Eliminate the elliptical!
Why one ‘superhero’ story crashed as another succeeded
In some ways, the impending death-oops, I meant dearth-of print journalism will make our story choices simpler: If we assume our audience doesn’t need us as dearly for breaking news coverage, we can pay more attention to enterprise stories, investigations and human-interest pieces.
But as we celebrate (only sardonically), we ought to remember something else. That portion of the print audience that is looking for its news in the cable and Internet universes is developing the shorter attention span of those technologies. Which means we must ban a certain style of writing that meanders, pauses, reflects and tries to impress you before it tells you what the story is about.
I call this style “elliptical.” It leisurely brings you closer and closer to the point of the story without (a) warning you that this will be an arduous journey or (b) having a worthwhile reason for this construction.
Here are two examples, published on the same day, dealing with the same general topic-so-called “superheroes” (both headlines used that word) at two film companies. The first one failed, murdered by its elliptical structure. The second story was better organized, 800 words shorter-and, more importantly, aware that nobody has much time for what we publish.
The date was June 12. The papers were the L.A. and N.Y. Times. (Both stories ran on Page 1 of their respective business sections.) My comments are in caps. As you read, ask yourself: Do I do this? Do I get my audience into the story quickly enough? Or do I leave them languishing in a rancid stew of paragraphs that lack a feeling of progression and directness? You have to wrestle the story to the ground more quickly than ever these days. Your audience is the little kid in the back seat asking: “Daddy, are we there yet?”
DISNEY’S LOW-KEY SUPERHERO
The studio’s animators love their new
boss’ emphasis on creativity over bureaucracy
Los Angeles Times
THE STORY BEGINS WITH AN ANALOGY TO A FILM WE HAVEN’T SEEN BECAUSE IT JUST CAME OUT.
It’s tempting to see “Cars,” the seventh movie from Pixar Animation Studios, as a parable about the future of Walt Disney Co. Early in the film, which opened Friday, a cocky race car named Lightning McQueen declares, “I’m a one-man show.” But by the time the credits roll, McQueen realizes he’s nothing without a great pit crew behind him.
WAS THAT EXAMPLE WORTH THE EFFORT OF IMMAGINATION THE READER HAD TO MAKE? NO. THE VIRTUE IS A PEDESTRIAN ONE. BUT WE PLOD ON TO THE THIRD GRAF, HOPING TO FIND OUT WHAT THE STORY’S ABOUT.
It’s a lesson that Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder and the new president of Disney Feature Animation, has built his career on.
OK GOOD, SO NOW WE EXPECT THE STORY TO DEMONSTRATE THE VIRTUES OF CATMULL. BUT WHAT HAPPENS IN THE NEXT GRAF? ANOTHER FIGURE–LASSETER-POPS UP AND TEMPORARILY (SEE LAST SENTENCE OF NEXT GRAF) APPEARS TO TAKE OVER THE STORY.
When Disney acquired Pixar in January, Chief Executive Bob Iger put Catmull and his better-known creative partner, John Lasseter, in charge of reinvigorating the Burbank entertainment giant’s once-legendary animation operation. Lasseter, the charismatic idea man who directed “Cars,” will be essential in this effort.
FIFTH GRAF: THE STORY RECOGNIZES IT HAS MISLED YOU. IT OPENS WITH THE WORD “BUT…” WITH THAT, WE READ SOME MORE ABOUT CATMULL AND HIS VIRTUES. HOWEVER. WE HAVE YET TO BE TOLD WHY HIS PRESENCE WILL SOOTHE DISNEY-I.E., WHAT MAKES HIM, AS THE HEADLINE PROMISED, A “SUPERHERO.” AND WHEN ARE WE GOING TO RECEIVE SOME PERSPECTIVE ABOUT THE DISNEY COMPANY’S PAST? WITHOUT IT, HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND THE FUTURE-AS PROMISED IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH? THE STORY SEEMS NOT TO CARE.
But Lasseter says Catmull is the key to Pixar’s (and now Disney’s) success. The 61-year-old computer scientist, who is also president of Pixar, is nothing short of a spiritual leader, his colleagues say — a soft-spoken man whose personal philosophies infuse the Pixar culture that has produced nothing but blockbusters.
