Wide Shot: Low-budget, C-lister, shoot-’em-up action movie blues
This is the July 5, 2022, edition of the Wide Shot newsletter about the business of entertainment, where we were cranking “Master of Puppets” before it became “Stranger Things”-trendy. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.
In the movie business, there’s Hollywood as most people think of it — billion-dollar superhero franchises, Oscar-winning directors, grinning movie stars, studio executives schmoozing at the Polo Lounge. But on the margins, it’s often another story, with a whole second-tier industry of shoestring budgets, has-been action stars and straight-to-video thrillers.
This Tinseltown-adjacent corner of moviedom can, of course, yield scrappy independents and raconteurs. But it also can breed a variety of players and hustlers trying to “make it” in any way they can, with all the good and bad that comes with such ambition. You can see this hunger in some of the producers behind “Rust,” whose alleged cutting of corners, on a movie involving real guns, turned deadly on the set of the Alec Baldwin western in New Mexico (the “Rust” producers have denied all wrongdoing).
And then, on a much larger scale, there are the quasi-established operations like Emmett/Furla, which built an empire of action cheese only to now, according to new reporting by The Times, see the walls start to close in.
My colleagues last week published a blockbuster investigative story about Randall Emmett, the producer and director known for the kinds of smash-’em-up thrillers that New York Magazine memorably dubbed as “geezer teasers” because of their use of aging badasses such as Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson.
The piece by Amy Kaufman and Meg James, which has been in the works for months, contains numerous allegations about Emmett and his company, Emmett/Furla Oasis. The picture the story paints is one of a teetering powerhouse, with Emmett and his firm facing “nearly a dozen lawsuits,” including from those clamoring to be repaid their portion of more than $25 million in outstanding loans and disputed payments.
“The once-high-flying producer faces lawsuits and mounting debts, as well as allegations of abuse against women, assistants and business partners,” the Times reporters wrote. “He is accused of inappropriate behavior with women, including offering acting work in exchange for sexual favors, and of forcing assistants to conduct dangerous and illegal activity on his behalf. Through his spokeswoman, Sallie Hofmeister, Emmett denied these allegations.”
The piece includes an explanation of the Emmett/Furla corporate strategy, which banks on tax credits and millions paid to name-brand stars who can get the films financed through the preselling of distribution rights in foreign markets where the elder bruisers’ names still have commercial sway. The numbers are fascinating: $6 million to Al Pacino for 19 days of production; $2 million to Gibson for 10 days of acting work, plus an additional $2 million to serve as executive producer.
This article followed a piece in late March that centered on film crew members’ concerns about Willis’ medical condition and his ability to perform on set. Emmett/Furla Oasis was one of two production companies in Hollywood that primarily used Willis in the last few years as the film legend’s health was in decline.
In a previous column for this newsletter, I compared the business model of cranking out direct-to-streaming indie films to the market of janky house-flipping, making the case that the quick-buck incentives that set the stage for the tragedy of “Rust” deserved as much scrutiny as the specific failures of the filmmakers involved.
Similarly, the industry of C-level action films, exemplified by Emmett’s productions, merits further examination. Yes, the walls of the building may be crumbling, but perhaps the foundation itself is shaky.
‘Gru’ world order
The yellow Tic Tac horde did it again.
The overperformance of “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” with its record-setting $125-million July 4 weekend opening, ought to put to rest a couple of box office myths: A). any lingering notion that family audiences aren’t ready to return to movie theaters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and B). any hypothesis that moviegoers are sick of prequels and spinoffs.
The “Despicable Me” spinoff’s success further establishes Universal Pictures’ animation partner Illumination Entertainment as the kid-friendly studio to beat at the box office, especially after the Chris Meledandri-led shingle’s late-2021 outing, “Sing 2.”
This coup reflects the continued commercial appeal of Illumination’s gently irreverent style, as well as shifting corporate priorities and the stumbles of key rivals. Disney ceded ground during the pandemic by sending its animated movies straight to Disney+. Disney’s “Encanto” did just OK theatrically, while “Lightyear” sputtered.
Universal experimented early in the pandemic by sending Dreamworks Animation’s “Trolls” sequel simultaneously to premium video-on-demand and theaters. “The Boss Baby: Family Business” tested a hybrid model with its same-day release on Peacock and in cinemas. But not putting a “Minions” movie in theaters? That would’ve been ba-na-naaas.
Stuff we wrote
— Comedian Cristela Alonzo is ready for a comeback. Is Hollywood ready for her? Yvonne Villarreal profiles Alonzo in conjunction with the release of her new Netflix special, “Middle Classy.” Alonzo, who became a bit of an outcast for criticizing ABC’s handling of her short-lived sitcom, is working her way back into the entertainment industry fold.
— Three more years! As expected, Walt Disney Co.’s board decided to renew CEO Bob Chapek’s contract, citing his leadership of the company through the pandemic, business results and his transformation of the company.
This should, at least for now, quiet the doubters after much ado about Chapek’s various PR stumbles and the company’s flagging stock price. Still unresolved, though, is the question of whether Disney will lower its streaming subscriber targets in its next earnings report.
For the record:
10:01 a.m. July 5, 2022A previous version of the story said 105 of 425 ICM employees wouldn’t be joining CAA. Actually, 425 employees are joining and 105 are being laid off. Additionally, reporter Elaine Low’s name was misspelled.
— Consolidation strikes again. CAA and ICM finally closed their big $750-million merger, which is expected to result in 105 layoffs while 425 ICM employees will join CAA through the deal.
— Headlines, headlines, headlines. Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job as a makeup artist. Alex Wagner takes over Rachel Maddow’s time slot on MSNBC. Former WME power agent Adam Venit sued by ex-wife for alleged domestic abuse.
Number of the week
Netflix’s “Stranger Things” generated 7.2 billion minutes of U.S. streaming TV viewing May 30 through June 5, the first full week that the series’ fourth season was available, according to Nielsen. The show set the record for minutes viewed in a single week since Nielsen launched its streaming rankings.
The data firm includes previous seasons in its ratings, but it’s safe to say that most of the viewing was for the batch of episodes that dropped in late May.
“Stranger Things 4” is already Netflix’s most-watched English-language program, clocking in at 930 million hours viewed during its first four weeks of release. My question is whether there’s a possibility that the final two episodes, released over the July 4 weekend, can push the show past “Squid Game,” which holds the Netflix record at 1.65 billion hours viewed.
It’s a tall order. If I were to guess, I’d say that “Squid Game” probably will remain supreme, but who knows? Netflix will be able to tally viewership for the final two episodes only toward the season’s total, since the 28-day window for the previous cluster has already expired. Either way, it’s clearly a success for Netflix, which needs more franchises like this.
— Benjamin Mullin on the man who shuttles the moguls to Sun Valley via private jet. (New York Times)
— Elaine Low on the global streaming TV writer freak-out. (Insider)
— Dave Itzkoff on “Thor: Love and Thunder” director Taika Waititi. (NYT)
— Blair R. Fischer on a writer’s unlikely friendship with Eddie Van Halen. (Rolling Stone)
— Chris Kay on India’s big-budget, hypermasculine rival to Bollywood. (Bloomberg)
Finally ... good reads
I was off last week, so while enjoying the sun in Santa Barbara, I finally got around to reading sci-fi author Ted Chiang’s beautiful 2019 story collection, “Exhalation.” Chiang is the author of the story that inspired one of my favorite films, “Arrival,” and this follow-up is full of meditative, poetic thought experiments. Highly recommend.
I’ll leave you with this story in which a Canadian soft-rock radio station played Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” on repeat for hours after DJs were axed.
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