All posts by Nikki Finke

Robin Williams Dies At 63: He Committed Suicide “Due To Asphyxia” After Rehab Stint

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UPDATED: Academy Award winner Robin Williams whose inventive, improvisational and original comedic talent made him a star of movies and television and stand-up has died inside his Tiburon home in Northern California this morning. He was 63. Studio sources told me at 3 PM he may have taken his own life after his recent stint in rehab, and his death was confirmed this afternoon by his publicist and his wife. robin williams feltonWilliams “has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss,” his rep said. “The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.” The Sheriff’s Office Coroner Division said it suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia, but a comprehensive investigation must be completed before a final determination is made. Williams third wife, Susan Schneider, stated: “The world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

According to the Marin County Sheriff, at approximately 11:55 AM Marin County Communications received a 911 telephone call reporting a male adult had been located unconscious and not breathing inside his residence in Tiburon. The Sheriff’s Office, as well as the Tiburon Fire Department and Southern Marin Fire Protection District, were dispatched to the incident with emergency personnel arriving on scene at 12:00 PM. marincounty"The male subject, pronounced deceased at 12:02 PM has been identified as Robin McLaurin Williams, a 63-year-old resident of unincorporated Tiburon, CA." An investigation into the cause, manner, and circumstances of the death is currently underway by the Investigations and Coroner Divisions of the Sheriff’s Office. Preliminary information developed during the investigation indicates Mr. Williams was last seen alive at his residence, where he resides with his wife, at approximately 10:00 PM on August 10. A forensic examination is currently scheduled for August 12 with subsequent toxicology testing to be conducted.

The actor suffered a lifelong struggle with depression, alcohol and drugs. After starting his battle with addiction in the 1970s he once explained it this way: "Cocaine for me was a place to hide. Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down." He went on and off treatment for the next two decades, then he quit cold turkey after the drug death of John Belushi, his friend. But then he fell off the wagon and very publicly went to rehab in 2006. In late June of this year, he checked himself into the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center near Lindstrom, Minnesota, to avoid falling off the wagon again. "After working back-to-back projects, Robin is simply taking the opportunity to fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment, of which he remains extremely proud,” the actor’s rep said at the time. Williams died with four movies coming out: Boulevard, The Angriest Man In Brooklyn, Night At The Museum 3, and Merry Friggin’ Christmas , for which his co-star Joel McHale told the press in July that Williams was fighting to get his life back on track: “He wore his struggles and sobriety and was very up front and candid about what he has gone through. I know he is a man who likes to win and be healthy. So him going back to rehab, I pray it all works out.”

Naturally Hollywood and the rest of the world is in shock over the sudden loss of this three-time Academy Award nominee mork_and_mindy_018who received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in 1997′s Good Will Hunting. “Robin was a lightning storm of comic genius and our laughter was the thunder that sustained him," Steven Spielberg, who directed him as a grown-up Peter Pan in Hook, said of Williams on Twitter. Even President Obama called him "one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry." Henry Winkler recalled Williams’ TV debut as Mork in Season 5 of the hit ABC show Happy Days in 1978 as "watching brilliance explode like fireworks every 10 or 15 seconds."

For the 2013-2014 TV season, Williams surprised Hollywood by returning to series TV where he’d received his start first as the character on Happy Days and then as the lead in Mork & Mindy (1978-1982). Most recently he co-starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar on the CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones, which debuted last fall. Set in an advertising firm, the show featured Williams and Gellar as father and daughter, and CBS scored a coup to snag Williams. Though the series initially did well in the ratings, it was canceled after only one season.

The Chicago native and prestigious Julliard graduate was a well-known stand-up comedian in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the late 1960s and 1970s because of his quick and agile mind that often left audiences dizzy from laughter with his never-ending stream of pop culture and political references. After becoming a household name as Mork, he made his film debut in Robert Altman’s 1980 Popeye, a role he was born to play, followed by 1982 The World According To Garp. From that he acted in a long string of 1980s movies, able to play leads in both comedies and dramas. He earned Oscar nods for both Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Dead Poets Society (1989) and critical acclaim for Awakenings (1990). But while his career was at its height, he developed a well-known drug and alcohol problem dating back to his TV days.

In the early 1990s he indulged his flair for family fare, Mrs-Doubtfire-mf02providing the voice of the genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1991), and Hook (1991) as well as his famous cross-dressing role Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) which also became his biggest hit at the box office. He interspersed Jumanji (1995) and Flubber (1997) and The Birdcage (1996) with Good Will Hunting , Patch Adams (1998) and then Jakob the Liar (1999). In the 2000s, his dramatic films included One Hour Photo (2002), Insomnia (2002), and The Night Listener (2006) but he returned to comedy in 2006 with both Man Of The Year and Night At The Museum. That’s when he suffered a relapse and admitted himself into rehab. He rebounded with License to Wed (2007).

Starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Williams perfected his stand-up comedy, including three HBO comedy specials: Off The Wall (1978), An Evening With Robin Williams (1982), and Robin Williams: Live At The Met (1986). He had a hugely successful one-man show (and subsequent DVD) Robin Williams: Live on Broadway (2002) and in 2004 was voted 13th on Comedy Central’s "100 Greatest Stand-ups Of All Time". In 2008, Williams took a hiatus from moviemaking to tour with his one-man show, "Weapons Of Self-Destruction" focusing what he called "social and political absurdities". Health problems derailed the tour in March 2009 and he underwent heart surgery. When he recovered, he appeared in Night At The Museum 2 and Disney’s Old Dogs and lent his voice to the toons Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two. He also appeared in 2013′s The Big Wedding.

An avowed liberal and Democrat, Williams was a frequent supporter of and contributor to progressive causes and campaigns as well as to the USO and charities including founding Comic Relief.

Weekend Box Office: #1 ‘Turtles’ Overperforms For $65M And $97.3M Global, #2 ‘Guardians’, #3 ‘Storm’, #4 ‘Journey’

SUNDAY 7 AM, 6TH UPDATE: BOupdated200It’s Superheroes vs Reptiles vs Mother Nature at this weekend’s crowded domestic box office plus Helen Mirren and a fifth dance franchise as the 2014 Summer movie season limps along. August’s box office slump is getting chipped away, with this weekend’s overall filmgoing looking +17% over last year. No less than 4 new PG-13 movies opened wide Friday.

1. Interesting how a 1980s spoof of superhero mythologies by comic book artists Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman is beating up the Marvel Universe at the box office this weekend. It’s spandex vs half-shelled spandex. Paramount/Nickelodeon’s reboot of the 30-year-old campy property Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles overperformed for #1 and $65M this weekend. That’s $25M more than expected. Naturally the studio ordered up a sequel. turtlesIts B Cinemascore didn’t help or hurt word of mouth. But anecdotal reports reaching me say an older-than-expected audience who loved the turtles as kids – well before Viacom acquired them in 2009 – indulged in a guilty pleasure. This $125M-costing family fare began with a strong $4.6M start from 2,651 locations at Thursday late shows (which passes the biggest family hit of the summer Malificent‘s $4M) and opened to $25.6M Friday and $22.1M Saturday from 3,845 North American theaters. The film bowed in 17 foreign markets, representing 25% of the international marketplace including Russia and Mexico, and earned $32.3M through Sunday for a worldwide cume of $97.3M. Friday. Fueled by nostalgia among adults and curiosity from kids, the studio and Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes banner have a fresh franchise with 3D live-action enhanced by Industrial Light & Magic’s motion-capture. Its cutting-edge VFX is a vast improvement on the Jim Henson Studios original’s rubbery-looking puppetry. (There’s already a new CG-animated cable TV series which successfully re-launched the brand after Warner Bros’ 2007 big screen animated feature TMNT.) Fandango reported that this new TMNT leaped to the top of weekend ticket pre-sales since Monday. Directed by action genre specialist Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath Of The Titans) and co-starring Megan Fox (after she apologized to Bay for her Transformers smackdown) and Will Arnett, this is a full recap of the turtles’ origin story and epic conflict with the Foot Clan crime syndicate. And Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) still make their home in the city sewer system. And the rat Splinter (Danny Woodburn) is still training them in martial arts. But screenwriters Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty not only have filled the pic with juvenile crassness but also set up the sequel with this passable pic that’s probably better than it had to be. (At least it didn’t have that once-planned alien-planet backstory which fanboys loathed.) Besides Bay, the producers are Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Galen Walker, Scott Mednick and Ian Bryce.

The first theatrical 2D teaser trailer debuted on April 4 with Captain America: A Winter Soldier and played with Heaven Is For Real. Megan Fox turtlesA 3D trailer debuted on May 2 with Amazing Spiderman 2. A family-specific trailer debuted with How Train Your Dragon 2, Earth To Echo and Planes: Fire & Rescue. Outside advertising was key with 4 different bus shelter posters and wrapped NYC subway cars. Sports was very important to the Turtles title for the NBA finals and the World Cup and the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Sports Awards. Co-branded network spots debuted on Comedy Central and Adult Swim as well as a week-long promotion with Discovery Networks. Paramount also worked with Xbox to develop a custom Kinect gaming experience where players are able to train like a ninja turtle. Social activations online included ‘Tweet A Pizza’ that came in limited edition pizza boxes designed by key street artists. Nickelodeon and Paramount teamed up to create an official Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie app for a mobile game. To capture millennials, an extensive YouTube strategy helped drive conversation with custom Turtles content. This past week, over 439 bloggers nationwide participated in #TMNTMovie Twitter Party. Paramount also specifically targeted the Hispanic community with media. And you couldn’t avoid their omnipresent marketing tie-ins with Pizza Hut, Crush soda, Pringles and Fila which created a limited edition TMNT sneaker that sold out in 2 hours.

2. Disney/Marvel said its blockbuster holdover Guardians Of The Galaxy (playing in 4,088 theaters) made $12.3M Friday and $17.2M Saturday. It didn’t top the film order again. But it targeted a hefty $42.5M second weekend for a huge new cume of $176.9M. Pic has now grossed $313M globally after just 10 days of release and has yet to open in 6 significant international territories (France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Japan and China).

