About the Author
Lynda Obst, author of the bestseller Hello, He Lied, was an editor for The New York Times Magazine before entering the film industry. She has produced more than sixteen feature films, including How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Contact, The Fisher King, Adventures in Babysitting, Hope Floats, and two films with Nora Ephron, Sleepless in Seattle and This Is My Life. She is now producing television as well.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Sleepless In Hollywood SCENE ONE
THE NEW ABNORMAL
I can trace the moment when I noticed that what seemed like normal was changing—that the ways we’d always done things since time immemorial (at least in the three decades since I came to Hollywood) were beginning to become obsolete. It was the death of what I now call the “Old Abnormal” and the birth of the “New.”
I call them the Old Abnormal and the New Abnormal because Hollywood, let’s face it, is never actually normal. Think of how bizarre the people are, for starters. Famous hairdressers, notable Israeli gunrunners, Russian gangsters, mothers who score on their daughters’ successfully leaked sex-tape escapades, and Harvard grads who chase hip-hop stars and Laker Girls make a unique kind of melting pot. It boasts smart people galore with and without prestigious diplomas, and loves a craven con man with a new angle, a new pot of gold or a new look. It’s an equal-opportunity exploiter of talent.
No wonder it draws such dysfunction: Lying is a critical job skill; poker is as good a starter course as film school. How else would you know that the line “Sandra Bullock wants to do this” really means “It’s on her agent’s desk,” and “Three studios are bidding on this script” means “Everyone’s passed but one buyer who hasn’t answered yet.” The language has a sublanguage, and there is no libretto. It’s just plain Abnormal, and always has been.
I saw that some key aspects of the abnormal Hollywood I’d come to love, or at least enjoy heartily, were changing into something new, but of course I didn’t know what. It was when the long-stable Sherry Lansing/Jon Dolgen administration of Paramount, where I was working in 2001, began to teeter a bit as I was making How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey about two players playing each other and losing the game but unwittingly winning love.
Forty-eight at the time, Sherry Lansing was tall and effortlessly glamorous, one of the few women in Hollywood whose face and body had never seen a needle or a knife. The first chairwoman of a major studio, she shattered a glass ceiling in 1992 that hasn’t been mended since. Mentored by men and a mentor to women, she is that rare combination of a man’s woman and a woman’s woman at the same time.
Dolgen and Lansing were a great duo: She was class, he was crass. While Dolgen’s screaming could be heard throughout the administration building, no one would ever get bad news in Sherry’s office. (She had employees for that.) Dolgen’s belligerence was as famous as Sherry’s graciousness. The whole thing worked for them for a long time.
Sherry had been a big supporter of my little romantic comedy—she loved the script I’d developed with her team, and that helped me get it into production. But much to my surprise, it turned out that Paramount wasn’t even paying for the movie. My real financier was a lovely guy named Winnie, who ran a German tax shelter. I found this out on the set when Winnie introduced himself to me and told me that Paramount had sold off their domestic and international box office rights to him to fund the relatively low cost of the movie ($40 million). Paramount kept only the DVD rights. But that, I understood, was how they often put together their movies, selling off the ancillary rights to keep their production costs down. This is called risk aversion. It either meant they thought the movie had no upside other than its DVD value, or that it was the only way Sherry could get the movie made at the time.
As the rest of the country veered from red alerts to orange alerts in the aftermath of 9/11—Variety headline: “Showbiz Rocked by Reel Life!”—I was absorbed in simpler problems, like casting a guy for Kate Hudson to lose in ten days. As rocked as we may have been—and we were rocked—the show must go on. I was going into production. But in the boardrooms and executive suites of Viacom, which owns Paramount, everything was getting very unsettled in a consequential way.
The year 2001, as we began the movie, turned out to be a profoundly transitional one, not just for America (and the world, in the wake of 9/11), but for the movie business as well. Looking back, it would seem that Paramount had been looking through the wrong end of the telescope, in keeping only the DVD rights in its sights and ignoring the world. It was the year of the first Harry Potter and the first Shrek, and the audiences were getting their first exposure to the brave new world of breakthrough special effects in CGI and animation. But the historical fiscal conservatism of Paramount meant they were ignoring most of the new special-effects-oriented scripts, created for this startling technology, starting to hit the town.
