How did a Robert De Niro flop get chosen to close Cannes?

Inside the big picture show.
April 30 2008 6:29 PM

Analyze This

How did a Robert De Niro flop get chosen to close Cannes?

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Robert De Niro. Click image to expand.
Robert De Niro

Weird: We've never been to the Cannes Film Festival, which is our loss, no doubt. But luckily we've already seen this year's closing-night selection, What Just Happened?, which leads us to ask, what did just happen?

We saw the movie months ago, when it had a much-hyped premiere at Sundance. Robert Redford was there, and Robert De Niro turned up with producer Art Linson to introduce the film. In it, De Niro plays a fictionalized version of Linson—an embattled Hollywood player dealing with an out-of-control director and star (Bruce Willis puckishly playing himself) and winding up with a very bad movie.

Expectations were high that night. The film was directed by Barry Levinson and has a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, and Sean Penn. But the film fell flat. After its glittering night at Sundance, it laid there like an overpriced egg—no distributor bought it from that day to this.

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So how does this failed venture turn up at Cannes? We asked a prominent producer who has nothing to do with the film to speculate.

"Who is the president of the jury this year?" he asked, as if to imply that we are not very smart. "Sean Penn." And Robert De Niro is a Cannes favorite. "So who promises to show up? Because it's always about movie stars. So Sean Penn shows up, Robert De Niro shows up. … It just seems so unlikely because the movie has been well-roasted. It was a bad move to take it to Sundance. It was considered at best an inside joke."

The most amusing bit in the movie, to us, is when De Niro-as-Linson stands in the shower, his no-longer-firm flesh exposed to the world as he desperately slathers dye on his hair. That scene would seem to show a wry awareness that an aging producer (not to mention an aging star) doesn't appear at his best when struggling to hold back the hands of time. And that it's quite a challenge, in our culture, to stay graceful after 50.

But the handling of this film seems like an exercise in how profoundly all of them—Linson, Levinson, De Niro—don't get that at all. It was an enormous act of ego to spend the estimated $30 million on this film, another one to take it to Sundance. And now, Cannes—which is funny because What Just Happened? ends with the Linson character taking his very bad film (where else?) to Cannes. Wag the Dog indeed.

All this reminded our producer friend of a memo, supposedly created by an anonymous CAA agent in the wake of De Niro's recent departure from the agency. This has been pinging around the Hollywood blogosphere for a couple of weeks now, but we pass it along in part:

Why did Bobby leave us?

They promised they could turn back time.

They promised they could get him 20m a picture.

They promised they could get a release for his "Something happened," a Barry Levinson show biz pic that's has no market, and Mark Cuban lost a fortune on.

They promised they could get him the $1m production fee on every picture he does, that he and his partner put their names on, and do nothing to earn.

They promised they could convince Hollywood that they should still pay that 1m vig on top of his acting fees.

They promised him they'd find a respectable release for the Pacino picture he did last summer, that basically stars two 65 year old guys as detectives—while the audience is under 35, and has no interest in seeing.

As I said, they promised him they could turn back time, and make him 50 again, and relevant, and hot, and interesting to today's moviegoing audience.

And they probably promised that they'd find a way to erase the memory of all of America about the number of god-awful paycheck films he did during the past ten years.

De Niro had a choice ten or so years ago. He could either go the Nicholson route—very selective, very particular, protect the brand—or go out sending himself up in tripe like Analyze This, which made money but turned him into that "old psycho guy."

And he could have concentrated on quality stuff, but instead wanted to keep funding his little empire in New York. …

Bobby blames everybody but himself for the way he's squandered his career, and refused lots of quality pictures because they wouldn't give him producer credit.

Good luck in the Hotel Business, pal. (link)

April 23, 2008

Ben Silverman. Click image to expand.
NBC chief Ben Silverman

New World Order: NBC has pronounced that with its reinvention of the business of television, it is green-lighting shows without pilots to save money.

Exhibit A was The Philanthropist, a show about a rich guy who helps those in need. Why take a chance on a show without seeing a pilot? Because of NBC's belief in the talent associated with it. Specifically, Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, whose credits include Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Now Levinson and Fontana are out over "creative differences" before the show has even gotten rolling. This was a show that NBC Universal touted at its "in-front" last month, when it was selling its upcoming schedule of (in some cases, nonexistent) shows to advertisers ahead of the usual May upfronts.

The Hollywood Reporter summed it up this way: "True to his gritty roots, Fontana focused on such social issues as immigration, drug addiction and the use of children soldiers in parts of world, while the network was looking for [a] more escapist and fantastical approach to fit the rest of its lineup." So it appears that NBC chief Ben Silverman jumped all over The Philanthropist on the basis of talent whose merits were somehow unfamiliar to him.

Escapism is the new mantra at NBC in the Silverman era. But does this mean it's a good idea to green-light shows on the basis of talent that escapes before the first episode is shot? Who's in charge now? We have posed these questions to NBC but, so far: radio silence. (link)

April 21, 2008

Bert Fields. Click image to expand.
Bert Fields

Silence: Well, that's it. Bert Fields won't be called to testify in the Anthony Pellicano trial. The lawyer who linked clients with the now-imprisoned detective walks away.

