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: We have some more news to reveal on Voyeur’s Motel, the Gay Talese book that sold movie rights to DreamWorks — with Sam Mendes directing and Steven Spielberg producing — only to be killed last Wednesday because of a parallel feature documentary Talese took part in, with Mendes only recently finding out about it. This tawdry tale took some unexpected turns for us this morning, so why don’t we report it as it happened? It started with me suggesting to you that the Movie Gods Giveth, and they Taketh: Back when UA was trying to look like a player, it paid a record $2.5 million for screen rights to Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, which never got made. Now, he just lost $1 million for a movie Mendes did plan to make.
BART: I worked with Talese at The New York Times, and you asked me to reach out to him after Mendes dropped that bombshell on you. Well, he wrote me a note this morning that takes this in a different direction. Here are his words:
I very much appreciate that you’re trying to get to the bottom of the nixed DreamWorks deal, but I keep thinking that the lead being placed on that story is misplaced.
l- I do NOT quarrel with DreamWorks (Sam Mendes, et al) having killed the million-dollar movie. It would be a weak excuse on my part to object. What business is it of mine to quarrel with Mendes/Spielberg? Its their decision, and they made it—end of story.
2- The real issue, and the INTERESTING angle, is Jason Blum.
a) He comes to me a year ago saying he wants to revive the old “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” movie, asking if I had any updated stuff on the subject of sex.
b) Encouraged that he was trying to revive the UA “Wife” deal, I show him my early draft of “The Voyeur’s Motel,” which I was then preparing to send to The New Yorker. Blum loved the story, offered 25 grand to Lynn Nesbit, but she turned it down (thinking she’d get a better offer after my story was published).
c) Meanwhile, Jason Blum also learned that a documentary film about me– (ABOUT MY JOURNALISTIC APPROACH TO STORY-TELLING) — was being put together by a friend of mine, an ex-New Yorker Magazine video man, Myles Kane; but the latter was running short of documentary money.
d) Blum contacts Kane, arranges for an infusion of money that allows Kane & crew to finish the documentary—a documentary that, unbeknownst to me, was NOT about me as a researching journalist but about ME AND MY RELATIONSHIP WITH THE VOYEUR HIMSELF…
e) Also unknown to me was the fact that the “Me” and the “Voyeur” was also what Spielberg/Mendes planned to focus upon in their movie (although nobody consulted me, nor was I a consultant on the film.) In retrospect, I thought it odd that the screenwriter, Kristy Wilson-Cairns, hadn’t telephoned me, perhaps asking me some questions about how I work, and how I met the voyeur, etc. etc.
f) She never called me, and so I had no idea what kind of film she was doing.
g) But so what? She was not under any obligations to call me—it was just odd to me.
Final result: 1- Blum kills the million-dollar DreamWorks deal, without spending a dollar of his own.
2- Blum becomes one of the producers of this documentary (begun at The New Yorker Magazine, as a story about my reporting techniques) and he essentially, at bargain basement rates, latches on to what might be a big time documentary.
3- Blum never got back to me about “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” and his plans (plans?) to revive it as a film. I doubt he has given a thought to it since.
End of story. But, again, it is misleading to keep me in the headlines as regretting (or disagreeing) with DreamWorks decision. That is a weak argument, and I’m not making that argument. The only question I’m raising is about Jason Blum’s tricky maneuver here: i.e., luring me into showing him my voyeur story on the assumption he was reviving the “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” film deal gone dead decades ago.
Bart here, again. You can see that Talese is bitter and what writer wouldn’t be, after losing a million dollars? He told me that he did not receive a dime for this documentary, and did not expect it to be more than an exploration of his work and life and writing process.
FLEMING: Jason Blum is the new player in this mess. He was brought aboard as exec producer by one of the docu’s backers, Impact Partners’ Dan Cogan. Blumhouse is a top genre film generator, and Blum has been expanding into other areas including docus. So I just took Talese’s version of events to him, and Blum felt it so skewered his honorable intentions that the producer just told me he will completely pull out of the documentary rather than seem to be benefiting from the feature’s implosion. Here is his statement:
“Gay Talese is a legend and one of our greatest living journalists. Being married to a former journalist, I appreciate what an important role the press plays in shaping our culture,” Blum said. “It was for that very reason that, when I was shown the nearly-complete documentary, I thought it was important for it to find a big audience and I wanted to help. I’d rather not upset one of my literary heroes further by getting into a point-by-point he-said-she-said, so I will now step away from both of these Gay Talese projects. The documentary remains in the very capable hands of its original producers, Trish Koury, Jeremy Yaches and Dan Cogan, who I know will find it the audience it deserves. I remain in awe of Gay’s remarkable body of work and if he ever asks for our help in the future, I would welcome him with open arms.”
