WaxWord

September 2008

September 28, 2008

Celebs Amuse Each Other at Private Political Fundraiser: Steve Martin, Larry David, Ben Affleck

Fundraisergraphic
Did you know Diane Keaton could sing? She doesn't, in public.

But this is the kind of thing celebrities do when no one is looking: they amuse themselves. At a no-media-allowed fundraiser for six Democratic Senate candidates at the home of CAA partner David 'Doc' O'Connor on Saturday night, a crowd of 400 glittering celebrities kicked back and let loose. The evening was a far cry from the serious Obama event in Hollywood a couple of weeks ago, and at a $1,000-plus per head, it was a lot less pricey too. (Over $1 million was raised.)

Martin Short emceed the evening as his alter ego, Jiminy Glick. Marc Shaiman accompanied him on the keyboard, as per usual. Steve Martin led his banjo band in some rousing tunes. Catherine O'Hara killed the crowd with her portrayal of a boozy, over-the-hill singer. Jennifer Garner and Victor Garber sang. Ben Affleck and Sally Field introduced the honorees. But it was Larry David who rocked the house with his introduction of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He explained that he was antithetical to everything Kennedy stood for: the Kennedy family stands for sailing, touch-football, outdoor sports. David's family never, apparently, went outside.

The evening's beneficiaries, candidate Mark Udall of Colorado, Mark Begich of Alaska, and others, were delighted, naturally. Especially when Diane Keaton took up the microphone to sing. She did a whispered chanteuse rendition of "God Bless America."

Sacha Rules the Catwalk: Bruno!

Bruno_2

Sacha Baron-Cohen has been arrested twice now in Milan for crashing his way down the catwalk as he shoots his new cinema verite film as the fashionista character, "Bruno." Here he is in a velcro suit at the Agata Luiz della Prada show. As he was arrested, he covered his head with a green piece of fabric, perhaps to keep more of the film under wraps. I'm sure Universal, who is producing the film, doesn't care that he's wreaking havoc with fake credentials and sneaking past security to get backstage.

If I were going to get myself arrested, it would definitely be in Italy. I'm sure the food in jail is a lot better. And the carabinieri would probably let me call my mother.

Box Office: "EagleEye" No. 1, "Fireproof" finds the Faith-Based Cash

A strong opening for the DreamWorks-Paramount thriller, "EagleEye," at $29.2 million, says Media By Numbers. The film starring Shia LaBeouf was in 3,500 theaters, and averaged $89,319 per theater.

  • "Nights in Rodanthe," from Warner Bros, took in $13.5 million
  • "Lakeview Terrace" dropped 53%, and took in $7 million

The most interesting development at the box office this weekend was the performance of "Fireproof,' a faith-oriented film about a firefighter who finds God as his marriage is falling apart. The Samuel Goldwyn company released it, and the film -- with a $500,000 budget and no-name actors -- took in serious cash, $6.5 million. Tickets were bought in blocks by "action squads," I'm told, and audiences turned out in force in the 839 theaters where the film was shown.

The religious trend in filmmaking has not been delivering on the promise of early efforts, but this film seems to have broken that mold.

September 27, 2008

Anand Jon Trial: Holly Gavel In the CrossHairs

Anand3Trial Update: Two alleged victims of the former designer have testified this month. The first Heather, had a blonde bob and a sweet smile. She testified that when she was just 14 in 2003, Jon tongue-kissed her at a fashion event. She trembled and teared up on the stand. Jon “terrified” her, she said. Under cross-examination, she admitted that at the time of going to the police about the incident, she had not mentioned that she was terrified, a key component in proving sexual assault.

More troublesome was Holly Gavel, who testified that Jon had raped her, but was among the group of 11 who the prosecutors removed just before the trial began. She was nonetheless called to testify, presumably to establish a pattern of Jon’s behavior.

But the prosecutors took a decided risk. Gavel's grand jury was among the least believable of those I read earlier this year, and she was similarly problematic on the stand. The 20-year-old detailed how Jon raped her in 2006, including oral and anal sex. But under two hours of cross-examination by Tony Brooklier, she seemed unable to remember much of what was asked of her. By one count, she said “I don’t remember” or ”I don’t know” more than 70 times.

Brooklier: “Why didn’t you ask for help?”

Gavel: “I don’t recall.”

And later:

Brooklier: “Isn’t it true that you have been lying throughout your testimony?

Gavel: “I don’t recall.”

Gavel lived with Anand Jon, paid him rent, and worked as his assistant. After she was supposedly raped by Jon, she went with his mother and sister to India. Why? “I wanted to get away,” she testified, “and AIDS awareness is a very important thing people need to know about.”

Victims who are not credible are not value-neutral in this trial. They will tip the balance in favor of the defendant, whether or not he is guilty, and whether or not other plaintiffs are credible. One wonders what prosecutors believe that witnesses like Holly add to the case. If her story is not strong enough to stand up under scrutiny, witnesses like this, with fantastic tales of assault and weak rejoinders under cross, lend weight to the argument of the defense, that there is some kind of vendetta at work in this case.

Next week – more victims.

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Overheard at Starbucks on Montana

Bobby Shriver, brother of Maria, son of Eunice Kennedy and Sargent, wearing a large "Bobby Shriver, City Council" pin. The local Santa Monica election looms. Shriver, an incumbent on the council, is certain to keep his seat.

Bobby: "Are you going to vote for me?"

Me: "Of course I'm going to vote for you, Bobby."

Bobby: "Are you going to tell all your friends to vote for me? I want to win big."

Me, turning to Peter Mehlman, lead writer on "Seinfeld," white hair emerging horizontally from under a baseball cap: "Will you vote for him?"

Peter (noncommittal): "If I ever win an Oscar, I'm going to say in my speech, 'I'm glad I won, but I really wanted to win by a lot.'"

Peter has been nominated for 8 Emmys. He has not won yet.

Bobby: "I want to win by a lot."

(Scuffle as Bobby attempts a rib-jab at me. Non-fat cappucino arrives.)