OKAY, THE READER IS NOW FIVE GRAFS IN AND STILL DOESN’T GET THE POINT OF THE STORY. (IF YOU’RE GOING TO TELL ME THAT A GUY’S “PERSONAL PHILOSOPHIES INFUSE THE PIXAR CULTURE,” YOU MAKE ME WANT A DEFINITION-AN EXAMPLE, CONTEXT. INSTEAD, THE SIXTH GRAF GIVES US A QUOTE SO LACKING IN MEANING THAT THE STORY HAS TO PROVIDE A TRIO OF CLICHES TO DESCIRBE CATMULL’S MANANGEMENT STYLE.
“Ed is the reason we’re all here,” said Lasseter, noting Catmull’s anti-bureaucratic, artist-driven, bottom-up management style. “He’s the ultimate parent — he helps you be the best you can be.”
OKAY SIXTH GRAFS IN, AND NO SPECIFICS ABOUT WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT CATMULL OR ABOUT HOW THIS MATTERS TO DISNEY. THIS WAS WHERE I WOULD HAVE QUIT. BUT BRAVELY, I CONTINUED.
It now falls to Catmull to put the “team” back into Team Disney. How does he plan to do it? By completely changing the rules.
OKAY, SHOW ME WHAT RULES HE IS GOING TO CHANGE. ALAS, INSTEAD I GET AN UNHELPFUL QUOTE.
“Sometimes, it’s the leadership that’s blocking something,” Catmull said in a recent interview in his new office at Disney, a place where animators have griped for decades about being micromanaged.
ANOTHER GENERALIZED QUOTE, ABSENT OF CONTEXT. ALMOST EVERY MANAGER SAYS THIS THESE DAYS.
“I’ve always believed that you shape the management team around the talent rather than try to force people into a certain way of doing it.”
FINALLY, SOME CONTEXTUAL REPORTING
Mention Pixar to most moviegoers, and they’ll tick off the maverick studio’s parade of hits — the “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles.” If anyone can remember an executive’s name, it’s likely to be that of CEO Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. who launched Pixar 20 years ago and has always served as its public face.
THE READER IS STILL WAITING FOR THE “SUPERHERO” HEADLINE TO BE EXPLAINED. THE NEXT GRAF MOVES TOWARD THAT TARGET SLUGGISHLY. THE READER ASKS HIMSELF: WHERE IS THE GOOD STUFF?
But while Catmull will never be a household name, he’s a celebrity in the rarefied world of computer graphics. A brainiac who holds some patents and has won four Academy Awards for his technical feats, he has helped create some of the key computer-generated imagery software that animators rely on.
OKAY, FINALLY THE STORY PRESENTS US WITH A SIGNIFICANT QUESTION IN THE LAST SENTENCE OF THE FOLLOWING GRAF:
Catmull, who lives in Marin County with his wife, Susan, and their three kids, has never worked in Hollywood. Now, he finds himself a bona fide player. And there’s much at stake. Every one of Pixar’s movies has been a critical and a commercial triumph. Can the cult of Catmull yield similar results in Burbank?
IS THE QUESTION ANSWERED? NOT QUITE YET. FIRST YOU HAVE TO WADE THROUGH TWO MORE BROAD QUOTES.
It’s too early to know. But already, Disney animators say a remarkable change is taking place.
“It’s like somebody opened the windows and fresh air is coming into the room,” said Glen Keane, who during 32 years at Disney has supervised such hand-drawn hits as “Tarzan” and “Aladdin” and is set to direct the upcoming computer-animated film “Rapunzel.”
Chris Sanders, director of Disney’s last big 2-D hit, “Lilo & Stitch,” agreed. “It’s like the Berlin Wall being torn down.”
WHEN, WHEN, WHEN, THE READER ASKS IN DESPAIR, AM I GOING TO BE PRESENTED WITH SOME SPECIFIC EVIDENCE OF WHAT THIS STORY IS ABOUT?
Much has been written about the wonky, free-spirited playground that is Pixar’s 16-acre campus in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco. There, employees and their bosses ride around on scooters and skateboards, decorate their workspaces as tiki huts and castles and compete in pingpong tournaments in the middle of their shifts.
But Pixar is about more than what employees do to refuel between intense stretches of work. To spend a little time in its 220,000-square-foot facility is to realize just how much the place reflects Catmull’s sensibilities.
AFTER 17 GRAFS, THE STORY HAS YET TO PRESENT THE READER WITH ANY SPECIFIC EXAMPLES OF THOSE SENSIBILITIES. WHAT CONTEXT ABOUT THE GUY DO YOU HAVE AT THIS POINT?
