[5 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Leave it to George Clooney to try and put some perspective into the usual end of summer season speculation. The Oscar winning actor and producer (whose no slouch when it comes to directing and screenwriting, either), was quoted this past week in an article taking on noted hedge fund billionaire Daniel Loeb, who many consider to be an “activist” when it comes to his investments, particularly in Hollywood (he currently controls around 7% of Sony’s stock). Speaking exclusively to Deadline.com, the celebrated superstar took a break from promoting his upcoming film about an Allied effort to save important works of art and culturally significant and rare artifacts from Hitler’s destructive forces, a clear awards season entry entitled The Monuments Men, to blast what he considers to be a carpetbagger, making claims against an industry without firsthand knowledge of what he’s truly talking about.
The snit seems to be over Loeb’s categorization of Sony’s entertainment division. Pointing to recent “flops” like After Earth and White House Down, the financier has suggested that the company ‘spin off’ said assets and concentrate instead on its other interests. Loeb likened the aforementioned films to Waterworld (which was profitable, FYI) and Ishtar (well…), and Clooney saw fit to add his own personal addendum. “When does the clock stop and start for him at Sony?” the actor offered, finding it funny that Loeb would point to two films from this Summer when, last year, the studio had massive success with Skyfall (the first billion dollar Bond…EVER!), Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, among others. “You can’t cherry pick a small time period and point to two films that didn’t do great,” he added. “It makes me crazy.”
While he went on to offer support to the current crop of studio heads and executive suits who seem to have more on their mind than the bottom line, Clooney has a point, and an apparent personal axe to grind. The Monuments Men is being handled by Sony, so it’s nice that a beloved A-lister with his kind of clout backs up those who have faith in him. But this public squabbling, clearly meant to put Loeb and those like him in their place, brings up an interesting question - are the days of a Heaven’s Gate deathknell over. If a studio like Disney can survive a significant write-off of both John Carter and now The Lone Ranger, is there really such a thing as a flop? Put another way, in today’s climate of international box office gold, where’s the hollow tin?
Now, certainly, something like R.I.P.D. can be considered a bomb. It cost $130 million to make and has barely broken $30 million domestically. Even with a massive foreign return, we’ve seen the last of this proposed franchise for a while (until someone gets the bright idea to “reboot” it). Going back to Loeb for a moment, After Earth has banked about $242 million worldwide set against a budget like R.I.P.D. ‘s, so calling it a flop is a bit of a reach. With home video and other potential profit outlets (VOD, etc.) along with Will Smith’s name value, it’s not a home run, but it’s not a horror either. White House Down is a bit different. Considering that it cost $150 million, its limp totals both at home and abroad (around $116 million) does spell disaster.
But Loeb also seems to be suffering from a very blinkered position. Last year, Sony scored with The Amazing Spider-man. They also stunk up the place with the Total Recall revisit. They also had many moderate hits along the way, including 21 Jump Street, Hotel Transylvania, and this year, Evil Dead. Since anyone with half a brain can argue that this money man must have an agenda, the issue becomes, what is it, and why is he playing this hand now? Clooney is correct to point out how very narrow Loeb’s focus is. Sony still has Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 follow-up, Elysium, David O. Russell’s fascinating Abscam effort, American Hustle, and the Tom Hanks/Paul Greengrass collaboration Captain Phillips to come, among others.
If Loeb has a legitimate fear, it may be for the industry in general. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas voiced a similar concern back in April when they argued that an emphasis on Summer tentpoles, and a glut of same every release week, will eventually spell catastrophe for the studios. While they were predicting $150 ticket prices, the point they were making seems to have come true. Over the course of June alone you had several high profile titles—This is the End, Man of Steel, Monster’s University, World War Z—arriving almost on top of one another. When you add in White House Down, The Heat, and Despicable Me 2 it seems like there was barely room to breathe. Similarly, the suits are banking on Summer starting sooner and sooner. Iron Man 3 hit on May 1st and by the time After Earth arrived at the end of the month, we’d already seen Star Trek: Into Darkness, Fast and Furious 6, and The Hangover 3.
Still, what does Loeb see that we in the business (or at least, on the outside looking in via a considered and experienced position) don’t. Maybe it’s Sony’s schedule for the next couple of years. Looking over their slate of proposed projects, there’s not a lot to look forward to. Spider-man is back for parts two, three and four, we’re getting more Men in Black (though, last time we checked, no one was clamoring for same) and there’s at least two unnecessary remakes - Real Genius, Flatliners—and two unnecessary sequels—Bad Teacher 2, Battle: Los Angeles 2 - on tap. There is nothing to get overly excited about, to set Comic Con tongues wagging or work the social media up into a froth. Instead, there’s a very conservative slate that suggests the studio won’t be taking the kind of risks that, say, the House of Mouse has. They are planning to put Smith in some update of a silly TV western…oh wait…
And yet, the concept of a true flop remains as elusive as ever. Sure, Loeb can argue that one of the companies he invests in has underperformed. Unless you’re Wal-Mart, so has everyone else. He, above all others, should recognize that the court of public opinion (and more importantly, pundit America) doesn’t determine success or failure - the bottom line does. Sony can afford at least a dozen more drops like the one they got from After Earth and White House Down thanks to a certain 007 alone. By amplifying anxieties where none should exist may favor his professional position, it has no true connection to Hollywood realities. Sony will survive. Gone are the days when a box office bust could take down an entire company in one fell swoop. Indeed, when it comes to money, Tinseltown has it all figured out. Why else would Loeb invest there?