WaxWord

October 2008

October 31, 2008

I'm hearing: Big Cuts Coming at Sony

Word on the street: Sir Howard Stringer of Sony has sent out an email warning of major cuts coming down the pike, which has sent a shudder through the ranks of the company based here. I'm hearing no specifics so far, but the sense of the memo is that the cutbacks will be "most severe."

SAG RESPONDS TO WAXWORD INVESTIGATION

6a00d8341f7e1f53ef010534c3178b970c-800wi When WaxWord prompts unresponsive organizations to change their ways, we have to tell you. Our investigation of unclaimed residuals at SAG in September has had an amazing result. The guild, apropos of nothing, has launched a campaign to reunite $25 million in “unclaimed residuals” with its proper owners. The list which we posted online at the time, includes the likes of Michael Douglas, Mick Jagger, Eric Bogosian, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Tallulah Bankhead and even former SAG Charlton Heston. Many of those on the list, it should be noted, are not members of SAG at all. They include former president John F. Kennedy, and his brother Senator Teddy Kennedy.
 
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In radio and print ads, and in an appeal in the monthly SAG publication (see graphic), the guild is suddenly reaching out to find those people. A month ago, its representatives told me that the 66,000 people on this list could not be found or were otherwise impossible to reach. Those arguments were specious on their face, and now the guild has turned 180 degrees to make a concerted effort to find the people it just said it was already trying hard to find. At the time, the guild said it had “full-time staff” devoted to seeking then out. Should we therefore fail to believe the guild when we ask them questions on the record, and they respond on the record? This should give us all pause, because this is not the end of the story. I promised at the time that this was merely Part I, and Part II will be coming down the road. There is more to this morass, as many of you might imagine. It will be instructive to hold the guild to account in learning how much money they succeed in distributing.
 
Variety’s Dave McNary had the story of this out-of-the-blue campaign today (many of you know I’ve been on the road, and won’t be posting as much, as my new book, “Loot,” has just launched). I was truly disappointed that McNary did not note that WaxWord broke this story. No one else in the  Hollywood press has so much as mentioned the issue, until today.
 
This is another good reason to read WaxWord, and to support our larger endeavor launching in January, The Wrap News, for independent, aggressive and accurate reporting.
 

October 30, 2008

SAG: Here come the Feds

After meeting with the Screen Actors Guild last week, the feds - in the person of federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez - met with Hollywood producers and studios on Thursday about the stalemate between the labor union and the production and distribution companies.

The meeting has been prompted by SAG's request for federal mediation over the lack of a contract since July. Now both parties must wait to see what steps the mediator recommends. Stay tuned.

October 26, 2008

The Airport Scrum

Abu Dhabi has its own international airport, designed to jangle the nerves. (Dubai has one too, a sign of its own independence and wealth, though it's only about 90 minutes away.) The passengers are all clustered in one echoing tile blue chamber under a vaulted ceiling, with constant ringing of loud bells and bone-clanking announcements: "Flight number 225 to Karachi. Passengers are kindly asked to proceed to the aircraft..." And to Islamabad. And Cairo. And Bahrain. "Your attention please, final call for Flight 222 to Muscat." Muscat? Masdar? Never heard of any of these places. By the sounds of the voice, my guess is these are automated announcements, and they are a constant, unpleasant litany. Of course, we passengers are all sheep, so no one protests.

By the way, I've been meaning to share the fact that this blog is blocked in the United Arab Emirates, apparently like most blogs. On to Doha.

High School takes the Weekend Box Office

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For the third in a series that started on a cable channel, you've got to be impressed: "High School Musical 3: Senior Year," with the same cast, the same general story (don’t think our heroine Vanessa gets pregnant, for example) and the very self-same Disney we-got-happy-feet vibe, has raked in $42 million this weekend, according to Media By Numbers.

The production budget is listed as $11 million, so that means this juggernaut is already wildly in profit. Let’s hear it for the sometimes-forgotten Hollywood tradition that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made famous in their day: just have some fun.

“Saw V” – yes, there’s five of these little gems by now – is also raking it in. Talk about counter-programming: the gorefest is estimated to take in $30 million for the weekend.  Nuff said.

Both “Max Payne” and “W” plunged at the box office this weekend, by more than 50 percent each.

Clint Eastwood’s “The Changeling” debuted quietly on 15 screens, and – unsurprisingly – snagged a strong per-screen average according to early estimates. We’ll see how it does when it unspools next week on 1,800 screens. 

October 25, 2008

Lunch With a Media Mogul: the Sheikh of Arabie

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They sit on the floor around a low table, inside a sumptuous mansion in Abu Dhabi where a pet falcon, hooded, stands on the floor in the entryway. His Excellency Mahomed Khalaf al Mazrouei, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Media Corporation and head of the state’s Culture and Heritage authority, has invited me to lunch with his entourage. There is no way I would say no. The table is crowded with heaping plates of food: chunks of lamb with rice; whole grilled fish; more rice, plain white; marinated salads; fresh greens; cans of soda. “Do you want to eat with your hands?” I’m asked. It’s a challenge to which I can rise, but only so far. The men, dressed in white dishdashas with their keffiyas flipped back, take handfuls of rice and roll them in the palm of one hand, shaping the food into a ball and then rolling the ball deftly toward their fingertips. This is an art, albeit an art of Bedouin culture. 

