Why Sony's Steve Jobs movie fell apart

The collapse of the Steve Jobs biopic at Sony underscores the complex poker game that is film production

At the end of October, Christian Bale decided not to take on the role of Steve Jobs. For at least several weeks, he had been attached to a biopic that Sony was developing with writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle. But despite liking both mens' vision for the film, Bale couldn't get a fix on the part, according to his agent, and communicated that he was opting out.

Bale’s choice shouldn’t have been fatal. Though the Oscar winner came with plenty of bona fides, the Jobs picture has long been a priority for Sony, and there were presumably plenty of top actors who craved this kind of juicy role. This should have been an easy fix.

Yet barely three weeks later, producer Scott Rudin and Sony chief Amy Pascal, who have known each other and worked together for decades, had come to a kind of virtual fisticuffs. In a widely publicized email, Pascal urgently queried “why are u punishing me?” as Rudin took the film to Universal, saying she had acted "abominably."

What happened in that short period is one of the more intriguing backstage mysteries to hit the entertainment business in some time. Even in an industry in which vague words like "vision" and "creative direction" regularly stand in for the real reasons people do or don’t want to make a movie, the Jobs drama offered a new standard for quiet agendas and hidden reasons. This was a movie that everyone involved with was eager to make — and everyone not involved with it wished they could make. And yet in the bat of an eye, the film had imploded spectacularly.

Certainly bad blood played a role in the toppling; as illuminated by the publication of email exchanges on the website Defamer (largely about an earlier version of the project involving director David Fincher), tensions and insults had been running high for some time. (The film has now been resurrected at Universal and is moving ahead apace there.)

Yet an examination by The Times of the newly disclosed emails between numerous parties suggests the reasons for the collapse were far more complicated than personal friction. As the forces of celebrity, distribution, money, intellectual property and financing all squared off, an elaborate game of poker was taking shape.

The events suggest with unusually specific detail how movies come to be (or don’t come to be), how fragile all Hollywood productions are (especially high-end, filmmaker-driven movies set up at the studios), the intangible science of determining an actors’ worth (creatively and financially) and just how easily potential classics could turn into potential duds (or nothing at all).

The details also highlight how tricky it is, in the current tent-pole climate, to put together a fact-based drama. As much as these pictures seem like easy Oscar bait, studios and financiers fear sinking too much money into unknown commodities and tussle over relatively small sums that would be rounding errors on franchise films. Actors, meanwhile, furrow their brows at the idea of negotiating the film’s real-life politics.

With that in mind, this is an account of the Jobs project facts as they unfolded last month. Representatives of Sony, Rudin, Boyle and the actors declined to comment on the Jobs movie and its Sony demise.

Oct. 30

Pascal is upset. Another top actor has vacated the company’s beloved Jobs biopic — Christian Bale, who earlier in the year had garnered an Oscar nomination for the studio and of whom Sorkin had already made the rare pre-production pledge that he would “crush it.” Bale’s departure comes on the heels of a Jobs exit by Leonardo DiCaprio, who in September decided, after months of deliberation, that he didn’t want to make the movie either.

Playing the man who gave us the Mac and the iPhone would seem like the role of a lifetime, and yet it isn't turning out that way. Pascal tells Sony Entertainment Chief Executive Michael Lynton she’s concerned that the project can’t seem to hang on to an actor. Lynton wonders if Laurene Powell Jobs, the Apple founder’s widow who is apparently not enamored of the project, has been reaching out to actors to dissuade them.

Nov. 3

Boyle has made up his mind on his new choice for Steve Jobs: He wants Michael Fassbender, the Irish-German actor whose stock has been rising with roles in the “X-Men” series and the 2014 best picture winner “12 Years a Slave.” But several people on the film remain unconvinced. Sorkin is very excited about the idea of Tom Cruise and is trying to convince the likes of Rudin, Pascal and Boyle. Mark Gordon, who is also producing the film, is similarly unmoved by Fassbender. Sony executive Michael De Luca, however, disagrees. He tells Pascal he thinks Fassbender is up to the challenge, what with praiseworthy roles in movies like “Jane Eyre” and “12 Years.”

And because no Hollywood story is complete without a guest appearance from James Franco, the actor’s agent chimes in to try to get his client on the film. This does not lead very far.

Nov. 7

A new wrinkle has emerged. DiCaprio’s manager Rick Yorn has told Sony he’d be willing to broach the movie once again with his client. The actor has functioned as a kind of white knight through much of the process — everyone agrees they could justify the movie at a hefty budget with DiCaprio, and the prospect of him returning has Sony executives giddy. With DiCaprio, the studio would have a top-tier star who could pull in box office, particularly overseas, and who could bring artistic chops to boot.

Whether the actor will actually commit, though, is another matter. He’s been equivocal for much of the development period and is tied up on an intense new Alejandro G. Inarritu movie until spring. At one point in September, Boyle's agent had tried to lure him back, to little avail. Just the same, De Luca offers an “Omg!!!!!” in response to the news. But Rudin is skeptical. Yorn also suggests to Pascal that he can entice Scarlett Johansson, another client, to play opposite DiCaprio, in what would be a big A-list pairing. Pascal sounds over the moon to Yorn — she says she would “drive over to your house with a check for both of them” — but she notes to Lynton it all may be “pie in the sky.” Pascal also says that Johansson is “a little freaked out” that the film doesn’t have Laurene Powell Jobs’ blessing.