“Cars” supervising technical director Eben Ostby, who’s worked with Catmull for many years, says Pixar is “formed in Ed’s image.” Pixar people frequently recite Ed-isms — Catmull’s oft-repeated theories that inform how he operates and, by extension, how the studio is run.
OKAY, HERE COME THE SPECIFICS:
Ed believes that you should always hire people who are smarter than you.
Ed believes that it’s more important to invest in good people than good ideas.
Ed believes in a “talent-ocracy.” If you make films for everybody, you need to listen to everybody’s ideas, whether they come from a janitor or a storyboard artist.
Ed believes that you learn by making mistakes and that success often disguises problems.
Ed believes that magic happens when you don’t operate out of fear.
NOW, THOSE ARE ALL VIRTUOUS BELIEFS, BUT THEY ARE PRETTY PEDESTRIAN-HARDLY REVOLUTIONARY-UNLESS YOU EXPLAIN THEM IN THE CONTEXT OF THE FASCIST TRADITION OF DISNEY MANAGEMENT. THIS STORY READS AS THOUGH THE REPORTER AND EDITOR(S) THOUGHT: AW, EVERYBODY IN OUR READERSHIP KNOWS THAT….WHICH IS NEVER TRUE.
BUT I BLATHER TOO MUCH. KEEP READING. IN THE NEXT GRAF-THE 25TH GRAF–WE FINALLY GET TO SEE WHAT EXACTLY CATMULL IS DOING THAT MAKES HIM WORTH THIS 2,800-WORD STORY:
The professorial father of five (he has two children from a previous marriage), who since being named to replace Disney’s David Stainton has divided his week between the Burbank studio and Pixar, has already radically altered how animated movies are born, nourished and produced “down south.”
For starters, he put one of Disney’s most experienced animation producers, 30-year veteran Don Hahn, in charge of the creative development team. In the past, that group reported to the animation president and was instructed to find story ideas to assign to directors. Now, directors think up their own ideas and the group supports them.
FROM HERE THE STORY TRACKS PRETTY WELL, BUT HOW MANY READERS WOULD HAVE STAYED WITH IT THIS LONG?
Similarly, Catmull has halted the practice of executives yanking back movies from directors at various stages of production and making changes as they see fit.
Catmull believes that the filmmakers should have “complete ownership” of their movies from beginning to end. He’s empowered the production teams to set their own schedules, manage budgets and control all other aspects of the filmmaking process. Most important, he’s entrusted them to solve their own problems.
“They’re not passing them by me,” he said.
HERE, FINALLY, IS SOME INFORMATION THAT ALLOWS THE READER TO UNDERSTAND HOW THINGS USED TO WORK BEFORE THE REFRESHING CHANGE.
Directors no longer get mandatory notes on their films from three levels of executives. Instead, they get feedback from their peers at Disney and Pixar. Directors describe it as a refreshing free-for-all of ideas and uncensored opinions.
“Ed’s been the catalyst for new times around here,” Hahn said. “It’s a team sport that I haven’t seen in a long, long time. This is a cultural change.”
And the animators aren’t the only ones rejoicing. In an interview, Disney CEO Iger praised Catmull for providing what had been lacking for too long.
“It’s important to know the edge of our competency and just how far your leadership can go,” Iger said of his decision to entrust Disney’s 700-member animation team to Catmull.
“I felt we needed help in animation. It was not just about buying Pixar, but about buying the great talent at Pixar…. Ed has emerged as a real leader of a creative business.”
Catmull doesn’t direct movies or draw on the computer. He leaves that to others. His role is to keep the larger creative enterprise humming. Call him a troubleshooter, a problem solver, a managerial sage.
“He’s never been the guy to bring you the answers,” said “Finding Nemo” director Andrew Stanton. “He knows how to get in the way or get out of the way to just guide you along.”
Now, he’s guiding double the number of people he did at Pixar alone.
On Jan. 25, one day after the merger was announced, Catmull and Lasseter flew to Burbank to address the animation troops for the first time. Catmull spoke affectionately about Disney’s heritage and assured those gathered in the studio’s huge Stage 7 that the building blocks were in place to return the company to greatness.
“We’re not here to turn Disney into a clone of Pixar,” Catmull said. “What we’re going to do is build a studio on your talent and passion.”
Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, to whom Catmull reports along with Iger, said Catmull’s remarks drew “whooping and hollering” from the gathering. “You could feel the electricity in the room — it was very inspiring.”