Paul Newman: 1925-2008

Paul_newman

A giant passes. I was sure he was immortal. A native of my hometown, Cleveland, Ohio, Newman brought us romance, intelligence, wit and the epitome of leading man sex appeal. As he aged, he never lost those qualities. Sadly, there's not a soul like him on screen today.

Rest in Peace, Paul Newman.

September 26, 2008

Financial Turmoil Will Not Stop the "Dreamgirls" Oscars

Folks, I've been away all week building The Wrap News, now playing catch-up on the actual news. From what I hear, the financial markets are a mess.  Billions on the line for the banks, credit impossible to get for the average business, new banks about to crumble. Something about McCain, and a debate.

Never fear: the Oscars are coming! The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced that the team that brought you "DreamGirls" -- producer Laurence Mark and writer-director Bill Condon -- will be in charge of this year's show, in February.

Dreamgirls_2

Does this mean a musical production? Back to the days of the "best song" interpreted in dance moves? Clearly, Academy director Sid Ganis is looking for fresh ideas for a telecast that, like most award shows, has been losing audience. This year's Oscars attracted the lowest audience since ratings began to be tallied in 1974; it was seen by about 32 million viewers.

The question is -- can anything that Mark and Condon do make a difference? The biggest problem, year after year, has been the movies themselves. This year was an audience killer, with the subtlely-themed, brutally violent "No Country For Old Men" dominating the awards. (Its rival, "There Will Be Blood," was not exactly cheery, mainstream entertainment either.)Oscar 

Unfortunately for the producers, this year's early Oscar buzz does not point to any particular production as raising the glamour quotient of our one annual national event that is supposed to be all about glamour. "Milk"? "Choke"? "Zach and Miri Make a Porno"?

The gifted Mark Condon and cheery Laurence Mark will certainly give it their best shot. But I think you can pretty much rule out Jon Stewart as a host.

September 22, 2008

Does SAG Have Your Money? $25 Mill in Unclaimed Cash (Part I)

Saggraphic2 Michael Douglas, do you know where your money is?

Twenty-five million dollars. That’s the sum the Screen Actors Guild says it owes you, and thousands of your fellow actors. In answer to questions from Waxword, the guild acknowledged last week that it is holding millions of dollars in unclaimed residual payments owed to actors, both members and non-members of the union.

While noting that this is a large sum, a lawyer for SAG said that the guild has been unable to locate performers who have moved, or are unable to pay actors whose financial affairs may be in dispute.

“When performers move or change professional representation, they may fail to inform SAG of the new contact information,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, general counsel for the guild. “For others there may be legal disputes over their residuals, including business disputes or family law issues.”

But few would imagine that there are thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of actors on the guild’s list who cannot be found or whose affairs are in dispute. A visit to the union’s web-site, www.sag.org, reveals that this $25,136,877 belongs to 66,848 actors. (The number can be tallied by clicking on each letter of the alphabet and adding up the figures. Membership in SAG is required to access the website.)

The sum came to light when Waxword queried the guild about the unclaimed residuals, brought to a reporter’s attention by a SAG member, Eric Hughes. Hughes has challenged the guilds over allegedly missing foreign levy payments, and has been involved in resulting lawsuits filed against SAG and other guilds. Crabtree-Ireland said the residual money is held in a trust separate from the guild’s other finances. A spokeswoman could not confirm the total number of actors who are owed residuals. They did not comment on what happens to the annual interest on this unclaimed sum.

Among the vast list of actors who have not claimed residual payments are some of Hollywood’s most famous figures, both living and deceased.

Among deceased actors are: Natalie Wood, Richard Burton, Dirk Bogarde, Deborah Kerr, Lana Turner, Simone Signoret, Frank Sinatra, Robert Taylor, Tallulah Bankhead, Jayne Mansfield, Alan Ladd, Roy Rogers, Joseph Cotten and even the former president of SAG, Charlton Heston.

The also include comedy stars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. They include Judy Garland, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable.

Two political titans are on the list: John F. Kennedy, who appeared in a documentary called “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,” and his brother, Ted Kennedy.

Among the actors who are alive are many boldface names, whose whereabouts are common knowledge in Hollywood, and who have business managers and agents prominent in the industry. They include Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Paxton, Beatrice Arthur, Michael Douglas, Patrick Dempsey, Dr. Dre and RuPaul.

The list also includes Eric Bogosian, who was just elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild. It is unclear how the guild can claim that he cannot be located.

Many famous foreign actors are also on the list, including Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ian McKellen.

Crabtree-Ireland said that SAG has staff working full-time, trying to locate actors to pay unclaimed residuals.

“For deceased performers, there are often disputes over entitlement to their estate's assets (including residuals) or the estate may have failed to provide the documentation required for SAG to turn over residuals to the executor or beneficiaries,” he said.

But in the case of Alan Ladd, who is on the list, his principal heir is the producer Alan Ladd, Jr.  A family spokesman said he could not understand how the guild could justify not finding the family.

“It’s kind of astonishing that they don’t know,” said John Gatti, an entertainment lawyer who is married to Alan Ladd’s granddaughter. “Alan Ladd, Jr has been employing SAG members for the last 40 years as a studio executive and producer. For them to say they don’t know where the heirs of Alan Ladd are is just not believable.”

Gatti added that there is no dispute in the estate of Alan Ladd.

Other deceased actors on the list have well-known heirs, including Lloyd Bridges, whose children are famous actors. Judy Garland, who died in poverty, has daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, who are easily located, along with a third child, Joey Luft. Princess Yasmin Khan is the sole surviving daughter of Rita Hayworth, who has unclaimed monies.

The guild declined to respond to individual cases of unclaimed residuals.

Sid Ganis, the president of the Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said he was surprised at the sum of unclaimed residuals, and that the guild said it could not find so many actors.

“That’s a huge sum,” he said. “Twenty five million dollars of unclaimed residuals is huge, given that actors consider their residuals a big part of their income.”

He said it should not be that difficult to locate actors. “It seems odd. You can track almost everybody,” he said. “We do that all the time when we are looking at the path of an Oscar once a recipient is deceased. They should know how to trace them. The world of SAG knows where Claudette Colbert lives.”

But Claudette Colbert, who died in 1996, is indeed on the list for having unclaimed funds.