BART: To me, the entire Voyeur episode serves as a reminder of a lesson I learned early on in Hollywood: Every show goes through a zig zag. In this case, the docu seemed to start out as a piece about a writer – Talese – and his process. Then came an infusion of new money and it became more about the voyeur himself. A similar phenomenon has occurred on several films I oversaw. I liked the zig but was appalled by the zag. You have to stay on top of things – distractions cost you. They cost Gay Talese, who is an old friend. I hated to see it happen.
FLEMING: Peter, I see it more like Mendes did. Documentarians are journalists, too, and we all follow threads that lead you to unexpected places, and you always go for the better story. Here, I had begun fearing that with this column we were becoming those two cranky codgers sitting in the theater balcony on The Muppets, and then this story unfolded unexpectedly, almost in real time. Next topic: Oscar-cast producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd have both made ticking clock thriller films. Now they are living one. December is hours away, and the Academy is still just narrowing its list for an Oscar host. Everything seems to be happening late in the run up to the February 26 awards show: the producers signed on just a couple weeks ago. A host could be named any moment, but it didn’t sound like they were that close when I checked in last night. Word is an informal approach to Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t embraced, and an overture to Tina Fey hadn’t been spurned, but seems a long shot. She did the Golden Globes because it was an irreverent party atmosphere and doesn’t bring nearly the level of criticism you get during the Oscars. So while Fey and Amy Poehler could get a laugh with this line: “Like a supermodel’s vagina, let’s give a warm welcome to Leonardo DiCaprio,” every edgy Chris Rock’s joke was dissected by the PC police in last year’s broadcast.
The trouble with chasing Oscar hosts is this: eight out of ten choices won’t do it under any circumstance; at best it’s thankless, at worst it’s James Franco-Anne Hathaway. Perpetual first choices like Tom Hanks and Jerry Seinfeld haven’t signed on yet for a reason. Names like Amy Schumer or even Julia Louis Dreyfus or Steve Carell are being tossed around, but top talent is usually booked nine months to a year in advance, and it’s a lot of work for a show just 12 weeks away. Hugh Jackman might have been an intriguing choice to reprise, because his final Wolverine movie, Logan, comes out March 3 and would get a global promotional boost. But he’s throwing everything into playing PT Barnum in the Michael Gracie-directed musical film The Greatest Showman. That film’s produced by Laurence Mark, who produced with Bill Condon produced the Oscar-cast that Jackman hosted. That trio will be a viable option to reunite at the next Oscar-cast, but that doesn’t help here. I continue to hear that Kevin Hart is intrigued, and he is an intriguing choice because his movies play well to mass audiences in the U.S., and because he was very funny in a small dose, on last year’s show.
BART: A key question here is: Why do millions of viewers tune into the Oscar show – albeit not as many millions as a generation ago? Network research indicated that one key reason was to see the host, a world-wide celebrity like Bob Hope. Audiences loved his Oscar jokes. Like when he’d say to Bing Crosby, “You go on first. Right behind me.” A second was to bet on the winners, pop favorites like Titanic or Gone With The Wind. Does the public world wide much care whether Moonlight beats Manchester by the Sea? Don’t think so. They’re both fine movies, but they have no worldwide buzz, nor do their casts. Here’s the irony: In former years a romantic period piece like Allied would have been a perfect betting favorite. And there could have been an abundance of snarky jokes about Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. I liked Allied a lot, but it won’t ignite an Oscar glow – too slow, too period.