Steve Anderson was one of the first Disney directors to see Catmull’s theories put into action. When Catmull and Lasseter took over, Anderson’s animated comedy “Meet the Robinsons” was already a troubled project.
Immediately, Catmull arranged a screening for a core group of Pixar directors. They flew to Disney and spent six hours brainstorming with Anderson about how to punch up the film. One director suggested making the film’s buffoonish villain, known as the Bowler Hat Guy, more threatening.
Anderson was wowed. “It was very helpful,” he said.
At the end of the session, Catmull told him: “Now, it’s up to you.”
Catmull said Anderson’s struggles were a natural part of the creative process.
“With every film there’s a different crisis,” he said, noting that Pixar always conducted postmortems on its movies, no matter how much they grossed at the box office, to learn what went right and what went wrong. “Our job is to address problems even when we’re successful. If you don’t, you will fail.”
THE NEXT TWO GRAFS MIGHT WELL HAVE MADE A BETTER LEAD FOR THE PROFILE-AT LEAST I GET A SPECIFIC SENSE OF CATMULL AS A HUMAN BEING.
To understand how compulsive Catmull is about solving problems, consider the washer-dryer conundrum. Irked that clothes dryers have 40-minute cycles, while washers take just 20, he knew just what to do: Buy two dryers.
This kind of “rational extravagance,” as one colleague calls it, is pure Catmull. He’s quirky — a collector of high-tech kitchen gadgets, an aficionado of poolside water slides and an “American Idol” fanatic who also listens every morning to audio books with titles like “The History of Philosophy.”
Above the desk in his Pixar office — littered with scholarly reports and periodicals — hang two framed photographs that neatly bookend Catmull’s own history.
One is a black-and-white print of the “Nine Old Men,” Walt Disney’s legendary stable of animators. The other, by celebrity photographer Annie Leibowitz, is in color: a portrait of Pixar’s nine-man brain trust that includes Catmull, Lasseter, Jobs and directors Stanton, Pete Docter and Brad Bird.
Born in West Virginia, Catmull grew up in Salt Lake City, the eldest of five children in a conservative Mormon family. Education was his parents’ calling: His father was a high school math teacher and later a principal; his mother was a school secretary.
As a child, Catmull had two idols: Albert Einstein and Walt Disney. He loved “Peter Pan” and “Pinocchio,” and fed his dream of being a Disney animator by making “flip books” of characters he invented and studying 8-millimeter versions of early Disney cartoons. But by the end of high school, he had come to a painful realization: “I wasn’t good enough.”
He studied physics and computer science at the University of Utah, taking so many courses in four years that he earned a bachelor’s degree in each discipline.
After graduating, he worked briefly as a computer programmer at Boeing in Seattle before returning to Utah to go to graduate school. It was the fall of 1970, and computer graphics was a new, hot field. Catmull realized that it perfectly combined his artistic and technological passions.
“Wow, I can make pictures!” he recalls thinking.
He ditched his plan to develop computer languages in favor of a new dream: using computers to make animated movies. It was 25 years before Pixar would release “Toy Story,” the first animated film to be entirely created on the computer.
So what if there were no software programs for making pictures on the computer? Catmull wrote his own. His initial project was an animated rendering of his left hand that eventually ended up as a scene in the 1976 sci-fi thriller “Futureworld,” the first movie to incorporate computer graphics.
By then, Catmull was running the computer graphics lab at the New York Institute of Technology. His team developed some fundamental software, but the goal of making a computer-animated movie eluded him.
Then George Lucas called. It was 1979 and Lucas, still basking in the success of “Star Wars,” was looking for someone to set up a computer group at his Northern California-based Lucasfilm.
“He wanted to bring high technology into the film industry,” recalled Catmull, who took the job.
In 1984, Catmull made a hire that would change his career: Lasseter. Then an exuberant young animator at Disney, Lasseter was frustrated by his uninspired bosses — people, he said, who had been “second-tier animators during Walt’s time.” Lasseter recalls being told, “We don’t want to hear your ideas — just do the work.”
By contrast, Lasseter felt at home in the world Catmull had built at Lucasfilm. True to his philosophy — always recruit people smarter than yourself — “Ed had hired all the top technical talent in the world,” Lasseter said.
In 1986, Catmull helped persuade Jobs to acquire the computer division of Lucasfilm and rename it Pixar. Catmull’s dream finally had a chance of coming true.
