Let the Games Begin

In a crowded summer blockbuster season, someone’s going to get hurt. Will it be Spider-Man?

Spider-Man takes on Venom

Their spider sense is tingling: Sony Pictures is going to open Spider-Man 3 just after the stroke of midnight on Thursday with the obvious and highly achievable goal of smashing past a $100 million opening weekend.

Sony needs to prime the cash pump because Spider-Man 3 gets the audience to itself for only a couple of weeks before the other giant sequels start to roll out: Shrek the Third, rapidly followed by Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and then Evan Almighty with Steve Carrell—all that before Transformers blasts its way into theaters on July 4 weekend. The rest of the summer brings you a Harry Potter and Ocean’s Thirteen and The Simpsons Movie and another Fantastic Four, not to mention the by-all-accounts-hilarious Judd Apatow sleeper comedy Knocked Up. Whew.

For you in the seats, the spectacle should be both deafening and blinding. And if you’re happy, the studios may also be very happy: The number crunchers expect record box-office returns this summer. But anxiety has to be running even higher than usual because of the intensity of the competition. The question is whether all these movies can survive this roller derby, and if not, which gets hurt? Let’s just consider the early contenders for now because, frankly, we’re overwhelmed by so much “product.”

The movie that needs to make the most money is also the first out of the box, Spider-Man 3. Sony Pictures has expressed extreme displeasure that we’ve reported that the movie is likely the most expensive ever made, having crossed the $350 million mark. The studio says the film cost a mere $270 million, which keeps it under the inflation-adjusted cost of the longtime “most-expensive-ever” title holder, Cleopatra ($290 million in today’s dollars). Still, as far as we can tell, Spider-Man 3 is the most expensive picture ever admitted to. (When it comes to setting records, however, stand by for James Cameron’s Avatar.)

DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg has said that “everyone” will see Spider-Man, Shrek, and Pirates, but the key will be which one gets the most multiple viewings. His argument, not surprisingly, is that Shrek will prevail because it’s only 81 minutes long. The math, at least, is on his side: Pirates is a butt-numbing 170 minutes, Spider-Man is 140 minutes.

A distribution executive at a studio that has nothing to do with any of the films just mentioned predicts that Spider-Man will open huge, at about $120 million. The film is an event with a following, and there is nothing in theaters right now that anyone wants to see, according to this executive. But the question is the strength of the movie’s eight legs. “Shrek and Pirates have broad, broad appeal,” this executive says. “With Spider-Man, the word is out that it’s dark.” Taking into account the movie’s cost, our veteran believes that could mean trouble.

Other arguments may support that view: The second Shrek did massively better than the first ($920 million worldwide versus $484 million). The second Pirates also outdid the original, taking in more than $1 billion versus $654 million. But Spider-Man 2 grossed about $40 million less than the first installment, pulling in $783 million.

Sony believes it left money on the table with Spider-Man 2 because the film didn’t open until July. But that dubious logic created its own bind: The rush to meet the earlier date for Spider-Man 3 was a contributor to the film’s staggering expense. And a former insider at the studio says the first Spider-Man got a big boost when it opened in May 2002 because Star Wars: Episode 2, which opened a couple of weeks later, was a bit weaker than anticipated. That left Peter Parker with an open field for longer than expected. This time, though, the executive expects Shrek and Pirates to be formidable.

Let the games begin. (link)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Justin Timberlake

Reluctant prince: American Idol has lots of fun guests. On Wednesday night, Celine Dion sang with Elvis! But last week, there was an odd couple, indeed: Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief of DreamWorks Animation, and Antonio Banderas. For many people in the industry, seeing Elvis was less of a jolt than seeing Katzenberg. Obviously, he has an incentive to promote the upcoming Shrek the Third, and having the contestants rave about the movie after a screening serves that purpose. But since neither Katzenberg nor Banderas can be considered a pop icon, why would the producers of American Idol want them? The answer is: They didn’t. The folks at Paramount (which will distribute Shrek) also made a big ad buy on the show, of course, but the real lure was that Katzenberg was supposed to deliver Justin Timberlake, who plays a young prince in the new movie. Having the newly redeemed Timberlake appear as mentor to the aspiring Idols makes a lot of sense, no matter how unwilling one might be to listen to boy-band covers. But Timberlake balked. Katzenberg’s camp says the problem was that Timberlake’s touring schedule changed, making the appearance impossible. A well-placed Timberlake source says the young man opted to spend the week in Scotland with his parents. There were early reports that Timberlake—who was Mr. Cameron Diaz at the time he was hired to co-star with her in the third Shrek—did not sparkle in his role. A source says his performance turned out “fine” but notes that he’s not meant to be particularly funny. He plays a reluctant heir to the throne. (Maybe he was in character when he said no to American Idol.) Meanwhile, Idol is open for movie business. Next week, Disney will shell out for a 90-second commercial during the show for its next animated film, Ratatouille. No doubt, a studio would like exclusivity when it pays enormous amounts of money for ad time. But the studios aren’t in a strong negotiating position when it comes to the show. “Idol is the only place to reach an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old,” says one marketing executive. “It’s worth the money.” (link)

Monday, April 23, 2007

This is a tale of drug abuse, pornography, and betrayal—and the war on terror. It is the only story you’re likely to read this week that has Ann Coulter taking a field trip with television personality Orson Bean.