My host, known as Abu Halaf, rolls his food in the palm of one hand while checking his Blackberry with the other. In his early 40s, Abu Halaf is one of the dynamic young leaders in Abu Dhabi who is on a mission to bring his country -- and indeed his entire region -- into a new era. “In five years, we will have a revolution,” he says, by which he means a revolution of education, professional training, technology and infrastructure. He is investing vast sums of money into culture and media and like everybody else in this country, he is in a big hurry. The government division that Abu Halaf leads, Culture and Heritage, has only existed for the past eight months. In that time, Abu Dhabi has thrown investment into both traditional cultural pursuits (Abu Dhabi broadcasts a wildly successful Arab poetry contest a la American idol) and more cosmopolitan ones (such as translating thousands of books into Arabic, to remedy the lack of access for Arabic speakers to a broad range of thought). The $1 billion film fund, his initiative, was only announced earlier this year. It goes hand in hand with more grass roots efforts, underway since only June, to bring Hollywood insiders to Abu Dhabi via a group called “The Circle,” and to send young Emiratis abroad to intern and train in the entertainment industry. Is he not worried that other Arab peers, or even Emiratis, might disagree with such aggressive plans to take Abu Dhabi in this direction? No, Abu Halaf says, he’s not worried. There is always criticism for anyone who takes a strong position. And he quoted an Arabic saying, which his spokesman translated: “The train has left the station.” Abu Halaf corrected him: “No,” he said. “It’s more like – ‘The caravan is going to leave, while the dogs are still barking.’” Later, he let me hold his falcon.

October 24, 2008

Karl Meyer Reviews "Loot" at Truthdig.net

I count as very high praise indeed the review by Karl Meyer at Truthdig.net today. Meyer, a former editorial writer at The New York Times and foreign correspondent before that, wrote the definitive book about the issues of plundered antiquities some 35 years ago, called "The Plundered Past." (I refer to it in my introduction.) Meyer drew attention to what was, at the time, a problem completely ignored by the general public. He noticed what was happening in developing countries - illicit digging, smuggling, the ruin of archeological sites - not because he was an art expert, but because he was a good reporter who paid attention, and cared.

I note this especially because it was a pattern I discovered in my research of "Loot". Often the person who brought the problem of looted antiquities to the fore was some lone reporter - not a member of the art or museum establishment - who figured it out on his or her own, and took considerable risks to tell the truth. (You'll meet them in the book.)

Here's a part of what Meyer says: "I devoured “Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World” with particular zest, having published in 1973 an earlier account of the same cultural underworld, “The Plundered Past.” A seasoned reporter with an Oxford degree in Middle East studies, Sharon Waxman has updated and surpassed my explorations, in part because the outcry over the illicit traffic has reached fever pitch, provoking voluble, angry and indiscreet utterances from curators, collectors, dealers and a new breed of watchdogs: The first merit of Waxman’s book, the best on its subject, is her verbatim account of conversations with everybody who matters in the antiquities trade. ...And let it be said that while Sharon Waxman’s study offers no novel answers, she poses all the right questions."

Labor Camp in Dubai

On the road out of Dubai

Sharon With a Falcon, in a Majlis

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Dubai Journal

When you get off the plane in Dubai, they hand you a map of the city. It's a pretty simple urban plan, with the city concentrated around its origins of a broad creek, and arrayed against the blue coastline of the Arabian Gulf.

Then you look more closely at the map and you see a lot of places noted with "u/c" beside it. This means "under construction," and it represents easily half the city, as it spreads out into the desert. This includes Motor City, where the sports car racetrack is being built; Dubailand, home to the upcoming theme parks of Universal Studio and Marvel; Dubai Silicon Oasis; the Mohammed Bin Rashid Gardens; the international Media Production Zone; Duabi Studio City (look for a quickie video on this, upcoming); residental developments like Jumeirah Village 1, and 2.

Then there's the new international airport, where they're building six parallel runways for takeoff and landing. I believe it will be the largest in the world. Everything here has to be the biggest, the best, the fastest, in the world.

The city, which struggles with crushing traffic problems, will easily double in size. I'm told by one local economist that the rate of inflation here is 15 percent a year, but that the government bars the release of this figure, for fear of chasing away investors.

Re women: I've been delinquent in getting to this because, for all my experience in the Mideast, it is actually a non-issue in day to day life. In Dubai, particularly, you do not see many emiratis, as I've noted. Women dress in all manner of their respective cultures - Western-style, Indian, Philippino. Some are veiled, most are not.

But when you see an Emirati woman, you'll know it. They wear the black abaya and the veil with great pride. It is a social symbol, a sign that they are among the ruling class. You will often see a gaggle of young women sashaying through the mall, their abayas swishing beind them. Their body language suggests that they are a class apart from all the others who surround them in t-shirts and bright colors.

October 23, 2008

Opie and the Fonz Dress Up for Obama

In the waning days of this election campaign, what won't Hollywood do to boost their friend Barack Obama?

They will shave on camera, put on a goofy wig and regress about 30 years into American tv history. Ron Howard offers up a heartfelt plea to American voters to vote for Obama, and apparently he thinks this plea will work better if he makes it as his chlid alter ego, Opie of Mayberry RFD.

Howard also dresses up as Richie Cunningham, and gets Henry Winkler to revive the Fonz, as both banter over the need to vote for their guy. It's nostalgic, amusing and maybe a little desperate. (It's up at funny-or-die. see it here.) Guys, it's not as if Obama ain't ahead by a mile.

October 22, 2008

Anand Jon Update: Defense in Full Swing

The defense has been putting on its case. Detective Cranham of the Beverly Hills police department was called to the stand and questioned as to whether she had interviewed the rape victims, or alleged ones, in person or by phone. It emerged that some were only interviewed by phone.

The defense is also trying to knock down allegations involving the suggestion that Jon drugged his victims. Questions are being asked to demonstrate that no date rape drugs were found in Jon's apartment. (But as I've noted earlier, there are photos that show alcohol in abundance.) The credibility of the accusers is being attacked - they wanted to make money off of accusing Jon, they were angry at him for being dumped. The defense has always maintained that the girls were, essentially, a conspiracy because they communicated with one another. I don't know that the jury will see it that way.

But this dances around the heart of the matter. I am told by people close to the defense team that Anand Jon will not be testifying. If true, that's a shame. We all would like to hear him convincingly deny the rape of nine women (actually, i've already heard him deny it, but it's quite another thing in open court). This says to me that his defense team feels that there are enough inconsistencies in the testimony of the rape victims to exonerate their client, or at least have a shot at that. All through this case, Jon has indicated to me that he couldn't wait to tell his story. Having spoken to him several times, I'm sure he'd be a convincing witness in his own defense.