Not long after Pixar was founded, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tried to honor Catmull with a technical Oscar. He wouldn’t accept it. His former colleagues at Lucasfilm deserved it more than he did, Catmull said. Jim Morris, then the president of Lucas’ special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, picked up the Oscar on behalf of the Lucasfilm team.
“If I was sitting in my office and someone called and said, ‘You’re going to get an Academy Award,’ would I have the fiber to turn it down?” said Morris, who is now Pixar’s executive vice president of production. People who know him well say Catmull isn’t in the film business just to make money or win awards. For him, animation is a form of activism.
“I really want to make movies that touch people and make them better,” he said in a way that actually sounded believable, not trite. “Otherwise, what are we doing here?”
Catmull is willing to put himself on the line for his beliefs. During the Vietnam War, he sought conscientious objector status despite the fact that his father, a World War II veteran, and the rest of his family were embarrassed by his antiwar views.
As a manager, Catmull has risked losing his best people to stand on principle: He doesn’t believe in employment contracts because he thinks they send the wrong message.
“The first thing it says is, ‘I don’t trust the employee,’ ” he said, preferring to try to keep his best performers by treating them right.
In 2000, when Catmull and Lasseter hired Bird, the exuberant director had a reputation for being a troublemaker. He’d been kicked off two Disney movies for trying to do things differently.
“I had been fired for rocking the boat, never hired for rocking the boat,” said the man who would go on to direct “The Incredibles.” Bird was surprised to discover that the leaders of Pixar, having enjoyed three consecutive hits, had one gnawing fear: that the company might become complacent and repetitive in its success. That, they told Bird, was precisely why they needed him.
“Go ahead, throw us for a loop,” Bird recalls them saying.
Now, Catmull seems determined to throw Disney for a loop.
BURIED HERE IS A TWO-PARAGRAPH REVELATION THAT HELPS ME SEE CATMULL FAR MORE EXPLICITLY THAN STORY HAS SO FAR ENABLED ME TO DO.
Just three years ago, after Pixar’s and DreamWorks SKG’s successes with computer-generated imagery, Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner decreed that no new films would be made using the techniques that Walt Disney had pioneered. The stated reason: Audiences had lost their taste for hand-drawn films.
In perhaps the most surprising change since taking the helm, Catmull has repealed that decision, which he calls “a lame excuse for the failure of story.” He believes that directors should work in the medium of their choice, even if that medium is traditional, hand-drawn animation.
Bring us the tales you want to tell, he’s urged the creative troops. Tell us what medium best serves the story.
“Disney has had two major heydays,” Catmull said, referring to animation’s two golden eras — the first beginning in the late 1930s, the second in the 1990s. “We’re going to make a third.”
FOX’S OWN SUPERHEROES: A DARING DUO AT THE STUDIO
The New York Times
I HAD A FAR EASIER TIME APPRECIATING THE FOLLOWING STORY. IT, LIKE THE DISNEY STORY, IS TRICKY BECAUSE THE WRITER HAS TO EXPLAIN SUBTLE DIFFERENCES OF MANAGEMENT. THE NYT STORY IS SMARTER BECAUSE IT USES A UNIVERSAL QUALITY-CANDOR, OR THE LACK OF IT-TO GET YOU IN THE DOOR, AS OPPOSED TO THE DISNEY STORY’S MUSCLE-STRAINING BOW TO “CARS.”
In Hollywood, candor is as common as a blue polyester pantsuit on Rodeo Drive.
That is why the actor Hugh Jackman reacted with surprise at what he heard in a meeting at 20th Century Fox last year to discuss ”X-Men: The Last Stand,” the third entry in the ”X-Men” trilogy. Tom Rothman, Fox’s energetic co-chairman, wanted to share an idea for the movie’s plot: it would center on a medical cure for the mutant gene.
”I love this idea,” Mr. Rothman said effusively as he bounded across the room to greet the actor, who was deciding whether to rejoin the cast. But there was one problem, Mr. Rothman conceded: he had no other ideas. If Mr. Jackman did not like the idea, Mr. Rothman described that situation in a harshly profane term.
”Can you think of any other studio executive who would have said that?” said Mr. Jackman, laughing. ”There was no game playing. No tricks. No one talks like that in Hollywood. I suppose some people here don’t want a straight answer; they want the candy-coated version. But at Fox they are not shy about giving their opinions.”
