that pivotal cultural moment we’ll point to years from now that let some of the air out of a taut balloon filled with anxiety, fear and sadness, and gave us a feeling we would be okay.
I recall how important it felt when New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, surrounded by the heroic First Responders fresh from World Trade Center recovery efforts, opened the first Saturday Night Live following the terror attacks, and told Lorne Michaels and us it was once again okay to laugh. Now, just recently on Weekend Update I heard Colin Jost crack that Giuliani went from the Mayor of 9/11 to the 9/11 of Mayors. No matter. That 2001 show opener was a zeitgeist moment I’ll never forget. I’m wondering where the new version of that will come from here. We just had a guest post from an MSNBC producer who urged that 30 Rock be shuttered for safety reasons in this pandemic, and yesterday I got more input from others who work there and are terrified. So maybe we can’t count on SNL leading people toward recovery; it is unclear when the show will return.
Even trying to turn the page is perilous. We just saw Gal Gadot – who seems like a perfectly nice person and whose Wonder Woman turn erased the stigma that a woman could not carry a superhero movie by herself, making possible Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Birds of Prey and everything to come — incite the white hot viral mob when she got her pals to warble John Lennon’s Imagine, the idea being that a hopeful song might make people feel better and not alone. Ok, it was gong-worthy but harmless, and the vicious outcry has put on edge many a celeb who might be tempted to provide the public some viral diversion. And then we’ve got President Trump announcing he’s giving this crisis just two weeks before everything restarts, even when the Surgeon General said this week would be bad and so far he has been right about a spike in cases and shortage of supplies and hospital beds in the U.S. I’ve been covering movies so long that often, things in life remind me of movie moments. Peter, does our President not sound a little like this guy?
In Hollywood, we’re seeing talent agencies and theater chains whose revenues screeched to a halt slash salaries and impose “temporary layoffs,” a phrase I haven’t heard since the theme song to the ’70s sitcom Good Times. Name agents at Paradigm who fell under that category are essentially stuck for 90 days before their contracts fall into breach and they can seek other jobs, even though they are not waiting to see if they get brought back and are already trying to catch on at other agencies which are themselves engaging in cutbacks. It’s a nightmare. Versions of this are happening all over town: boutique agencies and companies and PR companies are cutting in a struggle to survive, as there was no way to pre-plan for a virtual shut down of their revenue streams. Personal publicists are hoping to not be put on hiatus by celeb clients who pay the same $5,000 a month they did 30 years ago, but still eye that expense as the first one they cut.
We’re once again open for business on showbiz deal and casting stories, even just to help them and get back to some sense of normalcy. The WGA smartly pushed talks on a new deal, and I’m hearing their desire is to regroup in a year. There are serious issues for them and SAG-AFTRA to address with an influx of streaming that leaves no chance of backend upside. It’s all about leverage and there is none, for either side to threaten a strike or lockout as a raging global pandemic kills thousands each day. Cannes postponed with hopes to come back in late spring or early summer, but who wants to get on a plane and go to the Croisette? And I’ve heard industry people who are not tech-savvy rave about Zoom and High-Five, and how these teleconferencing tools probably will forever change script meetings and writer rooms and general Hollywood meetings, as isolation becomes a regular part of business life.
I’m bouncing around here, but Peter, you’ve been part of this business a lot longer than I have. What comes closest to the feeling of helplessness that this Coronavirus pandemic has wrought?
BART: Here was the abrupt message I received fifty years ago when I had just become a young executive at Paramount, busily filling the pipeline with new projects, per my assignment. But now that was suddenly over. “We’re shutting down. No deals, no green lights, no spending.” The voice was loud and clear on my speaker phone. It belonged to the chief of business affairs. “What are you telling me?” I replied, trying to sound steely calm. “In simple English, we have no money. Is that clear enough?” My studio had sputtered to a stop, and it wasn’t alone.
Those of us enduring the present moment of paralysis have been told that it’s never happened before. It has. It was bone-rattling that time, too. Hollywood’s 1969-‘70 recession was not accompanied by the sort of pandemic-fed economic freeze that’s now taking hold. Restaurants and bars remained open. So did theaters. Many studio employees lost their jobs but opportunities beckoned elsewhere. But there was another important distinction between the shutdown of fifty years ago and the present one: The previous glitch was largely self-inflicted. Hollywood was forced to pay the price for its own incompetence and thievery. At the time I joined Paramount, the studio was not only releasing terrible movies with bloated budgets –Paint Your Wagon, Darling Lilli, Waterloo — it and rival studios were matching the bad bets with displays of corporate arrogance. Paramount created a succession of illicit deals shifting ownership of films to phony corporate entities, wiping the losses off studio books. Hence an entity called Commonwealth United suddenly owned Darling Lili, the Julia Andrews turkey. Paramount’s defiance of SEC rules was matched by other Hollywood players. A succession of indictments were filed against executives of Warner Bros., then suddenly a subsidiary of Kinney National Service, a company that owned parking lots and funeral homes. Entities like Societe Generale Immobiliere, linked to mob money, became important Hollywood investors along with porn distributors like Bryanston (its investors had stakes in the mega hit Deep Throat).
FLEMING: This might be constructive for a house-bound Hollywood looking for light at the end of the tunnel. How did that crisis end, and how is it relevant to what were going through right this second?