But it's always a risk to put a defendant on the stand. Jon could come off as arrogant and lacking compassion. His belief that he has done no wrong at all may not sit well with a jury that, whatever the fine points of the law, would like to see a remorseful Lothario, at the very least. The problem there is that Jon truly believes in his own martyrdom. And his worshipful family has reinforced his deep faith that he has done nothing wrong. (Even my taxi driver in Dubai, an Indian from Kerala, had heard of Jon and said: "That fashion designer who's in trouble for rape?") My information is that the case will be dark on Friday, and that closing statements begin on Wednesday, October 29. I will try to be there for at least some of that, and fill you in.

Round-Up: Relativity and Rogue in Business

Yea, though I am far away, feel the need to note the newsworthy development of Relativity, run by Ryan Kavanaugh, being close to buying Universal's Rogue Pictures, the genre division started in 2004, for $150 million. What does this mean for genre studios within the major movie companies? In today's L.A. Times, Patrick Goldstein questions whether this pending deal is a bad omen for Focus Features, the speciality division that traditionally puts out Oscar-winning movies, but that was the parent of Rogue. Patrick observes: "If Universal is willing to dump Focus' genre arm, the most consistently commercial underpinning of its specialty division, then surely it is ready to put the squeeze on Focus itself." He predicts Universal will remain committed until after the release of the anticipated 'Milk,' announcing changes after Oscar season. We all know that specialty divisions are in trouble and that in the current climate some indie labels are perilously close to closing, just as Warner Independent did earlier this year.

October 21, 2008

Hollywood Steps Lightly: Spielberg and Soft Diplomacy in the Middle East

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A major milestone quietly passed last weekend: the first major Hollywood film in decades filmed in the heart of the Middle East. “Transformers II” turned its cameras at the Pyramids in Egypt, and again in the upper Egyptian town of Luxor, near the famed Valley of the Kings. This is significant for many reasons but mainly because it represents a rare move by two Hollywood studios, Paramount and DreamWorks, to connect to a country and culture that is perceived to be hostile the United States.

I say ‘perceived’ because my guess is you’d probably find no more avid fans elsewhere in the world than those clustered around Shia LeBeouf, the star of the film, in this part of the world. But after years of anti-American images in the Middle East, and years of entrenched mistrust, this is the kind of interaction – and publicity - that makes a difference. I hear from sources within the studio that DreamWorks was “petrified” when producers got clearance to shoot at the pyramids and in Luxor, and that LeBeouf was hesitant but decided to take the leap. (I agreed to hold this news until production had been safely completed.)

Hesitation is certainly comprehensible. Even before 9-11, Hollywood studios and major stars were reluctant to set foot in the Middle East. Luxor was the site of a major terrorist attack in 1997, in which some 60 European tourists were massacred by anti-Western gunmen in a horrific bloodletting. And since 9-11, A-list stars were hard to lure anywhere outside the United States. Usually Morocco would pass for anywhere in the Middle East, if it wasn’t Arizona.

There’s more afoot. Another quiet milestone on the road to cultural cooperation with the Middle East passed last month. In 2006 Steven Spielberg was approached by King Abdullah of Jordan to enlist the director’s help in creating a film school for the region. (They’ve known each other since Indiana Jones went thundering on horseback down a mile-long crevice to emerge in front of the temple of Petra, shot on location.) The school, the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts in Aqaba, opened in September of this year to no publicity at all. The University of Southern California, where Spielberg is a major donor, signed on as a consultant to create a curriculum for 25 masters’ students from around the region, including Egypt, Kuwait and Iran. The university has recruited instructors too. I’m told that original plans called for Israeli students to be included, but that security conditions ultimately made this impossible. The hope is for Israeli students to be included in future semesters. This is the way to win over hearts and minds in the Middle East -- that “soft diplomacy” we hear so much about from Washington and policy wonks, and see so little of.

In the end, “Transformers II” shot for several days, bringing together a crew of 150 Americans and several dozen local Egyptians for an effort that producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who called from a cellphone while standing beside the pyramids, told me was “remarkably smooth.”

Video: Dubai

Dubai: Money and Momentum in a City of Diversity

1 Here’s something I didn’t expect about Dubai: it doesn’t feel very Arab. Most of the faces you see on the streets and in the malls are non-Arab. My cab driver is Ethiopian. My waitress is Philippine. The hotel security guard is Pakistani. Only every so often do you see a figure in a flowing white dishdasha, sweeping through the mall, a keffiyah pinned up by his ears, and a wife in abaya – two eyes through a keyhole – in tow.

Officially, 80 percent of the 4 million residents of the United Arab Emirates are non-nationals, and unofficially some say it’s as high as 90 percent. And because the country barely existed before 1960, there’s little indigenous culture. Much of the city’s architecture is drawn from elsewhere, while being conceived on a grand scale. This leaves the impression on the order of Las Vegas meets Arabian Nights. I spent yesterday on a four hour tour of five-star hotels, gleaming new shopping malls and a host of unfinished construction projects. That included the Jumeira Palm, the manmade island in the shape of a palm tree where Dubai has built a solid mile of luxury apartment buildings, and high-end villas. At the tip, the Atlantis hotel has just opened, and still construction goes on.

2 What can you say about a society that has decided to create not just one island out of sand and stone in the shape of a palm tree -- but three of them? And more manmade islands in the shape of the continents? And another, in the shape of the Milky Way, if the sheikh feels like it? That’s the vibe of this place: anything is possible if the sheikh – that would be Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai - says it is. And the sheikh is in a big hurry. Everywhere you look is scaffolding, or a modernist curve jutting out into the sky, or the concrete pylons of the above-ground monorail, public transportation that should be ready to go by next year. I have a film that shows what I’m talking about. (It’s giving me technical trouble, but I hope to post it later.) The place hums with activity, and loads of upscale Westerners in working clothes, not on vacation. Will post later about how women fare here, given the extreme conservatism of other parts of this region.