3. Warner Bros/New Line’s CGI-loaded extreme weather Into The Storm (reminiscent of Jan de Bont’s fantastic 1996 Twister but that had a compelling story) into-the-storm-posteropened Thursday night with $800K in late shows. It bowed in 3,434 theaters Friday to $6.5M and Saturday to $6.3M for a lower-than-expected $17.5M first weekend. (WB claims it’ll hit $18M through Sunday. We’ll see…) It earned a B Cinemascore which won’t help or hurt word of mouth. Heck, this no-stars pic, directed by Steven Quale (second unit director on Titanic and Avatar) from a minimal script by John Swetnam and produced by Todd Garner, is the same stuff we can watch on cable’s Weather Channel for free. Only those Midwest tornadoes are real, not fictional. As one critic noted with appropriate cynicism echoing the poor reviews: "If you’re looking for any commentary about the role of climate change, you won’t find it here. Instead this film exploits horrendous real-world suffering for the sake of a mindless thrill ride." Much of the cost was spent on no less than 9 credited VFX companies. But this is yet another mid-budget New Line pic that disappoints.

4. Hurt by lukewarm reviews (even by AO Scott in The New York Times, which usually loves foodie films), DreamWorks Pictures’ The Hundred-Foot Journey (2,023 theaters) earned a rare A Cinemascore from audiences. "This bodes well for a long run as older audiences pick up the strong word-of-mouth that such a score indicates," the studio said Sunday. This pic needs it. The_Hundred_Foot_Journey_(film)_posterThe last time DreamWorks and Participant Media combined, they cooked up the big biracial hit The Help. But this $22M-cost travelogue wasn’t supposed to march much past $10M despite even co-producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey personally shilling for the film. (Spielberg and Oprah even made a 2-minute featurette that debuted online and in TV ads and in theaters nationwide, plus promoted on Winfrey’s Facebook pages.) This adult-targeted Franco-Indian chefs’ battle starring Oscar winner Helen Mirren and Om Puri opened to $3.6M Friday and $4.2M Saturday towards an $11.2M weekend. (DreamWorks is mostly financed by Mumbai’s Reliance Industries and Disney distributed.) Adapted by Steven Knight from the popular novel by Richard Morais, the film’s director Lasse Hallström brought similar culinary soft-porn heat from Chocolat. But this time it left critics cold. ("It is an empty pastry shell, an artificially sweetened meringue, with no substance or conviction.") Trailers played across a range of films this summer including Chef, Jersey Boys, Tammy, Lucy and Sex Tape. Numerous media integrations included Oprah’s network OWN, HGTV, Food Network, Bravo, TBS, Lifetime and ABC. The marketing campaign targeted tastemakers through Instagram influencers while extensive screenings brought in local chefs, restaurateurs and food bloggers as well as food and wine festivals. Promotional partnerships included HSN, Le Cordon Bleu, Republic Of Tea, Starbucks, Le Creuset, One Kings Lane, Cost Plus World Market, and Dacor. But I for one felt that the trailers and TV ads showed too much of the pic’s predictable plot leaving stereotypes instead of surprises. This is yet another non-hit overseen by outgoing DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider.

5. Still alive, Universal’s female actioner Lucy after three weeks earned $2.8M Friday and $3.8M Saturday for a $9.3M weekend and $97.4M cume. Pic is crossing the $100 million mark at the worldwide box office this weekend with $15M from 15 international territories for a worldwide cume of $112.4M after three weeks in release. Lucy still has 44 territories to open through September.

6. Rounding out the newcomers, Lionsgate/Summit’s Step Up All In (2,072 theaters) is the 5th installment in the global cheap-to-make dance competition which the studio expected to pull in $8M. But Friday’s gross was $2.8M and Saturday’s $1.9M for only a $6.5M first weekend despite a B+ Cinemascore from its fans who consisted of 59% females/41% males. Looks like this franchise is played out domestically but still makes money internationally: it has grossed $37.7M from 34 foreign territories to date. Directed by Trish Sie and written by John Swetnam, pic was produced by Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot, Patrick Wachsberger and Erik Feig.

Filmmaker Menachem Golan, One Of The ‘Go-Go Boys’, Dies

Menachem Golan, the always reckless and often rude filmmaker whose Cannon Films specialized in low-end action-adventure movies starring Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone, Golanhas died in his native Israeli. He was 85. He partnered on dozens of productions with his cousin Yoram Globus, earning them the nickname the "Go-Go Boys" for their aggressiveness. My favorite story about them involved actor James Caan and his agent Stan Kamen at a lunch meeting at La Scala in the early 1980s. The two producers at the time were trying to build their budding Cannon Films, mostly known for a slate with Norris’ Missing in Action, into the independent studio and ill-fated public company Cannon Entertainment, which began upping prices for actors and directors in films like Cobra, Sahara, and Over The Top. The two were perceived as schlockmeisters and therefore outsiders by the cliquish Hollywood community. Now the Go-Go Boys wanted to become respectable players. Their first move was to contact then William Morris agent Kamen and offer his prestigious clients huge money. The producers were especially salivating over Academy Award nominee James Caan. After much prodding, Kamen accompanied the actor to the lunch meeting at the Beverly Hills trattoria. “Quite honestly, guys, I don’t do the kind of things you like to do,” Caan started before Kamen cut him off. “Are we here for the money or are we going to do important pictures,” the agent whispered harshly.

The two producers overheard. “We want to do King Lear,” Golan announced proudly.

“Who are you going to get to play that," Caan asked, "Chuck Norris?”

With that, Kamen began choking on his piece of steak which had to be dislodged. ("That was, needless to say, the end of the meeting,” Caan told me years ago.)

After more failed filmmaking companies, an SEC investigation, and the seizures of his American assets, Golan moved back to Israel and continued his exploitation films. In November 2010 the Film Society of Lincoln Center held a retrospective called “The Cannon Films Canon” attended by both Golan and Globus. And the documentary The Go-Go Boys played the Cannes Film Festival in 2014.

Disney-Marvel Insider Trading

I’ve learned that a San Francisco man who worked for a corporate consultancy was sentenced today for insider trading in the Walt Disney Company’s 2009 purchase of Marvel Entertainment. According to court documents and an FBI/SEC investigation, Toby Scammell, 29, discovered that Disney planned to acquire another company “that marvel disney universalpeople would recognize right away” from his then-girlfriend who was an extern at Disney in the Summer of 2009 and who worked on the deal to acquire Marvel. Scammell later learned from a supervisor at his then-employer — which had periodically provided corporate consulting services to Disney and had confidentiality obligations to Disney — that Disney previously had been interested in acquiring Marvel. Scammell admitted that he learned the planned acquisition by Disney was estimated to close by Labor Day 2009 based on his observations of his girlfriend’s work schedule at Disney and their own travel plans at the time.

Scammell used the information that he learned from his girlfriend to acquire 659 call options to purchase Marvel stock for $5,465. He bought more than half of the options in his brother’s account. Scammell did not tell his girlfriend or his brother about the purchases of the Marvel call options. Marvel’s stock rose about +25% after the deal with Disney was announced on August 31, 2009, at which point Scammell immediately sold his options, realizing $192,000+ in profits.

Scammell pleaded guilty in April 2014 to one count of securities fraud through insider trading. Today he was sentenced to three months in federal prison, followed by six months of home confinement with electronic monitoring, by U.S. District Judge S James Otero. In addition to the prison term starting on September 22, Judge Otero ordered him to pay restitution. He also must make payments upon his release from prison toward a judgment to disgorge his trading profits and pay civil penalties and interest totaling $800,985 in a related SEC civil action.

Warner Bros Pics Dates DC Films

UPDATED: Oh ye of little faith. Granted, the dates don’t exactly line up with what I reported on dc comics wbJune 12th but nearly everyone agrees that the titles are still right: Batman v Superman, Shazam, Sandman, Justice League, Wonder Woman, Flash And Green Lantern (team-up), Man Of Steel 2 in that order. (There had been talk of a Metal Men and Suicide Squad movie but that project fell off the schedule I received back then.) It turned out that Warner Bros Pictures and DC Entertainment weren’t ready by Comic-Con to announce the future schedule. In the meantime, they’ve have had the benefit of learning Marvel’s future movie schedule. Today, Warner Bros Pictures announced that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice moves from May 6, 2016 to March 25, 2016, to avoid Marvel’s Captain America 3. Because we all know the cinematic superhero universe would end if those blockbusters battled against each other.

The WB sked looks like this:
March 25, 2016 – Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice
August 5, 2016 – Untitled DC Film
June 23, 2017 – Untitled DC Film
November 17, 2017 – Untitled DC Film
March 23, 2018 – Untitled DC Film
May 25, 2018 – Untitled Lego Movie
July 27, 2018 – Untitled DC Film
November 16, 2018 – Untitled WB Event Film
April 5, 2019 – Untitled DC Film
May 24, 2019 – Untitled Lego film
June 14, 2019 – Untitled DC Film
April 3, 2020 – Untitled DC Film
June 19, 2020 – Untitled DC Film
November 20, 2020 – Untitled WB Event Film

And Marvel’s schedule is here:
May 1, 2015 – The Avengers: Age of Ultron
July 17, 2015 - Ant-Man
May 6, 2016 - Captain America 3
July 8, 2016 - Doctor Strange
May 5, 2017 – Untitled Marvel film
July 28, 2017 - Guardians Of The Galaxy 2
November 3, 2017 – Untitled Marvel film
May 4, 2018 – Untitled Marvel film
July 6, 2018 – Untitled Marvel film
November 2, 2018 – Untitled Marvel film
May 3, 2019 – Untitled Marvel film

SHOCKER! Murdoch Withdraws $80B Bid To Buy Time Warner

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WEDNESDAY UPDATE: Both 21st Century Fox and Time Warner were supposed to discuss the bid during their quarterly earning calls today. But Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes told analysts that he was “not going to comment on the proposal from 21st Century Fox and its withdrawal" noting however that Time Warner is “committed to delivering substantial and sustainable returns”. Time Warner said its board in June added $5B to its share repurchase effort, bringing the total now to $6.5B. Meanwhile, the company’s earnings beat Wall Street’s expectations thanks to HBO, but its stock price was still hammered. Murdoch’s stock also beat the street.

The score is now Jeff Bewkes 1, Rupert Murdoch 0 (if you don’t count the short-term up-down effect on their stocks). And Hollywood content providers can breathe a sigh of relief, for now.

That’s after 21st Century Fox today shockingly announced that it has withdrawn its proposal to acquire Time Warner Inc. Chairman and CEO Murdoch explained in a statement the reasons why: “We viewed a combination with Time Warner as a unique opportunity to bring together two great companies, each with celebrated content and brands. Our proposal had significant strategic merit and compelling financial rationale and our approach had always been friendly. However, Time Warner management and its Board refused to engage with us to explore an offer which was highly compelling. Additionally, the reaction in our share price since our proposal was made undervalues our stock and makes the transaction unattractive to Fox shareholders. These factors, coupled with our commitment to be both disciplined in our approach to the combination and focused on delivering value for the Fox shareholders, has led us to withdraw our offer."

