This is an article I missed at the time, from Salon by Andrew O’Hehir. What caught my eye was that he had gone through the transcript of the conference call with investors and extracted a quote from Disney CFO Jay Rasulo which pretty much “says it all” in terms of the perspective of Disney on starting a new franchise, or just buying one. Not only does it capture the quote – but it comments on it in an interesting way:
In a conference call with financial analysts, Disney CFO Jay Rasulo clearly positioned the Lucas deal as a strategic marketplace hedge: “We determined we’d be better off releasing a sequel to ‘Star Wars’ than most other not-yet-determined films. We love that this will take place in our release strategy as an already branded known property.” Rasulo didn’t mention “John Carter” or the almost as calamitous “Mars Needs Moms,” to be sure, but he didn’t have to. The guy’s just doing his job, and as I’ve already said, given the terms of the discussion I agree with him. “Not-yet-determined films” present unknown risks; a seventh, eighth and ninth “Star Wars” movie present nearly none.
But it’s precisely the terms of the discussion – the bigger social and cultural picture – that need to be interrogated. Hollywood’s always been about making money, first and foremost; let’s not act naïve about that. David O. Selznick poured all that money and star power into “Gone With the Wind” because it was a bestselling novel that had swept the country, and he had an excellent chance of making a killing. But that same year, producer Mervyn LeRoy placed a longshot bet on a children’s fantasy novel that had been published 40 years earlier, casting an over-age child star in an elaborate musical that went back and forth between black-and-white and color. That bet didn’t pay off, at least at first; it required multiple re-releases for MGM to recoup its investment in “The Wizard of Oz.”
It’s probably fair to say that the American movie industry has gone back and forth, throughout its history, between periods of being more and less risk-averse. Entire books have been written on that subject, and I can’t do it justice here. Let’s suggest, as a general rule, that periods of explosive creativity like the late 1930s, the early 1970s and (to a lesser but significant extent) the mid-1990s involved a complicated set of interlocking factors that gave producers and directors permission to take chances and, yes, make mistakes.
With Hollywood feeling threatened on many fronts and facing a diminished or decentered cultural role, risk is now seen as unacceptable in itself, and every big-budget flop makes that worse. (Warner Bros.’ flawed but fascinating “Cloud Atlas” will serve as this year’s example. Even if it breaks even or comes close after worldwide release and ancillaries, its reputation is doomed, and the Wachowski siblings will have to sit in meetings with studio executives and be told to make “something more like ‘The Matrix.’”) That’s the true lesson of the Disney-Lucas deal: The Mouse is moving all its chips off new ideas and new productions, in favor of reheated hits from years gone by.
I participated, to some degree, in the critical dogpile atop Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter,” which was a dumb financial gamble and a doomed project from the get-go. I almost feel badly about that now – qua movie, “John Carter” wasn’t actually so awful, and the fact that Disney devoted all that money and time and energy to a first-time live-action director and an unproven science-fiction franchise suddenly looks like a lost golden age.
I think this captures the atmosphere in which Disney operates, versus the atmosphere or ethic that Dick Cook was operating in when he greenlit the project. Cook was definitely a “throwback” studio chief. . . . and his decision to greenlight John Carter really, truly was out of synch with Bob Iger’s Disney.
And before my contrarian pals go off on this — I would also add that while Cook was “old school” in the green lighting of John Carter, neither he nor anyone really did what ‘old school’ studios are supposed to do in terms of the actual making of the film, which is to ride herd on the director and exert influence as necessary to ensure that the studio investment — in this case a massive one — is being executed in a way that strategically aligns with the studio. In other words, it may be old school to greenlight ‘Carter, but it’s not old school to just give a first time director a blank check and no “adult supervision”. Was that purely a function of the fact that Cook was gone four months before production started? Or would Cook have been hands off all the way through it if he had stayed? We do know he didn’t push back on the budget or the casting or the script . . . . but it would still have been possible to not push back on the budget, but exert influence on everything that followed.
Although, when you think about it ….the budget, the casting, and the script are the three main areas where a studio chief or his designee can have a real impact, and no one–Cook or surrogate–did anything other than enable all the decisions coming from the director.
Still and all, in the end I think that Cook has to be viewed in a favorable light on the whole matter of John Carter and these comments from O’Hehir in Salon really differentiate Cook from the mentality exhibited by Iger and Rasulo.