EXCLUSIVE: After seven years as Paramount Pictures‘ EVP Business and Legal Affairs, Daniel Ferleger will be leaving the studio at the end of September. The studio won’t be replacing him, I’ve learned. Instead, an …
UPDATE: Summer 2013 has many budget busting blockbusters. But also problems that have plagued some during pre-production, filming, and post-production. Not since John Carter and Battleship has a big-budget movie received more advance negative press for its production woes than World War Z, the Marc Forster-directed adaptation of the Max Brooks zombie-apocalypse novel that stars and is produced by Brad Pitt. I was shown the movie, but not in its 3D format, weeks before its June 21 release. And each time the response from industry insiders was a version of, “Well, just how bad is it?” Paramount with these select screenings has just begun the daunting campaign of rehabilitating the film’s battered image. According to Vice Chairman Rob Moore, the studio spent $15M-$20M and 25 shooting days to make WWZ significantly better. Yet the reward has been worse advance buzz than if Paramount had kept its wallet shut and quietly released the inferior original. I don’t know if I would have penned this post had I hated the movie, but I consider myself a connoisseur of zombie fare, and this stacks up very favorably. I’m no reviewer, but I can honestly say that WWZ is better than good; try a rocking, smart, pulse-pounding big-scale pandemic with raging zombies, palpable tension, and the kind of hero star turn Pitt hasn’t performed in a long time.
You know things are bad when your star mouths off about a troubled film before it even opens. His complaints well into production were made to fill-in fixer Damon Lindelof who blurted them out in turn. Scripting issues crippled the globetrotting zombie pic from the get-go. J. Michael Straczynski’s first script was scrapped. Matthew Carnahan’s subsequent version deviated from the source novel by Max Brooks. Fans were alarmed at the prospective story changes. Then filming got underway for director Marc Forster before an ending was set – and Pitt wound up hating what was shot, preferring the project’s early geopolitical bent to the action thriller slant. The film’s initial ending was abrupt and incoherent, Lindelof told Vanity Fair, and an initial studio screening supposedly left suits in shock. “It was like, ‘Wow, the ending of our movie doesn’t work,” publicly admitted Paramount President of Production Marc Evans. “I believed in that moment we needed to reshoot the movie.” So how many hot screenwriters did it take to finish a zombie movie? Paramount turned to Lindelof to fix the pic, but the job was so big he brought in Drew Goddard. Christopher McQuarrie was tapped for even more re-writes. Reshoots skyrocketed the budget to a reported $200M, though Paramount insists they contained it. Already filmed scenes set in Russia and Budapest as well as a battle scene were chopped as crew shot 40 additional minutes for a new conclusion with reshoots that went on for a reported 7 weeks. Meanwhile a budgeting nightmare unfolded when crew wrapping the Malta set discovered millions in unpaid purchase orders forgotten in a drawer. Given the behind-the-scenes mayhem, negative early fan reactions to World War Z‘s fast-moving CG zombie swarms were the least of Paramount’s worries.
That solidly detailed Vanity Fair article created major blowback this month. It grew worse after a widely circulated flop prognostication by Wall Street analyst Doug Creutz of Cowen and Company (even though he hadn’t seen the film). “In the Vanity Fair article, we were forthcoming about the production and creative problems and how we solved them and ended up with a movie that plays great and is likely to be a global hit,” Moore told me. “The thing that really led to more negative stories was the insanity of this Cowen and Company analyst report, written by a guy who hadn’t seen the movie, the footage we showed at ShoWest, or gotten any pre-summer tracking. He just comes off the mountain top to make a prediction based on nothing, and because he’s got the letters CFA after his name, people think he must know what he is talking about, which is preposterous.”
Moore told me that chasing a fix on WWZ was the ballsiest bet like this made since he has been at Paramount. “It was no question one of the toughest decisions we’ve made as a group, but knowing what we know now, it was absolutely the right decision,” he said. He figures the release delay and extra work that went into G.I. Joe led to $100 million in extra ticket sales worldwide, and he believes WWZ will deliver an even bigger payoff. It would just be nice to see a little more understanding among the media and Wall Street analysts, to recognize that just because a film has problems during the process of production, that doesn’t mean it’s doomed.