Instead, The 21st Century Fox board of directors today authorized a $6 billion share repurchase program of Class A Common Stock to be completed in the next 12 months. Murdoch continued, “This significant return of capital underscores the Company’s ongoing commitment to disciplined capital allocation and returning value to shareholders in a meaningful way.”

Today’s move is a surprise because it follows analyst and media reports that Murdoch was willing to pay $100 per share price for Time Warner. Immediately after Murdoch’s announcement, Time Warner shares were down more than 11% to $75.10 after recently setting an all-time high of $88.13. Fox’s stock in after-hours trading was up more than 7% to $33.30 - near its 52-week high of $35.65 set in mid-June. Some analysts speculated this is just a lull in his fight and maybe even a ploy to bring his stock price up while lowering Time-Warner’s.

So what happened for this first-in-a-while Big Media mega-merger not to take place?

Obviously the decline in 21st Century Fox’s share price alarmed the Murdoch family, media sharkinvestors large and small, and Wall Street. And the Murdoch family seemed in no mood for a hostile takeover when it became clear that Time Warner would fight. Murdoch’s surrender today is a real departure for the media tycoon who often is described as "never giving up" on a fight. Then again, in 1995, he ordered his bankers and lawyers to examine a takeover attempt of Time Warner, then valued at $40 billion pre-AOL fiasco, but didn’t pursue it. Murdoch has always had an unquenchable appetite for acquiring companies and growing bigger. But it also led his News Corp to the precipice of bankruptcy in 1990. He’s now more cautious.

This time around, Murdoch seemed to enjoy all the publicity surrounding his scrappy $80 billion offer. The price, $85/share in a combination of non-voting stock and cash, was too low for Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes and his board to accept on the spot so they politely declined. That prompted speculation that Murdoch might pay over $100/share and wouldn’t stop until Time Warner was his. But Bewkes et al sais this wasn’t just about price: they also opposed that they would have little say in the new company, save for an offer of a seat on the board, because the Murdoch family would retain control.

At the time of Murdoch’s offer, Wall Street openly discussed when Time Warner would be bought, not if, and now sentiment is growing that to fight future takeovers Bewkes may spinoff extremely lucrative HBO – finally.  ["The inherent value of HBO’s business probably exceeds the 8x-10x EV/ EBITDA multiples ascribed to HBO by the Street in TWX’s sum-of-the-parts models (especially if you index HBO to Netflix valuations)," wrote Nomura media analysts Anthony DiClemente and Benjamin Black about the proposed merger. "And even on a standalone basis, HBO is a desirable asset that is well positioned for a digital media future."]

But could this offer, or any offer, have been avoided by Time Warner? Of course. By media-consolidation2stripping away asset after asset – first AOL, then Time Warner Cable, finally Time Inc – the once biggest global media conglomerate is now just Warner Bros, HBO and the Turner Networks. That, in turn, made Time Warner more vulnerable as a takeover target. And Bewkes wasn’t using the cash from the cable sale to acquire rare buying opportunities in its core entertainment arena during the recession. So while Disney’s Bob Iger was buying Pixar and Marvel and LucasFilm to build Mouse House value, Bewkes was sitting on his hands. Instead, there were repeated stock buybacks, a move which I consider to be the corporate equivalent of burning dollar bills.

Murdoch knew his offer gave him scale in sports and cable networks to bolster the negotiating power of a content provider like his vis a vis Fox News, F/X, and the Fox regional sports networks alongside TNT, TBS, and others. (One analyst saw 10+% affiliate rate increases assured for the next 5 years.) Sports rights ownership of Time Warner would help with launches of Fox Sports cable networks along with Turner’s rights to NBA, NCAA basketball, and the PGA on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), which itself has strengths in other sports including MLB, NASCAR, and USGA. A combined portfolio of sports could better challenge ESPN and keep NBC’s growing sports coverage at bay. Back in 1983, some 90% of the U.S. media was controlled by 50 companies.

Of little concern to Murdoch was any possible federal regulatory prohibition. For the past 25 years I’ve written story after story warning about the downsides of Big Media mergers. But it’s been like pissing in the wind. Neither the FCC nor the FTC nor the DOJ no matter who’s been in the White House have stopped them because of anti-trust or anti-access concerns. Had 21st Century Fox and Time Warner merged, they would have made up 25%-to-30% of the market share for movies being made. The Fox and Warner Brothers TV studios are the #1 and #2 film and TV studios in the entire industry. Joining their significant distribution infrastructures — for international box office, home video distribution, and/or digital distribution — would have created both revenue and cost synergies for their outsized businesses.

But merge their movie and TV production studios who are now bitter rivals looking to sign the best talent, and suddenly directors and writers and actors and showrunners can’t play off the two companies against each other for bigger deals. That’s bad for Hollywood. What this also meant is that, just as a time when a wealth of new buyers like Google, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, Yahoo and Netflix for scripted professional TV programming have appeared, it’s entirely possibly that 2 of the biggest traditional buyers would become one combined entity to better control over how content is sold to these new online players. A merged Fox/Time Warner company would negotiate digital rights more effectively and create an even more formidable rival to these still fledgling programmers and distributors. Murdoch thought he needed more clout that Time Warner could provide to press for more favorable terms from the cable and telecommunications industries given the pending mergers of Comcast/Time Warner Cable and AT&T/DirecTV. But the merger also would have resulted in redundancy studies and job layoffs.

Such media consolidations shocked us in the nineties and the naughts but now they elicit little more than a shrug. I thought Hollywood had it bad enough when studios started gobbling up networks, and cable companies started taking over studios and networks. Now 90% of media is controlled by 5 companies – Comcast, Viacom, CBS, Walt Disney, Time Warner and 21st Century Fox. The only surprise is that this deal didn’t involve Google or Apple or Amazon but instead two large cap content conglomerates. Almost every media company’s stock price except Murdoch’s jumped on the news until the recent downturn in the S&P and Dow. What wasn’t discussed is how media consolidations like this hurt Hollywood and its content providers. In sum, the Street sees scale as only helping the ‘Content Is King’ theory. But the people who actually provide that content are peons who become prisoners of these deals.

‘Transformers 4’ Passes $1Bil

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I think Michael Bay for TF5 should inject more humor – like the new Beyoncé remix to "Flawless" featuring Nicki Minaj: "Of course sometimes shit goes down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator." His Transformers: Age Of Extinction for Paramount as of this weekend entered into the elite $1 billion Top 20 highest grossing global box office club – the only film of 2014 to do so. The actioner in 61 territories grossed $19.1M on its 6th weekend in release internationally from 5,853 locations. The foreign total to date stands at $763.8M and the domestic cume at $241.1M. Pic will open in Japan and Spain on August 8th and in Venezuela on August 22nd. This is the 2nd film in the Transformers franchise to cross the billion dollar mark, following Dark Of The Moon in 2011. The benchmark follows Paramount announcing a three-year deal extension with Bay and his production company Platinum Dunes, and expanding the first-look agreement to cover Bay Films as well.

Weekend Box Office: ‘Guardians Of Galaxy’ $160.4M Bow Broke Records But Not Summer Slump

SUNDAY AM, 7TH UPDATE: Summer 2014′s total moviegoing was almost $800M behind last year through last weekend ($2.9B vs $3.7B, or -20% domestic gross). And only one movie – Transformers: Age Of Extinction - passed $1 billion worldwide. This weekend’s big #1 cool and weird blockbuster Guardians Of The Galaxy didn’t singlehandedly bust the slump but did move it down to -18%. "It will help make a dent but cannot alone cover even half of the gap," BOupdated200 Walt Disney’s Executive Vice President of Theatrical Exhibition Sales & Distribution Dave Hollis told me. "Last August was weak, so weekend comps through Labor Day should be able to stay ahead of 2013 to continue to chip away at the deficit. But this summer is likely to finish at least -10% behind last year." This Disney/Marvel Studios pulpy space adventure – starring little-known superheroes with running jokes and 1970s pop songs – was the most uncertain property yet from Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it broke a 7-week negative overall moviegoing streak (versus last year) for +31.4% by opening with $37.8M Friday and $32.1M Saturday for a $94M first domestic weekend from 4,080 theaters and $160.4M worldwide cume. With an ‘A’ Cinemascore helping word of mouth, Hollis sees "very encouraging signs for playoff against a competitive landscape with few tentpoles ahead and significant out-of-school benefit for weeks to come."

Also receiving an ‘A’ Cinemascore is the James Brown biopic Get On Up produced by Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment and Mick Jagger’s Jagged Films and distributed by Universal. It opened with $4.9M Friday and $5.2M Saturday for a $14M weekend from only 2,466 theaters for #3 behind Universal’s holdover Lucy which ended the weekend with $18.1M and a $79.4M cume. Exit polls showed the audienc was 63% female/37% male with 10% under age 25/90% age 25 and older and 70% African American, 18% Caucasian, 6% Hispanic, 1% Asian, and 5% other.

Costing $170M, Guardians Of The Galaxy shattered the August record set 7 years ago by the Bourne Ultimatum‘s $69.2M and became this year’s 3rd highest total. GOTG_posterBut it failed to reach this summer’s and this year’s $100M weekend sales record set by Transformers 4. Exit polls showed the audience was male 56%/female 44%, adults 59%, families 26%, and teens 15%. Thursday late shows started at 7 PM with $11.2M for by far the best pre-opening total of 2014. Helped by great reviews (91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), ticketseller Fandango reported that this beginning of a new edgy franchise was scooping up 93% of all pre-sales going into Friday. Pic on Thursday also opened strong internationally in the UK, Russia, Brazil, Korea and a selection of smaller markets (Taiwan, Malaysia, Argentina, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines and Denmark) for a big $11M cume. It then started the weekend in 42 countries – 50% of foreign – for $66.4M and #1 rankings in all but one market. IMAX had a global haul of $17M, breaking an IMAX August opening by nearly 3x.

An original even surprising and certainly risky project from producer/top executive Kevin Feige, Guardians Of The Galaxy falls into what Marvel Studios has dubbed Phase II that broadens its cinematic universe to include new heroes and villains, many of them not household names. These characters have been around for decades in the pages of Marvel Comics, even though they didn’t come together until 2008 as the GOTG (which prior to that was the name of a group of crimefighters in the 31st Century of an alternate Marvel Universe). The heart of this movie with heart is the team of Marvel-mentored screenwriter Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn, who helmed horror-comedy Slither and superhero send-up Super but had trouble finding an audience until now. While GOTG "owes a great debt" to Marvel helmers Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon, Gunn says it owes an even bigger debt to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas because it’s more of a space adventure film than a superhero film.