Paramount had a philosophy under Sherry Lansing and Jon Dolgen, and for a long time it had worked: Sherry chose pictures by following her gut, and then would make them for the lowest possible budget (and lower). She’d made Forrest Gump (giving Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis a big piece of the profits in success, but little in up-front fees). She green-lighted Mel Gibson’s Scottish epic and Oscar winner Braveheart. When Fox went way over budget on Titanic and needed a partner to finish the film, Sherry was able to say yes by buying domestic rights (U.S. and Canada) based on an overnight read. But it wasn’t working anymore.
I felt plenty of tension on the studio lot from a string of recent flops1 and bad word on the street. Paramount’s not buying anything! They’re underbidding! Not bidding! Who’s getting fired? What the hell are they making? How to Lose a what? Everyone was smoking and speculating on the quad as always, but the joy of putting How To Lose a Guy together inured me to any drama behind the scenes.
But as our team made How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the fate of Paramount and Hollywood was beginning to undergo—I don’t think it would be exaggerating to say—cataclysmic change. The studio that I had joined after six comfy, productive years at Fox was about to experience an enormous realignment due to both interior and exterior convulsions. Some studios had an easier time during the transition, because they were more prepared for the transformed landscape that lay ahead. Disney, for example, had revenue from its theme parks and cable and broadcast networks like ESPN and ABC, so it was variegated as a conglomerate and not dependent on its movie income. Fox was reaping profits from its wide international presence. As a global media company, it was aware early of the power of the global market and made the most of its international penetration in movies and in TV via its satellite network Star TV and its broadcast networks. Warner Bros. had its moneymaker, HBO, but had problems at the time as a result of its takeover by AOL (the squid eating the whale). The more a studio depended on the domestic movie business for its income, the harder the turn would be.
I think none had a hairpinier turn to make than Paramount, as they lost many and hustled many more overboard. Yet the New Abnormal that followed the convulsions has no better representative than the Paramount that emerged: Pictures are now chosen for reasons, we will see, based not on gut as in Sherry’s day—or David O. Selznick’s, for that matter—but on whether they are properties that can be marketed into international franchises. With Iron Man, Mission: Impossible, Transformers, and Star Trek all among its key international franchises, Paramount emerged from this long fray as a key player in the New Abnormal. And it all began to happen soon after Mr. Dolgen, the board at Viacom, and the rest of us were swept up in gale forces that weren’t unlike the tornado that took Dorothy into Munchkinland. For us in the movie business, we landed not in little Munchkinland, for sure, but in giant Franchise-land. The New Abnormal.
In the past ten years or so, the studios have tried to patent a formula for surefire hits, and their product is filling your multiplex. They are what the industry calls “tentpoles”: sequels, prequels, reboots. Origin stories with a brand-new cast like The Amazing Spider-Man, with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and X-Men: First Class, in which James McAvoy plays the young Charles Xavier from the original X-Men; or brand-name multimillion-dollar megashots built on familiar properties like comic books (The Avengers, the Dark Knight trilogy, Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern), or best-selling novels (à la The Hunger Games, Harry Potter or Twilight, and now Fifty Shades of Grey); remakes (Planet of the Apes, The Thing); fairy tales (Alice in Wonderland and its spawn, Snow White and the Huntsman and the failed twin Mirror Mirror); and video games (Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft). Handheld games born as iPhone apps like Angry Birds are now becoming properties-cum-movies, as are board games based on books (like Jumanji), or just plain games (like Hasbro’s Battleship); and, of course, toys (Transformers, G.I. Joe). (Hasbro is a movie company as well as a toy company now.) These properties are meant to work with or without a star and have a built-in audience in the United States and overseas. They are developed inside the studios’ development factories, designed by committee for surefire success.
A tentpole movie was once merely the stanchion that held the yearly studio circus calendar together: Big Christmas Movie. Big Easter Holiday Break Movie. Big Summer Movie. Each studio built what it called its “slate”—its compilation of yearly pictures—around these seasons because the greatest attendance was garnered during these distribution periods: Kids were out of school; families went to movies together; teens went in gaggles to malls. Business drove business drove business. If one theater was full, you would go to another, then return the next day for the movie you’d planned to see. Blockbusters and family movies were designed to position each studio to win each of these seasonal races like a studio Olympiad, and, like the Missile Defense System under Reagan, they had no cost-containment quotient. Win at all costs.
