What a depressing way to start 2011. Actor Pete Postlethwaite has passed away at age 64, losing a long fight with cancer. The British actor had his Hollywood breakout with an Oscar-nominated turn as Guiseppe Conlon, the working class Irish …
This is Part 1 from my recent long Q&A with Warner Bros’ Alan Horn who will step down as President/COO in April. Warner Bros has more marquee category awards contenders this year than probably any other studio because of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Ben Affleck’s The Town, and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. It also boasted a remarkable string of recent winners including Million Dollar Baby and The Departed and Slumdog Millionaire and The Blind Side. But in almost every case, Warner Bros underestimated the picture’s Oscar chances. Studio mogul Alan Horn goes back to the future with me and assesses the campaigns:
DEADLINE: I want to talk to you about this year’s Academy Awards. Your studio has been sitting on its duff about campaigning for Inception. The result is that other movies are overtaking the buzz when your movie should be the logical frontrunner because it did well at the box office and with critics and because Nolan’s The Dark Knight was robbed of a Best Picture nomination. Doesn’t Warner Bros win Oscars in spite of itself?
ALAN HORN: Well, I know that’s how you feel. My response is that, first of all, we care about the Oscars and enjoy Oscar attention. A win is a very, very big deal. It’s very prestigious, it’s very exciting, plus we are a filmmaker friendly company and have long-term relationships with filmmakers. Of course Clint Eastwood comes to mind immediately, but now Chris Nolan and even the emerging Ben Affleck are our filmmakers that we really care about deeply and we want to do right by them. We want to do everything we can to have a strong Oscar campaign. Because we want to win. But we feel that for Inception, we have to coordinate it of course with Chris and with Emma Thomas and with Leo. But what comes to mind for me is, did you see the horse race with Zenyatta by any chance?
HORN: This horse won 19 out of 20 times. It’s a filly racing against all these giant male horses. She’s six years old whereas all the others were 3 years old. She’d never lost, and then just by a nose on the 20th and final race of her career. It was a very exciting thing. I don’t know anything about horses or horse-racing but I happened to see it. And it made me think of our conversation about the Oscars because the nominations come out, as you know, the end of December. Then the ballots go out. And then the voting takes place and all that. Our campaign is scheduled to start in a big way timed to that schedule. We are going to go very big for Inception. But we are also going to push for Hereafter because of the relationship with Clint. And for Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 although no one really expects a lot of attention for Harry Potter until the final installment which will be next summer. And for The Town because we all think that Ben did just a hell of a job, a really good job. We want to do it right. There is no intention on our part to give short shrift to this, to be cheap about it, or to be stupid about it either. So what my understanding is for Inception is that we’re going to start very heavily doing editorial pieces, we are going to screen the picture like crazy, we’re going to have online participation and print too. It won’t be for lack of trying or spending money.
DEADLINE: But are you too late?
HORN: Well, we don’t think so. That’s why I brought up the horse race. This horse Zenyatta always started at the end of the pack and all of a sudden she comes on like a freight train. And the question for us is: what’s the right timing? Because if you peak too soon, you may blow all the money before people really focus on it. So it’s a big debate you could have but we sure are trying to do it right.
DEADLINE: Clint was not shy about telling people that you did not want to push his Million Dollar Baby because you didn’t see it as an Oscar film. You didn’t even want to greenlight it. Which goes back to the gripe that your studio wins Oscars in spite of itself.
Ben Affleck’s career trajectory rarely happens in Hollywood much less all by age 38: from unknown actor (Mallrats, Chasing Amy) to Oscar–winning co–writer (Good Will Hunting) to leading man (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Changing Lanes, The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil) to tabloid fixture (“Bennifer”) to washed–up star (after Gigli) to budding director (adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone) to hot actor/helmer with the #1 opening movie September 17–19. For The Town, Affleck returns to his Boston roots and blue collar crime to adapt Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince Of Thieves for the big screen. The result: an adult–pleasing hit that has entered the Best Picture discussion. Mike Fleming talks to him about his and The Town‘s Oscar chances:
DEADLINE: So you wrote yourself a second career as a director in Gone Baby Gone. Now you’ve written yourself the edgiest role of your acting career since Good Will Hunting. How much of this was about you wanting to reinvigorate your onscreen career?