Pic is about a group of disparate species who come together to protect the galaxy from intergalactic annihilation and turn into Marvel’s most unlikely team. Gunn purposely didn’t seek to create a typical tentpole actioner filled with spandex-wearing musclemen that have grossed the studio $6.4 billion up to now – and says Marvel was fine with that. JamesGunn"I didn’t expect them to allow me to change the format of the spectacle film to such a great degree," Gunn told media. "The things that Marvel really seemed to like the most as I was developing the movie were the things that seemed to be the most outlandish to me. The use of 1970s pop songs, the fact that there was so much humor, the fact that I have a seven-page scene where the characters are arguing in the beginning of the third act, which is strange." The final cut contained everything Gunn wanted for Peter "Star Lord" Quill (played by Chris Pratt from NBC’s Parks And Recreation and The Lego Movie) and Vin Diesel/Bradley Cooper voicing CGI characters: badass Rocket Raccoon bounty hunter (Cooper) and his alien tree buddy Groot (Diesel). Just as fun are running jokes irreverent about Footloose and Kevin Bacon and alien sex. (Though one of my commenters didn’t like that: "Every line of dialogue was some sort of attempt at a pop cultural reference. Chris Pratt sounded like Diablo Cody in space.")

Perlman developed the project through the Marvel writing program in which scribes each choose a property from a list provided by the studio. She chose GOTG. "My friends in Hollywood were like, NicolePerlman2‘Why would you choose that? They’re never going to make a movie with a talking raccoon in it.’ I loved the tone and thought it would be fun," she told media. Perlman called it "a really incredible experience" finding the right permutation of characters and story to craft into the best movie. The process took 2 years. "It was nice to have the time and freedom to explore the different ways the project could play out. I think there’s this idea that a female screenwriter who is writing science fiction and not romantic comedy is a bit of a dancing bear. And I appreciated that Marvel didn’t treat me that way. It was very much about the writing." (She added: "There just aren’t enough women getting the chance to work in this genre and I hope this is the start of a larger trend.")

Gunn set out to create a franchise and had given thought to Guardians 2 before he even began pre-production on Guardians 1. The sequel was announced at Comic-Con is dated for July 2017. This time last year, Marvel screened early footage of GOTG at SDCC and now there’ll be huge merchandising, licensing and theme park attractions for years to come. The marketing campaign leveraged Marvel’s various social channels to drum up buzz and partnered with new Disney property Maker Studios as well as other digital channels to roll out custom content for younger audiences. The music was highlighted on Spotify and Shazam and VidCon. A faux tourism website Galaxy Getaways was launched with Google. The cast did a full show takeover of Jimmy Kimmel Live following the world premiere on July 21 as well as all talk shows. Promotional partners included Subway and Visa, as well as integrations with Lego, Hasbro, WalMart and Amazon.

Counterprogramming today is Get On Up which started its run with Thursday late shows grossing $371K in 1,769 locations. Starring Chadwick Boseman (who played that other civil rights icon Jackie Robinson in 42) and directed by Tate Taylor (who helmed The Help), get_on_upthis $30M-cost movie about the Godfather Of Soul written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth is stirring controversy. Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard (Remember The Titans) complained in The Washington Post this week about "The Whitewashing Of James Brown" and wrote: "Welcome to post-racial Hollywood where if you host a fundraiser for Barack Obama, you’re freed of the burden of hiring black writers. And where a rich white producer can jokingly declare, ‘I’m black.’ Indeed, all the producers, writers, and the director of the James Brown movie are white. No black people were hired until a few weeks before the cameras started rolling, the actors." (The supporting cast includes Nelsan Ellis, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Dan Aykroyd, Craig Robinson and Jill Scott.) When I asked Imagine co-chairman Michael Rosenberg to respond, he emailed: "This really was not about race but integrity of storytelling. Which was the objective of everyone involved for past 12 years or so. Tate is steeped in southern culture and he brought authenticity to this. Mick Jagger grew up in the music business the same time as James Brown. Brian started this many years ago as he knew James and convinced him to let Brian make a film about his life." Despite this, the PG-13 film was tracking most strongly with African Americans. Shot in Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi, the pic was supposed to release on October but Universal shifted it to today where it’s generated 76% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Also producing are Imagine’s Erica Huggins, Jagged’s Victoria Pearman and Taylor, under his Wyolah Films label.

The marketing campaign for Get On Up showcased star Chadwick Boseman "transcending mere imitation for an electrifying look inside the music, moves and moods of James Brown," the studio tells me. It targeted African American audiences through custom vignettes on BET, Revolt and VHI and cast appearances on dozens of late night and morning shows. Radio was used for early buzz building which included interviews with Steve Harvey, Tom Joyner, Russ Parr, D. L. Hughley, Ricky Smiley and Al Sharpton and other personalities whom Brown influenced. Universal’s digital campaign helped bring James Brown’s legacy to a younger audience by partnering with DanceOn, the #1 dance network on YouTube, and reaching an audience of 30 million people. The world famous Apollo Theater hosted the worldwide junket and premiere. Universal had high-profile placements in music-related TV specials, kicking off with trailers in the May finales of The Voice and Dancing With The Stars, and integration in the BET Awards featuring tribute footage of past performers inspired by Brown. There also was a Get On Up Tour with wardrobe, archived imagery, and film stills reaching over 1 million people through NC’s American Black Film Festival and Cincinnati’s National Urban League convention.

Weekend grosses:
1. Guardians Of The Galaxy (Marvel/Disney) NEW [Runs 4080] PG13
Friday $37.8M, Saturday $32.1M, Weekend $94.0M
International $66.4M
2. Lucy (Universal) Week 2 [Runs 3202] R
Friday $5.4M, Saturday $7.2M, Weekend $18.1M (-59%), Cume $79.4M
International $5.1M
3. Get On Up (Imagine/Jagged/Universal) NEW [Runs 2468] R
Friday $4.9M, Saturday $5.2M, Weekend $14.0M
4. Hercules (Paramount) Week 2 [Runs 3595] PG13
Friday $3.1M, Saturday $4.2M, Weekend $10.6M (-64%), Cume $52.3M
International $56.5M
5. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (Fox) Week 4 [Runs 3283] PG13
Friday $2.4M, Saturday $3.5M, Weekend $8.6M, Cume $189.3M
International $260M

‘Gypsy’ Back On Track By Hiring New Screenwriter; Will Star Barbra Streisand Also Direct?

Gypsy1

EXCLUSIVE: I’ve just learned that Universal Pictures is inching forward – f I n a l l y – with its big screen production of Gypsy. The studio has hired Oscar nominee Richard LaGravenese to adapt the musical. Most likely he was chosen because he wrote the screenplay for 1996′s The Mirror Has Two Faces which Barbra Streisand produced, directed and starred in. As you know, she’s been patiently waiting to play Mama Rose, universal_logo12first made famous on Broadway in 1959 by Ethel Merman and then by Rosalind Russell in the 1962 film version.  Back in March 2012 Universal hired Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey) to pen the script for Gypsy, and a year later producer Joel Silver told me the British writer had done a "wonderful job" on the draft. Now Streisand may still want to helm Gypsy as well.

A year ago, I learned that  she spoke with Silver and Universal about co-directing the musical with Tony Award-winner Matthew Warchus (Matilda, Follies), the British director and dramatist. The only thing standing in their way at that point was obtaining permission from Stephen Sondheim who is the keeper of the Gypsy legacy since Arthur Laurent died and has approval over Gypsy‘s director as well as its 3 main roles. (Sondheim wrote the lyrics for songs composed by Jule Styne in Laurents’ Tony Award-winning musical about the life and times of burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee and her bigger-than-life stage momager.) "Sondheim is the only person left who speaks for the whole creative group over the project," Silver explained to me at the time. La Streisand hasn’t helmed a musical since 1983′s Yentl which she also produced, co-wrote and starred in. "Everybody feels why isn’t Barbra directing Gypsy herself," a source told me. Unclear still if this will happen, although god knows whenever the difficult diva directs it’s not just a walk in the park – and everybody knows that.

Is there an audience for his film? Rightly or wrongly, I don’t think that matters in this case. As Silver told me a year ago, Streisand has always wanted to "to bookend her career with one of the great roles for a mature woman". No doubt Gypsy could be Streisand’s best chance for 2 Best Actress Oscars having won for Funny Girl in 1968. Of course, there’s concern that Babs at 72 may not be age appropriate to play Mama Rose. But she looked refreshed for the big screen in her most recent The Guilt Trip, Paramount/Skydance’s 2012 mother-son comedy co-starring Seth Rogen. LaGravenese started his career co-penning and consecutively performing in several Off-Off-Broadway productions in the 1980s until his big break came writing 1991′s The Fisher King which earned him an Oscar nomination. He most recently wrote and directed the screen adaptation of the Off-Broadway musical The Last Five Years to be released this year and scripted HBO’s 2013 Behind The Candelabra about Liberace.

Look: Chris Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’

This Insterstellar trailer from Paramount was unveiled to Comic-Con at the first-ever SDCC appearances by Christopher Nolan and Matthew McConaughey. "We’re trying to show the biggest imaginable phenomenon that exists in the universe," the director said. The November 7th release depicts widowed McConaughey leaving his kids for a space mission that Nolan said was influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and shot with large-format IMAX because “I needed the biggest canvas possible."

More Layoffs Today At CBS Films

EXCLUSIVE: I’ve learned there were more layoffs at CBS Films today, with about 9 staffers fired bringing the total now to 14 as new president Terry Press takes charge. It’s largely support personnel except for Executive Vice President of cbs films newProduction Maria Faillace who is being exited because of a "different creative vision", sources tell me. She’s going to become a producer on the upcoming CBS Films’ film The Exes, the romantic comedy directed by Andy Fickman. A one-time Fox 2000 exec, Faillace was hired by former CBS Films president Amy Baer and then promoted back in April 2012 two days after Press and Wolfgang Hammer were named co-presidents. Now Press is forming her own team after becoming sole president last week.
PREVIOUS: CBS Films’ Shake-Up At Top

Sony Film Advertising Shakeup

UPDATED: Sony Pictures Entertainment just confirmed what I heard last night: that Mike Pavlic, Executive Vice President of Creative Advertising, has been sony-pictures-logopromoted to President of Worldwide Creative Advertising. He replaces Tommy Gargotta who was exited. Meanwhile David Singh who left Sony Pictures advertising two weeks ago after 3 years at the studio is heading to 20th Century Fox as Executive Vice President of Creative Advertising. He’ll work under domestic marketing czar Marc Weinstock, himself a Sony refugee.