OKAY, THAT IS A LOOOONG ANECDOTAL LEAD-189 WORDS–AND WE HAVEN’T EVEN GOTTEN TO THE NUT GRAF. BUT BECAUSE THE ANECDOTE WAS SO KEENLY HOLLYWOOD-AND BECAUSE IT WAS SO SPECIFIC-I STAYED WITH IT. HERE, THEN, THE NUT GRAF:
However un-Hollywood the approach, it seems to be working for Fox, a unit of the News Corporation. Since becoming the co-chairmen of Fox Filmed Entertainment in 2000, Mr. Rothman and his partner, Jim Gianopulos, have churned out blockbusters like ”The Day After Tomorrow,” ”Ice Age” and its sequel and the ”Cheaper by the Dozen” movies.
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE TO RETURN TO THE STRAIGHT-TALKING-EXECS POINT IMMEDIATELY, BUT THE STORY USED THREE MORE GRAFS TO BOLSTER ITS POINT ABOUT FOX’S SUCCESS.
At the same time Fox’s specialty divisions have scored with lower-budget films, including last year’s Academy Award winner ”Walk the Line,” ”Sideways” in 2004 and the cult hit ”Napoleon Dynamite.”
With those hits, the studio has increased operating profit in the filmed entertainment division (which includes television production) year over year for the last four years, from $473 million in fiscal 2002 to $1 billion in fiscal 2005. Other studios in recent years have had more mixed results.
For the year to date, Fox is No. 1 in theatrical market share. As important, it has fostered a corporate culture that the News Corporation seeks in all its television, news and mobile entertainment divisions: eyes fixed on the bottom line while remaining fearless about creative risks.
NOW, THE STORY KEEPS ITS PROMISE AND RETURNS TO THE MAIN FOCUS, GIVING THE READER MORE SPECIFIC DETAIL. AFTER CHERNIN’S QUOTE ONE GRAF DOWN, WE GET A GOOD, SPECIFIC GRAF OF EXAMPLES
Indeed Fox’s success may well reflect less the current state of Hollywood movie making than the way News Corporation’s chief executive, Rupert Murdoch, and his No. 2, Peter Chernin, run the company.
”The only thing you can ask is that people be straightforward to the point of bluntness,” said Mr. Chernin, News Corporation’s president. ”That sort of backslapping, slick Hollywood attitude is not good for us or the business. It tends to lead to problems.”
SMOOTH TRANSITION FROM QUOTE TO A DEEPER EXPLANATION OF FOX’S ATTITUDE
Problems, that is, with actors, producers and directors who demand as much money and power as a studio is willing to cede. As a result, Fox’s make-no-excuses philosophy can be off-putting for some filmmakers. Fox won’t approve a movie production until all contracts are signed. Movie directors are forced to defend their artistic decisions vigorously. And studio executives spare no ego if they decide a movie is too expensive.
”I’d heard the horror stories about the studio taking away movies and such; I was curious to see if it was that bad,” said Brett Ratner, who directed ”X-Men: The Last Stand.”
THE STORY KNOWS IT HAS TO TALK ABOUT WHO’S GOTTEN WOUNDED BY FOX:
Mr. Ratner, whose movie is a hit, said he was happy with Fox. But other directors were not so lucky. In May, a month before Jay Roach was to begin directing the comedy ”Used Guys,” the studio pulled the plug on the movie, citing a high budget ($112 million), scheduling concerns and the actors’ generous profit-sharing arrangement. Mr. Roach declined to comment on the matter.
SEE? ONE EXAMPLE WAS PLENTY. NOW THE STORY MARCHES BACK TO THE SUPERHEROES AND BEGINS THE PROFILING PROCESS WITH FAR MORE URGENCY AND DETAIL THAN THE LAT STORY DID.
Still, despite what some would regard as bare-knuckled behavior, Mr. Rothman and Mr. Gianopulos maintain longstanding relationships with a stylistically diverse cadre of filmmakers.
Seated side by side in craftsman-style chairs in Mr. Rothman’s office last week on the Fox lot, the executives displayed different yet well-matched personalities.
Mr. Gianopulos, 54, compact and given to warm laughter, absently plays with a bottle cap from a soft drink that Mr. Rothman brought to him from a refrigerator just outside the office. The 51-year-old Mr. Rothman, on the other hand, is tall and lanky, vibrating with the intensity of an overeager puppy ready to pounce.