“When you draw attention to yourself by acknowledging you have a problem you’re trying to fix, it becomes sport to the media to pick on you,” he said. “It becomes hard to say, ‘We don’t care about the short-term publicity hit, what we care about is making the best movie.’ The political pressure against you becomes great and can make it seem like it’s better to leave it alone. Here, that pressure was even bigger because it is Brad Pitt, and because of the size of the solution. But I’m telling you right here, it was definitely the right call. We now have the best version of this movie, and people will see that soon.”
I hoped there would be fistfights. Or at least a chair thrown or two. “I tried but no one wanted to rumble,” Jeffrey Katzenberg told me later. Instead, Jeff Robinov, Tom Rothman, Rob Moore, Stacey Snider, Harvey Weinstein, Rob Friedman, and Katzenberg demonstrated remarkable restraint as they talked, joked, and mused about the Oscars process today. Everyone was ribbing everyone, and a few zingers landed as well. There were so many studio bigwigs at the first day of Deadline Hollywood’s two-day ‘The Contenders’ event (which continues Sunday at 10 AM with still more moguls) that it became a running joke. Deadline Awards Columnist Pete Hammond opened up the 2 PM ‘Moguls Panel’ by saying, “This kind of event has never been held before. You realize that, if a bomb dropped in here, Amy Pascal would own Hollywood.” (The Sony Pictures chairman couldn’t attend.) The other studio chiefs came from hither and yon to attend ‘The Contenders’, and the packed crowd was obviously appreciative. ”Just sayin’ it doesn’t get any better than that. So rare in these times to have as august a group come together and discuss,” one of the attendees emailed me afterwards. That’s why our venue, the Landmark Theatre, pulled out all the stops, even reupholstering the seats in anticipation of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters and select Hollywood Guild members who’d sit in them. More details about ‘The Contenders’ in coming days. Next week we’ll be posting the unedited video of the ‘Mogul’s Panel’ which was moderated by Hammond and Deadline Film editor/NY Editor Mike Fleming. Here’s some of the studio chiefs’ 1 1/2-hour-long discussion:
DEADLINE: “This is one of the most wide open Academy Awards seasons. Does that make you more likely to launch an aggressive campaign?”
TOM ROTHMAN, Chairman/CEO Fox Filmed Entertainment: “Yeah, we have a lot of pictures between the studio and Fox Searchlight. But I am a contrarian about this. I think the whole notion of a race and spending is hugely exaggerated. I think voters know what they want to vote for once they’ve seen the movies. Our job is to get them to see the movies. To advance positions for them to think about. Ultimately the Academy is gong to decide. And I think in contrast to what is often said, ultimately I think it comes down to the movies. As it should.”
DEADLINE: “Can an aggressive Oscar” campaign hurt?”
ROTHMAN: “Well, I don’t know, I guess there’s some truth to it. I suppose it depends on what you mean by campaign. Academy Award winners sometimes gain a momentum because of a particular performance, and sometimes for length of career and all the work that has been done. Look recently at Paul Newman. You might not say [1986's The Color Of Money] was his best performance. But he won for his great body of nominations and work. I don’t really think, being on the stump so to speak, when in the privacy of the voting booth which is their living room that it necessarily makes a difference.”
JEFF ROBINOV, PRESIDENT OF WARNER BROS: “I’d say Mr. Weinstein proves him wrong every year.”
HARVEY WEINSTEIN, CO-CHAIRMAN THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY: “That is the only thing that counts, so Tom and I agree more than you think.”
ROTHMAN: “You have just witnessed an historic moment.”
WEINSTEIN: “I’ve said this a thousand times. The most important job is getting voters to see the movie. If they don’t see the movie, they won’t vote.”
DEADLINE: “But it’s not as good to see these movies on a small screen via screeners.”
ROTHMAN: “It’s hard to get them to see movies on the big screen. Planet Of The Apes is not as good on a small screen. Also the other thing I think is time. It’s hard because of the crush of films that all come in at the end. Voters try to be responsible, but sometimes they’re seeing multiple movies [in one day]. I agree with Harvey completely on the need to see films in the theater as they were intended.”
KATZENBERG: “We could end up with a horse against an ape this year.”
DEADLINE: “Isn’t that especially true of 3D films?”
JEFFREY KATZENBERG, CEO DREAMWORKS ANIMATIONS: “Yeah, just to sort of cut to the chase on this, we spend 4 years and $150 million on trying to make an exceptional experience in the movie theater. And use tools one of which is 3D. So we settle for the fact that many many many people will never see it this way.”
DEADLINE: “Is it best to release an Oscar contender earlier in the year and get out early like The Hurt Locker did in June?”
