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peter bart

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Peter Bart is editor in chief of Variety, the entertainment industry's venerable trade magazine. He has written about Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and in his book The Gross: The Hits, the Flops -- the Summer That Ate Hollywood (1999), and spent 17 years as a film executive at Paramount and MGM and with his own production company. An outspoken and sometimes controversial figure, Bart holds forth here on why stars are running themselves ragged to make back-to-back films, and talks about modern-day studios under the stewardship of gigantic conglomerations.

This interview was conducted in April 2001.

How has the movie business changed over the years?

I would say it's only changed about 150 percent. ... Even when I arrived here, basically you had studios and networks undercapitalized, a bit undernourished, somewhat enfeebled. And they made movies or they made TV shows.

It's only in relatively recent years that Hollywood became the playground of multinational corporations which regard movies and TV shows as a minor irritant to their overall activity. So it's become a corporate town, reduced to one sentence, "a very corporate town." It was not a corporate town 10, 15 years ago.

How does that affect the way movies are made?

It affects the decision-making process on movies because, for example, what big corporations want most is risk-averse pictures. Now, one might say whether that in itself is a completely false aspiration, because any work of art or pop art, by definition, is risky. So you have corporate suits trying to make projects that don't entail risk. You can see why the manpower turnover is very high in the upper reaches of the studios now.

How do these changes affect producers?

The decision-making process for movies has become so complex that producers and even agents and directors are all thrown. The best way to describe it is what they call a "green-light" meeting. A green-light meeting is when the decision is made finally whether or not to make a given picture.

The green-light meeting, when I first started at Paramount, would consist of maybe three or four of us in a room. Perhaps two or three of us would have read the script under discussion. And people said stupid things like, "I kind of like this movie." Or, "I look forward to seeing this movie." Inane things like that.

The green-light decision process today consists of maybe of 30 or 40 people. There's one group there to discuss the marketing tie-ins. How much will McDonald's or Burger King put up? There's somebody else there to discuss merchandising toy companies and so forth. Someone else is there to discuss what the foreign co-financiers might be willing to put up. So everyone is discussing the business aspects of this film. And it's sometimes unusual for someone actually to circle back and talk about the script, the cast, the package -- whether the whole damn thing makes any sense to begin with.

So I'd say generally there's no relationship at all between that decision-making process and the one that existed barely a generation earlier.

How does that affect the kinds of movies that are made?

I think the kinds of movies that get made would be those that would appeal to the marketing and distribution team most of all. [They] have the heavy votes. And also that ... the kinds of movie that would get made would be those where the risk is relatively small financially.

... The model today is that as much as 70 percent of the financing of the picture would come from overseas. Now we're beginning to run out of suckers, because there are not that many people overseas who are willing to put up more than half the money for a movie. So issues like that really that come to the fore today. On one level, these are business decisions, as well they should be. But it's just that a lot of people are worried whether the creative dimension to those decisions is being considered at all. ...

What's the most dangerous thing, in your eyes, about these giant corporations?

The biggest danger of Hollywood becoming a purely corporate town resides in the creative process. It really hasn't been demonstrated at any level by any major corporation that it can nurture what is euphemistically called creativity. In other words, do artists, do writers, directors - whatever -- want to work for big companies? Do they want to put up with the mega-company decision-making process? More important, also are they willing to be paid as the big corporations want to pay them? One of the reasons that there is this labor unrest in town is that people don't trust the big companies. They don't feel they're getting their fair share.

The green-light decision process today consists of maybe of 30 or 40 people.... Everyone is discussing the business aspects of this film. And it's sometimes unusual for someone actually to circle back and talk about the script, the cast, the package -- whether the whole damn thing makes any sense to begin with.

On one level, when I was at Paramount in 1969 and Paul Newman asked for $2 million, I'd say, "Paul, we can't afford to pay you $2 million," and he'd believe me. If I were working for News Corp for Rupert Murdoch in 1999 and said that, you know he'd tell me to go bugger off. Why should he believe me? I'm working for a multi-billion dollar corporation. So just the sheer size, the heft breeds suspicion. ...

Do you think the writers have a real sense of the position of the guys they're sitting down to negotiate with now being division heads of corporations, instead of being in charge themselves?

Yes. Again, a generation ago, when serious labor negotiations were last held, the people with whom the writers and actors or the below-the-line technicians were negotiating really ran their studios and ran their networks. But the big surprise now is, of course, that the so-called decision-makers don't own the companies. They're heads of relatively small divisions within the big companies.

So they're not facing, let's say, Sumner Redstone who is the proprietor of Viacom. They're facing someone who's running the Paramount unit of Viacom, which is a relatively minor unit. When they talk to NBC, they're not talking to Jack Welch, who runs General Electric, which owns NBC. They're talking to a network guy. Now, it's fine that they're talking with him. But they know that perhaps the real decisions are being made at a lofty level, far out of reach. And that also has a sort of queering effect on negotiations of this sort.