I’m told Pavlic was planning to take a sabbatical but was going to come back to take over if Gargotta were to leave, But Pavlic didn’t want to replace him outright because Gargotta had been his mentor. (Gargotta is on his annual vacation in Italy.) Also, sources tell me there was a recent meeting in the Cary Grant theater on the Sony lot. "Most people thought it was to boost morale (which is in the shitter) following [Vice Chairman Jeff] Blake’s exit, but it turned out to be a talk on moving marketing and distribution out of the Jimmy Stewart building and into 3 other buildings on the lot so people in the rented SPP building could move over. Also another building will be built in the Jimmy Stewart parking lot. Musical offices." Reporting to Dwight Caines, President of Domestic Theatrical Marketing for Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, Pavlic will lead the domestic and international creative advertising team in launching all motion pictures released by Columbia and Sony Pictures Animation worldwide. I should be posting Part Two of my Behind-The-Scenes With Sony Pictures Problems next week.

Michael Lynton & Amy Pascal Exit Another Top Sony Exec

At 3:11 PM today I first heard that Tommy Gargotta was exited as Sony Pictures president of Worldwide Creative Advertising after 14 years at the Sony Picturesstudio. His office told me he was on vacation for several weeks. (He always heads to Italy in early  August.) The studio’s spokesman Charles Sipkins claimed not to know anything about it when I phoned and emailed. As a source tells me: "They’re just cleaning house" now that Sony Pictures Entertainment Vice Chairman and Sony Pictures Chairman of Worldwide Marketing and Distribution Chairman Jeff Blake was unceremoniously exited last week by studio chairman Amy Pascal and Sony USA head Michael Lynton. Gargotta was as much an institution at the studio as Blake. I wanted to find out before posting why he was exited. Sources tell me the immediate reason Gargotta is gone is money: "He made a lot of money, a lot of money. So it was an easy decision for them" since the studio is still in cost-cutting mode. But another reason he was ousted after doing an excellent advertising job for years and winning renown in the biz for it is that "he was never a favorite of Amy’s and vice versa." I’m told that Gargotta "used to challenge Pascal, and she never liked it. Tommy was very creative and very strong. His biggest strength was that he’d stand up and defend the studio’s campaigns and was challenging in a good way. He was not afraid to stand up to Amy – and often he was right – and I don’t think she appreciated that." I should be posting Part Two of my Behind-The-Scenes With Sony Pictures Problems next week.

Legendary Exits Tom Lesinski

EXCLUSIVE: I’m told that Legendary Entertainment’s Digital Content and Distribution president Tom Lesinski is on the outs at the company. He’ll be starting a digital production company with a first-look deal at Legendary. Lesinski LegendaryAlthough he’s spinning it that it was his decision to leave Legendary, sources tell me the truth is there was a real culture clash similar to what Paramount experienced with him. The guy needs to get a new attitude is all I can say. Lesinski reported to Bruce Rosenblum, Legendary’s president of television and digital media. Lesinski  is telling people he wants to "take a more creative role" in digital production this time – which makes me laugh. (Full Disclosure: he did my short-lived "Deadline Hollywood" mobile video game at Paramount – and I wasn’t at all happy with it or its delays.)  After Paramount disbanded its digital media unit which Lesinski headed (and then built it back up without him), he was hired by Legendary in September 2013 to oversee digital content development, production and distribution, and contribute to designing, evaluating and implementing digital strategy.

How Four Directors Saved Film

It’s no doubt just a delay of the inevitable. But secret negotiations between Eastman Kodak and the movie studios are saving motion-picture film. The talks unveiled by the Wall Street Journal‘s Ben Fritz today were the direct result of intense lobbying of Warner Bros, Paramount, Disney, Universal, and The Weinstein Company by Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow, and JJ Abrams who all still want to shoot on film instead of going solely digital. four directors save filmThe bargaining is expected to result in an arrangement where studios promise to buy a set quantity of film for the next several years. Kodak’s new chief executive, Jeff Clarke, said the pact will allow his company to forestall the closure of its New York movie-film manufacturing plant, a move that had been under serious consideration. Nolan started the ball rolling with frequent complaints that movie-film was going extinct because the studios want the "flexibility of a nonphysical medium" which digital gives them. "As streams of data, movies would be thrown in with other endeavors under the reductive term ‘content,’ [which] can be ported across phones, watches, gas-station pumps or any other screen." As Apatow told the WSJ: "It would be a tragedy if suddenly directors didn’t have the opportunity to shoot on film. There’s a magic to the grain and the color quality that you get with film."

Kodak’s motion-picture film sales have plummeted 96% since 2006, from 12.4 billion linear feet to an estimated 449 million this year. With the exit of competitor Fujifilm Corp last year, Kodak is the only major company left producing motion-picture film." Fritz reports that Clarke originally had hoped that a group of studios, producers and filmmakers would invest directly in Kodak’s film-manufacturing plant as a joint venture. But that proposal fell flat earlier this summer. The idea for set-quota sales only happened once the big-name directors started lobbying the heads of studios. "It’s a financial commitment, no doubt about it," Bob Weinstein who was personally lobbied by Tarantino, told the WSJ. "But I don’t think we could look some of our filmmakers in the eyes if we didn’t do it." Kodak produced the first commercial transparent film roll in 1889, with the subsequent movie and TV industries long its biggest clients. But Kodak was projecting that its film business unit would be unprofitable for the first time in recent history. It now has preliminary order numbers in hand and is negotiating the formal commitments.

E! Czar Suzanne Kolb To Be Axed

EEntertainmentEXCLUSIVE: I’ve learned that E! Entertainment Television President Suzanne Kolb is getting the boot in early fall after 3 years in the job. And judging from the 469 incredibly nasty comments you wrote about her management and E! programming after I posted The Kardashians Ratings Are Krashing: Will E! President Suzanne Kolb Take The Fall? on June 13, this news can’t come too soon. "Her bosses are completely aware of the situation and know they have to make a change in early fall," sources tell me. NBCUniversal was hoping no one would write the story about her ineptness, and then I did. And then your comments detailing a lot of bad behavior by the despised Kolb – from her berating underlings to manipulating personnel to micromanaging the brand – clearly came from a lot of present and past NBCU co-workers who just confirmed what the bosses already knew. (Example: "You’re finally getting the attention you so rightly deserve. Congratulations. From an old friend at a sister network who’s enjoying the conversation.") I’m told NBCUniversal Cable Chairman Bonnie Hammer all this time has been moving slowly but steadily to find a replacement for the unmitigated disaster atop the pop culture/entertainment channel. She put Kolb in there. She doesn’t want to do that again. "It’s a delicate situation. She’s got to find the right person," sources tell me. E!’s ratings overall were down -20% in 2013. And in 2014 they’re down another -20% from last year. It’s bad at E! – and Madison Avenue knows it.

Unfortunately, NBCU has no plans to ditch the Kardashians on E! anytime soon despite the continuation of their ratings freefall on that Viscount Of Vapidity Ryan Seacrest-produced Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Since Season 9B began on June 8th, the numbers have sunk as low as 2.061. Even their most recent Thailand trip didn’t spike (only 2.292) despite being promoted by an unending online stream of near-nude Kim selfies that culminated with last night’s show featuring 3 production assistants sickeningly rubbing sand on her oversized ass. The problem is, under Kolb’s lack of creative or strategic skills, KUWTK remains E!’s highest rated and highest profile series. Nothing else has worked. And there are no other hits on the horizon, not even Rich Kids Of Beverly Hills and Total Divas which were the only two series renewed in the Kolb era. Failed series under her tenure include almost everything, from recent Escape Club to Mrs. Eastwood And Co, What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, Chasing The Saturdays, The Wanted Life, Opening Act, Playing With Fire, Party On, and The Soup Investigates. Kolb previously served as president of marketing, news and online for E! and The Style Network.

Weekend Box Office: #1 ‘Lucy’ $44.1M, #2 ‘Hercules’ $29.9M As Summer 2014 Slump Continues

herc lucy posters2SUNDAY 9 AM, 6TH UPDATE: This was another down weekend, an estimated -13% compared to last year’s total moviegoing. Domestic box office for Summer 2014 continues down -20% shaping up as the worst May-through-August in 8 years. pauldblog2-summermoviechart(First time since 2001, no film has crossed $300M in North American runs.) Remember, however, that Fast And Furious 7 was postponed from a July 11 release due to Paul Walker’s tragic death. And Paramount’s Transformers: Age Of Extinction, the 4th film in the franchise, should reach $1 billion worldwide grosses next weekend. But, with a few exceptions, moviegoers are less than thrilled with this year’s product. One bright spot this weekend: both major newcomers overperformed.

Read my Kill Me Now: Comic-Con Crapfest movie roundup.

Writer/director Luc Besson’s Lucy (3,172 theaters) starring Scarlett Johansson as the action lead for Universal opened to $17M Friday and $15.1M Saturday. With an estimated $11.9M Sunday, BOupdated200that’s a strong $44.1M weekend start for an R-rated movie and an easy #1. That includes $2.746M from 2,386 Thursday late shows (following an early AMC theaters reporting glitch). Pic outmuscled #2 Paramount/MGM’s Hercules (opening at 3,590 theaters including IMAX). Directed by Brett Ratner and starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the ancient Greek strongman outperformed for $11M Friday and $10.6M Saturday. With an estimated $8.2M Sunday, that’s $29.9M this weekend. The hunk started its first weekend with $2.1M from 2,053 Thursday late shows which, as I said earlier, signaled the higher total. Herc is expected to do much of its theatrical biz overseas and began its international launch this weekend in 26 markets grossing $28.7M through Sunday for a worldwide cume of $57.7M (led by Russia). Both films had almost identical better-than-middling scores on Rotten Tomatoes (65% to 63% fresh reviews) but from audiences Hercules received a B+ Cinemascore and Lucy only a C+ which didn’t hurt word of mouth.