BEN AFFLECK: A huge part of this was wanting to play the role. I hadn’t had the chance to play a character as interesting as the one Chuck wrote in the book in a long time. In that sense, it did feel like Good Will Hunting because I was trying to make the movie, in part, as a step in my acting career.
DEADLINE: These R–rated crime dramas with action sometimes get marginalized in Oscar season, but this one has stayed in the conversation. Gone Baby Gone, though lauded, grossed only $35 million worldwide. The Town so far is nearing $150 million worldwide. What has most surprised you about the way it played and the reaction?
AFFLECK: Relative to my first movie, it didn’t have to do that well to be a step forward, so I was set up well. I think people caught up to that movie on DVD, but when you come out and do $20 million at the box office, nobody calls to congratulate you. In terms of pure commercial success, the thing that struck me was, our opening weekend on The Town was bigger than the whole number on Gone Baby Gone. This time, I had very modest expectations and I was really surprised the movie did as well as it did. It’s not a juggernaut, but my big goal was seeing it turn a profit for the studio. I use that as my metric for whether or not they’ll let me direct another movie. I remember calling up and saying, ‘So have you broken even yet? Are you going to make money on this? Are you happy?’ I’m a little embarrassed I’d done that, but it was what I set out to do. And it made me be sure I kept the costs down to under $40 million. This way I could make a movie that dealt with themes that interested me, at a pace I like dramatically.
DEADLINE: What went through your mind as you were deciding whether or not to do this?
AFFLECK: My first thought was, I really wanted to play the role. But I was concerned that the overlap between this and the other movie I directed would be too much, and that I ran the risk of getting pigeonholed for making crime movies in Boston. When I really want to tell stories that take place all over. That made me pause. But there were a couple things that ultimately persuaded me to take on directing it as well. There were a ton of great parts, and I thought the material gave me a shot to work with really good actors. And there was a big challenge in trying to synthesize the two elements of the movie. There was the traditional genre element — the robbery, heist, chase and all that stuff — which had to be done in an interesting and unique way in order to work. That needed to fuse with the character drama on the other side. I felt intimidated and daunted by that challenge, but felt, if I could execute it right, I’d put myself in a position to be able to make movies that I am really interested and attracted to. That is a rare thing in Hollywood. Mostly we’re just schmucks limited by our options.
DEADLINE: What did you do better this time?
AFFLECK: As director, this definitely had a broader scope than my first movie.
Sorry for delays… circumstances out of my control.
SATURDAY PM/SUNDAY AM: Here are the Top 10 North American grosses for Friday, Saturday, weekend and cume:
1. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Fox) NEW [3,565 Runs]
Friday $7M, Saturday $7.6M, Weekend $19M
Is it possible to make a sequel 23 years later? Only if it’s an iconic original about a still relevant subject featuring a fascinating anti-hero made by a controversial director with a fine cast. The Hustler sequel Color Of Money had a 25 year span and did fine. And for weeks tracking had been strong for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. I’ve been obsessed with this from development through casting into production because the 1987 movie was so seminal. After all, that den of thieves is as responsible for our current financial crisis as are the politicians. The question is whether filmgoers are ready to relive pain that hasn’t ended or rewind history skewed by the crazy Oliver Stone. That’s his best-ever opening not adjusted for inflation or theater counts or higher ticket prices, after his 2006 World Trade Center ($18.7M) and his 2004 Alexander ($13.6M).
Hollywood had expected more, and Fox hoped for $22M after lowering expectations for this PG-13 adult-themed economics lesson. (Many newspapers even assigned their business reporters to review it.) I hear the studio’s actual cost on the pic was $65M including a $5M tax rebate, reshoots, and additional editing post-Cannes Film Festival in May. But after a disastrous summer, Fox is relieved. After all, with Michael Douglas braving cancer, nobody was sure how much promo he could do. And with Oliver Stone putting his foot in his mouth (the part-Jewish filmmaker made several apologies after that July newspaper interview where he complained about Jewish influence in U.S. media and foreign policy and Holocaust remembrance), nobody was sure how much promo he should do.