Said Crabtree-Ireland: “There are some well-known actors who leave the industry or take time off and may be more difficult to find than one might expect. SAG has a professional staff in our Trusts & Estates Department who work full-time to find performers and to help them claim their residuals.”

There is reason to believe, however, that this $25 million does not represent residual payments at all. That and other questions raised by this revelation will be explored in Part II.

HBO Sets Another Record: 13 Emmys

JohnadamsIn the course of human events, the Emmy awards have come to be a franchise mostly owned by HBO. Every year for the past decade and maybe more, the pay cable network has come to dominate the annual television awards, whether with “The Sopranos,” which won year after year, or “Six Feet Under,” or their feature-length movies, or their “Band of Brothers” mini-series. Reliably interesting, consistently willing to explore, HBO manages every year – even recently, when the network has lost some of its creative spark – to put the broadcast networks and everybody else on television to shame.Hbo 

So it’s no surprise that at the annual awards for the best television of the year, HBO broke its own record last night, taking in a total of 13 Emmys for its seven-part series about America’s second president, “John Adams.” The series featured stunning lead performances from a brooding Paul Giamatti, who won best actor in the category for the title role, and Laura Linney, who won best actress in a miniseries for her portrayal of flinty Abigail Adams. The total bested HBO’s previous record of 11 Emmys in 2004, the year of its series about AIDS, “Angels in America.”

With so many years of Emmy statues lining the shelves of HBO, what is it that keeps other networks from following HBO’s creative lead? The cable channel is freed of the tyranny of nightly ratings, true, and has hundreds of millions in subscription revenues to bankroll its slate. But not every effort takes hundreds of millions of dollars (and something tells me “John Adams” was not the most expensive production at HBO last year.). For decades now, HBO has invested in its brand. It has steered clear of fad programming. It has invested, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, in a scarce commodity in the television universe: quality.

HBO didn’t rule every category last night. Other awards spread around the tv dial included best drama for “Mad Men,” the AMC series set in New York’s advertising world in the early 1960s, and best comedy to “30 Rock” – the NBC show that has teetered on the cusp of cancellation. Tina Fey won best actress and best writer in a comedy series for “30 Rock.” AMC had another winner, this one unexpected, in the best actor award for Bryan Cranston, who plays an ailing high school teacher with a crystal meth habit on “Breaking Bad.”

Congratulations HBO, and thanks for giving us something to watch (and would you mind making "Entourage" less raunchy so my kids could watch it?).  Would that other networks follow suit.

            

September 20, 2008

DreamWorks and Reliance Close their Deal: Hollywood Faces a Sea Change

Reliance It's official. The DreamWorks dream team is leaving Paramount and has signed a deal to make movies over the next several years with the huge Indian media conglomerate, Reliance.

The deal ends an acrimonious three-year relationship with Paramount. Predictably, this has been the focus of the media coverage: the tit-for-tat, ego-centric, who-won-and-who-lost scorecard. Did Paramount lose more, or did DreamWorks? Who should be more embarrassed? Did Geffen fail? Did Brad Grey? Is Sumner peeved?

This coverage misses the huge shift in the Hollywood landscape that the Reliance deal may ultimately herald. It provides Steven Spielberg and his colleagues with a total of $1.2 billion to bankroll their company and make new movies, $500 million from Reliance ADA, and $700 million in bank-financed credit.

This is an unprecedented alliance, and I believe it heralds the start of a new era. Hollywood's most sought-after nexus of creativity and influence is combining forces with a media powerhouse in a rising market abroad. By sinking billions of dollars into their media and entertainment strategies, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have opened yet another new frontier of influence, and it has broad implications for the movie industry in a period when the fundamentals of the industry are shifting.

The Old Hollywood is dying. A New, hybrid Hollywood is rising to take its place. Those who want a place in that new cosmos ought to be paying attention. The crisis in American banking only underscores the reality that credit is going to become ever tighter within our borders. The vistas of growth are abroad, and they predominate in cash-rich markets where American film has a relatively low profile.

As for the tit-for-tatness of it all, Variety's story has more details, and seems to take the view that this deal somehow works in favor of Paramount, which I don't quite get. Either way, Paramount is holding on to the properties developed at DreamWorks, since it did indeed buy the studio. Meanwhile Paramount announced that it had "waived" certain provisions of its original deal, in order to "facilitate" getting DreamWorks out the door.

Box Office Down by 10 Percent

The Box Office has been looking peaked all summer, and now that it's fall, it's not picking up perceptibly.

The early estimates for this weekend put the total box office figure down by at least 10 percent from last year, and down significantly from last week.

The early numbers indicate that "Lakeview Terrace," with Samuel L. Jackson, will take in $14.5 million.
The Coen Brothers' farce, "Burn After Reading," will take in $11.2 million.

That's it for double digits at the box office. The rest are:

"My Best Friend's Girl" $8.3 million

"Igor" $7.8 million

"Righteous Kill" and Tyler Perry's latest, around $7 million each.

"The Women" from Warner Bros is a real bomb, taking in $5.9 million this week.

Final numbers tomorrow.

September 18, 2008

SAG Election Results: Amy Brenneman and Morgan Fairchild Make the Grade; so does Sacha Baron-Cohen's brother!

The election results for the Screen Actors Guild are in. Here's the list from the SAG website:

  • Board members elected from the Hollywood Division:

Amy Brenneman, Adam Arkin, JoBeth Williams, Scott Bakula, Ken Howard, Lainie Kazan, Kate Walsh, Keith Carradine, Joely Fisher, Morgan Fairchild and Pamela Reed (all three-year terms.)

Joe Bologna, Marcia Wallace, Dule Hill, Doug Savant, Clancy Brown, Gabrielle Carteris, Clyde Kusatsu, L. Scott Caldwell, Ashley Crow, Ned Vaughn, Richard Speight, Jr., Alan Ruck, Stacey Travis, Jane Austin, France Nuyen, Anthony DeSantis, Eugene Boggs, Tim DeKay, Bill Smitrovich, Charles Shaughnessy, Assaf Cohen, and Yale Summers were elected to serve as national board alternates and to the Hollywood division board of directors (all one-year terms).