According to Fandango, the female-powered original was leading weekend ticket sales and outselling recent Tom Cruise action comps like Oblivion and Edge Of Tomorrow. With a $40M budget from the filmmaker’s EuropaCorp shingle, Besson – after La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element – plays off Johannson’s Besson-Johanssonrecent turn as Black Widow in the Marvel franchise and an artificially intelligent being in Her. Besson wanted to make this film for a decade, ever since he met at dinner a professor who studied the cell nucleus and he became founder of the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris. "I thought, okay, I don’t want to do a documentary about this, I want to do a film," he told media. (Though one reviewer said the goofy and loopy Lucy plays "more like a big dumb superhero flick" than sci-fi.) In the pic, Johansson plays a super-human increasingly unlocking her brain capacity from the alleged 10% which most humans use to fully 100%  – and havoc ensues. Of course, who among us employs less than 10% and willingly believes all the untrue bullshit that movies spew. ("I always wondered if we could mix an action thriller with a philosophical background. It doesn’t have to be one or the other," Besson said. The studio is high on the pic noting, "It’s one of this summer’s very few R-rated films outside of the comedy or horror genres and was tracking strong across age, gender and ethnic segments." Exit polling showed the audience was 50% female/50% male, with 35% under age 25/65% age 25 and older, and 35% Caucasian, 29% Hispanic, 19% African American, 12% Asian, and 5% other.

I loved the marketing for Lucy because it was easy to understand for the un-brainy among us but also made the film look sophisticated as the campaign, in summary, "asked people what one human could truly do if he or she accessed the furthest reaches of their mind.". It was designed to create buzz for a new kind of scifi action hero among adults age 18-49 through a mix of television, outdoor, radio, and Spanish-language media. TV focused heavily on sports and action programming. Universal held 50 promotional screenings in the U.S. and Canada while Hispanic outreach included a major presence on Univision’s World Cup programming and World Cup adjacent shows and at Latino grassroots events such as the Reventon Super Estrella concert in Los Angeles in July. First look was in the March 28th Entertainment Weekly. Johannson did a ton of print while Besson went to WonderCon in April where he debuted the online trailer and to Cinema Europe with clips. The digital campaign included an immersive film site incorporation with text streamer Spritz Technology. In August, a Lucy graphic novel will be released online with 4 chapters appearing every other day for one week. Lucy will be the opener of the Locarno Film Festival while Besson plans to tour for the film in Korea and Taiwan.

I’m a sucker for Johnson especially in this kind of flick where his increasingly honed acting skills get used as a sword-for-hire. Paramount opened its Comic-Con presentation in San Diego with the surprise appearance of The Rock strolling through the aisles past screaming fans who gave him a standing ‘o’. brett-ratner-dwayne-johnsonFinally, The Rock has come back to Comic-Con!” he roared, then promoed his pic. Surprisingly PG-13, this Hercules is based on Radical Comics’ "Hercules" by the late Steve Moore. Ratner takes the mythical hero and son of Zeus and turns him into a very human mercenary in this popcorn pic which cost $100M and hopes to finally launch another franchise (unlike The Legend Of Hercules which bombed with an $8.9M debut earlier this year). "As a kid growing up, I dreamed of making a swords and sandals movie, and Hercules is the first superhero," Ratner told media. "I read the graphic novel and this story demystified the myth. A lot of these films, in modern times, are all about the spectacle, the visual effects. I set to make something that was grounded, that was realistic, that had emotion, that had heart, that had characters, that was an ensemble." The film was written by Ryan J Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos.

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Comic-Con Crapfest: Movies

REFRESH FOR LATEST… Not to worry: I’m not there. But I’m performing a public service for you by reading all this 2014 Comic-Con crap in the trades so you don’t have to. (Figure I’m bound for hell anyway so this is my one good deed for the month…) 300.comic.con.logo.052708MA18849441-0001I used to say "I don’t do geek" but can’t anymore. Not since every 3rd movie released involves it and some of the films are even pretty good. Here’s my condensed SDCC movie news round-up which I’ll keep updating:

MARVEL: The Avengers: Age Of Ultron brought the fanboys to their feet multiple times. Especially when Iron Man Robert Downey Jr took the stage throwing roses. robert downey jr comic-conHe was soon joined by Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Media quoted Downey as saying. “This is the longest bench of talent I’ve ever been involved with. I become less significant each time, which is fine.” A first look consisted of a montage of scenes with mostly finished visual effects and action sequences. Also intro-ed was James Spader aka villain Ultron. “I play an 8-foot robot,” he said. “I’ve always played humans up until now. Everything was so entirely new — playing this character, the world it was entering and even the world these movies inhabit.” avengers2-_age_of_ultron_13Earlier, the pic’s concept art was shown: specifically, 8 posters depicting an intense massive battle directed by Joss Whedon between the Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, the Incredible Hulk, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision who can be seen flying in the background) who look to be getting the worst of it from Ultron’s robot army.

MARVEL: Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 is dated for July 28, 2017. Marvel is so convinced (or arrogant) about the forthcoming success of the first one, to be released this Friday as Marvel Studios’ 10th movie, that the sequel is teased in its end credits. James Gunn, who will write and direct again, delivered the news with Chris Pratt in a mock video.

MARVEL: The studio tried to quell increasing alarm over Ant-Man now that the pic is even more in flux and fanboys even more flummoxed. ant manMarvel’s Kevin Feige on Saturday unveiled the film’s villain – Corey Stoll, aka the "cunning yet sympathetic" Darren Cross/Yellowjacket, and officially confirmed that Evangeline Lilly is cast as Hope Pym, and revealed that new director Peyton Reed has been an Ant-Man fan since childhood. Feige also debuted a short action-packed teaser with Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd voicing over an action sequence. "Superheroes, what a goddamn joke," sneers Douglas’ character, Dr Hank Pym. Pic just lost other castmembers following Edgar Wright’s exit as director in May (because he and the studio clashed on the project). Patrick Wilson, Matt Gerard and Kevin Weisman won’t be appearing. First Marvel film to "oops" since studio started. Spotted at SDCC was this poster: "Edgar Wright was right." Fanbuys sure seem to be on his side. Meanwhile Wright is set to direct Sony Pictures’ Grasshopper based on the YA novel adapted by Scott Rosenberg.

LEGENDARY: Universal turned over its entire Comic-Con presentation to Legendary and its chief Thomas Tull. I understood why when he announced yet another King Kong film, this time focused on the king-kong-skull-islandgiant ape’s spooky jungle home Skull Island, for November 4, 2016. Understandable since Uni owns the property which is still a mainstay of its studio tour, complete with banana breath, and was the epicenter of its 1933 and 2005 movies, and has a first-look deal with Tull. The Kong in Tull’s teaser tried to look vicious roaring at the end of a clip but the thrill is gone. So what’s imagined is a "universe" of prehistoric monsters and primitive humans to fuel the franchise’s cinematic sequels and spinoffs. "Previous works have touched on the island, but staying and exploring this mysterious and dangerous place offers Legendary the opportunity to take audiences deeper inside this rich world," Legendary said in an accompanying press statement.

LEGENDARY: Godzilla 2 was officially announced by Thomas Tull who then intro-ed a video message from director Gareth Edwards (also helming a Star Wars spinoff). Fanboys whooped when 3 popular monster names flashed on screen – Rodan, Mothra and Ghidorah – who are joining the franchise. Rights holder Toho Co Ltd gave Legendary the go-ahead for sequels and spinoffs.

LEGENDARY: Guillermo del Toro showed footage of Crimson Peak, Duncan Jones brought a look at video game-turned-film Warcraft, and Michael Mann deigned to make a first trip to Comic-Con to debut footage from Blackhat whose hacker star Chris Hemsworth made a surprise appearance. "Of the Top 10 favorite movies of mine, a lot of them come from Michael," Hemsworth sucked up.

WARNER BROS: Self-professed JR Tolkien fanboy Stephen Colbert came out in Middle Earth costume. The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies was teased. Only news was that the Hobbit movies "are progressively moving from a light tone to a darker one in order to match up with Lord Of The Rings," media observed. And Peter Jackson said he had enough footage left to do another extended LOTR, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andy Serkis also appeared on the panel which Colbert moderated.

WARNER BROS/DC: The studio wimped out on all its planned big announcements for upcoming films. (Long sigh… These execs just delay and then delay some more, ad nauseam.) Instead some very brief Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice first footage was twice shown by director Zach Snyder who brought along Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot after filming the night before. Big whoop, right? But, actually, it was for fanboys and journos alike. On a rooftop on a dark and stormy night, "Superman’s red eyes stared down Batman’s phosphorescent white ones in the teaser from Warner Bros," one trade wrote. "Batman, played by Affleck, Gadot as Wonder Womanunveiled his newest night sky bat sign, and as the camera moved, Superman, played by Cavill, hovered in its way, frothing and red eyes ablaze." The helmer, who’d already offered up the first pic of Affleck as Batman, also tweeted the first photo of Gadot as Wonder Woman in full battle regalia. Snyder said they had to go back and finish the movie.

20TH CENTURY FOX: The studio brought everything but the kitchen sink or any of its Marvel superheroes. Highlighted were upcoming films Maze Runner, Hitman: Agent 47, Book Of Life, The Kingsman: Secret Service and Let’s Be Cops with first look trailers and extended footage for each. Biz Markie rapped “Just a Friend” in Hall H as Channing Tatum and his Book Of Life co-stars danced and sang along. Producer Guillermo Del Toro and director Jorge Guiterrez spoke about their animated comedy borrowing heavily from Dia De Los Muertos imagery. And Maze Runner Dylan O’Brien accidentally gave away a major film spoiler. Colin Firth was in the hall to promote Kingsman. Director Matthew Vaughn wasn’t there but sent a taped message sitting side by side with co-star Mark Hamill (shooting Star Wars: Episode VII).

ben-affleck-as-batmanWARNER BROS/DCJustice League may be scripted by Chris Terrio who wrote the Batman V SupermanL Dawn Of Justice and Argo screenplays. This isn’t the ‘bombshell’ some media are saying: the studio has amply demonstrated it keeps going back to the talent it’s already hired. Why take chances if what’s been done recently is successful? Also regarding Batman, DC Entertainment released a new image of Ben Affleck in the Batsuit from the neck up. Cumberbatch said he wants to play Batman (no way no how) during his first SFCC panel for DreamWorks Animations’ Penguins Of Madagascar.

PARAMOUNTInsterstellar glimpse was offered to the Hall H crowd in a new trailer. But attracting even more geek and journo love were the surprising first-ever SDCC appearances by Christopher Nolan and Matthew McConaughey answering questions to promote the much-anticipated and highly ambitious pic. nolan mcconaughey"We’re trying to show the biggest imaginable phenomenon that exists in the universe," the director said. The studio tells me this Interstellar trailer won’t be available online until Wednesday. Darn. But it’s a lot like Nolan’s Inception and "too complicated to describe in a sound bite", one journo wrote. Basically, widowed McConaughey leaves kids for a space mission that Nolan said was influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and shot with large-format IMAX. “I needed the biggest canvas possible. I grew up in a time when being an astronaut was the highest ambition of any child."