Is Fields damaged in the eyes of the community by his longtime association with the man who allegedly conducted dozens of illegal wiretaps? Certainly some of us in the media who worked with him over the years feel that he should be convicted in the court of public opinion. One reporter acknowledges a feeling of powerful self-loathing at the memory of many cozy and mutually beneficial conversations with Fields. That reporter is now convinced that he "cheated" his way to success.

We understand this entirely, having had cozy dealings with Fields ourselves. (None of which caused him to hesitate to threaten to sue us when representing a client—like, say, Tom Cruise.) Fields helped more than one journalist manage legal muddles involving their own interests. He assisted in getting trials opened (notably Jeffrey Katzenberg's suit against Disney). And when it suited him, he served up the dish. From a journalist's point of view, what wasn't to love? He is charming and wily. He is a man of parts: He has written a book about Shakespeare and another about Richard III. He is also the author (under a pseudonym) of potboiler thrillers.

However remorseful journalists may be, others aren't feeling so dismayed about the tangled web that seems to have Fields in the middle. We asked one of Fields' very high-profile clients whether he was looking for new counsel. The answer was an emphatic "No." Fields has been under a cloud for an unconscionably long time, he told us, and the feds didn't have the goods. We pointed out that it's hard to believe Fields knew nothing of Pellicano's alleged wrongdoing. He chided us for making assumptions. "There's an Arthur Miller play about that," he said. "Just because you think it doesn't make it true." (link)

April 9, 2008

Steve Martin. Click image to expand.
Steve Martin

How to piss off Steve Martin: If you've been dying to see Steve Martin reunited with Diane Keaton and you thought your thirst was about to be slaked, think again.

The story about the two starring in a movie called One Big Happy broke a few days ago. Turns out someone made one big boo-boo.

Keaton was interested in doing a project with Martin, and, we're told, he's fond of her, too. But he was not so sure about One Big Happy, an idea for a family comedy from Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman, who created Party of Five (and that was a while ago, wasn't it?).

Apparently Martin remained strictly noncommittal about the idea. But on March 30, Variety trumpeted that Paramount made a high-six-figure deal for the pitch with Keaton and Martin attached to star.

"He was annoyed that his name was put on as attached without his authorization," says another source with firsthand knowledge of the situation. "He was more than annoyed. He was really pissed off."

Who was responsible for getting ahead of the game? Our source believes the fault lies with Endeavor, the agency that represents Keaton. Her agent did not return our call. Another source says the idea was to nudge Martin along with the announcement. If so, it didn't work.

The tale of the Keaton-Martin reunion was widely disseminated, and at first Martin's "people" were going to demand a retraction. But after Paramount did some fast footwork, everyone concluded that it was only an announcement, after all, and let it go. You know how it is in Hollywood—just one big happy. (link)

April 9, 2008

Cold sweat: Like a bad dream that keeps recurring, the latest tape to leak to the Huffington Post in the Pellicano affairreminds us ever so vividly of what it was like to deal with Michael Ovitz. The recording is an April 2002 talk between Ovitz and the now-imprisoned private detective. It was played in court today, with Ovitz on the stand.

When he placed the call, Ovitz had identified himself as "Michael" to Pellicano's assistant and said the call was about one of Pellicano's kids. The detective—obviously shaken—tries to explain his reaction to hearing that the caller is really Ovitz by saying that he actually is having a problem with one of his children. What's revealing is that Ovitz, who has complained publicly and bitterly and sometimes falsely that journalists were writing inappropriately about his kids, felt perfectly free to use one of Pellicano's kids for his own obscure purposes. "I knew you'd get on the phone," Ovitz explains. "Am I right or am I wrong?" To which Pellicano replies, "You should have just said, 'It's Michael Ovitz' and I would have gotten on the phone." (Duh.)

Ovitz then claims that his real reason for lying was that he wanted to keep his identity from Pellicano's assistant. As the tape rolled. Oh, the irony.

When Pellicano mentions that one of his children has a "problem," Ovitz swings into a trademark move: "You can always call me if you need medical help." That's a classic Hollywood favor that big donors to hospitals can confer, and it can certainly create lasting gratitude. "Do you need any help at UCLA?" Ovitz continues. The previous year, Ovitz had pledged $25 million to UCLA's medical school. That offer was to be eclipsed a mere month after this conversation with Pellicano by a $200 million gift from Ovitz foe David Geffen. The announcement came just as Ovitz's management company, AMG, went kaput. When it comes to vengeance, Geffen is truly an artist.

Having called Pellicano, Ovitz—ever the agent—tries to make it sound like he's doing Pellicano a favor. He wants to meet, he says, because "I think it would be beneficial to you and probably beneficial to me." Of course, Pellicano is only too happy to help. And not that Ovitz is self-dramatizing. He simply needs to see Pellicano about "the single most complex situation imaginable."

Apparently, that is having a couple of journalists writing negative stories about his troubled business. Thank God that doesn't happen to people every day.

As for the Ovitz testimony today, he expressed gratitude to Pellicano for getting him good information. How that information benefited him, however, remains unclear. (link)

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