  • Board members elected from the New York Division:

Sam Robards, Rebecca Damon, Matt Servitto, Traci Godfrey, Mark Blum. (all three-year terms).

Jack Landròn, Eric Bogosian, Ralph Byers, Joe Narciso, John Rothman, Jay Potter, Kevin Scullin, Marc Baron, and Manny Alfaro were elected to serve as national board alternates and to the New York Division board of directors (all one-year terms.)

September 17, 2008

SAG Poll: Keep Negotiating. AMPTP: Your Poll's No Good

A self-selecting poll by the Screen Actors Guild of 10,298 its members came up with fairly predictable results: 87 percent favor continuing to negotiate. Another 12.7 percent would like to accept the $250 million package offered by the studios and producing companies, represented by the AMPTP.

The AMPTP took about five minutes to reject the poll as a "farce," and the results as "meaningless." The stalemate wears on; Hollywood continues at a slow-go pace, and actors remain without a contract.

Obama on the Cheap: Pierce Brosnan - Magic Johnson???

Magic UPDATE: Ron Howard, it turns out, may yet become the ambassador to Portugal. I'm informed that he did BUY two tickets to the dinner last night, but did not attend because he is shooting "Angels & Demons" every day. His wife Cheryl and daughter Bryce went in his stead, sitting with Brian Grazer and Jim Wiatt, who also may have a shot at a fancy posting. (But wait -- do we really want Brian as our diplomat-on-the-loose?)

Still, apologies to all those who emptied their checkbooks and were not acknowledged.

Earlier: Obama is Ronhoward_2 not about to forget this soon. When the going got rough, some people in Hollywood reached deep and handed over... $250?

Only some of the rich and famous in Hollywood went to the Obama fund-raising dinner last night in Beverly Hills, and paid $28,500 each for the privilege of helping The One defeat the Palin-McCain machine.

They included all three cofounders of DreamWorks - David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. Stars like Leonardo diCaprio, Will Ferrell and Tobey Maguire. The evening netted a record $9 million for the candidate.

But some got away dirt cheap, and showed up later to a fundraiser-concert with Barbra Streisand crooning bits of tunes, apparently, rather than whole songs. (That would cost a whole lot more than $250, methinks.) So - Ron Howard? You've been duly noted. You too, Magic Johnson. Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Silverman too. You folks can kiss those hoped-for European ambassadorships good-bye.

September 16, 2008

The L.A. Times Sues Itself

In an astonishing turn in the sad saga of the Los Angeles Times, a group of ex-reporters have filed a lawsuit against Sam Zell and the Tribune Company.  A federal, class-action lawsuit, no less. I will comment on this down the line, but for the moment, have a look at Kevin Roderick's account of this development, and the press release that details their complaints. And to think that just months ago, many L.A. Times reporters and editors who I know celebrated Zell's purchase of the paper.

Meet Hollywood's Newest Billionaire Player: The Abu Dhabi Media Company

BorgerdingHollywood has a new player and he’s in Abu Dhabi. Edward Borgerding, CEO of the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), will spend $1 billion making movies over the next five years. Last week at the Toronto Film Festival, he revealed his first partner to be Participant Media, representing $125 million of that investment.

In a telephone interview from Abu Dhabi, where he was fasting for the month of Ramadan, Borgerding laid out his filmmaking goals, the kinds of movies he would like to make, and the global media ambitions of Abu Dhabi. He said that two more partnerships will be announced in the coming weeks and that, yes, he has producers lined up outside his door.

Q: Why is the Abu Dhabi government, which owns ADMC, interested in making movies?

A: We’re a media company. We create and distribute content, so it’s natural to invest in the creation of content. The goals are nothing more than that. We’re a commercial company. We operate for profit, but it’s more like the BBC. You don’t necessarily notice that we’re a government company. The opportunity we see is to invest in global content. The deal with Warner Bros was the first manifestation of that strategy.

Q: Let’s talk about that. You have a deal with Warner Bros regarding gaming, but the $1 billion reserved to make movies will not be with a major Hollywood studio. Why is that?

A: There’s nothing wrong with studios. We value our relationship with Warner Bros. But

I think even the studios now are more financing and distribution companies….They deal with lots and lots of companies. We’re doing the same thing. To some extent, when you put in with those very managed environments, you’re not going to capture fresh new talent. Fresh new talent comes from more independent environments. For us to manage our portfolio, numerically and creatively, it’s interesting for us to deal with companies like Participant, where we can have access to storytelling and storytellers. That’s what’s  exciting about the film industry.

We also are looking at doing films in world cinema, with projects in China and India. The

money we have is enough to allow us to participate in a lot of places at once. It’s an awful lot of money.

Q: What are the long term goals of this investment in film?

A:  A lot of what we hope to achieve is to help develop the skills required to build a film industry here. You can hire a few directors. But if you teach people the basic skills to produce content, then the industry can sustain itself in Abu Dhabi for 50 or 100 years.

Participant will be opening an office in Abu Dhabi , as will our partners. We will develop projects here. We will learn from best of class professionalism. It’s part of a lot of things going on in Abu Dhabi. It’s a meritocracy now. Not patronage. The success of Abu Dhabi has to be based on productivity, and best of class business practices. 

Q: What kinds of movies do you intend to make?

A: Primarily I run a business. I’m looking for movies that will make money. We’re going to try to make commercial movies. I think there will be a wide gamut of genres. We are looking for the right stories, told the right way..

Q: Would you make, for example, an R rated comedy? Are there religious restrictions on the films you would make?

A: We’re not going to do anything that’s insulting to the culture that we come from. But 99.9% of movies made in Hollywood are released here in Abu Dhabi and don’t insult anybody. I don’t think that’s an issue. For the kinds of stories we want to make, we’re not going to have to go there (to R rated territory). Most successful movies in the financial sense have been G and PG: ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Gandhi,’ ‘Lord of the Rings.’

Q: Would you back a major production like a ‘Lord of the Rings’?

A:  I don’t think we’ll be in the studio business of launching $200 million summer tentpole movies and hoping against hope they succeed.