It all begins with an extraordinary 23,000-word piece in the thick-as-a-brick March issue of Vanity Fair. The piece revealed more than perhaps anyone needs to know about Pat Dollard, a one-time agent to director Steven Soderbergh, a drug addict of prodigious proportions, and a sometime porn-film performer.

In 2004, Dollard suddenly ditched his show-business life in Los Angeles and went to Iraq. Not long after he arrived, he e-mailed a photo of himself to friends and family. It depicted him in combat gear, surrounded by Marines, with his hair cut into a mohawk and the word die shaved into his chest hair. Experiencing “vivid clarity,” he later said, feeling as though he’d had “a message from God,” Dollard discovered that he was a “warrior” whose mission was to make a documentary that would spark support for President Bush and the war.

He began shooting many hours of footage of the Marines, some of whom came to see him as a hero in the mold of Hunter S. Thompson. “My goal is to de-sensitize young people to violence,” he told Vanity Fair. “I want kids to watch my film and understand that brutality is the fucking appropriate response to a brutal enemy.”

Dollard’s message had considerable appeal to a number of Bush supporters, who began grooming him as a poster boy for their cause—the guy who ditched the Hollywood life to spread the word. Ann Coulter was a fan, and Dollard was a guest on Tony Snow’s Fox radio show before Snow moved to his job at the White House.

These people could hardly have been pleased by the Vanity Fair piece. As author Evan Wright abundantly illustrates, Dollard’s mission has been frequently interrupted by drug binges and other detours into depravity. Wright reports that while in Iraq, Dollard stole liquid Valium from a pharmacy and got some of the troops high, and that he may have provoked an attack on U.S. troops when he stole a banner from a mosque. (The article about Dollard isn’t just extraordinary for its content but its size: If the typical Vanity Fair piece is a Mini Cooper, this one is equivalent to a block-long caravan of Humvees.)

For one-time Hustler writer Wright, the story was another step into the kind of show-business success that many magazine writers only dream about. Already, Wright’s book on his experiences as a Rolling Stone reporter embedded with the Marines is being made into an HBO miniseries. Now his Dollard story has been optioned by filmmaker Tony Scott (director of Spy Games, Man on Fire, and Domino). Wright has been hired to write the script—with Dollard as his partner. This may seem improbable since Dollard has told at least one friend that Wright’s story is packed with embellishments and inaccuracies.

That friend is Andrew Breitbart, a right-leaning Matt Drudge associate who hopes that Dollard will find financial backers for his still-unfinished documentary. He told Slate that he believes the film will justly portray the Marines as “the heroes of our time … fighting the battle for Western civilization as we know it.”

Breitbart told us that in his view, Wright not only betrayed Dollard by exaggerating his sickness but that he also used material that was supposed to be off the record. Last January, Breitbart accepted an invitation from his friend Ann Coulter to visit the set of the television show 24, which has been celebrated in some conservative circles. Breitbart asked his father-in-law, Orson Bean, to come along. Afterward, Breitbart hosted what he describes as an impromptu gathering at his house on the west side of Los Angeles. Dollard was invited, but, according to Breitbart, Wright was not. He turned up nonetheless, and Breitbart says he let him in with the express understanding that the evening had to be off the record.

In Wright’s piece, Breitbart’s gathering was presented as a “conservative coming-out party” for Dollard. Breitbart says the crowd “leaned to the right” but included a political mix. And he is particularly irked that Wright described Coulter diving into the guacamole in such a way that seemed to allude to Coulter’s alleged anorexia. When Wright appeared that evening, Breitbart says, Coulter uneasily asked whether he could be trusted, making the alleged breach even more painful to him.

And that’s not all. Breitbart says the piece “eliminated [Dollard] from being adopted by maybe the White House and the traditional right wing as a savoir, a truth-teller, and a hero, because they think he’s icky.” He believes Wright deliberately played up Dollard’s issues because he knew that would win favor with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. “Evan wanted to create a myth that served Graydon’s anti-war views,” Breitbart says. “He took a very cartoonish route, and he served his liberal master.”

Wright declined repeated requests to comment on these allegations.