The First Excerpt from "Loot," at The Daily Beast

The first excerpt from "Loot" is up on "The Daily Beast," ahead of publication on October 28. Here's how it starts: One thing stood out about the Getty Museum, and that was the sex. Numerous current and former Getty employees describe the atmosphere from the 1970s onward as convivial in the most carnal sense of the word. “It was like Peyton Place,” was how one former employee described it. “Sodom and Gomorrah” was the phrase used by another. Peggy Garrity, a lawyer who sued the Getty over a client’s sexual harassment claim, put it this way: “They were fucking like rabbits behind the paintings.” Here's the rest of it.

October 20, 2008

Madonna & ‘Rocknrolla’: Guy Ritchie’s Bad Week. Joel Silver’s Bad Year.

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It’s hard to tell who’s having a worse time at the moment: Guy Ritchie, whose wife, Madonna, publicly dumped him at the very same time as his latest film has opened in the U.S. like a snail in a tar pit.

Or Joel Silver, the producer of said snail-movie, “Rocknrolla,” who is struggling to avoid the Hollywood rumor mill in the wake of six – count ‘em – consecutive box office failures, not even counting this one.

“Rocknrolla” is meant to be a throwback to Richie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” roots, with tough British criminals snarling Cockney into the camera.

But Warner Brothers has put precious little effort into this latest film, slow-going the release into a half-dozen theaters first week and last weekend 22, for a grand box office take after two weeks of $400,000. Little surprise.

After last summer’s big-budget bomb, “Speed Racer,” the studio seems to have finally noticed that Silver, once a star producer of reliable blockbusters, has become a producer of reliable money-pits.

The creatively desperate "Speed Racer," which cost at least $120 million to produce and was marketed for tens of millions more, took in a grand total of $89 million worldwide. (Including an anemic $44 million domestically). That should have been enough to get Silver called on the carpet.

But others preceded “Speed Racer”: “Fred Claus,” a funny-free comedy starring Vince Vaughn, took in $72 million domestically. “The Brave One,” starring Jodie Foster, managed to take in a grand total of $70 million worldwide.

Before these came  “The Invasion,” a disastrous film that cost $80 million and took in just $15 million. Before that “The Reaping,” with a $40 million price tag, and a $25 million take at the box office. “V for Vendetta” was a mistake even Nathalie Portman couldn’t fix.  Lastly, there was “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which even at the modest budget of $15 million took in only $4 million.

Once upon a time, Silver knew how to pull in the audience in mega-numbers. This is the guy who helped invent the blockbuster property in the 1980s and 90s, from “Lethal Weapon” to the “Die Hard” franchise. He was in on the phenomenon, “The Matrix.” Silver knew what worked.

No longer. Last month there was an executive shake-up at Silver Pictures. Top executive Navid McIlhargey left to New Regency, and Silver Pictures President Susan Downey (Robert Jr’s wife) just plain left.

Why is Silver still left with a juicy Warner Brothers deal and license to keep making movies? Because Hollywood is a big old boy’s club, and Joel Silver is a big old member of it. Protected by his mogul friends, with whom he shares vacations and cruises and weddings in Venice, Silver continues to keep his deal at Warner Brothers – now in place through 2009 -- and plaster his name on big-budget projects, including “The Book of Eli” with Denzel, and a remake of “Logan’s Run.” On his Dark Castle label he has the upcoming “The Hills Run Red,” “The Factory,” and “Whiteout.”

How long can his friends protect him? Hard to say. But I’d bet that Silver’s deal is likely to outlast Guy Ritchie’s marriage.

October 19, 2008

Weekend Box Office - Max Payne Wins the Weekend; W. Not a Hit

Looks like Lions Gates' fears that it's too soon to laugh over George W. Bush and too late to cry were realized in the box office performance of "W," Oliver Stone's heavily-promoted new film about our lame duck prez.

The film, rolled out in 2,000 theaters, took in just $10.5 million, according to both Media by Numbers and Box Office Mojo. This makes a per theater average of $5,200, respectable, certainly but hardly a huge hit considering the back to back publicity appearances of Oliver Stone, the high interest in politics at the moment and a pricey advertising campaign.

"Max Payne," on the other hand -- a straight up, shoot--the-mothers R rated flick starring Mark Wahberg -- won the weekend, taking in $18 million. (His per theater average was not that much better, it should be noted.)

Meanwhile, "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" keeps rolling along, taking in another $11 million, and "The Secret Life of Bees" was a hit in its category, for sure. It took in $11 million, in 500 fewer theaters than Dubya.

October 18, 2008

Winging my way to the desert

Traveling to United Arab Emirates for the coming week on assignment for ARTnews Magazine; will be blogging from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.  Looking forward to sharing my impressions on this first trip to a new world of burgeoning media, entertainment and finance.  Watch this space for updates.

October 16, 2008

Lootbook.com is Live

To fans and readers: We now have a sister site, Lootbook.com, where you will find all things related to my new book, "Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World." (With sincere thanks to Tim Doyle for design and execution.)

Hope you will check it out, order the book, and participate in the discussion over where the ancient treasures that now reside in our great museums properly belong. More information to come as the book rolls out from October 28, and we head out on book tour in November.

October 15, 2008

Paramount Tightens its Belt. Blame DreamWorks.

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UPDATE: DreamWorks has a different point of view to all of this, my readers won't be surprised to know. They calculate this stuff differently. First, they say that "Transformers" was a DreamWorks property that they brought to Paramount, and thus shouldn't be discounted, or at least discounted only by half. (One Paramount source disputes this, saying that it was developed by Lorenzo di Bonaventura's company. Call it even.) Second, Paramount has benefited from a distribution fee for the DreamWorks library. Third, Paramount has netted big cash from distributing DreamWorks Animation movies, a deal it would not have gotten without having bought DreamWorks. I take the last point, but it still doesn't go into the bottom line calculation. It also doesn't alter this fundamental conundrum: Paramount bought DreamWorks. But it didn't own the company enough to be able to sell it.