So the nature of the town is changing from where people might gather at Morton's and discuss a movie, to where control is now coming from outside?

Yes, that's right. ... the old days of inadvertent packaging, where you'd sit down with somebody at dinner and a film or a TV show would emerge from it, based on a handshake. That era is long since gone now. There are echelons of lawyers and business affairs people that one goes through. And every deal takes a long time, so now that, too, is a very corporate approach to it. ...

How do you think all these changes are affecting the kinds of movies we'll see?

The kinds of movies that we will see for a time will be, again, risk-averse, special-effects extravaganzas -- pictures designed for the international market. Pictures that will cross borders. Pictures without too much dialogue, so that people in Italy and France and Germany and Japan can understand them.

We're going to see a very, very commercial kind of picture-making. And then a few years hence, the whole system is going to fragment. I think you're going to see a tremendous proliferation of small units of independent companies. ... The big companies are going to splinter into smaller companies. They may still retain some ownership, but I think a lot of the profits, a lot of the action is going to reside with where it should reside -- the creative elite.

So I think the whole thing is going to turn around completely. We're in a very cyclical business. And I think at that time -- and not until that time -- we're all going to be at war.

You clearly have a love for the movies. Is there something sad about all this?

The only thing sad about it is, yes, I love movies. I'm not a movie nut, you know. I was chasing girls in my teens. I wasn't hanging around the movie theaters in New York where I grew up, a Manhattan brat. What's sad about it is that, sure, when I was a kid and first got into the movie business -- to my amazement, an instant executive -- the kind of pictures you could foster would be very adventuresome and edgy. And because the risks involved were so small, you were encouraged to go with bright newcomers. You didn't have to rehire the guy who'd made you know two $100 million pictures in the last five years. You could take chances.

That's how you get good movies. That's how you get surprises, because what movies are all about is surprises. My personal theory is that one reason the ratings the TV ratings on the Oscar show were seven percent down from last year stemmed from the fact that too many pictures this year were a little predictable, a little commercial, a little safe. The audience out there didn't have a real passion for a particular movie and were desperate to see that movie win an Oscar. And so they didn't tune in that much. So, yes, we've lost some of the business. But we'll get it back. As I say, it's all very cyclical. ...

Is there something odd about these people who represent huge multinational corporations crying bankruptcy?

It's hypocritical for any of the studios to say or networks to say [they're] on the brink of bankruptcy, because obviously they live under the very handsome corporate umbrella of gigantically rich companies. I mean, they're not even companies. They're sort of nation-states. AOL Time Warner is a nation-state. So is Vivendi. ...

The basic long-term objective seems to me for the multinational corporations that own Hollywood to redefine the basic economics, so that the studios and the networks have much fatter profit margins, and the artists and artisans who work for them make less money relative to the total. I mean, this is not an acceptable situation for these corporations. And I think, over time, they've got to redefine the way in which the town is structured. ...

Hollywood is going to have to find a way of meeting those profit goals. Now, are they realistic? This is a very volatile, egomaniacal, up-and-down business. And it's a cyclical business, and I don't believe the economics of Hollywood are ever going to satisfy the big multinationals. I think it's too crazy a business to make these global companies happy. Ultimately, they're going to find a way of shuffling off the production function, for example. They don't want to muck around with scripts and artists, for God's sake, that's disgusting. It's no way for a multinational corporation to deal with... It's demeaning, right?

What does that translate to?

It's hard to say. I think the new shows that emerge from the up-fronts in New York... It's a pretty play-it-safe schedule. Inevitably, there is a lot more of what is euphemistically called "realistic programming," the realism shows, "Survivor" clones. We have a lot more of that. There's some scripted dramas, but they're less expensive scripted, less adventuresome. There are no shows on the networks next year that will be, "Gee whiz, look at that!" There's no "Sopranos" on the network schedule.

It's the same way in movies. Look at the films out this summer. They're kind of risk-averse, play-it-safe movies. So in terms of what people will see, I think people are going to see sort of corporate fare. It's interesting, parenthetically, the success of "The Producers" as a show on Broadway, some people are rightfully interpreting as a reaction to corporate theater -- "Beauty and the Beast," "Aida," the Disney shows, even "Lion King," which was brilliant corporate theater. But I think you're going to see perhaps ... the audiences rebel against corporate movies. ...

In the feature business, more and more the precepts of television are being applied; that is to say, things are tested; endings are tested; important scenes are tested. Sometimes even the cast is tested. That really is a relatively new phenomenon. Fifteen, twenty years ago, if there was an argument between a director and a studio, you didn't necessarily go out and test to see whether an audience preferred this ending or that ending. You basically went with the filmmaker. So I think it's a new phenomenon that so much in the movie-making process as well as television is being pre-tested and pre-chewed.

What's the difference between now and the way it used to be?