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Behind-The-Scenes With Sony Pictures’ Problems: Part One

On June 19th, I emailed Sony Pictures Entertainment Vice Chairman Jeff Blake and asked if he was leaving the studio. "Up in the air. Will know soon. Promise to tell you," he replied. To which I responded, "OK. Please tell me first." His Sony bosses Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal were trying to force Blake into retiring rather than demonstrate to Hollywood that they were firing the beloved 22-year studio veteran as the sacrificial lamb for all of Sony Pictures’ many problems. Sony PicturesDuring the last 3 years, the studio’s summer event pictures had not lived up to expectations beginning with 2012′s reboot of The Amazing Spider-Man. What no one knew is that Lynton and Pascal had nearly fired Blake exactly a year ago as the fall guy for Summer 2013′s box office disappointments like After Earth, White House Down, Smurfs 2, and Elysium. Just like she’d done during last summer referring to Blake’s health, Pascal a few weeks before Blake’s forced departure on Tuesday was again mentioning to media that, after 22 years in his very exacting big job, it was time "for Jeff to take care of himself". What she really meant to say, but didn’t, was "for Jeff to take the heat off Michael and myself".

But, at only age 61, Blake felt he wasn’t finished overseeing worldwide movie marketing and distribution at the job and the studio that he loved. "They wanted me to say I am going to retire, and I wouldn’t," Blake told a pal. "If I really thought I was losing something, I’d kind of know it in my heart of hearts." Lynton and Pascal finally were able to buy him off. "It was done very nicely. Jeff has less than a year left on his contract so Amy and Michael gave him a lot more money than that. And with no contractual responsibilities after August 1st because Jeff wanted to find a new job immediately," an insider told me. And he will, no doubt.

The announcement of Blake’s departure was made on Tuesday. He kept his word and tried to tell me first but Lynton had already made a deal with Deadline. (Blake did call me early that morning, only I was fast asleep after a late night of reporting.) Later that day Blake turned in his Sony Blackberry and set up a personal gmail account. He was out. It followed a dismal Sony Summer 2014 box office when the reboot sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2 disappointed (more on that in upcoming Part Two), several other films fell short, and last weekend when Sex Tape bombed. The timing made it look as if that was his fault, too. "What I’m telling my people on the way out is, ‘Tell the truth’. You just can’t give everybody what they want to hear. And to test films outside of Los Angeles. They loved Sex Tape in LA but not in Kansas City," Blake told me when we finally spoke. "We’re the only ones touching the consumer, so I encouraged people to find out what the real world thinks. You don’t have to be out on a ledge to relay what the rest of the world is saying. But the truth is the only way out of here."

As for his replacement/s, Blake openly wondered if Doug Belgrad’s recent promotion from Columbia Pictures president to Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group presidency means he’ll be taking on larger responsibility. (I’ve learned that in a few weeks Belgrad is leading a presentation to the Japanese brass including CEO Kazuo "Kaz" Hirai. "It looks to me like they’re grooming him. He’s good financially and creatively, which is unusual," a source just told me.) Blake conjectured: "Or somebody on the outside. I hope not. I hope it’s some combination of internal people. They’ve got Rory Bruer [distribution] and Dwight Caines [marketing]. You always have to hope and be optimistic. It is difficult when targets keep getting higher. It worked for a long time. When it gets tough, sometimes the luck runs out."

Blake and I had an unusually close professional relationship after jeff blake 3years and years of emailing one another on most days and every weekend to talk box office. "I always was trying to do my best and not be a fucking liar. You were tough, and you still are tough. I don’t even try to snow you. I gave you at least as much truth as I could tell you and not get myself killed," he explained to me. Only on a few occasions did I ever hear him complain abut his job. Once, about being sleep-deprived from staying up late every weekend night and early every weekend morning to follow the grosses. Another time, when tracking started to become meaningless. And a third time when Lynton and Pascal came after him during Sony’s lousy Summer 2013.

"Last summer was no damn good," Blake recalled.

Looking back at when the Sony saga started, I date it to last summer and an unusual confluence of bad choices, bad timing and bad marketing. First, unfortunately, came After Earth on May 31st. Even the studio’s own tracking indicated that the Will Smith/Jaden Smith space actioner was going to fail. Execs thought its domestic cume would likely end up in the mid to high $90sM. It made only to $60M. AE_posterInternational was stronger but nothing like Will’s other big budget pics which have averaged $600M in global grosses. After Earth‘s problem was that its net cost was $149M ($170M budget, less $21M in production benefits) and Will received not just his full salary but also 20% first dollar gross participation. Some complained about the marketing. ("They paid Smith full freight. Yet why they didn’t put his name in big letters at the top of the billboards or have him smiling in the trailers is mystifying," one source told me at the time.) But people were clearly turned off by After Earth not only as a Jaden Smith pic, but as an expensive vanity project Will Smith pushed through for his son that simply didn’t look like any fun. Since this wasn’t a Will Smith picture, what was there left to market? Certainly not the pic’s director M Night Shyamalan, whom Smith had handpicked. Not only was the pic a conceptual failure, it lost a lot of money. Blake’s marketing prowess couldn’t overcome this meltdown, which Pascal belatedly admitted she had put into production simply because Will had made billions for the studio and she felt she just couldn’t say no to its most successful film partner.

At the time, Third Point hedge fund master of the universe Dan Loeb was destabilizing the Sony studio with his complaints as a major investor in the parent company. First, the After Earth failure played into his hands, and then the White House Down disaster on July 28th. WHD_posterThat pic’s marketing was uninspired, first with action-oriented trailers and then ones making it look like a buddy action comedy. Toughest of all, though, was that it followed the very similar Olympus Has Fallen. Also, Channing Tatum’s most proven audience is female and this was an actioner. Its net negative cost plus P&A came to $280M, and I’m told it lost as much as $90M.

The very next day after White House Down‘s Friday’s release, Loeb got nasty in a letter to his investors. “We were surprised that after Entertainment’s highly touted big budget summer releases — After Earth and White House Down — bombed spectacularly at the box office, Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai, speaking at the Allen & Co Sun Valley conferences a few weeks ago, brushed off these failures saying: ‘I don’t worry about the Entertainment business, it’s doing just fine’”. Calling the films “2013′s versions of Waterworld and Ishtar,” Loeb wrote it was “perplexing” that Hirai gave “free passes” to Lynton and Pascal whom he called “the executives responsible for these debacles.”

I learned that immediately after that Loeb letter, Sony Pictures actually phoned Universal to find out what Waterworld‘s red ink had been (only to be told that Waterworld broke even) and checked internally to see how much Ishtar had lost, and provided the info to their board. The studio considered hitting back publicly at Loeb and had a report written denouncing his claims. "A little reactive and sensitive?" a source told me at the time. "That’s Amy. This has been very tough, and she is a nervous personality. Wonderfully creative but very excitable. Michael was always very calm. But he started to get downright angry when Loeb started complaining."

I learned that, in reaction to Loeb, Sony Pictures had a major meeting the week before July 4th. Lynton, Pascal, Belgrad, the CFO, and three other execs attended. Blake was not there. Sources told me at the time Lynton led the meeting where a revised greenlight strategy was outlined and agreed upon.

The greenlight criteria was to become more stringent: that the numbers would drive everything, but also that there had to be a passionate belief in the project’s success from multiple execs, and that they must know the audience they’re targeting before they commit. Plus the studio now intended to view the North American market as a territory and make pictures aimed at the international audiences. That made sense: overseas theatrical box office was growing at a sustained rate and then accounted for 69% of global box office. Multiplexes were being built worldwide. New middle classes were emerging throughout the world and showing interest in movies. New markets in Asia, Russia, the Middle East, and Latin America were all growing. The MPAA reported that box office in China had grown 36% alone.

The Sony Pictures executives further pledged that third party participation would be reduced, first dollar gross deals would be the exception, and more cash break even deals would be the norm for talent. They also agreed that there was no more reason to spend the type of money they’d previously spent on pics such as The Amazing Spider-Man, Men in Black 3, etc. So budgets on franchises would no longer be gigantic and P&A expenditures should be approximately 10% less going forward.

Also discussed was that the studio needed to build more franchises and have more sequels and develop more brands, and these should be the key to the slate going forward. I’m told that the feeling after the meeting was, in the words of one source, "positive. I think it was smart and productive for them. I liked their plan going forward."

I soon learned why Blake was not invited. Because more then one top exec inside Sony was telling people they thought it was likely that Jeff Blake would be let go. That’s when I first realized the studio was nearly ready to unfairly fire Blake. Despite the fact that he had an unparalled reputation and record of excellence in Hollywood where his peers considered him a ‘god-like’ and ‘very cool" exec completely in control of his domain and staff.

But Pascal was battling for her own job that June – truly hanging by her fingernails – as Loeb kept bitch-slapping the studio’s leadership. Even Lynton was contemplating forcing out Pascal to save his own skin. "Michael was the co-chairman when all the pictures were greenlit, so he can’t completely back away from the slate," a source explained to me at the time. Lynton and Pascal have "always had a culture clash. Michael is empirically driven, Amy creatively. He has always wanted her to understand the numbers and she has always felt that creative decisions should overrule financial decisions. The disharmony is not personal: it is business and based on the results. To her credit, Amy has learned more about the numbers recently. It wouldn’t surprise me if Amy got fired if the rest of the summer doesn’t perform. But if the next three pics work this summer, then I think she gets more time."

Pascal was asking people that July if they’d been told she was being replaced. She’d heard 3 names: Matt Tolmach, Jeff Robinov, Neil Moritz.

When I told Pascal that I planned to write about Sony Pictures right around this time, she completely freaked out. The summer before she’d screamed at me for posting that 2012′s The Amazing Spider-Man reboot had disappointed at the box office – even though it had. In May 2013, she kept insisting to me that After Earth would do fine – until the day it was released and clearly a domestic disaster. Only then did she start talking candidly.

That mid-July, I point-blank asked Pascal whether Blake would be fired, and she told me she didn’t know. Immediately, she sought to use Blake’s health as the reason he should go, telling me it was time "for Jeff to take care of himself". (She repeated those exact same words to me earlier this month.)

I told her how I felt and what I would do: that if she dared to touch a hair on Blake’s head, I would post what I really thought. That she should be fired, and moreover that the studio was blaming marketing when she should be falling on her own sword instead for making bad movies. I said it would be a miracle if Blake was able to get any filmgoers to buy tickets for the dreck produced by Sony that summer. And I told her that I knew about the meeting where Sony Pictures decided to change its film focus because of Loeb’s outside pressure.