Original Post:

Only in Hollywood can you buy a company and not actually own it.

That’s the bottom line from a close look at the power shift in Hollywood this month,  with DreamWorks closing its deal with Reliance ADA, and Universal nabbing distribution rights to their movies.

Over on the Paramount lot this week, some executive is pacing in his office just across from the Sherry Lansing Theater and wondering: Didn’t we buy DreamWorks in 2005? And if we bought DreamWorks, why didn't we get to sell it?

After all, even Harvey Weinstein had to hand over the Miramax name to Disney.

An analysis by one rival studio of the Paramount deal suggests that the loss to the major studio’s bottom line for its $1.6 billion purchase of DreamWorks in 2005 is some $250 million.

By my back-of-the-envelope estimate using published figures (which are usually massaged to the studio’s benefit), it’s more than that. And today, we see evidence of that in Paramount’s decision to tighten its belt. The studio announced it will be making only 20 films a year (watch this space, I predict other studios will follow) , and has consolidated operations. (Read the release here).

Here’s my analysis:  Paramount bought DreamWorks in 2005 for $1.6 billion, including $400 million in debt. It then made a cash-rich deal to sell the library for $900 million to a George Soros-related group.

That was the last of the good deals. In that time, the studio has released 16 DreamWorks films, which took in a total of $2.115 billion in worldwide box office revenues. A conservative estimate of the production cost of those films is $835 million, and you need to throw in another 30 percent ($250 million) on top of that for marketing costs. (Here’s a list; see for yourself.)

If you add it all up, that leaves revenues of $1.08 billion from the movies, with no factoring in overhead costs for the studio, which are considerable. But wait – even that’s too generous. You have to subtract the biggest hit in the group, “Transformers,” which was a Paramount-owned property anyway.

If you do that, the revenue number is reduced to a paltry $800 million or so. That’s perilously close to the $1.6 billion purchase price, minus the $900 million library deal. And, as I say, that includes no overhead or other development costs.

Here’s what Paramount bought: In 2006, “Dreamgirls,” which was only a modest box office success, and a bust at the Oscars. “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” lost money. “She’s the Man” was a critical rout, and a box office loser too.

2007 was the one year DreamWorks saved Paramount’s bacon. The biggest hit was “Transformers,” though this property had been owned by Paramount to begin with. “Disturbia” and “Norbit” both made big money for the studio. There’s one year in DreamWorks’ column.

But 2008 was a big fat downer financially speaking. “The Ruins”? (Worldwide gross: $22 million.). Or “Ghost Town”?  (Domestic gross: $12 million.) “Tropic Thunder” was a modest hit ($159 million), but it cost a fortune to make ($100 million). I suppose “Eagle Eye” will be a winner, but it wasn’t cheap either. And we’ll have to wait and see about “Revolutionary Road” and the Oscars.

So now the wheel has come full circle.

Universal, which was left standing at the altar in 2005, gets the distribution business. That’s guaranteed 8 percent fees for distributing DreamWorks movies.

And Paramount, which foolishly thought it owned DreamWorks, gets to smile politely and wave good-bye as Steven Spielberg drives off the lot, taking the studio that Paramount owns with him.

October 14, 2008

New "Loot" review: Book Page Likes It.

Review_bookpage The fight to reclaim stolen artifacts By Angela Leeper

In her evocative new book, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, Sharon Waxman travels to Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Italy to investigate the persistent tribulations of looting and restitution. Presenting more questions than answers, Loot reveals that there is no easy solution to the centuries-old problem of stolen antiquities.

Egypt, for example, wants the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum, the Denderah zodiac from the Louvre and the bust of Nefertiti from the Altes Museum in Berlin. Western museums, on the other hand, argue that after hundreds of years, artifacts have a new cultural value in their current locations. Antiquities seen by the hundreds in mere hours in major museums would be seen by only hundreds annually in their source countries. And what about security and climate-control? Consider Turkey, which forced the Met to return the Lydian Hoard, only to have it stolen from a national museum without a functioning security system.

Throughout her journeys, Waxman traces the history of prestigious cultural icons, and how in the name of building collections, these antiquities arrived in renowned Western museums, including four of the worst offenders—so named for their rampant acquisition of looted artifacts and their refusal to disclose the real provenance of these items—the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The most intriguing areas of Loot are the accounts of and interviews with flashy government officials, journalists who have received death threats and sacrificed their families in the name of restitution, shady dealers and curators turned scapegoats. Among all the finger-pointing, Waxman hopes museum and government officials around the world can meet somewhere in the middle, cracking down on looting by only purchasing artifacts with a clear provenance and being honest about the history of looted artifacts when displaying them. As the battle continues, enlightened readers and art observers will be among the victors.

October 13, 2008

Universal Announces Pact with DreamWorks; Geffen Retires. (Seriously?)

Now it's officially official. As we told you last week, DreamWorks and Universal have agreed to get back in business together. The two companies announced a seven-year distribution deal today, in a press release.

In the release, Spielberg said: "Universal has always been my home base so this agreement starts a new chapter in what has been a long and successful association. While it feels great to come home again, it feels like I never left, and Stacey and I look forward to working once again with our friends and colleagues, old and new.  It’s an exciting time for us and we want it to be equally as productive and rewarding for Universal.”

And apparently, David Geffen - who the press release was careful to name as instrumental in the deal -- will now be bowing out of the entertainment business.

I'd like to know where all that energy will be going. It may upset the natural order of things.

October 12, 2008

We Asked for Input; You Gave It. Preview to The Wrap News

What do our readers want?

Independence. Context. Analysis. Investigation. Fact-based reporting. A forward-looking narrative. A global perspective.

Those were the comments from those who took our survey last week about the landscape of entertainment news, sent to nearly 1,000 Hollywood insiders. From the shortest response to the longest commentary, the thought-leaders who took our survey  confirm what I believe to be true: there is a void where thoughtful, substantive coverage of Hollywood and media ought to be.