Q: What’s your favorite movie of the past few years?

A: I loved ‘Gandhi’. I love movies like ‘Chariots of Fire’. ‘Dances with Wolves’. ‘Star Wars’. I like comedies. I couldn’t sit through ‘Borat’. We won’t be making ‘Borat 2’.

                                                            ####

September 15, 2008

Wall Street Jitters in Hollywood

Frankfurtstockexchangebearmarket The turmoil in Wall Street banking is having a palpable ripple effect in Hollywood. My phone is ringing with executives sounding nervous for themselves and their business.

As credit has dried up for the movie industry, the failure of more banking institutions does not bode well for the industry, which has taken to financing its movies by outsiders in recent years.

All of this only serves to focus the mind on the electoral campaign in full swing. Those who support Obama - which is most of the entertainment industry - see the latest bad news involving Lehman Bros and Merrill Lynch (and soon, perhaps, for the likes of Washington Mutual) as an urgent sign of the need for change.

Let's see if they put their hands in their pockets at the Obama fundraiser this week, hosted by Jeffrey Katzenberg, with Barbra Streisand headlining entertainment. At $58,000 a pair of tickets, attendees might need to call their brokers.

September 14, 2008

Now There's Nine: Anand Jon Trial Opens

Anand2_2 “I am my own God. I can get whatever I want.”

Thus did deputy district attorney Frances Young quote the target of her prosecution, former designer Anand Jon, whose trial on multiple rape charges opened on Friday.

The prosecutor used a power point presentation, with the previous quote as one of the slides, to paint a picture of Jon as a predatory sex fiend. For well over an hour, she distilled the most graphic testimony of plaintiffs who gave grand jury testimony a year ago, describing how Jon lured them to his apartment, and then assaulted them sexually. Young offered up a glimpse of the coming argument as to why almost none of these victims went to the police, or why many of them followed Jon to other cities. "Human reactions to trauma," read the card, "Fight, flight, freeze."

Before getting started, though, Young asked the judge to drop yet another plaintiff from the original list of 20 women accusing Jon of assault. That struck four more counts against him, leaving just 25 alleged crimes against nine women. Defense attorney Leonard Levine told reporters this was a sign that the prosecution's case "was falling apart."

Only two women remain accusing him of the most serious charge, forcible rape.

Still. Nine women, if they are credible, are more than enough to put Jon away for the rest of his life. And the visual evidence, if circumstantial, is highly emotive; Young showed a videotape of Jon asking a 17-year-old to take off her clothes.

Throughout, Jon sat at the defense table, dressed in a suit, without a discernable reaction.

His lawyer, Levine, responded with a power-point of his own. "What are the issues?" read one card. "Where is the evidence?" read another.

The jury, comprising 6 women and 10 men (including four alternates) and with a racial mix, will have a challenging task ahead of them. Monday will bring the first witnesses, the victims themselves. In the absence of physical evidence to convict Jon, their testimony will be the whole case. Stay tuned.

September 13, 2008

The Chatsworth Train Tragedy, by Alcorn

Train_ja_11 This gripping image by Jonathan Alcorn is from the tragic train wreck in Chatsworth, California, which as of now has claimed 23 lives. It is expected to claim more before the search is through.

No clear word yet as to the cause, but it appears that the commuter train missed a red signal, placing it on the same track as a freight train. Said a spokeswoman for Metrolink, the commuter line: "Our preliminary investigation shows it was a Metrolink engineer that failed to stop at a red signal and was the probable cause of the accident."

Alcorn's photos were taken for the New York Times, and more of his vivid images can be seen at his blog.

Finally, Box Office Perky: Tyler Perry Rules, $19 Million for "Burn After Reading"?

Tyler_perry_3

I want to be in the Tyler Perry business. This guy just can't miss. His latest film, "The Family that Preys Together," which has been completely off the general admission radar, but is clearly anticipated in his niche audience, is estimated to nab the top spot at the box office this weekend, according to my studio sources.

Early estimates put "Prey" at $21 million for the weekend, with "Burn After Reading" close behind. And just for the record books, the film stars Perry along with a couple of middle-aged broads, Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates - not exactly box office bait. This is after hitting it earlier this year with "Meet the Browns," starring another middle-aged hottie, Angela Bassett. Let's hear it for middle-aged broads!

The Coen Brothers' new oeuvre, "Burn After Reading," did strong business, considering they have never been mainstream filmmakers (although they did win Best Picture this year with "No Country for Old Men"). The spy-exercise spoof starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney and the always-sublime Frances McDormand will take in $19 million. A subtle, smart and hilarious film like this is usually doomed at the box office. Perhaps the prospect of seeing Brad Pitt in shorts was enough.

Of Note: a disastrous opening for "The Women," the Warner Bros film that had been left to gather dust on a shelf, and won new life with the success of "Sex in the City." It took in $11 million. (All I can think: more plastic surgery?)

"Righteous Kill," starring De Niro and Pacino, will take in about $17 million. The Nic Cage stinker "Bangkok Dangerous," a mere $2 million in its second week.

A very good weekend for Hollywood, overall, high above last year's box office take, and a welcome bounce-back from last weekend's low.

Will update the numbers as they come in.

September 12, 2008

Producers Strike Accord With Casting Directors

The organization representing Hollywood studios and production companies - the Association of Motion Picture and Televison Producers -- has reached a tenative agreement for a new contract with casting directors, the AMPTP announced today.

Presumably the announcement is meant to highlight the fact that the companies have yet to make any progress at all with the Screen Actors Guild, which is still working -- if at a grindingly slow pace -- without a contract.

September 10, 2008

Hollywood East: Abu Dhabi Finances Do-Good Movies

Abudhabi_3 We should start calling it Hollywood East. The Abu Dhabi Media Company announced yet another major film fund today, this one a $250 million partnership with Jeff Skoll's Participant Productions  Media to make 15 to 18 feature films over the next five years, according to the release.

The deal was announced today in Toronto at the film festival between Edward Borgerding, of ADMC, and Jim Berk, the CEO of Participant.

This fit is not intuitive, I must say. Participant focuses on making socially conscious films, like "Darfur Now," and "An Inconvenient Truth," and "Syriana."

