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Brokespoke Alp

A Ride To Nowhere?

Jake Gyllenhaal is the “it” guy of moviedom right now. Every time a new project is developed, his name comes up in the casting discussion, whether it’s for a 300-pound sumo wrestler, or a one-legged midget. He’s always been known for cherry-picking his parts (Jarhead especially comes to mind), so that’s why it’s bewildering that, with all these juicy roles being offered, Gyllenhaal wants to play Lance Armstrong in a Sony biopic of the seven-time Tour de France winner. The two were hanging at the TdF together all weekend as part of Jake’s getting-to-know-you method process. The pairing even threatened to eclipse the press coverage of the 2006 TdF winner, that other American, Floyd Landis. Gyllenhaal joined Armstrong in the Discovery team car for a ride-along during Saturday’s all-important individual time trial. The next day, Jake and Lance sat in a Paris hotel and watched Landis tour the Champs Élysées with yellow jersey intact, then receive his trophy.

Turns out the Oscar-nominated costar of Brokeback Mountain is a longtime cyclist and has already begun training for the film. Though one man is dark and the other fair, there’s little doubt that when the makeup artists are done, Jake and Lance will look like twins. Sure, an Armstrong biopic is a natural. So why did it take Hollywood so long to put one together? Well, producer Bill Gerber tried to sell it years ago, after reading Armstrong’s book It’s Not About the Bike. But Warner Bros. and HBO passed. Then producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy got lucky that Columbia Pictures production honcho Matt Tolmach is a cycling fanatic. I hear he can actually do some of those Tour de France–type climbs — though not as fast.

Given Armstrong’s unhappy youth, his sports prowess (first as a triathlete and then as a cyclist), his battle with cancer, his Live Strong yellow-wristband campaign, his cancer-foundation work, his epic TdF rides, his rivalry with cocky Jan Ullrich and upstart Ivan Basso, his love-hate relationship with the French, and his battle against doping accusations, it’s a heckuva tale. But what kind of role is it? The record shows that sports biopics get ignored at Oscar time. (Unlike, say, Nicolas Cage signing on to play Liberace. No, I’m not kidding.) Jake needs to keep his eye on Golden Boy — the statuette, not the cyclist.

Their Big Fat Hollywood Failures

It’s surprising but not exactly unexpected that three big film directors crashed and burned at the box office this weekend. M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, Ivan Reitman’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Kevin Smith’s Clerks II all bombed badly with moviegoers. It’s not that the budgets were necessarily outsize — in fact, Clerks II was cheap at $5 million — but by the time you factor in the insanely high marketing costs (averaging $36 million), the movies should have gone straight to video if they couldn’t muster at least $20 million openings at the box office.

Lady in the Water made just $17.5 million; Clerks II dropped 20 percent Saturday from Friday, so it barely made $10 million for the weekend; and Super Ex finished with a paltry $8.5 million.

So, why such failure? Blame it on the arrogance that typically, and unfortunately, follows Hollywood success. All three directors — Shyamalan, Reitman and Smith — have experienced the best of the box office in their past: great reviews, great grosses, great wealth. That’s when the disconnect comes.

Although then Disney movie exec Nina Jacobson told Shyamalan that his Lady had problems even at the script stage and that’s why she wouldn’t green-light it; he refused to listen (and later even trashed her for it). Even though Reitman is one of the richest directors around and has little in common with the young guys who are his target audience, he keeps making one bad movie after another. (Shouldn’t he be counting his gazillions?) Even though Smith was once lauded as the Hollywood rebel, he is so much the Hollywood insider these days he does TV shtick on Leno. Smith even sank so low as to try to score PR mileage out of film critic Joel Siegel’s childish walk-out during a screening of Clerks II. Not even a cheezy promotion between The Weinstein Co. and MySpace could help Smith’s film. The first 10,000 people who linked to a designated page would be permanently added to the ending credits. I bet the guilds were thrilled.

Meanwhile, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest, a dreadful film saved only by Johnny Depp,pilfered $35.5 million to safely occupy No. 1 for another weekend. After just 17 days, the sequel has taken in $321.7 million and surpassed the total take of the original.

The Sons (Unfortunately) Also Rise

Think about it: Scion of Big Media mogul tells Dad about this great British show that would do well in America. The result is American Idol, which saves not only the network’s butt but also her father’s bottom line. Isn’t that worth a big promotion? Not in Murdoch land.