Breitbart still believes that, having spent so much time in the field, Dollard has footage the likes of which has never been seen by American audiences. So Breitbart thinks that Dollard can transcend the “parochial world” of the usual right-wing talk circuit if all goes well—that is, if Dollard can keep it together and finish his film. But he fears that Wright, by playing into Dollard’s “history of aspiring to be a sort of a rock star/porn star,” has not helped the cause.

Breitbart also holds onto hope that if Tony Scott’s movie tells the right story, Dollard will emerge triumphant. He worries because, since the Vanity Fair piece came out, a number of Hollywood types have asked about Dollard for all the wrong reasons. “They are just enthralled by the decadence of it all,” he says. But if Scott’s version is good, Breitbart says, “Dollard—however flawed—will become a mythological entity, and the college set and youth will look at him as someone to revere and follow in boldly seeking the truth.” ( link)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

New School: “The Landlord,” a hot new video on the new Web site FunnyorDie.com, features no less a talent than Will Ferrell. The short ersatz-amateur video depicts the A-list comedian as a slacker behind on his rent, confronting his angry landlord Pearl, an adorable toddler who obviously doesn’t quite talk yet but can parrot lines that some, uh, adult, has fed her.

Somehow we are not amused by a tiny child who utters such lines as “A——!” and “Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!” while pretending to be drunk, beer bottle in hand. (At the end, she utters a rather plaintive, “Mommy.”)

The Funny or Die Web site is all about the money, honey. According to the Hollywood Reporter, it’s a collaboration hatched by Sequoia Capital and Gary Sanchez Productions, which is Will Ferrell’s company with partner Adam McKay. CAA had a hand in brokering the deal, as did Ferrell’s manager-on-steroids, Jimmy Miller. Sequoia has delivered a lot of early funding to big players, including YouTube.

The video may be a giant hit, but it seems to us, in our tragic humorlessness, that it’s another depressing instance in which a child is exploited rather than protected. We’ve written about this kind of thing before: Dakota Fanning, playing a rape scene at 12 in a movie that was critically reviled when it screened at Sundance. Eight-year-old Bindi Sue Irwin, who—a mere four months after her father was killed—was on tour promoting her fitness video and television series.

The greed or desperation that draws many adult outsiders to show business is sad enough. When those adults have a child they can put to use, it’s worse than sad. The state of child actors from Britney Spears to Lindsay Lohan to Danny Bonaduce to Mary-Kate Olsen makes it pretty obvious that Hollywood can be very bad for kids. In this case, McKay volunteered his own child to play Pearl. He seems pretty successful, so why he finds it amusing or necessary to exploit his daughter eludes us. (link)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Shia LaBeouf

Told you: We are not ones to gloat, but we did report on March 7 that Shia LaBeouf will be in the new Indiana Jones film. Some of you gave us static because the new It Boy made a number of statements that he knew nothing about being in the movie right up until the deal was announced. These Hollywood types, they learn to prevaricate young.

Shia is hotter than ever now that Disturbia opened well, and he may be all that Steven Spielberg thinks—but he should keep an eye on his image. Obviously, he didn’t have a choice if George Lucas and/or Spielberg inexplicably made him go out there and deny that he had the Indiana Jones role sewn up, but he might have been a tad less vehement: Once the news was announced, an editor at a Hollywood Web site sent us an e-mail with a subject line that read: “He’s a liar!”

In a recent interview with the Austin-American Statesman, LaBeouf not only denied knowing whether an Indiana Jones project existed but then, as he expressed an interest in playing Holden Caulfield some day, argued energetically that J.D. Salinger is dead. “Clearly the young actor relies too much on Wikipedia,” the reporter observed tartly.

We can’t expect a 20-year-old who grew up inside the child-mauling Hollywood machine to know that much—but again, a little less certitude might have been in order.

Another journalist from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram described LaBeouf as unsmiling, “intense,” and “ready to bite your head off.” Whew—don’t mess with Texas.

If the folks at DreamWorks see him in the Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart tradition, as they do, projecting a nice-guy image might be important. No one needs a hostile press these days, when the level of scrutiny far exceeds what Stewart or even Hanks had to withstand as young men. Sure, all those snarky reporters can drive you potty. But act, Shia, act!

LaBeouf has segued from Bobby to Disturbia to Transformers without a break, so perhaps it’s understandable that he’s cranky. But clearly Spielberg can’t be too thrilled when LaBeouf says he doesn’t care about the box office for the $200-million-plus Transformers because he’s doing it “for the exposure.”

On a related note, we hear that Spielberg and director Michael Bay are having what our parents used to call “discussions” about the amount of big noise in Transformers. So, while we’re dispensing free and unsolicited advice, we urge Bay to listen to Spielberg. As for LaBeouf, more will be revealed. A veteran who’s worked with the young man says he’s talented, yes, but the movie-star quotient is not yet quantified. “Whether he’s Tom Hanks remains to be seen,” he says. “He might end up being John Cusack.” (link)