It's not clear what Abu Dhabi is seeking to accomplish with this filmmaking fund. But outside financiers such as these are usually motivated by the allure of Hollywood glamour along with the dazzle of robust profit (and both are often ephemeral). Participant's films, while noble in their intentions and often high quality in their execution, do not fall into this category. That said, this is a much-needed shot in the arm for independent film.

This is the second major announcement by the government-owned Abu Dhabi media venture in the space of a week, the first being a $1 billion filmmaking fund that will be divided among Hollywood studios. (See previous "New Money: Abu Dhabi Goes Hollywood.) We should be paying attention to the fact that this is a government-owned fund, what the implications may be in terms of the kinds of films that will be financed, and the cultural impact these films will be likely to have.

Perhaps Mr. Borgerding will enlighten us soon enough with insights into the motivation behind this flurry of funding.

Soderbergh's "Che" Bought by IFC

Che11_2 Steven Soderbergh's epic biography of the revolutionary Che Guevara, titled "Che," has been acquired by IFC Films for distribution in North America, the company announced. It is currently screening at the Toronto Film Festival.

This is undoubtedly a welcome relief for the director and producers -- his star Benicio del Toro with producer Laura Bickford -- who have been trying to sell distribution rights for months. The film debuted at Cannes to a warm reception -- del Toro won the top acting award for his performance.

But it is looooong, possibly the longest film in recent Hollywood history: four hours and 18 minutes at Cannes. (I'm checking if it's shorter yet.) The film is 15 minutes shorter than the Cannes version, I'm told by a spokesperson. Soderbergh initially thought to release it in two parts, but at Cannes insisted he wanted it to screen as a single oeuvre.

Apparently he has now seen the light of compromise. The film, I am told by one of its representatives, can be broken into two separate parts. It will be screened for Oscar consideration in late December as a single film, but will have the option of being shown in two parts once in theaters in January. No decision yet on which way it will be presented in wider release, as one film or two.

September 09, 2008

A Director for the Met: A Young European

After 31 years of the leadership of the legendary Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York went in-house, and young, and British.

Thomas Campbell, a 46-year-old curator in the department of European sculpture and decorative arts, was the talent behind the Met's quiet blockbuster in 2002, "Tapestry in the Renaissance," and the young prince tapped for one of the most important jobs in art scholarship and preservation in the world.

Leading lights in the art world like Neil MacGregor at the British Museum, or Michael Govan here at the L.A. County Museum of Art, were passed over, as was reported finalist Max Hollein, of the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt.

The choice of Campbell, who is young and untested as a leader, may reflect a desire for change and dynamism (can we call it the Obama effect?). But he is nonetheless rooted in the very traditional, Eurocentric traditions of museum scholarship. Will he have the vision to take the Met through the challenges that it and other encyclopaedic museums are facing in the 21st century?

I, for one, hope that Campbell will consider a fundamental change in the museum's posture when it comes to its own history of collecting and provenance. Greater transparency, and a sharing of this history with the public, is necessary for the Met to be worthy of its reputation as one of the finest museums in the world. More on this, of course, when "Loot" is published.

September 07, 2008

MSNBC to Olbermann: We Love You! We Hate You! We Love You!

Olbermann1 An identity crisis reigns at MSNBC. The network was sure it had found a niche when the ratings finally climbed out of the 25,000 viewer range this year. Who was the savior? None other than that master of the elegant put-down, host Keith Olbermann, combined with the pit bull interrogations of Hardball-man, Chris Matthews.

In the Year of Obama, this one-two punch seemed to put NBC-Universal's also-ran cable network on the map. It gave it an identity. MSNBC would be the foil to the right-leaning Fox. Viewers would tune in to a leftie, Hillary-hating network. All those HuffPo bloggers would have a friend on the cable air-waves. The journalism aspect of it didn't matter so much in the face of hard facts for Olbermann: ratings reaching beyond 1 million viewers.

The cable network seemed to confirm its embrace of its new left-wing status just three weeks ago, when it yanked veteran anchor Dan Abrams off the air in favor of Olbermann's protege, Rachel Maddow.

But now, what's this? As Brian Stelter reports in tomorrow's New York Times, it is neither Olbermann nor Matthews who will anchor news coverage of the debates and election night. Instead it is the vanilla stylings of David Gregory, whose daily show at 6 pm, "Race to the White House," has been a decided snooze.

What gives? It turns out that NBC is not so comfortable showcasing two big personalities with clearly defined political sympathies. More to the point, the tension between the two anchors had spilled out into the open, and led to questioning by the more traditional news staff at NBC.

Writes Stelter: "The coverage frequently descended into on-air squabbles between the anchors, embarrassing some workers at NBC’s news division, and quite possibly alienating viewers."

Two noted turning points in the past week: Brian Williams on the Jon Stewart Show, was asked by the host about the squabbling at MSNBC. Willliams blanched, squirmed, smiled broadly, and asked, "Are you serious?" Then there was that surprising moment at the Republican National Convention when the delegates actually began chanting "NBC, NBC," when veep nominee Sarah Palin took aim at the media.

It is difficult indeed to hew to old-fashioned principles of bias-free coverage when the ratings favor entertainment and spin. Here's my favorite quote from the Stelter piece: “MSNBC is behaving like a heroin addict,” one senior staff member observed. “They’re living from fix to fix and swearing they’ll go into rehab the next week.”   

September 06, 2008

'The Wrestler' Wins Venice; Hotter at Toronto

Wrestler I had heard strong buzz about this film in Toronto, and apparently there's good cause for it. Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," with Mickey Rourke in the title role, just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

The film is about a retired wrestler making his way through the independent circuit, hoping to make it back into the mainstream. This might be the story of Aronofsky himself, a talented maverick with early success ("Pi," "Requiem for a Dream"), who stumbled painfully when he hit the mainstream. In the wake of his big-budget debacle at Warner Bros, "The Fountain,"  Aronofsky has gone back to his scrappy, indie roots.  This movie was financed on a wing and a prayer, and the distribution rights are up for sale in the United States, but something tells me: not for long.