"They all need an overhaul," writes one respondent of the current alternatives. "There's too much celebrity, gossip news that serves as blaring white noise to block out the good things happening in the industry outside of the blockbuster films."

"The lies bother me most about online entertainment reporting," writes another. "Would like to see more reporting on traditional entertainment trends and less gossip."

Other comments were shorter and to the point:

  • "Missing: perspective Bothers me: lack of thought."
  • "There is no serious coverage of the film and television industries and absolutely no investigative reporting being done."
  • "No information about future trends and most news is very superficial. No in depth stories."

Some were concerned about the lack of independent reporting, free of agendas and personal favors. "There is too much obligation in the relationships between the trades and the studios," writes one. "The daily papers don't have enough insight; much of the blogging has a personal agenda." Also this: "Most news on most all sites is exactly the same information; some reporting is needed and not just posting pre-prepared press releases."

And a thought frequently repeated was the need for smart reporting on the ways in which the entertainment industry is shifting in fundamental ways.   "I think the business is changing rapidly and there needs to be more focus on companies that are forging ahead, making changes, part of the new landscape," wrote one.

Finally, there was this gem of a comment: "Hollywood is neck-and-neck with Washington for being choked by spin. Too much PR power-brokering and captivity to trends. Someone needs to call it like they see it, and hold entertainment to the same accountability standards as other industries."

That is precisely what we intend to do when The Wrap News launches in January. Aggressive reporting to the highest of standards, for the purpose of informing our readership and engaging their participation.

If we don’t live up to this standard, I trust that all you readers will let us know. But the hope is that you will be active participants in the community that we create, a community of real-time news and information, of analysis and criticism, of ideas and debate.

The survey went out to a broad range of entertainment insiders and media professionals. They were divided evenly among men and women; about a third of our respondents are members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Prosecution to Rest in Anand Jon; Defense this Week

Anand4 The prosecution nears the end of its run in the trial of Anand Jon. In more than two weeks of testimony, all nine women plaintiffs have taken the stand to accuse him of rape, and several more have testified as to his poor character, giving their versions of assault.

There have been emotional moments, and sidebar discussions involving intimidation, or alleged intimidation by Sanjana, Anand’s sister. It is hard to overstate how attached both Sanjana and her mother, Shashi, are to the accused, Anand. Throughout, Sanjana sits in the hall outside the trial, and apparently some witnesses find her dagger-gaze intimidating.

Regardless, the testimony on the stand from the plaintiffs has been as confounding as the accounts in the grand jury. On one hand, many of them have recounted heart-rending tales of being lured to Jon’s apartment and then raped. On the other hand, their behavior after the alleged rape is still difficult to fathom – failing to go to police, staying with Jon, paying him rent. And under cross-examination, some of the stories seem flimsy.Anand_family 

Among the more upsetting testimonies – and they are all upsetting – was Britney O., from Arroyo Grande. She testified that shortly after meeting Jon, she was given vodka, passed out, and awoke to the smell of Jon’s anus, and to find him sitting on her face.

(I should note that Sanjana and Anand insisted that he never drank alcohol, and didn’t have it around. The prosecution has introduced photos of Jon’s apartment with bottles of Grey Goose crowded into the freezer.)

But Britney O. was among the least convincing witnesses during the grand jury phase. She testified that Jon forced her to give him a blow job on the couch while two friends, Janice and another Brittany, sat on an adjacent couch. She’s disturbingly vague: “And I realized that his penis was in my mouth, and I didn’t even notice.” Then came the horrific encounter with Jon’s anus. But she called him a few days later with a fashion question: “I felt really weird and I didn’t want to, and I never intended on seeing him again, which I did not, so I didn’t want to have a friendship with him or anything.”

Many of the plaintiffs suggest they were drugged and plied with alcohol. But that leaves their accounts of rape hard to pin down. Several said they were raped when they were unconscious.

Personally, it seems to me that with such uneven testimony, the exhibits are the more convincing evidence against Jon thus far. His “conquest list,” in which he boasts of having “fst fkd” girls, and compliments one for “blow job good – swallow very well,” is just plain repulsive. (It is not necessarily evidence of rape, but it betrays a sexual obsessiveness that feels abnormal.)  Similarly, a video of him fingering the privates of a trembling, naked model is damning (there seems to be a difference of opinion whether he inserted his finger or not, but either way, it’s hardly acceptable designer-model interaction).

So with about half of the argument made, it's very hard to call this case. In the meantime, evidence is emerging of Britney O. having hours-long chats with a hacker in England who gave her information about how to tamper with Jon’s computer. If and when I get documentary proof of this, I will post it. The defense believes this shows evidence of a conspiracy against him.

The defense is scheduled to begin its case on Wednesday. I will keep you updated on any bombshells that emerge. What we all really want to see is Jon on the stand - denying. We should expect nothing less. Denial seems to reign supreme in this case, on both sides.

(Note to readers: I took down comments from previous posts that in my view got out of hand. I will leave these comments open for as long as the discourse remains civil and intelligent.)

October 11, 2008

Box Office to the Dogs, Again

UPDATED: From Media By Numbers. Here's the box office numbers, quick and dirty:

"Beverly Hills Chihuahua" is top dog, again, taking in $17.5 million, according to studio estimates.

"Quarantine," the pulpy horror film from Sony's Screen Gems, took in $14 million.

"Body of Lies" is a head-scratcher. Here's an A-list director, Ridley Scott, with a AAA-list cast -- Leo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe -- in a thriller that has had a little to no traction. The Warner Bros film opened in 2,700 theaters and took in a modest $12.5   $13.1 million.

Is the Ridley-Russell dynamic duo worn out? This is the second joint endeavor of theirs to disappoint at the box office. Last year "American Gangster" did decent, not great, business. But the previous year's effort, "A Good Year," was an unvarnished disaster, taking in a total of $7.4 million (!!) in this country.

Elsewhere on the list, "Eagle Eye" took in another $10 $11 mill, and good old "Nick and Norah" found $6.5 3 mill at the box office.

