Lost in Translation

Does Howard Stringer really want his job?

Howard Stringer. Click image to expand.
Howard Stringer 

TGIF: It’s Friday and that’s a blessing for most everyone, except those executives who will watch their movies get flattened by 300 over the weekend.

Last weekend, however, was huge in terms of media-business journalism—almost like a graduate seminar on some of the biggest players in today’s Hollywood. There was a long piece about John Lasseter and Disney in the New York Times, as well as one about Tom Cruise and his United Artists deal. There was a story about MGM in the Los Angeles Times. And there was the mother of them all in the Wall Street Journal—a remarkable interview with Sony Chairman Sir Howard Stringer.

It took us a while to digest this feast. And since you presumably don’t get paid to read these fine articles, maybe you didn’t get around to them at all. So, here is what you need to know:

The John Lasseter piece
purports to address whether Lasseter can remake the drifting Disney animation operation even while guiding Pixar. Here’s what he’s really saying: Meet the Robinsons is not the first Disney film under his leadership. Don’t blame him for this one. After watching a screening of the film last March, Lasseter beat up on director Stephen Anderson for six straight hours. Nearly 60 percent of the film was dumped. Still, to reiterate, don’t blame Lasseter if it doesn’t work.

The Tom Cruise piece
makes one essential point: Tom Cruise’s production company at Paramount did very, very well with Tom Cruise movies but “those that did not feature the actor—pictures like The Others, Elizabethtown, Shattered Glass and Narc—had ‘mixed’ commercial success.” In this sentence, “mixed” is a euphemism. Cruise is not obligated to appear in any United Artists film. And, at Paramount, Cruise and his partner, Paula Wagner, did not quite average a movie a year—at UA, they expect to make several a year.

The Los Angeles Times article about MGM chief Harry Sloan, the guy who made the Cruise deal,
reveals that he has a lot of crystals in his office and talks about feng shui. If you’re an investor, that might worry you.

The most stunning piece of them all is one that many people somehow overlooked. In his interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sir Howard says his achievements have been masked in part by such problems as Sony’s battery recall which, he says, “took too long for bizarre Japanese reasons that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life discussing.” None of the executives alerted him to various problems, and they’re also bitching because he doesn’t have a place to live in Tokyo, preferring to stay in a hotel when he’s there. Stringer says he won’t get some lonely apartment in Tokyo but concedes he should have “faked it better,” adding, “I mean that seriously.”

We don’t speak Japanese but when you translate those remarks, we think it comes out like this:

“I hate this job! Fire me!” (link)
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Shia LaBeouf. Click image to expand.
Shia LaBeouf

Project Greenlight: It’s been rumored around a bit on the Web, and now an excellent source says you can count on it: Shia LaBeouf will play the son of Indiana Jones in the upcoming fourth installment in the series, set for release in 2008.

Apparently, the young actor is impressive enough in the upcoming Steven Spielberg-produced Disturbia and Transformers that he won the role.

We liked LaBeouf in Holes and felt inexpressible pity for him in Project Greenlight, when he was suffering through the making of The Battle of Shaker Heights. We missed him in some of the other stuff. So, America, what do you think? He’s got the chops as an actor, but does he have enough leading-man appeal to be the son of Indy? Even some of those close to the project aren’t sure.

But if Spielberg and Lucas are, that’s the end of the conversation. Those two have been kicking around the idea of another Indiana Jones adventure since they all went to an American Film Institute dinner honoring Harrison Ford in February 2000 and watched that boulder roll on the screen. There have been a number of false starts, and by now it’s clear that Ford, who turns 65 this year, needs a kid in the movie.

After all, Indiana Jones is completely foreign to the young audience today, and some in the industry have wondered whether the idea will have broad appeal at this point. It’s also painful to imagine the kind of deal that Paramount will have to give to this collection of talent, though Spielberg is a comparatively thrifty director. Given this combination of players, most studios would say yes and take their chances. (link)

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Oscars are over, but the gossip isn’t quite all gone.

—Who almost got the prestigious Thalberg Award  for lifetime achievement? Come on, guess. You’re right if you said schlockmeister  Roger Corman, producer of such classics as The Wasp Woman and A Bucket of Blood, as well as the original Little Shop of Horrors, Piranha, and other classics. He may seem an unlikely choice for a prestige award that previously has gone to Darryl Zanuck and Samuel Goldwyn, but Corman started so many big careers in the business—Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, and Jack Nicholson, among others—that he had lots of support from protégés who signed letters on his behalf.