 

Rupe finally announced his succession plan last week (on Charlie Rose, bizarrely): Upon Murdoch’s death, his four children from his first marriage — Lachlan, James, Elisabeth and Prudence — will assume control of the family trust, which owns 30 percent of the $55 billion News Corp. His two younger daughters, by wife Wendi Deng, will not assume any control of the trust, nor will Deng have a voice in how News Corp. is run. Murdoch’s assets, however, will be divided equally among all six children. Wall Street, though not current News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin, can rest easier now that the dispute over Murdoch’s financial assets has been settled. This was the same squabble that led to a rift with Lachlan, who left News Corp. last year after Dad stated that he wanted Deng’s kids to have a say in control of the trust.

But if it were my company, the Murdoch progeny who should run it is Elisabeth and not his two idiot sons. (Lachlan has cost money. The eldest child had to take the stand in an Australian courtroom to explain his role in investing $320 million of the corporation’s money in a collapsed telco.) But that’ll never happen given the usual corporate misogyny.

As I wrote back in 2003, it was Elisabeth, Rupert’s second oldest kid, who kept telling U.S. executives that Simon Fuller’s 2001 British monster hit Pop Idol would do just as well here. But Fox honchos Sandy Grushow and Gail Berman shrugged her off. Finally, it took Elisabeth’s nagging Daddy, and a direct order from Rupert himself, to get American Idol launched.

Considered the smartest of Murdoch’s children, Elisabeth is only third in the line of succession, behind Lachlan and James. But Murdoch told Rose it’ll be up to the kids themselves to decide who’ll be Numero Uno.

And Then There Were None

Not since Dawn Steel learned she was ousted as president of production while on maternity leave from Paramount has a top Hollywood executive been axed so brutally. Now, two decades later, Nina Jacobson heard about her firing as prez of Disney’s Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group at the hospital where her partner was giving birth to their third child. I’m told she was “devastated,” and understandably so. The timing took everyone by surprise, especially since she’d recently renegotiated her contract. That was what Hollywood fixated on, rather than the hundreds of Disney employees about to be laid off.

Just 15 months ago The New York Times was trumpeting “Hollywood’s New Old Girls’ Network” on the cover of the Sunday Arts and Leisure Section, pegged to Brad Grey’s naming Gail Berman to lead Paramount pics’ creative team: “He did something that has become almost routine in Hollywood: He put a woman in charge of the show. So striking is the change that some now see Hollywood as a gender-based model for the rest of corporate America.” But those advances are eroding before Hollywood women’s eyes. Today, only Gail Berman at Paramount and Amy Pascal at Sony are in positions of real power. (Elizabeth Gabler at Fox 2000 has many more layers of male bosses above her than this pair.) But the knives have been out for Berman since she took over (those many nasty articles about her — some deserved, some not). As for Pascal, she was supposed to be getting a promotion a year ago that would have put her on a par with her boss Michael Lynton — it hasn’t happened yet, though there’s an upcoming contract renegotiation.

Everyone else is gone. Laura Ziskin at Fox 2000, Lisa Henson and Lucy Fisher at Columbia, Sherry Lansing at Paramount, Stacey Snider at Universal, even Laurie MacDonald at DreamWorks Pictures (cohead with her husband) have all left their posts due to situations where they either jumped or were pushed.

Jacobson herself was under big pressure from corporate as part of the so-called “Iger strategy” to slash and burn the movie division. “The studio is undergoing a major reorganization, and there simply isn’t room for everyone in the new structure,” she said. (Mercifully, she didn’t hide behind that “I’m leaving to spend more time with my family” bullshit.) Her boss Dick Cook, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, put it this way: “There are times when these things happen, and this is one of those times.” Which is just Hollywood’s way of saying, Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

Hollywood was shocked and puzzled that Disney made this major personnel change on the heels of the huge success of Pirates 2 and Narnia. Jacobson’s ouster comes just as she looks really smart for refusing to green-light Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. Oren Aviv now becomes president of production for Walt Disney Pictures, his second promotion in 15 months. In April 2005, he was upped to president of marketing and chief creative officer at Walt Disney Studios. (I’m told that the hyperambitious Aviv, a previous president of marketing at Buena Vista Pictures, helped set the stage for his ascent by telling Disney a while ago that Paramount’s Brad Grey had offered him a big position.) Cook gave Aviv full credit — even story credit — for 2004’s National Treasure, as if anyone would (or should) be proud of that.

 

The result is that Hollywood movies are returning to the old days, when it was a man’s world. Which leads me to another thought: Did these women have a better win-loss box-office record than the men? Nearly all have green-lighted embarrassments as well as failures. Some were testosterone-heavy violence fests. Others were chick flicks that not even gals wanted to see. A few were big, fat blockbusters.

Actually, their record seems no worse than their male counterparts’. And that’s the point: Hollywood, like most industries, sets the bar higher for its woman executives. They can’t just be equal to men, they have to be better. So that may be why this woman’s-world era is coming to an end. There’s no doubt the women were good. They just weren’t good enough to suit the men still in charge of them.

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