October 08, 2008

Sources: DreamWorks To Close Deal with Universal

Unispielsnider UPDATE TO READERS:  A warm welcome to readers coming from The Daily Beast, our new editorial partner. Read the same post there.

DreamWorks has all-but-officially closed a distribution deal with Universal, with an announcement expected in the next few days, my sources tell me.

Three major studios were vying for the guaranteed cash that comes from the right to distribute DreamWorks’ movies. Now that the billion-dollar deal between the Steven Spielberg-David Geffen-and-Jeffrey Katzenberg machine and the Indian media conglomerate, Reliance, is closed, Universal, Fox, and Disney are all keeping communication lines open to get this deal done, according to two people close to the deal-making. A senior figure at DreamWorks said that the deal is not yet done, but that Spielberg would decide by the weekend.  He declined to say who had the edge in the discussions.

But Universal has had the lead position from the start. It is no secret that Spielberg considers the Universal lot his home – it’s where he started his career, and where his production company, Amblin, has been based, even with DreamWorks’ purchase by Paramount in 2005.

The devil is still in the details. (And I don’t specifically mean Geffen by that reference.)

The terms are complicated by the fact that DreamWorks and Paramount are still contractually intertwined for the next several years. Paramount has the right to co-produce any DreamWorks films that were in development at the time of the Reliance ADA deal, which officially closed in September. Therefore Paramount also will have the right to share distribution with whichever major studio gets DreamWorks distribution.

Second, Geffen is peeved at Universal for not putting up the cash to bring DreamWorks back onto the lot from Paramount in the first place, which forced the mini-studio to seek funding outside of Hollywood.

Meanwhile Spielberg is non-plussed that Universal passed on the opportunity to co-finance his epic 3D animated adventure tale, “Tintin,” which he is making with director Peter Jackson. (Universal ran the numbers, and found that with the guaranteed gross paid to Spielberg and Jackson, the film would have to take in well over $400 million to be profitable for them.)  Universal’s reticence has held up progress on the film, which had been scheduled to start principal photography in October.

Third, DreamWorks is seeking favorable distribution terms, in which they would be fronted cash by the studio, one person involved in talks tells me. Distribution deals are highly sought after by major studios, because it generates guaranteed cash for their bottom lines. They typically are able to charge 12 to 15 percent of the box office in exchange for distribution, and in the past Universal distributed DreamWorks films for about nine percent.

But all the parties involved are making nice. GE’s Jeff Immelt and Universal chief honcho Ron Meyer had dinner with Spielberg and DreamWorks co-chairman and CEO Stacey Snider recently. The word is they were not talking business, but the bonding experience was apparently priceless.

In Hollywood terms, this will be a long-term deal, an alliance expected to last six years,  well beyond the current development slate which is shared with Paramount. I’m told negotiations are being handled mainly by Spielberg and Katzenberg lawyers Skip Brittenham, Bruce Ramer and a host of other high-powered attorneys.

October 06, 2008

Nick Denton: Live by the Snark, Die by the Snark

Gawkershot "The golden age of the blog is over."

So writes Nick Denton, the chief honcho at Gawker Media, explaining in an internal memo his reason for firing 19 people last week. This, even as he reports that his advertising is up 30 percent over last year. He's cutting people and incentive bonuses, he says, because he expects advertising to go down.

So, now Nick Denton is laying people off, just like those dinosaurs in mainstream media.

The difference is, mainstream newspapers fired real journalists.

What the Gawker empire represents is as transitory as the people he employs. Denton has indisputably proved that you can create a lucrative business model out of highly targeted blogs, fed by tightly managed staffs of journalists who've numbed themselves to nagging doubts that what they do every day is journalism.

If Gawker's advertising goes down, it won't only be because of the economic downturn. For years, Denton - a savvy businessman - has been incentivizing his staff to reach deeper into the gutter by paying people based on the number of page views (and what do you think gets more clicks - naked Lindsay commentary? or John McCain's "unsubstantiated rumor" of a love triangle? And, yes, I wrote about John Edwards' love shenanigans, when it became an issue of media ignoring a major story). Meanwhile, the Internet has mushroomed as a community where more and more people turn for information.

I know Denton's traffic is up, overall. Nonetheless, I believe that readers and advertisers alike are fully saturated with the sort of substance-free-snark that feeds the Gawker machine and its many tentacles. There are really only so many times you can read "Britney Spears in Hail Mary Sex Embargo " before deciding you'd really rather do something, anything, else. And as newspapers wither, people need reported information.

It's hard to come by on the Internet. The online world is changing and evolving, and quality is the next big thing. When the internet superhighway first debuted, it was pornography that drew all the eyeballs and clicks. The next wave was the independent bloggers -- the likes of Wonkette, and Gawker and Defamer. As those got bought up by bigger companies, or grew into bigger companies, we've been flooded with attitude. Aggregation, and attitude. What about some well-reported facts, surrounded by intelligent analysis, in a timely manner? That's what we're hungry for.

Denton is ripe for mocking, and he knows it. "I could come up with some bullshit line about how much worse it would have been to wait until we were forced to control costs; or how much more unpleasant life will be at the many internet ventures and newspapers that won't make it through the downturn," he writes. He then does this adorable pirouette to head off the expected snarkback: "Gawker Media is behaving like those big media companies that we mock so easily." (Used to? Does this mean they will no longer mock and smear and malign journalists at big media companies? Too late. Had I known, I might have stayed at The New York Times.)

Quality. And while I'm at it, let me publicly lament the flight of talented colleagues, Jeff Leeds of the Times and Gabriel Snyder, once of Variety, to the world of celebrity infotainment, and the kingdom of snark, respectively. Leeds, one of the best music journalists working (or, rather, not working) has gone to Buzznet, where he will be the editor-in-chief. Snyder becomes managing editor at Gawker. Like other journalists, they have to eat, so one can hardly blame them. But their joining the world of lowest-common-denominator-clicks makes those of us seekers in the world of information-that-matters the poorer.

October 04, 2008

Sarah Palin Visits SoCal

Palin Sarah Palin at a rally in Carson today. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn. More at his blog.