There’s always next year. (No one has taken home the Thalberg Award, which is handed out irregularly, since Dino De Laurentiis received it in 2000.)

—As we’ve mentioned before, many in the industry were stunned—and some thrilled—when The Departed producer Graham King failed to mention Paramount chief Brad Grey’s name when he accepted for best picture.

Recall that Grey had unsuccessfully lobbied the Producers Guild for recognition as a producer on the film (for work he had done before taking the top job at Paramount). When he didn’t get it, he asked the academy—which generally follows the guild’s lead in these matters—to render him eligible to pick up the Oscar if The Departed were to win. Many thought Grey’s campaign for recognition was a bad idea considering that his studio had Babel in contention and The Departed was a Warner movie. But that didn’t stop him.

In fact, even after the academy made its decision, we’re told King confided to friends that he’d been pressured to withdraw his own name in protest. This strategy worked some years ago when the Producers Guild wouldn’t recognize Grey for his work on The Sopranos. The show’s creator, David Chase, threatened to withdraw his own name and the guild caved. King fretted over what to do but decided to take that possibly once-in-a-lifetime walk on-stage to get the golden statuette—and compensate by thanking Grey in front of the world. Our source assures us that when the big moment arrived, King simply forgot to say thank you. And we absolutely believe that. (Dr. Freud, call your office.)

It’s probably just as well for Grey that the academy didn’t give in. On Oscar night, he was seated in a row with his boss, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone. Had he attempted to rise from his chair, there’s no doubt that a gnarled claw would have shoved him back down so fast that Grey’s vertebrae would have cracked.

—It occurred to us that when Jack Nicholson opened the envelope for best picture, he might have said The Departed when the card actually read Little Miss Sunshine. After all, we know which one he preferred. When we mentioned this—jokingly—to an executive associated with one of the losing films, we were surprised to discover that he had the same thought—and he wasn’t joking. Did Jack read the right name? Only Diane Keaton and Price Waterhouse know for sure.

Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007

Alejandro González Iñárritu. Click image to expand.
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Hear this: It seems that director Alejandro González Iñárritu has teamed up with his Babel collaborators, including actors Gael García Bernal and Adriana Barraza and composer Gustavo Santaolalla, to denounce screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga as a credit hog. Arriaga and González Iñárritu have collaborated for some years—their films include 21 Grams and Amores Perros—but the issue of who deserves credit for Babel blew them apart. When the media reported on this in October, the producers of the film confirmed that the story was true but denounced it as “salacious gossip.” Babel, indeed.

Apparently, the Babel team felt compelled to gossip some more in the pages of Mexico’s Chilanga magazine. They wrote a letter addressing Arriaga: “It’s a shame that in your unjustified obsession to claim sole responsibility for the film, you seem not to recognize that movies are an art of deep collaboration.” Among all these stories about how Mexican filmmakers can’t make their movies in Mexico, we find that they can conduct their feuds there.

We were a little confused about the meaning of Babel. In a recent interview with Variety, Arriaga explained that it was all about miscommunication, sort of. Because it’s also about the last day of something in a person’s life—a day that is a turning point.

For the story of the Moroccan boys who shoot at a bus, he said: “That … was the last day of innocence.” (And for one of them, just about the last day of being alive. But let’s move on.)
For the Mexican nanny who gets deported: “I can call it the last day of substitution. She substituted her family with this other family. Now she realizes that’s not her country, that’s not her family, that’s not her identity.” For the Japanese girl played by Rinko Kikuchi, it’s “the last day of a sense of loss.” And for the couple played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, it’s “the last day of resentment between them.”

Each story line, Arriaga explained, ends with the characters finding refuge in family, because only family provides relief from a world full of miscommunication.

That’s not exactly our experience, but good for Arriaga if it’s his. Because he seems to be in a world full of miscommunication right now.

On a more practical note, how strange that this fight continues just after Babel almost whiffed at the Oscar ceremony. (González Iñárritu lost; Barraza lost; Arriaga lost; if it weren’t for Santaolalla, it would have been a total wipeout.) The film has gotten quite a lot of critical acclaim, but it’s grossed less than $35 million. So, here’s an idea: Maybe this should be the last day of bitching about the movie. (link)