(Incidentally, Aronofsky must be in a pugilistic mood. He currently has a film in pre-production called "The Fighter.")

Update: Box Office is Bluer than Blue

Sunday Update: Not only is this the worst earning weekend of the year, it's the worst-earning weekend since 2003. The top 12 pictures in release took in a total of $51.6 million, according to Media By Numbers, worse than every year in recent memory except 2003, "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" ruled the box office.

The Nicolas Cage action picture, "Bangkok Dangerous," did even worse than early estimates indicated, taking in a feeble $7.8 million for LionsGate, according to Media By Numbers. This former A-list star has had precipitous ups and downs at the box office in recent years, and it's more down than up.

The only thing to cheer Cage up might be that Vin Diesel had as bad a weekend as he did. "Babylon A.D." took in $4 million, for a two-week cumulative grand total of $17 million.

Overture's Don Cheadle film, "Traitor," is also a bust, dropping a vertigo-inducing 318 percent this weekend, and taking in just $4.6 million in more than 2,000 theaters. Cheadle is Oscar bait, sure, but as a leading man he has not proven to be a draw.

"Tropic Thunder" is still holding up, taking in $7.5 million.

"The House Bunny," which we presume cost $3.50, took in $5.9 million, and has racked up $37 million at the box office for Sony.

"The Dark Knight" continues to soar past a $500 million domestic total at the box office, now at $512 million after this weekend.

PREVIOUSLY:

Apparently this weekend will be one of the worst of the year, nothing is cracking $10 million. Early estimates from my studio sources:

  • Bangkok Dangerous $8.5 million
  • Tropic Thunder $6.5 million
  • House Bunny $5.5 million
  • Dark Knight $5.5 million

The year to date domestic gross is running behind 2007, though not by much. 

September 05, 2008

Wagner gone, UA Gets Moving, Buys Bestseller: the Backstory

Monster

Within weeks of Paula Wagner's exit of United Artists, the studio appears to have gotten some get-up-and-go, buying the option rights to the best-selling thriller by Douglas Preston, "The Monster of Florence" for a six-figure sum.

Coincidence? We think not. Here's the backstory: screenwriter Chris McQuarrie, who wrote "Valkyrie" for United Artists, has had an option on Preston's book for over a year. He befriended the writer back in 2006, when Preston wrote the story of the Italian serial killer for The Atlantic Monthly, and got a handshake deal to develop a screenplay.

The book came out while Tom Cruise was busy shooting "Valkyrie" last year, and became a huge hit, spending two months on the New York Times bestseller list. Studios came after the rights, but McQuarrie had gotten there first. McQuarrie gave Tom Cruise the book, who liked it.

So why has it taken 10 months to make the deal? Good question. I asked MGM, they declined to comment. I asked a spokeswoman for United Artists, they said: "Tom made the decision, with Don Granger, the head of production," said the spokeswoman.

Sort of. Three people on different sides of the decision-making process confirm that it was Granger and MGM that got this deal done. "It was a mixture of Harry [Sloan] and Mary [Parent]," the top executives at MGM, said one of these individuals. By the way, McQuarrie will both write and produce the project. Cruise is not envisioned either as producer or star in the story, whose main character is the serial killer who terrorized Florence between 1968 and 1985.

The secondary character, who is not a murderer, is Mario Spezi, the Italian crime reporter who dogged the story for three decades, and contributed to the book.

Full disclosure: Preston, an acquaintance, has written a blurb for my new book, "Loot."

September 04, 2008

Toronto Opens: Acquisitions Already

The 33rd Toronto International Film Festival opens tonight in the Canadian metropolis, with the dollar at dismal near-parity with her Canadian facismile.

Yours truly is not there, being tied to her desk and ever so busy building The Wrap News. The festival, the unofficial opening of the serious movie season, will last until September 13.

But wait! Already four acquisitions were announced today, ahead of opening night, according to IndieWire:

  • Strand Releasing took the U.S. rights to Terence Davies' "Of Time and City," which will have its North American debut during the festival
  • Cinema Guild picked up the U.S. rights to Jia Zhangke's "24 City."
  • Brillante Mendoza's "Serbis" was picked up by Regent Releasing in North America.
  • Samuel Goldwyn Films announced its acquisition of U.S. rights to Rachel Samuels' "Dark Streets."

TO PR FOLKS IN TORONTO: I may not be there, but I still care. Please call or, preferably, email when you've got acquisitions to announce, bidding wars won. We'll post them here.

Voir Dire for Anand Jon

UPDATE 9/6/08: Jury selection was completed on Friday. Opening statements are scheduled for next Friday, Sept. 12.

PREVIOUSLY: The trial of Anand Jon has begun in Los Angeles Superior Court downtown. As promised, I will be posting updates on the case. Yesterday and today lawyers dealt with procedural matters and arguments over whose and how many computers police seized from Jon's apartment. Today voir dire began, the process of jury selection. Judge David S. Wesley cleared the courtroom, so no reports yet from that process.

Opening statements are set for September 12.

(Thanks to Los Angeles Magazine for linking to these posts through the trial, at www.lamag.com.)

Shelby White Objets Returned to Greece

Update: My colleague David Gill writes in to observe that Greece has not, in fact, ruled out legal action against Shelby White, despite the return of these pieces. See his link in Comments on the reconstruction of the fragmented tombstone. Stele_composite (Photo is a composite of the two pieces, with thanks to Gill.)

Earlier:

Shelby White, the New York-based art collector and donor, has returned two pieces from her private collection to Greece, Reuters reports. This is in addition to items White has already returned to Italy, and which puts her out of further legal jeopardy.

The items, a bronze vase from the fourth-century B.C. and the upper part of a marble tombstone, have been put on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The tombstone will eventually be reunited with a lower fragment, which is housed at the Museum of Vravrona, meaning the tombstone can be exhibited as a whole for the first time. No word on how this monument came to be dismantled in the first place.