I can’t help wondering how the movie would have differed with Javier Bardem, the first choice for the stock-shorting hedge fund villain played by Josh Brolin. The financial press says the character bears resemblance to JP Morgan head Jamie Dimon. Brolin’s firm is modeled on Goldman Sachs. Frank Langella’s persona according to the NYT is former Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne but others say it’s the firm’s ex-chairman Alan “Ace” Greenberg. Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko was partly Ivan Boesky and partly Michael Milken in the original, but now is a post-prison Nostradamus predicting doom and gloom. The real economist credited with forseeing the economic debacle is Nouriel Roubini who gets a cameo in the sequel. Charlie Sheen was supposed to be young insider trader Denise Levine. His successor Shia LaBeouf is playing Shia as always; when is this kid going to show range? Meanwhile, a long list of Wall Street types offered their help to make sure first Stephen Schiff’s and then 21 and Things We Lost In The Fire screenwriter Allan Loeb’s sequel was accurate, just as the previous generation had done for the great scripter Stanley Weiser and his film school pal Oliver both credited as writers of the original. I’m told theaters around the real Wall Street sold out Friday matinees. But Stone never got the satisfaction of seeing Wall Street 2 released “just when the market’s most volatile,” as he hoped it would be this week. That’s because Fox pushed off the April 23rd release date. Had that not happened, Douglas wouldn’t have been diagnosed yet, Stone wouldn’t have been mouthy about Jews yet, and the stock market wouldn’t have been ticking upward in turnaround yet. The later release does make the sequel more awards-friendly, especially for Michael Douglas in the Best Supporting category. I’m reminded that then Fox chief Barry Diller hated Wall Street and thought his big Oscar film that year was Broadcast News, which arrived with 7 nominations but left empty handed. Whereas Douglas won Best Actor.
2. Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls (Warner Bros) NEW [3,575 Runs]
Friday $4.5M, Saturday $6.9M, Weekend $16.3M
Warner Bros counter-programmed with 3D flying owl warriors and marketed it like a PG-13 Narnia flick. Wanna know why tracking has been lagging for this $100M budget-buster? The title Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was convoluted, author Kathryn Lasky’s book series isn’t widely known, the voice cast was predominantly Aussie, and Zach Snyder who directed the very violent Watchmen was making his family fare debut. (Yikes, cover those kids’ eyes!) The TV ads never even mention the connection to Animal Logic, the animation studio behind the hit Happy Feet. Sometimes I think studios try to repel audiences. Of its 3,575 theaters, 2,479 were 3D locations, of which 193 are IMAX.
The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s official private weekend screenings for voting members are generally a must-stop for serious Oscar contenders, not only to show the films to voters all at once but also to gauge reaction both audibly during the film and by buzz in the lobby and restrooms after. After complaints about the quality of some the films shown, the Academy last year revamped the committee that chooses them and now seems much more savvy about booking movies that aren’t wasting members’ time – or so they’d like to think. While some fluff still gets screened, the cinematic menu this time of year turns to a heavy sked of Oscar prospects.
Not everything gets booked because there are basically just four slots each weekend: two matinees and two evening shows. But of the 10 pictures nominated last year, only The Blind Side, which seemed to catch even Warner Bros by surprise, did not play at one of these screenings.
In terms of this year’s Oscar contenders, it was a big weekend for Ben Affleck’s The Town (which he directed and co-wrote and stars in for Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures) which topped the weekend box office with nearly $24 million. That was a bit of a surprise, particularly for an adult-skewing drama (albeit one with a LOT of action in it). Then again, it had a 94% fresh critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But what was really significant awards-wise is that I hear it had a smash screening at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills on Saturday night. So you have a film right out of the gate among Fall releases that looks to be a serious awards prospect.
Even though the movie’s official Academy screening was skedded just as Yom Kippur was ending, the turnout was larger than normal and the response at the end very enthusiastic. A 2-time Oscar winner who frequently attends these private weekend screenings for voting members told me, “There was big loud applause at the end credits — and that’s something I rarely see at the Academy.” He went on to praise the film as easily one of the best he has seen there in some time (and, interestingly, he’s not impressed with much of the 2010 output so far). He singled out Affleck’s direction and the acting ensemble for particular kudos. Two other Academy members who saw the film at non-Academy screenings told me the same thing. So Warners could