The most important difference between then and now was simply the question of what other criteria for green-lighting a movie. In those days, if the passion of the filmmaker was intense and the studio liked the script and the cast was interesting, it didn't have to have superstars. And [if] the budget was not outrageous, people by and large were willing to take a gamble on that, on the passion of the filmmaker. Sometimes, like with "Heaven's Gate," the gamble was misbegotten.

Sometimes the gambles were absolutely extraordinary, and many of those wonderful movies of the early 1970s and the late 1960s emerged from those gambles. You'd never see those movies made today.

The only way to describe the green-light process today is that it is an amalgam of the marketing distribution and production functions; that is to say, you sit around and you decide, now what are the numbers on this picture what might it elicit from different media -- from pay television, from video, from DVD, from overseas?

You put together all the numbers. You figure out, who are your financing and marketing partners? Can you get some money out of Germany? Can you get another studio to co-finance it? Can you get a fast-food chain to put up half the money for the advertising? So you add up all the partners. And it's a much more complicated way of deciding whether or not to go with a picture or who to put in it. There's also much more awareness for the international audience, because 20 years ago, most of the returns for a picture were from the U.S. And today 65 percent, 70 percent of the returns on a movie, the grosses are from overseas.

Does the future of movies depend on the creative people going along with this?

Yes, well, given this corporate environment, there are several ways that the creative community can respond. On the one hand, the artist can decide, "To hell with it. This is not a filmmaker-friendly environment. We're going off and we're going to rebuild what was once the independent sector of the film business." Now, as you know, most of the so-called independents companies are now owned by majors. Even Miramax is now owned by a major.

So I think it might be that a number of filmmakers will simply say, "We're not happy with the corporate environment. We're going to go off on our own." Or they might do a Steven Soderbergh, who darts back and forth very nimbly between the major companies and the independents. They can follow that model.

But clearly ... you talk to most of the bright young filmmakers in Hollywood today who have already built reputations ... most of them ... they're shying away from making long-term relationships with the major studios. They don't want those encumberments. They want to stay loose and to keep more autonomy. So I think we're beginning to see that backing away.

Is there anything the companies can do to screw it up?

Well, let's think about that. The only thing they can do to screw it up is something they're beginning to do already, and that is let the costs side, both marketing and production, continue to get out of control. I mean, they have tried to cut the inflation and costs on the production side by beating up on everyone except the stars, the big stars making the big money, and the star directors and the star composers and so forth. But the guys in the middle, the character actors, the crews and so forth -- they're the ones who are feeling the crunch. So there's really been an effort to curb production costs, but the effort has been marginally successful.

Marketing costs is the big bugaboo now, because, once again, a generation ago, you opened a picture on six screens, and you bought some newspaper ads. Today, it's 3,000 or 4,000 screens and you spend $30 million, $40 million on just television to open the picture. And it's these companies that own the networks, so they're spending it on themselves, to a degree.

But they're still spending it, and the amount of money they spend to open every picture continues to escalate. It's just an astonishing proportion. If you look at what's being spent to open "Pearl Harbor," I mean, those are big numbers.

So I guess my answer would be that now you know the norm is a hundred-million-dollar picture. It used to be that people would say, "Boy, a hundred-million-dollar picture, that's an exception." There are $200 million pictures going this year. That's why we used to have this little chart every summer [of] how many hundred-million-dollar pictures would be released. Most of the pictures released during the summer have cost, between marketing and production, a hundred million dollars plus.

So could they screw up? The main way they can screw up is simply that the gambles get so outrageous that it just doesn't make sense anymore. And we're well on our way. I mean, the stars' salaries keep going up and so forth. ...

What's the most exciting trend?

On many levels, technology remains the most exciting thing going on in several ways. The rise and fall of the whole dotcom culture was an amazing phenomenon here in Hollywood to observe. On the other hand, the changes being made and that will be made in the next few years in the technology of filmmaking are just astonishing. There will be the digital exhibition of film. There will be more digital filming. There'll be more and more people able to make pictures cheaper and quicker -- maybe not as pretty, but cheaper and quicker.

I mean, there is nothing when you consider the fact that the basic process of shooting a movie was exactly the same between 1920 and 1998. You know, nothing changed. Now, all of a sudden, everything has changed. That is, in many ways, the biggest story. In Hollywood, [is it] change for the better? Who knows? That remains to be seen. But it could change a lot for the better. The changes in technology could loosen the chokehold of the major companies on the pop culture. That's what could happen. ...

You could argue these are the best of times and the worst of times. The best in that there's a lot of money to go around, a lot of pictures being made. There's a lot of employment opportunities, a lot of opportunity. On the other hand, it is a corporate town. It is much tougher to introduce new ideas, to get that level of decision making where you can get the green light for a really interesting creative idea. The town is somewhat more ossified.

But on the other hand, it's here; it's healthy; it's a very healthy booming industry. And there are lots of places that you can hopefully make your mark, in that the people who made those little pictures are now getting an opportunity to make big pictures. Some films being shown on the Internet actually are making their way to the mainstream. So you might argue that there are always chances out there for people who are very lucky and extraordinarily committed.

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