FLEMING: ABC continues to favor its late night host Jimmy Kimmel, who proved himself in a strong stint as Emmys host. But his candidacy might be marginalized because he just hosted that other show and because he’s a TV guy. He does have a whole writing staff that generates laughs and viral bits on a nightly basis, which means they could get up and running quickly. Before he signed on for Golden Globes hosting duties, Jimmy Fallon might have been an intriguing alternative – his musical chops would allow for staged pieces — but why would ABC want to promote rival NBC’s late night guy over its own?
This Oscar poses other challenges. Some producers in recent years had four to six months to assemble writing staffs, build sets, choreograph and rehearse production numbers. The Academy is bumping up against the year-end holidays, when Hollywood goes dark for weeks. De Luca and Todd capably produced the PGA Awards, but did not have to build elaborate sets or prepare the kind of big staged pieces that are Oscar signatures. They are top tier film producers accustomed to stress, but it feels like the Academy didn’t do them any favors by naming them so late in the game. For their sake, I hope the pieces fall into place within the next few days. Then again, they are movie lovers, and what if they did a stripped down version that spends more time celebrating film than some recent Oscar-casts, when it seemed more about designer dresses and production numbers than the movies? That could be a niche, right there. Peter, any inspirations on who might be a bright host for this fast-approaching Oscar-cast?
BART: I’m a traditionalist on the subject of hosts. The perfect Oscar host would be Tom Hanks. He symbolizes Hollywood tradition. He also has a great sense of humor. The Oscar doesn’t need Jimmy Kimmel.
FLEMING: Hanks’ recent Saturday Night Live hosting stint was superb, where he introduced the now-fabled David S. Pumpkins character.
BART: Next topic. To view an indie movie these days, one has to wade through a parade of production company logos, some more inventive than the movies themselves. They also underscore the reality that every film today is a symbol of globalization: The coming together of an often unlikely range of entities, U.S. and foreign, to create a small sliver of intellectual product — create it and sometimes compromise it.
FLEMING: After a strong start, are you turning into Andy Rooney, right before my eyes?
BART: If I may continue. I was especially conscious of the succession of logos this week as I ran through the screeners dispatched to Academy and Guild voters (I am both) for awards consideration. The number of logos of co-financiers has steadily increased and provide a cheery alternative to the ever present ferocious warnings from the FBI and Homeland Security admonishing viewers that screeners must be destroyed by the end of February and shared with no one. At the front of Neon Demon, the logo parade includes Amazon’s elaborate city scape (a little too busy), followed by flying red fragments representing Gaumont (“born with cinema)”, then relatively austere emblems from Wild Bunch and Bold Film and, lastly, from Space Rocket, a logo that seems more appropriate for sci-fi.
FLEMING: Is Nic Refn’s Neon Demon in the hunt for Oscar? I would have given Drive a better chance. Do I need to see it?
BART: On the other hand, fronting Jackie is the deliciously old fashioned Fox Searchlight logo with its 40’s symphonic background music, oddly followed by emblems from LD Entertainment (galloping red horses), a blur of a logo from Protozoa and others from Fabula, Why Not Productions, Bliss Media and Endemol Shine. We get the point: Producers really had to pass the hat to raise money for that one. With several new films, the procession of logos closes with a vaguely ominous cluster of Chinese investors, listed in Chinese characters. The take-away from all this is that film making is a very international business and that Hollywood itself is unwilling to pay full freight. The implied questions, however, are these: To what extent are the voices of filmmakers being compromised by these complex partnerships? The studio chiefs of old were a difficult bunch, but at least there was a unity of decision making. Do all these logos today suggest opportunity or compromise?
FLEMING: I see these moving image logos as exercises in ego. I only think about them when I attend premieres and festivals and hear a few people clap for one logo, and then others feel obliged to do the same for others. It’s a half-hearted effort, maybe because they understand the absurdity of applauding a logo. But as long as we are going rogue here with random observations, I felt my mortality this week with the death of Florence Henderson, symbol of the perfect mom on The Brady Bunch. I was nine when that show came on and I actually quit the Boy Scouts because pack meetings clashed with the ABC Friday night power block of that show and The Patridge Family. I can’t tie a knot worth shit, but I have no regrets. She continued to carry the torch for my Brady Bunch generation, even when it fueled her Dancing With the Stars demise when she and her partner danced a tango to the Brady Bunch theme. She probably will be ignored in the Oscar-cast because she was TV but I’ll remember.