Pascal lied to me and claimed that meeting never took place to get me not to write the Sony story. (But the meeting did take place – and was confirmed in a letter to Loeb a month later by Sony Corp chief Kazuo Hirai.)

I loathe those calls I sometimes have to make telling Hollywood bigwigs they’re in danger of getting axed. To my surprise, Blake verbally shrugged it off except to say "Water rising here". But he also asked for a favor, something he’d never done in all the years I’d known him: to "take a beat" before writing about the studio and him at least until after Elysium opened on August 9th. Rightly or wrongly, I agreed.

Pascal at the same time turned to Blake (of all people, but because she knew we were close) to convince me to include in my Sony piece that, even though some pics were failing at the box office, the summer would end profitably. I told Blake how I didn’t think that was true and wasn’t going to write it.

Then Smurfs 2 opened on July 31st and bombed domestically. Even Disney’s toon Planes had been out-tracking the Sony sequel, causing the Sony brass to sweat. smurfs2_posterThe pic shocked by opening to merely half the U.S./Canadian grosses of the first. ("But even the $30M we expected would be disappointing, and the outside perception would be very bad," a source wrote to me at the time.) The studio blamed too many PG films at the multiplex but the real story is that critics panned it because it stunk. Even the foreign cume was blah at first. The negative cost for Smurfs 2 was $125M ($146M less production benefits of $21M). The disappointment was sure to put more pressure on the studio from cantankerous investor Loeb. Plus, it was Lynton’s baby: he’d taken the first Smurfs out of turnaround from Paramount only to have it catch lightning in a bottle and gross $563M worldwide. Smurfs 3 was already scheduled. My sources said the sequel had to make greater than $300M worldwide to show a small profit. It did, thanks to overseas, but grossed nothing like the original.

As a source told me at the time, "when you have a Will Smith pic, a Roland Emmerich pic, and two sequels in your summer, you should make big money." And Sony wasn’t. On the other hand, it’s a cyclical business, as everyone except Loeb seemed to know.

In those first days of August, a source emailed me to say, "I think Sony is going to fire Jeff. I also think Michael could fire Amy. I don’t know either for a fact." The question was whether Lynton, who was on his way to Tokyo, had read the tea leaves correctly about what big Sony wanted in terms of keeping management stability vs making changes. As for Lynton keeping his job, the source told me, "I think Michael has strong support within the board."

Then Sony Pictures decided to fight back against Loeb by deciding the best defense against him was offense. Lynton and Pascal got behind George Clooney, who had Monuments Men with the studio later in the year (and which didn’t break even), to go public telling Loeb to eff off. Parent Sony also rebuffed Loeb’s proposal urging it to spin off a minority stake in its movie, TV and music entertainment assets. Loeb pals told me privately he was uncomfortable attracting so much bad press and decided to publicly stop bitching about Sony for a while. (I wrote, "Apparently, The Most Hated Man In Hollywood just wasn’t comfortable being labeled “The Most Dangerous Man To Our Industry” by George Clooney for all the world to read." And I congratulated Hirai for not panicking or pressuring top executives to leave just to appease Loeb.)

For now Blake was safe even though August releases Elysium and then Mortal Instruments both disappointed at the box office. This Is The End made money. ("It’s a nice piece of business but didn’t play overseas.") Yet someone’s head still had to roll after the summer flops if marketing was going to be blamed. Instead of Blake, Marc Weinstock who was president of worldwide theatrical marketing at Sony Pictures was shockingly ousted that September without any warning. "That one I never understood," an insider told me. "But Michael and Amy wanted it done. They claimed some of the team didn’t like him." Blake had to fire him. "I hated to do it. I thought he was a talented young guy." By the end of 2013, Weinstock had landed at 20th Century Fox as president of domestic film marketing.

I never wrote that Sony piece because I became consumed by employment problems with my then boss. All I can say, in summary, is that what people in Hollywood will do to save their own skins never surprises me anymore.

(Part Two coming soon.)

WGAW Final Board Candidates

The Writers Guild of America, West has announced the final slate of candidates for the 2014 WGAW Board of Directors election.

There are 18 candidates nominated to run for eight open seats on the WGAW’s WGAW-LogoBoard of Directors as follows: Chris Derrick, Shawn Ryan, Cynthia Riddle, Peter Lefcourt, Chip Johannessen (inc.), Shernold Edwards, Peter Murrieta, Scott Alexander (inc.), Doug Atchison, Michael Oates Palmer (inc.), Stan Chervin, Jonathan Fernandez, Katherine Fugate (inc.), Courtney Ellinger, Mark Amato, Aaron Mendelsohn, Aaron Fullerton, Marjorie David (inc.). (Petition candidate Mark Amato was added to the initial candidate roster previously announced on 6/20.)*

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The Power & Money & Glitter

Get ready, Hollywood, for more than just snarled traffic. Because once again  Washington DC pols are coming here with their hands permanently outstretched for your coin. On Wednesday, President Obama is obama hollywood star_thumb[1]making his 16th SoCal money plea and attends a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Hancock Park home of TV producer Shonda Rhimes. Tickets begin at $1,000,  with the price rising to $10,000 to attend the reception and to have a photo taken with Obama. It climbs to $32,400 — the maximum allowable contribution to a national party committee in a calendar year — to co-host the event and to attend a dinner with Obama as well. On Thursday, Obama is scheduled to attend a roundtable discussion with about 30 people at the Los Angeles home of Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino with tickets reportedly costing $32,400 each. The money raised at both events will help U.S. House and Senate Democratic candidates in the midterm elections this November. The big bucks also pay off.  Jeffrey Katzenberg, who bundled at least $10M for Obama’s election and reelection during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, is receiving the National Medal Of Arts in the East Room of the White House on July 28th. He’s the first Hollywood non-filmmaker executive to receive the honor.

WGA’s “Call To Arms” Against Murdoch-Time Warner Merger

The leadership of the Writers Guild West just sent this email to members about the Rupert Murdoch bid for Time Warner. For background, read my Here We Go Again: How Rupert Murdoch/Time Warner Merger Would Fuck You In Hollywood:

From The New York Times: $80B Offer From Rupert Murdoch Puts Time-Warner In Play

WGAW-LogoIf this headline scares you – and it should – then consider this a call to arms.

As writers, we face a landscape today that the founders of our Guild would hardly recognize. For decades, there were dozens of significant buyers in television and movies.

Then Federal limits on mergers disappeared. FCC regulations requiring independent production in television were repealed. And the result was industry-wide consolidation, networks and studios combining, and independent production disappearing.

Fewer movies being made. Fewer development deals. Smaller TV staffs. And lower quotes… because the industry was suddenly in the hands of only six – six! – conglomerates.

And the Writers Guild, without a voice in Washington to protest, was unable to save the business from strangling itself.

Now, those six conglomerates are threatening to swallow one another. Think of that. Between them, Fox and Time-Warner would control 40% of the industry’s writing jobs. What happens if more consolidation follows? What happens if one mega-company ends up devouring them all? The idea is almost too frightening to contemplate. But it’s also too possible to ignore.

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Advisory: Thank You, Readers

NikkiFinke.com has been live for more than one month, and I want to thank all the multi-millions of readers who have dropped by to check it out so far. Please keep Thank You1sending me tips and signing up for my email alerts. The site also has incorporated the improvements which you’ve suggested. My goal is to provide Hollywood news, analysis and commentary not done by the trades, and stimulate honest discussions in the comments section. I’m still spending a lot of my time on the continuing arbitration case with Jay Penske. Hopefully, you can cut me slack in the meantime knowing that, come September, I’ll post more content more regularly. The best is yet to come.

CBS Films’ Shake-Up At Top

UPDATED… EXCLUSIVE: I just found out that Terry Press has taken over as President of CBS Films solo. Sources tell me that Wolfgang Hammer was quietly moved out of his co-president’s job with her a few weeks ago with no announcement. But tonight, after I cbs films newstarted asking questions about him, Hammer’s name disappeared from the CBS Films website and now only Press’ name is listed as President. I’m told that Hammer three weeks ago "transitioned into a CBS Executivecounsulting role at CBS corporation working on some digital content ideas for other parts of the company. So Terry is going to assume the sole presidency of the division and actually has." For days now Hammer’s email had a cryptic message following a tragedy in his family. I’ve been aware of friction between Press and Hammer over their differing ideas on how to run the company ever since Press and Hammer were named co-presidents in April 2012 to fill the vacancy left by former president Amy Baer who left the post in September 2011. From that moment on, I knew it was just a matter of time and experience before Press would be running the studio alone.

I also learned that last week 5 staffers were laid off as a "regrouping" by Press, including the SVP of Distribution Bob Kaplowitz. "He was planning to retire and this way he got a big chunk of stock and money," a source tells me. Insiders deny employee fears that more layoffs are to come and will be staggered ("so as not to cause a story because they’re opening a movie in August," as a source told me). That Michael Dowse-directed film stars Daniel Radcliffe in the romantic comedy What If set for an August 1st release. "I don’t think 5 people constitutes a large wave," an insider insists. Then again CBS Films, started in 2007, is small to begin with. Meanwhile CBS Inc turned in record 2014 Q1 profits.

Having two executives serve as co-presidents was unusual for such a small film studio. wolfgang hammerHammer previously held the COO title and focused on acquisitions. Press, formerly the head of marketing for DreamWorks, had been consulting for CBS Films since 2010 while running her own firm 7570 Marketing. She impressed CBS Inc chief Les Moonves so that he had her overseeing creative, distribution, marketing and physical production for CBS Films until the latest promotion.

2ND UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter was 1 1/2 hours later posting 2 sentences about my CBS Films shake-up scoop – with no credit to me.

Time-Warner Plays Defense

According to SEC filings, Time Warner today amended its corporate bylaws effective immediately to remove a provision that allowed shareholders to call a special board meeting. The defensive and murdoch3 bewkes time warnertemporary and also unusual move is against its own shareholders who might be supportive of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox $80B bid for Time Warner. It’s not a poison pill defense. Specifically, the measure prevents a fraction of TW shareholders, 15%, from forcing a vote on 21st Century Fox’s offer. Time Warner’s management believes the move will prevent a hostile takeover, while allowing it more time to make its case that it has a plan to unlock shareholder value and grow as an independent company, according to an insider quoted by The New York Times. Time Warner sees Murdoch’s first bid as too low amid reports he may go as high as $100/share to win it. (PREVIOUS: Here We Go Again: How Rupert Murdoch/Time Warner Merger Would Fuck You In Hollywood.)