Around ten years ago, there was only one, at most two, tentpole from each studio each distribution season. But then things started to change. Inexorably, in the transition to the business model of the New Abnormal, the studios have grown their slates into a diet of pure tentpoles, with almost nothing in between. We producers fight for the precious diminishing space you could justifiably call the “in-between.”
So the question is, with all these tentpoles, franchises, reboots and sequels, is there still room for movies in the movie business?
As we noticed in Oscar Season 2013, it is still the Old Abnormal for some: That is, movie stars like Ben Affleck and George Clooney, who made Argo—an original—and super-AAA directors like Steven Spielberg (with Lincoln) and Ang Lee (with Life of Pi) still get to make real movies, and thank heaven for it. Though the money is still tighter than before, the studios don’t like to say no to these people. When they can’t get them to make tentpoles, which they always try to get them to do—remember George Clooney in Batman? Or Ang Lee directing The Hulk, and of course Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy—the studios will work with the stars’ agendas and help finance their best projects. After Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for The Hurt Locker (which made practically no money even after it won the Oscar), Sony financed her Zero Dark Thirty, and it is a commercial and critical success.
So James Cameron can make anything he wants; ditto Christopher Nolan and now Ben Affleck and George Clooney. The same is true of many others, whose mere participation in a movie makes it a marketable tentpole. Some studios will beg, borrow, or whittle down a budget to make these movies—and the audience is the better for it, so starved are they for fresh material. We need more movie stars who can produce and direct, and directors whose movies become Oscar-winning blockbusters. Can we live on this fancified diet alone? And will the trend thrive, or is it a temporary reaction to a starved domestic audience? And what of the rest of us, living off of Mt. Olympus?
This is one of the most significant differences between two eras—the Old Abnormal, roughly the 1980s through the early start of the decade, and the New Abnormal, from roughly 2008 on—though some forces began to congeal earlier. I have come to see these two eras as almost two different movie businesses. The differences are various, from what movies are produced to how we make them and for whom. The proliferation of giant franchises nearly year-round is both a sign of the end of the Old Abnormal and the imprimatur of the New Abnormal. The dearth of movies that used to fill the time between them is part of the collateral damage from the transition.
These huge tentpoles, $200-million-fueled missiles, are lined up on the studio distribution pads with their “must-have” famous names and launched like international thermonuclear devices toward foreign capitals where 3D is candy. International has come to be 70 percent of our total revenues in the New Abnormal. When I began in the Old Abnormal it was 20 percent.
The great great tentpole squall of May of 2011 was a dramatic—if breathless for those of us with XX chromosomes—example of an in-between movie (one not designed for a summer release date) being tossed into a rough sea of big action movies: Judd Apatow’s female comedy Bridesmaids, directed by Paul Feig, was being marketed on Apatow’s successful boy/girl friendly brand. It was a movie with no stars to speak of, no preawareness, starring all women, and likely to do bupkis abroad.
What was the strategy? It was clearly counterprogramming for women. But was it also an attempt to throw chick flicks overboard into Thor’s wake to prove that women’s movies couldn’t swim with the sharks? It was the kind of summer that featured what I think of as “Man” movies—movies with titles that either contain the word “man” or at least feasibly could: X-Men: First Class, Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; all we were missing were Iron Man and Batman. How were four unknown (outside of television) women going to compete in this company?
This was the reality that Bridesmaids faced on its May 13 release date. The weekend before, May 6, a sister romantic comedy, Kate Hudson’s Something Borrowed, was flattened by the one-two punch of Fast Five and Thor. Still performing wildly overseas and at home, the fifth installment of the drag racing franchise, now featuring the brilliant addition of popular action star and former wrestling icon Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, racked up $32 million in its second week. At the same time, Thor opened at a huge $65.7 million. Hiring “Shakespearean” Kenneth Branagh gave this Marvel silliness all the gravitas it needed to track well with what Hollywood marketing likes to call “older men”: men over twenty-four. (Not just women get ageist angst around here.) It was bringing in every male everywhere and their dates. Via genius marketing, Thor had become a date movie! By the next weekend, Bridesmaids’ opener, it looked like Thor’s thunderous second weekend would trample Bridesmaids just as it and Fast Five had buried Something Borrowed.
If it performed as the tracking numbers suggested—between $15 million and $17 million—chicks were done for. Movies in the summer were expected to make $30 to $60 million on opening weekend to compete. Bridesmaids, made for a fraction of the cost of a normal summer movie, wouldn’t have to reach this blockbuster bar. But it couldn’t ju...
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