ROB FRIEDMAN, CO-CHAIRMAN/CEO SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT: “I think what everybody’s saying is it’s vital to get the movies seen. In this case having the film out in June gave more time to build critical and audience response.”
DEADLINE: “How did The Hurt Locker manage to compete since its revenue cycle was over by the time big Avatar came out?”
FRIEDMAN: “By the way, I did offer Tom [Rothman] and Jim [Gianopulos] the offer to trade revenue streams.”
ROTHMAN: “We thought about it.”
FRIEDMAN: “Actually we had not completed our revenue cycle. It was not out on DVD yet. It performed massively in those revenue environments. We knew that any kind of Middle East/Iraq film was challenging at best. It found its level theatrically, but was enormous in the home market.”
DEADLINE: “Tom, would you have been happy to forget awards for Avatar as long as could count the money?’
ROTHMAN: “I guess the technical answer to that would be fuck, yes. [BIG LAUGH] Yes, we were disappointed to lose. I think Robbie and I found ourselves waiting for our cars by the heater that night, and I congratulated him mightily. But I made my career being honest, and if I said I wasn’t brutally disappointed it would be an understatement. I think it is a common problem that happens. David and Goliath is a very good narrative. It is easy to root for the little guy. I understand that emotionally. Fox Searchlight’s Slumdog Millionaire was small and won. The Academy giveth, and the Academy taketh away. We had a good year with Fox Searchlight’s Black Swan and Best Actress last time. Those things happen. I do think, if I can get on my bully pulpit for a few seconds, that sometimes I think the craftsmanship and artistry in what is thought of as commercial cinema is not always given its proper place. Hurt Locker was ultimately thought the better film that year, that I understand. But when you look down categories, sometimes I think that other crafts get swept along. I was surprised and I would also say disappointed that the hard-working creative folks on Avatar were not recognized.”
DEADLINE: “Which other of your films were unfairly overlooked over the years?”
ROBINOV: “I think the quality of Harry Potter films has been somewhat discounted. Especially the last one. It feels like the type of movie that traditionally would receive some Oscar attention. Also Inception was a very bold movie, yet it was not rewarded for risk-taking, I do think there is some bias against Hollywood and the resources that it has. Nice when a movie like Titanic actually gets what it deserves.”
Paramount Overhaul Creates Home Media Distribution Division, Leads To Jim Tharp Retirement, Tom Lesinski Exit
UPDATE: In a move that recognizes the growing role of overseas grosses and revenues that are derived from ancillary areas such as streaming, Paramount Pictures has significantly restructured several of its most important divisions. The moves will include the June 2012 retirement of distribution president Jim Tharp and the exit of Tom Lesinski, the Paramount Digital Entertainment president whose domain is being absorbed under other divisions at the studio.
Brad Grey has put the post-theatrical distribution of movies under one department, Home Media Distribution, which will be run by former president of Worldwide Home Entertainment Dennis Maguire. He’ll now oversee the licensing of films to home entertainment, digital streaming, and pay TV. Hal Richardson, who had been president of Worldwide Television Distribution, becomes president of Home Media Distribution, and he reports to Maguire.
In addition, because the studio is building slates that are clearly attempting to derive the majority of theatrical revenue from overseas ticket sales, it has brought head of international Andrew Cripps back to Los Angeles, where going forward he can have more of a say in the kinds of pictures Paramount makes and how they are exploited.
Paramount has also promoted Josh Greenstein and Megan Colligan, who’ve been co-presidents of Domestic Marketing. Greenstein, who was integral to the global marketing campaign of the $1.1 billion worldwide-grossing Transformers: Dark of the Moon, will now be Chief Marketing Officer for the studio and oversee all marketing through all distribution channels. Colligan is the new president of Domestic Marketing & Distribution, and she will oversee all domestic theatrical distribution and marketing for Paramount. Colligan has been responsible for innovations like releasing Paranormal Activity for midnight showings on college campuses and sneaking films via Twitter. Greenstein, Colligan and Maguire all will report to vice chairman Rob Moore.
As part of the shakeout, Paramount Digital Entertainment president Lesinski will leave as his division is folded into other divisions of the studio. Tharp, the studio’s longtime head of distribution, will retire next June but will stay on to help Moore achieve a transition that will involve his number two, Don Harris. Harris will handle the day-to-day duties previously overseen by Tharp and become president of Domestic Theatrical Distribution, reporting to Colligan.