Nov. 8

Rudin and Boyle continue to want to move forward with Fassbender — DiCaprio has again failed to materialize — but Pascal isn’t willing to foot the $33-million production bill with Fassbender starring, as Rudin and Boyle have pegged the budget. Pascal, it soon becomes clear, wants something closer to $25 million if Sony is going to write the check. So she seeks out Megan Ellison — an outside financier who has bankrolled Sony movies before, including another hit fact-based drama, “Zero Dark Thirty” — to shoulder the higher cost. A meeting is arranged between Ellison and Boyle.

Nov. 10

Well, that didn’t go well.

“We're in crazy-land here,” writes Rudin to Pascal. “Can you guys please help deliver a meeting for today? Danny is literally sitting by the phone in a hotel room with nothing to do in NY but this. She has never returned his call. This is going to flame out in about ten seconds as Megan Ellison is on the verge of costing us the film.”

Nov 13

Things are getting heated. Ellison is officially out. Neither Pascal, Boyle nor Rudin can convince her. She tells Pascal she needs a name star to move forward and, in a long and deferential email to Rudin,  passes on the project. Other financiers are out too. And Pascal maintains Sony won’t fully finance it at the higher budget. Which means, she says, she won’t be able to get Boyle the budget he likes so long as Fassbender is on it. “We are … ,” Pascal says in defeat.

Basically, Pascal wants Boyle to do the movie for $25 million if it’s going to be Fassbender. Rudin says Boyle won’t do that — the director wants Fassbender and wishes to stick with $33 million; he also wants to make it immediately so he can land Fassbender before the actor moves on to the "X-Men" movies. Pascal, for her part, is more than content to wait, even if it means losing Fassbender.

The line between true motive and negotiating tactic becomes blurry. Is Boyle capable of making the movie for less and just holding out for more resources? Conversely, can Pascal secure a greenlight at the $33 million but is just using budget as an excuse to get Fassbender off? Either way, neither Pascal nor Rudin are budging.

And, because Hollywood abhors a vacuum, yet another rep steps in with a left-field candidate. What about Matthew McConaughey, asks the agent of Matthew McConaughey? Pascal tells him she thinks he’d be great, but it’s still Fassbender.

Nov. 14

It gets more personal between Rudin and Pascal, and the movie appears to be slipping away from Sony. Pascal reaches out to a producer on a rival's lot and asks whether it's being considered there. She learns that it is. She makes a budget plea to Rudin again. “This feels terrible. I dont know how this happened. Why did we have to rush into [Fassbender] and make it" in San Francisco?, she asks, where a lower production tax credit will hike up the budget. Or, she asks, “Why couldn't we have convinced [Boyle] to make it at 25 if it was gonna be Fassbender?”

Rudin, however, isn’t going for the lower-budget version and comes back to Pascal with a hybrid good cop-bad cop approach, all in the hope of getting her to greenlight the $33-million iteration. Citing the $45-million budget of “Social Network” despite commercially fraught elements, he says of the Jobs film, “Why aren't you making THIS? … Realistically your specific opinion of Michael Fassbender simply doesn't matter. Danny's opinion is what matters. It's material you love with a filmmaker you love.”

Then he makes a more direct plea to Pascal, whose job security some observers questioned after some misfires in 2013 and criticism from activist shareholder Daniel Loeb. “If there was ever --- EVER --- a time in your career where you MUST take the swing, it's right now. Why don't you? You could walk into [Lynton’s] office and make him make the movie. You know you could. So why aren't you doing that?”

Rudin continues, creating a sense of urgency: “There are some risks you're meant to take in this job. This is one. If you're not going to take a shot with this, what will you ever take a shot with? Why even have the job? All the conservative bets have missed. It's time to make some radical bets and see what you can do with them because nothing else has worked and this is the ONLY way to get out of the hole. You know this.

“You're at a crossroads and you'd be very smart to recognize it, and you're a very smart and VERY self-effacing professional.” He winds down his plea. “Have some perspective on this. You wanted the Danny Boyle version of this movie. You have it. So it's scary. SO WHAT.”

Nov. 18

Pascal tells Boyle she can’t make it with Fassbender at this budget.

Nov. 19 and the days that follow

Rudin tells Pascal that, with everything stalling at Sony, he has instead made a deal at Universal. “Amy, it’s closed. I’m sorry, I begged you to do it, you don’t believe in this version of it.” Pascal urges him to keep it with Sony. “You know you can do this,” she says, and then adds, “why are u punishing me?” Rudin eventually returns with “You've destroyed your relationships with half the town over how you've behaved on this movie.” He says she “behaved abominably” and that “it will be a very, very long time before I forget what you did to this movie and what you've put all of us through.”

Pascal turns to others. She confesses to longtime friend and current Sony colleague Tom Rothman, “I feel like I just gave away a seminal movie like Citizen Kane for our time.” CAA chief Bryan Lourd tells her to try to patch things up with Rudin. She replies, “He crossed a line. It can't be uncrossed.”

She then reassures her top production executives that all will be OK, running through some comparable cases.

"Even if this movie becomes the greatest movie ever made and wins the Academy Award, we will be fine. Warners was fine with 'Slumdog' [curiously, another Boyle movie that was passed on by a conglomerate]. Uni survived not making 'Gravity.' Paramount survived putting '12 years' [in turnaround]. Fox survived not making 'Ted.' "

She notes it would have been tough to sit with Sony's Japanese executives at a screening in which the head of a rival company was glorified.

Then she apologizes.

“What happened is entirely my fault. It is no ones job but mine to see the forest through the trees and block out temporary noise from the inside as well as the outside. We use numbers as an excuse not to make a movie to the outside world not between us.” She continues, “We acted a little flip floppy and sloppy and inconsistent and incredibly stupid but we did the right thing and we stood by our word.”

De Luca reassures her. “Our inability to finance the picture on Danny’s schedule was the number one culprit here, with ambivalence about Fassbender a distant second.”

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