BART: “Fear and anxiety can cause strong emotional problems,” the Centers for Disease Control advised us again this week. Hollywood’s ‘emotional problems’ during its trauma of 1969-70 stemmed from careers collapsing and lives being re-calibrated. Within a few months, however, I received a new directive. “We’re back in business,” I was now told. “We’ve got new funding.” There were new constraints and directives to accompany the funding. The rules had changed and lessons had been learned. The debt-laden companies for which we all worked were far more fragile than we had assumed. Further, Hollywood’s creative structure rested on a tacit interplay of trust and respect which was evanescent, not permanent. Those lessons still seem relevant today.
FLEMING: One of the big challenges for Deadline is trying to find ways to engage readers in this crisis moment and keep us in copy when there is little but misery to describe. It has been weird: we broke stories ranging from Tom Hanks testing positive, to Broadway going dark, to agencies making hard choices. Not exactly things you high-five about. While starting a column like Coronavirus and Jared Leto: Day 4 would be not sustainable, we are pleased by the reaction to Coping With COVID-19 Crisis, a collection of pieces from all areas of this business that feels useful and cathartic in personalizing struggles our readers are experiencing.
To that end, I would like to jump on the soapbox a moment on a business issue I think is hugely important and an opportunity that must be seize. I fear that the movie going experience is in in a perilous place, because of this global shutdown. And I’m not talking about the widespread (and brutal) layoffs at major chains that Deadline disclosed yesterday. Moviegoing is one of the great joys of my life. One of my earliest memories was seeing The Sound of Music when I was five; like many Long Island high schoolers, I was a clam digger in the Great South Bay, when Jaws came out in 1976. It was a hard job, scratching a 50-foot telescoping aluminum pole attached to a metal basket with teeth through the sand and mud. You could make $100 or more a day in cash and when you got too hot, you’d jump in the bay and cool off. Until Jaws, which made you paranoid to even stand alone in your small boat. I recall so many memorable films over my lifetime, where I saw them and who I was with. I’ve tried to pass that sensibility along to my children, but it is not the same. Their idea of a night out involves a brewery or restaurant, and movies are maybe their fifth or sixth option. Behind staying home and streaming something.
I think that the major exhibitors and the studios, and talent, should band together in this moment that so favors the streaming sites, and plan their moment when theaters reopen. Passively hoping that people will return is perilous. They need to be more proactive in rethinking this whole business, and they should lean in on reminding us how it feels to discover a great movie in a theater. Who better than the stars and directors behind those moments to help, who all have their own story and have created so many indelible memories? What are your most cherished movie memories, Peter?
BART: For me, the most memorable filmgoing experiences are etched in my mind because of the audience reactions as much as the films. Borat is unforgettable because an entire room full of people simultaneously convulsed. It was ear-popping as well as gratifying.
FLEMING: Sorry to slow your roll, but Borat is a special one of mine, too. I took my 13-year old son, and in that outrageous scene where Borat’s portly roommate appropriates the Baywatch book Borat treats like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they engage in a mostly nude fight and chase scene. Convulsed with laughter, I looked over at my son, sitting there uncomfortable and a bit wide eyed. He said, “Dad, I don’t think I’m going to be able to unsee that,” and only then did it occur to me that he was the smallest person in the theater and that I’d probably stamped my ticket as worst dad ever. So, go ahead…
BART: Also memorable was the stunned audience response to the first trade screening of Midnight Cowboy. Studio executives and filmmakers simply sat there, stunned. There was an unstated realization that the entire lexicon of filmmaking had changed. Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were not actors in a movie; they inhabited a new reality. And it was all X-Rated!
Movie-going must be communal. I watched The Hunt this week, at home. Candidly, I hated it. The comedy was over the top and so was the violence. But, again, candidly, I think my reaction might have been different in a crowded theater when my reactions would have been shaded by the audience response. Outrage, too, must be shared.
FLEMING: So here are some unsolicited suggestions that the moviegoing industry — I count exhibitors and studios in this and the stars we see on the bigscreen — ought to prioritize. They must play to their strength. How about both sides kick in for advertising that not only runs among the trailers, but on TV. Where guys like Scorsese, Coppola, Tarantino, Spielberg, Zemeckis, Lucas, Eastwood, Nolan, The Coens, Affleck, Mendes, and stars like Cruise, Hanks, Julia Roberts, Michael B, DiCaprio, Denzel, Theron, Streep, Damon, Brad Pitt, and others to do testimonials on the magic of the theatrical experience and why we must return to theaters and preserve it in our culture.
And while we’re at it, that theatrical experience might be a stone age obsession for you and me when compared to streaming, but exhibitors ought to lean into the proprietary technology streamers use, find out who their patrons are and what they’re watching. And be aggressive about reminding them what’s coming. I get almost daily emails from Netflix, telling me what else I might like based on what I just watched. To be honest, movies on streaming services so far seem a bit disposable to me, compared to films that had wanna-see momentum built through P&A campaigns and TV commercials. These movies have an identity and they are forever.
Finally, if Fathom can broadcast live events in movie theaters, why can’t the theatrical opening of a big movie be event-ized with a live post-screening event, for those who’ve turned out. Maybe after the next Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise holds court on how he survived some impossible thing he did after waving off his stuntman. It only has to be 10 minutes, live, and that can be shown at the end of subsequent shows. Marvel showed you can keep people sitting through the credits with just a slight tease of the next superhero film. Moviegoers might like this. And don’t put it on the internet. Force people to come out to see it.
Tapping into our own moviegoing experiences is the best sales tool, but there are too many leisure time alternatives, without even leaving home. Film studios, exhibitors and the stars need to do a better job working together to sell this. If the major chains haven’t laid off everyone, maybe they and the film studios can use this dark period to plan a full frontal assault devoted to bring people back to the theaters, whenever they reopen.