"Chihuahua" Bites Man: Bev Hills Dog tops at Box Office; Greg Kinnear Film a Flop

Give the people what they want. What do they want? Singing Chihuahua movies.

Beverlyhillschihuahua Two early estimates from the weekend box office: Disney's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" movie will rake in $28.5 million, a serious box office sweep. Let's just get the concept behind this movie straight: a dog, best known from a taco commercial, visits Beverly Hills and experiences grand, Busby Berkeley-style celebration. That's entertainment!

Pity, by contrast, Marc Abraham. The talented and well-liked producer got his first shot at directing this weekend, with the Greg Kinnear film, "Flash of Genius." It's about a regular guy who invented windshield wipers, or something like that, and sues Detroit automakers for stealing his idea. (I admit: I haven't seen this film. Or Chihuahua-ville. I went to "Religulous," see previous.)

This may well be Abraham's last directing foray. The movie was rolled out in a very respectable 2,000 theaters, and is expected to take in $2.3 million. As the chihuahua would say:  Ooooouch.

Even "Religulous" made more than that: $3.4 million, by the first estimates. Meanwhile, Shia Lebeouf's "Eagle Eye" keeps pulling in big bucks, an estimated $17.5 million this weekend; so did "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," another of those light comedies, this starring the likeable nerd Michael Cera, taking in $12.1 millon, according to early numbers.Kinnear 

Updates and final numbers tomorrow.

October 03, 2008

Is Tyler Perry a Cheapskate? His Writers, Fired, to Picket

Four fired writers from Tyler Perry's production company, House of Payne, are planning to picket the opening of the niche superstar's new studio in Atlanta on Saturday. They had been demanding the right to unionize, and were fired instead on Tuesday. Perry

"Disrespected, betrayed, saddened," is how one of those writers, Lamont Ferrell described himself, on being fired after working on 100 episodes of "House of Payne," the flagship show. Perry has raked in millions from the show and his series of movies that have been huge hits in the African-American community -- including "Meet the Browns" and "The Family That Preys" -- but is not interested in a guild contract.

Meanwhile, The Writers Guild of America, West, which has been trying to organize these writers, filed unfair labor practice charges against Perry's company with the National Labor Relations Board. They'll be striking at the grand opening of Tyler Perry Studios at 4 pm on Saturday.

October 02, 2008

Is SAG strike imminent? A Call for a Vote

Yesterday, the Screen Actors Guild negotiating committee passed an advisory motion recommending that the board whip up a resolution to vote on an authorization to strike.

This sounds like madness, and maybe it is, but my read is that the guild is looking to put pressure on the studios to return to the negotiating table. The motion recommended that the national board "adopt a resolution strongly supporting such an action, and recommending that the membership vote in favor of a strike authorization."

In a country where the economy is teetering on the brink of crisis, and in an industry where there is almost no new movie production underway because of the lapsed SAG contract, one wonders why the guild is now prepared to push for a strike vote. The answer is that the guild has precious few options given the unmoving position of the studios, represented by the AMPTP, and is seeking to force the studios back to the table.

The studios, however, do not seem to be feeling the pressure. The scary state of the economy undoubtedly gives them comfort that strike talk is bluster. The AMPTP put out this statement last night: "Is this really the time for anyone associated with the entertainment business to be talking about going on strike? ... It is unrealistic for SAG negotiators now to expect even better terms during this grim financial climate. This is the harsh economic reality, and no strike will change that reality."

On the other hand, self-destructive acts by Hollywood guilds are not exactly unusual. Just because a strike might not achieve the desired goal (as in the case of the writer's guild) is no reason to believe that SAG might not go there.


October 01, 2008

"Religulous": Bill Maher Spreads Interfaith Harmony (Not Really)

What better way to greet the Jewish New Year than with a packed sneak preview screening of Bill Maher's new religion-skewering documentary, "Religulous"? Religulous

For years now we have been listening to Maher diminish and mock religion in general, religious people in particular and especially Catholicism, with a very special glee. Now he sets out across the globe on a more pointed anti-faith inquiry, adopting a style that's kind of Borat-meets-Michael Moore, but without the comic commitment of the former or the intellectual acuity of the latter.

What I mean is, religion is easy pickings. We all know about the suicide bombers, the pedophiles, the golddiggers and the closeted anti-homosexual preachers. Where's Maher going by putting these all end to end?

When he chooses to probe the inconsistencies in Christian dogma by querying truck stop drivers at a roadside Mass, or playing 'gotcha' with the guy who plays Jesus at the Holy Land amusement park, it isn't exactly a fair fight. And when Maher unexpectedly comes across a maverick priest at the Vatican who scoffs at his religion's hypocrisy, Maher seems unsure where to put this iconoclast in his religion-bad; agnosticism-good cosmology.

More revealing is when he gets U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, who is a fundamentalist Christian, to admit that you don't need a particularly high IQ to get into the Senate. Or when he queries his own Jewish mother about why he and his sister were raised Catholic, with no acknowledgement of her religion, nor discussion of the family decision to abandon the church.

In many scenes, Maher does all the talking, laying out his own doubts while allowing the interviewee only a few words - or a shrug - in response. (And by the way, that guy on the left in the picture is Larry Charles, the director, not some religulous nutbar; it would have been a good idea to tell this to viewers, since Charles appears inexplicably in lots of frames.)

But Maher must be given credit for attempting a courageous statement of militant secularism in a world where religion evokes knee-jerk support. He clearly believes that faith - or belief in God, or truth, or whatever you call it - is behind many of the ills in today's world, that blindly following religion is leading the world toward Apocalypse, a manmade one. The missing piece in the film is the more balanced reality, which is that most people temper their religious observance with the practical realities of the material, science-based world, even when those two things stand in stark contradiction.

Nonetheless, Maher's impassioned plea for a world where reason rules decision-making rather than religion, is valid and relevant. In our age of politicized religious fanaticism, one might even call making this film a leap of faith.

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