Studio heads are part cheerleader, part politician. In public, you almost never hear them say a negative word about any creative person or any project, especially if it's something their studio is involved with. Even if a movie of theirs tanks, it's not because the movie was bad -- it's because they couldn't find the right audience. When a studio head speaks, it's usually unicorns and rainbows.
That's why it was so startling recently to hear Ron Meyer, president and CEO of Universal, say such candidly negative things about some of his studio's recent misfires. Others might find that honesty refreshing, and I have to admit I do, too. But I'm not sure if such honesty gets us any closer to seeing better studio movies.
Meyer was at the Savannah Film Festival yesterday to speak at the Savannah College of Art & Design. This sort of thing usually results in boring "inspirational" stories about the executive's unlikely rise up the corporate ladder, mixed in with some equally boring platitudes about the lasting artistry of filmmaking and its rosy commercial future. Apparently there wasn't much of that yesterday with Meyer. For instance, he admitted that Universal (which has put out the box office duds "The Dilemma," "Sanctum," "Paul," "Your Highness," "Larry Crowne" and "The Change-Up" this year) doesn't always make masterpieces:
"We make a lot of sh--ty movies," Meyer admitted. "Every one of them breaks my heart."
"We set out to make good ones. One of the worst movies we ever made was Wolfman ... Wolfman and Babe 2 are two of the sh--tiest movies we put out..."
He wasn't done there, though. When asked about the studio's recent summer tentpoles that went bust -- "Cowboys & Aliens" and "Land of the Lost" -- he had little nice to say:
"Cowboys & Aliens wasn't good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it, it wasn't good enough," Meyer said, without pause. "All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it."
"Land of the Lost was just crap," he continued. "I mean, there was no excuse for it. The best intentions all went wrong."
Later he declared that "Wolfman" star (and Oscar-winner) Benicio Del Toro "stunk" in the monster movie. While he acknowledged that the buck stops with him for the studio's commercial failures -- "I have to take first responsibility because I'm part of it, but we all did a mediocre job and we paid the price for it" -- the general impression is that he was more than willing to admit that his studio's failures were the product of plain ol' bad moviemaking.
That's pretty shocking to hear from a guy who's worked most of his life in Hollywood, first as an agent and then as the head of Universal. Those guys get rich putting a positive spin on everything, but Meyer didn't feel like doing that yesterday. There's something to be said for that kind of candor. For one thing, it suggests that the guy running Universal is still in touch with reality. Also, it probably earns him some cred points by calling out "Wolfman" or "Land of the Lost" as being poor films.
So why do I think it's the wrong move?
Partly because I think Meyer's acknowledgment of Universal's "bad" movies is based more on box office than anything else. He even said as much himself: "It's great to win awards and make films that you're proud of and make money, but your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do." That shouldn't be surprising since he's the boss of a studio that's meant to bring in money. But he seems to be singling out unsuccessful commercial films for their creative flaws. But let's take a Universal movie from this year that was critically panned but did really well: "Hop." Does he think "Hop" is crap? Artistically it is, but it made a lot of money. So does that make it OK? My worry is that Meyer's candidness only applies when his wannabe hits don't blow up. Really, he's not apologizing for the bad movies -- he's apologizing for the bad movies that don't take off.
And what about this that he said concerning the creative people working on these films:
"They're talented people. Certainly you couldn't have more talented people involved in Cowboys & Aliens, but it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie. It just happens."
It does -- and Meyer may have to work with these "talented people" again in the future. On one level, you tip your hat to the man for admitting that, hey, movies are such an incredible gamble with so many variables that you never know what you're going to get. Fair enough, so why denigrate the folks in the trenches making them? It may not seem like he is -- and, again, Meyer mostly wants to suggest that it's all one big crap-shoot -- but to call "Cowboys & Aliens" "a mediocre movie" is probably tough to take if you're, say, Jon Favreau, the film's director. Be as cynical as you want about studio movies just be made to bring in a buck, but the truth is a lot of creative people pour themselves into their making. Meyer's reputation and job are on the line when a Universal movie tanks, but, as he himself said, he has to think about money first. That's not necessarily the case for people who actually make the movie -- it's more personal and emotional for them.
And then there's his comment about "Babe 2": "Babe: Pig in the City." It was a financial disaster, but it's actually pretty beloved by critics. (Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both put it in their Top 10 of 1998, with Siskel picking it as the best film of that year.) Meyer earns cred points by defending "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and "United 93" during his Savannah lecture, but just because he's candid doesn't mean he's right about what movies are or aren't good. (For instance, you may be reading this and thinking, "Hey, I liked 'Wolfman.'" Well, sorry, Meyer hated it. Don't you feel dumb?)
As much as we all like to complain about the phoniness of people in power who are always blandly staying on message, there is a value in trumpeting the party line sometimes. Meyer was honest from his perspective, but the more he talked, the more I got the sense that what he thinks is a bad movie and what I think is a bad movie may not always be the same. And just because we agree about "The Wolfman" doesn't necessarily mean we see eye-to-eye on the reasons why.