The Washington Post Tips Reader to "Loot"

From today's Washington Post, a nod to "Loot" as a book to watch for this fall:

Fall Books Preview

BY Marie Arana  |  AUGUST 31, 2008

There is special pleasure in pawing through books before they publish and imagining the insights they'll bring. Consider the years of work and accumulated wisdom that have gone into producing the 116 that follow. Here is a treasure trove of knowledge, from a chronicle of the White House war room to the artistry of Marc Chagall. Here, too, is a world of the imagination, from the slave trade as conjured by Toni Morrison to the nervous '50s with Philip Roth. This is but a mere fragment, a scattered sampling of what's in store for our readers as we head into the busiest season of the year.

Artistic Pursuits

  • Breakdowns, by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, Oct.). The creator of Maus looks back at the mad, MAD '60s.
  • Chagall, by Jackie Wullschlager (Knopf, Oct.). Born dirt poor in late 19th-century Russia, he became one of the great artists of the modern age.
  • John Lennon, by Philip Norman (Ecco, Oct.). The legendary musician began life as a psychologically scarred child, under the roof of his Aunt Mimi.
  • Le Corbusier, By Nicholas Fox Weber (Knopf, Nov.) One of the most admired and reviled architects of the 20th century worked for Mussolini and the USSR, too.
  • Loot, by Sharon Waxman (Times, Oct.). Who should own the great works of ancient art? And why were they stolen in the first place?
  • Mona Lisa in Camelot, by Margaret Leslie Davis (Da Capo, Nov.). How Jacqueline Kennedy helped bring Da Vinci's masterpiece to America.
  • Reagan, by Marc Eliot (Harmony, Sept.). Focusing on the actor's Hollywood years, an insight into the leader.
  • Spellbound by Beauty, by Donald Spoto (Harmony, Oct.) Alfred Hitchcock's complicated and often scandalous relations with his leading ladies.

September 03, 2008

"Juno" Director Says: Don't Judge the Palins

Jeneau__opt Mac MacGuff: And this, of course, is Juno.
Mark Loring: Like the city in Alaska?
Juno MacGuff: No.

-- from "Juno," directed by Jason Reitman

Honest to Blog. What were the odds that commie-leftie-Obama-loving Hollywood would create the real-life template for the shenanigans playing out at the Republican Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota?

We're talking about the Sarah Palin drama about to come whirling down into the Xcel Energy Center like some hurricane blown up from the south. Except that this hurricane is coming down from the north, west of Juneau, Alaska, led by a former beauty queen turned schoolmarm politician-turned-vortex of hot molten media interest.

Juneau, Juno, what were the odds? It sure seems as if life will be imitating art today, as Palin brings her MacGuff-like clan -- teenaged pregnant daughter, Bristol, and the teenaged father of the baby, Levi Johnston. Rise, evangelical base, and hail their choice to keep the baby.

This sounds way too familiar. So I called my friend Jason Reitman, the director of "Juno" to ask him. " You'll recall that this tiny film that was not about teenaged pregnancy even while being about teenaged pregnancy somehow grossed over $100 million, and became Oscar nominee for Best Picture.

Reitman, first of all, is Canadian and not voting.  Regardless, any similarities between Juno and Juneau are, he insists, pure coincidence. "Twenty-four hours into this story, there's no real way to tell whether life is imitating art or not," he said from his home in Los Angeles. "You've got a 17-year-old pregnant teenager, and Juneau is the capital of Alaska. The coincidence is cute."

But, he insisted, his movie tried hard not to make a political statement. "'Juno' is not about pregnancy," he said. "It's a location. I do not want to tell people what to think. They have to come up with their own conclusion. Just don't judge." (Isn't that its own kind of conclusion?)

Reitman insists he has no political point of view on any of this. Who's business is Palin's daughter's pregnancy anyway?

"Juno" is not about choosing to keep a baby or not, he said: "It's just about a teenaged girl who grows up too fast, and a 30-year-old man who won't grow up." Then the director went to put his toddler daughter to bed.

September 02, 2008

New Money: Abu Dhabi Goes Hollywood

From Abu Dhabi we hear news of the cash float Hollywood has been waiting for: a $1 billion filmmaking fund, financed by the tiny, cash-rich emirate.

This is government money, (I feel the need to repeat this: Government. Money.) earmarked to make up to eight films per year over the next five years, a fund to be run by Edward Borgerding, a former Disney executives who now heads the Abu Dhabi Media Company.

Borgerding told all this to the Financial Times of London, ahead of a formal announcement on Wednesday.

This is fascinating news for a lot of reasons. First, Hollywood is getting hard up for cash as the money has dried up from private equity and hedge funds in recent years. Second, it is Dubai, not Abu Dhabi, that has been vying to become the capital of popular culture. Dubai has poured millions upon millions into its annual film festival, has built gleaming new entertainment spaces and pays vast sums to lure top entertainers.

Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, has spent a few billion to hire the Louvre and the Guggenheim to build satellite museums.

But apparently Abu Dhabi got the moviemaking itch too.

(Note to readers: I will be travelling to Dubai and Abu Dhabi both in October to report on cultural developments there and get to know the region. I look forward to sharing my discoveries with you on this blog, and in ArtNews magazine, which is sending me on assignment.)

This can only be good news for the movie industry. And I can't wait to see what fashions Armani comes up with to dress the new moguls from the Middle East, the Red Carpet Abaya.

SAG's taking a poll

Still without a contract, the Screen Actors Guild has sent a 12-page mailer to its members, arriving in mailboxes today, with a poll attached. It lets members choose one of two options regarding the $250 million offer from Hollywood studios and producers, the AMPTP:

  • Continue negotiating with the AMPTP to secure a fair TV/movie theatrical contract for actors with better terms than the AMPTP’s June 30th “final offer."

  • Accept the AMPTP’s June 30th “final offer" without modification.

The intention is to take the sense of the membership before September 15. With no deadlines or other upcoming lines in the sand, the stalemate has no pressing reason to be broken.

Nonetheless, the AMPTP wasted no time in sticking out its tongue in this statement:

"The two questions on the postcard "poll" are written in a completely one-sided way, characterizing the June 30 final offer as unfair.

The two sides then proceed to bicker over whether they are having "informal" talks. Yes they are, says SAG. No they're not, says the AMPTP.

Sounds like progress to me.

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