”We are not here to be liked,” Mr. Rothman said. ”We don’t work for talent agencies. We work for Fox. Our job is not to worry about agents who jibber-jabber to reporters, who worry about headlines.” Mr. Gianopulos added that currying favor ”is not tolerated around here from anyone; you are not going to get ahead scheming.”
BEFORE LETTING THE PRINCIPALS ENGAGE IN TOO MUCH SELF-SERVING QUOTES, THE STORY FINDS VALIDATION FRM A DIRECTOR.
While the talk is tough, at least the rules are clear. ”They never try to stuff their ideas down your throat,” said Peter Farrelly, who has directed several films for Fox. ”They will let you argue your point, and if you can’t back it up, they won’t back down.”
THE QUOTE DEMANDS AN EXAMPLE, AND HERE IT IS:
Last year, for instance, Jim Ward, the president of LucasArts and the person responsible for marketing George Lucas’s ”Star Wars” movies, which are distributed by Fox, was troubled when Fox announced it would release Ridley Scott’s epic ”Kingdom of Heaven” nine days before the release of ”Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.” His concern was that ”Kingdom of Heaven” would hurt ticket sales for the opening weekend of ”Star Wars.”
Mr. Ward confronted Mr. Gianopulos about moving ”Kingdom” to another date. In the past, Mr. Ward said, Fox would have acquiesced to
Mr. Lucas’s requests. But Mr. Gianopulos refused, sticking by Mr. Scott.
”I didn’t like it,” Mr. Ward said, ”but I had to respect it.” In the end ”Kingdom of Heaven” was no threat to ”Star Wars,” which brought in $380 million at the domestic box office.
THE STORY KNOWS THAT IT HAS TO DEAL WITH THE DUO’S POWER DIVISION, AND HERE IT IS:
There are plenty of stories in Hollywood about coequal executives plotting to push each other out. But Mr. Rothman and Mr. Gianopulos, both lawyers, do not seem headed in that direction. Mr. Rothman, who has worked at Fox for 12 years developing movies, oversees much of the studio’s creative efforts. Mr. Gianopulos, a longtime international theatrical executive, also handles movies, but is active in exploring new technologies.
SEE HOW A PURPOSEFUL STRUCTURE ALLOWS THE WRITER TO GET MORE AND MORE SPECIFIC AS THE STORY MOVES FORWARD? THE AUDIENCE HAS BEEN FED THE CONTEXTUAL NOURISHMENT REQUIRED TO UNDERSTAND.
To ensure that enterprising executives (or agents and managers) do not try to pit the two against each other, the men instituted the ”chairman’s rule”: if one of the two makes a decision, the other agrees no matter what. Of course that does not bar them from sparring with each other.
THE USE OF QUOTES IS ALSO MORE DISCIPLINED. WATCH HOW THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN THE PAIR ENLIVENS AND CRYSTALIZES THE WHO-DOES-WHAT QUESTION.
”O.K., I admit it. I didn’t understand ‘The Day After Tomorrow,’ ” Mr. Rothman said, referring to the blockbuster about global warming that brought in $187 million at the domestic box office in 2004. ”That was Jim’s call and we had a big fight over it.”
”Come on,” Mr. Gianopulos shouted. ”I like that kind of movie!”
”I had a question about how to make it look fresh and original, and if we could execute in time,” Mr. Rothman said. ”But he was totally enthusiastic.”
”I beat him into submission,” Mr. Gianopulos said, laughing.
”It wasn’t that I yielded; I was happily persuaded,” Mr. Rothman countered.
A WORKABLE TRANSITION (ALTHOUGH IF I NEVER READ ‘INDEED’ AGAIN I WON’T BE UPSET):
Indeed persuasion, or more likely fiery debate, seems to be the way to get a movie made at Fox. ”Walk the Line” was rejected by every studio in Hollywood before Elizabeth Gabler, another Fox executive, lobbied her bosses to make it, at the low cost of $29 million. It brought in $120 million in the United States.
NICE DETAIL ON DECISION-MAKING
More recently, Mr. Rothman and Mr. Gianopulos were flummoxed over whether Rogue, a character in ”X-Men,” should give her beau a passionate kiss at the movie’s end or simply hold his hand. The two executives screened the movie for their daughters as well as the studio’s female marketing executives, and the hand holding prevailed. ”The kissing was all about sex, and we didn’t want that,” said Mr. Gianopulos, grimacing.
