I went to see Peter Bart last night at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Bart is the editor of Variety, author of "Boffo: How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb,"
and co-host, with Peter Guber, of `Sunday Morning Shootout' on AMC. (There's also a documentary
based on his book "Boffo" that's in heavy rotation on HBO.)
A few of my (disjointed) notes from the talk:
- Bart talked about expensive movies intended to be studio "tentpoles," like Warner Bros. "Posideon." (That picture, Bart said, sank "like a North Korean missile.") He contrasted that with "The Devil Wears Prada," a much less expensive movie targeted to adults, which has become a sleeper hit this summer. "Counter-programming works," Bart said. "Prada" was geared to "adults who want to see something that's not a sequel or based on a comic strip."
- The problem with studios relying more on these franchise, mega-brand, tentpole movies, Bart said, means that they can't focus on quality movies that target a niche, and are made on a small budget. "Movies like `Pirates,' `Spider-Man 3,' `Superman' suck the energy out of the studio," he said. "It takes every bit of energy away from all the other films in the pipeline."
- Bart mentioned that he'd been involved in producing the original "Fun with Dick and Jane," with Jane Fonda and George Segal . "It was an OK picture, and it cost about $3.5 million." The remake, with Tea Leoni and Jim Carrey, cost $126 million. "It wasn't any better, and they still couldn't think of a third act."
- Bart was asked about a New York Times op-ed piece he wrote last week, in which he quoted an anonymous studio chief as saying, "What would happen if I made a movie I actually looked forward to seeing?" Could that possibly be true?
Bart said the studio chiefs of old, like Harry Cohn and Jack Warner, tended to be uneducated and insecure about their social status. To show how classy they (and their studios) were, they made movies based on the great books...like Dickens and Tolstoy. "Today, heads of studios are well-educated and well-traveled, and they make movies they don't want to see," Bart said. "True."
- Someone from the audience asked a question about which stars are the most bankable today. Bart replied, "The business of stardom is becoming a little shaky." He mentioned that Tom Cruise is in the midst of renegotiating his deal with Paramount, the studio for which he recently made `Mission: Impossible 3.' When Cruises' salary and his share of box office revenues (first-dollar gross) are combined, Bart said that Cruise might take home $70 or $80 million for that kind of picture. "It's a wonderful business for Tom Cruise, and a marginal business for the companies financing his movies." Studios are increasingly hesitant about doing deals that guarantee major paydays for actors, and saddle them with all the financial risks.
- In response to a question from the audience about a resurgence of documentaries, Bart said, "Michael Moore is a brand," But Al Gore's documentary is also doing well, he continued, as are docs that are political, provocative, and linked to the green movement. "Documentaries are becoming a viable theatrical business," he said. "18 to 24 percent of Landmark's revenue comes from showing documentaries." (That's a figure I hadn't heard before, since Landmark is a privately-held company.)
- Studios are sticking, perhaps stupidly, to a strategy of picking recognizable properties or brands like "Superman" or "Pirates of the Caribbean," and trying to dictate public tastes, foisting them onto the public. "They inject it into every artery of the pop culture," Bart said.
That will likely change, as the movies continue to pull in more revenue overseas than they do in the U.S. "Dictating tastes is not going to work worldwide."
(As an aside, he also noted that some of these properties and brands can be dusty and irrelevant to today's young people. "The whole idea of Superman is intrinsically dopey today," Bart said.)
- Bart predicted that the Internet could lead to a filmmaking renaissance that he likened to the 1960s and 1970s. "The chokehold of a few companies...is beginning to diminish. You can get your own videos [out], your own ideas, and people will see them. Perhaps out of this will emerge a whole new period of creative achievement like we saw in the 60s and 70s."
- He called the `Lord of the Rings' trilogy "the biggest gamble in the history of the entertainment industry," making three films simultaneously with a relatively unknown director and cast. But it worked, in part because "those [Tolkein] books touched such a note in all of us, just like Harry Potter did."
"To return to books as the basis for films, rather than comic books or video games, [can be a] good artistic decision, as well as a good business decision," he concluded.
- Studio chiefs, Bart believes, realize that "there is nothing about the entertainment environment today that will be the same five or ten years from now." We're witnessing, he said, the "reinvention of the mass media."