A FAIR SHOT BY THE WRITER FOLLOWS, AND THE QUOTE SHOWS THAT ROTHMAN IS NOT FACILE ENOUGH TO DODGE THIS ONE. AS YOU READ THE STORY, THOUGH, YOU REALIZE THE ROTHMAN QUOTE AT THE END OF THE NEXT GRAF. . .
Oddly, these are the same executives who backed the Farrelly brothers movie ”There’s Something About Mary,” which showed a woman using semen as hair gel and a man getting his penis caught in his zipper. ”I like the fact that decisions aren’t easy,” Mr. Rothman said. ”I like to talk through the issues before they get done, working things over.”
. . . IS THERE JUST AS MUCH AS A TRANSITION TO THE GRAF AFTER THAT. THE STORY CAN’T USE THE WORD “ASSHOLE,” BUT IT GETS THE POINT ACROSS. THE STORY NEEDS TO ESTABLISH THIS BECAUSE IT WANTS YOU TO UNDERSTAND THE LONGEST PASSAGE OF THE STORY, A SIX-GRAF DISCUSSION OF “X-MEN.” IT’S A GOOD PORTRAYAL OF ROTHMAN’S DUALITY.
Mr. Rothman’s probing, though, can be grating, filmmakers and former Fox staff members said. And his tendency to raise his voice when he gets worked up takes getting used to.
”It’s no secret that it took a long time for Tom and I to work things out,” said Baz Luhrmann, who has been making films for Fox since 1993, including the critically acclaimed ”Moulin Rouge,” and continues to do so. ”There are a lot of Tomisms. He’ll say ‘It’s not exactly my first day.’ ”
THE LONGEST PASSAGE BEGINS
Mr. Rothman insisted that his reactions are never personal, that he is just trying to make the best movie. The director Bryan Singer, who upset Mr. Rothman when he dropped out of the third ”X-Men” movie despite a scheduled release this past Memorial Day weekend, described it this way. ”I call it a Hollywood moment,” he said.
Mr. Rothman had picked Mr. Singer to direct the first ”X-Men,” and together they shepherded the first two hit movies onto the screen. But as Mr. Singer was negotiating to direct the third ”X-Men: The Last Stand” in July 2004, Warner Brothers gave him the offer of directing ”Superman Returns.” Mr. Singer jumped at the chance and, without first talking to Mr. Rothman, accepted the job.
”If I had done it openly, Tom would have driven to my house and we would have talked about it until sunrise,” said Mr. Singer, who still considers Mr. Rothman a friend.
Rumors swirled that Mr. Singer was banned from the Fox lot.
Mr. Rothman, who confirmed Mr. Singer’s account of the break, said Mr. Singer had not been banned from the lot, but conceded that the director’s leaving was a ”personal disappointment.” For nearly a year and a half the two did not talk.
Skeptics predicted the franchise was doomed. Mr. Rothman and his team then revised the ”X-Men” script and hired Mr. Ratner to direct. And one day earlier this year, Mr. Singer said, he got a phone call from Mr. Rothman asking him to ”bury the hatchet” over lunch at Prego.
ALONG WITH “INDEED,” THE NYT COULD ALSO BAN “OF COURSE.” THE NEXT TWO GRAFS END THE STORY IN A WAY THAT SEEMS TO LACK HUMANITY. BUT, OF COURSE, THIS IS A BUSINESS-OF-HOLLYWOOD STORY, SO ENDING WITH THE BOTTOM LINE CAN BE ARGUED SUCCESFULLY. THINK HOW MANY STORIES YOU’VE WRITTEN OR READ THAT WOULD HAVE FORCED A QUOTE AFTER ALL THE RANKINGS. HERE, THE WRITER AND/OR EDITOR SAID: LOOK, OUR WORK IS DONE, DRAW THE DRAPES.
Of course, for Mr. Rothman and Mr. Gianopulos, the un-Hollywood story is having the perfect Hollywood ending. ”X-Men: The Last Stand” was released on Memorial Day weekend as Mr. Rothman had wanted, and raked in $122 million — the biggest opening ever for a movie released over that holiday period.
As of last Friday, ”X-Men” was the No. 2 movie this year, bringing in $185 million domestically according to the studio and Nielsen EDI, which tracks box office figures. And No. 1? Another Fox hit, the animated ”Ice Age: The Meltdown” with $194 million.