What's news: Matt Lauer has been fired from NBC News after an internal complaint about "inappropriate sexual behavior." Plus: Inside post-Lasseter Disney-Pixar, the first Avengers: Infinity War trailer, the future of Time Inc.'s big titles and a sit-down with Aaron Sorkin. — Ray Rahman
On the cover: Aaron Sorkin goes off script. Hollywood's most celebrated and scrutinized screenwriter ups the ante for his directorial debut as he floats a West Wing reboot (with a black president) and reveals the anxiety that fuels his ambition: "I always feel like my life depends on writing something good." Lacey Rose writes:
At this point, the industry's highest-paid screenwriter, who earns $4 million a script (and another $1 million if the film gets made), could make a fine living by simply rehashing his past successes. He already has agreed to tackle a live staging of his first breakout, A Few Good Men, for NBC, though now he reveals he'll need to push back its planned spring 2018 airdate another year. Filling out a cast led by Alec Baldwin (as Col. Jessep) has proven a challenge, and he can't quite figure out how to make the 1980s-set play feel fresh.
There's also a standing offer from the same network to reboot The West Wing, which Sorkin considers on occasion. When asked if he'd introduce a Trump-like figure in his fictional White House, he winces, arguing that the current president holds no appeal for him, fictional or otherwise. "Trump is exactly what he looks like: a really dumb guy with an observable psychiatric disorder," he says.
Sorkin's preferred scenario, he tells me, would involve "Sterling K. Brown as the president, and there's some kind of jam, an emergency, a very delicate situation involving the threat of war or something, and [President] Bartlett [played by Martin Sheen], long since retired, is consulted in the way that Bill Clinton used to consult with Nixon." Full story.
In a bit of stunning news, NBC News said Wednesday morning that it had fired Matt Lauer after "a complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace." Georg Salzai and Marisa Guthrie write:
NBC News chairman Andrew Lack said in a memo to employees that the complaint, which was made by a colleague of Lauer's, prompted a serious review and represented a "clear violation of our company's standards." A report from NBC News itself quoted Lack as saying that this it was the first complaint lodged against Lauer, 59, since he took over as anchor of the show in 1997, but there was "reason to believe" it wasn't an isolated incident.
Over at Today, longtime Lauer colleagues, including Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker, appeared devastated by the news. Guthrie said: "Hoda is here with me this morning because this is a sad morning at Today and NBC News." Full story.
+ This is the second time in recent weeks a network morning show has had to address sexual harassment by one of its own. Gayle King had an on-the-air moment recently when discussing Charlie Rose’s alleged bad deeds.
This morning, it was Guthrie’s turn. Near tears, she said: "We just learned this moments ago, just this morning. As I'm sure you can imagine we are devastated and we are still processing all of this. I will tell you that right now we do not know more than what we just shared with you. But we will be covering the story as reporters, as journalists. I'm sure we will be learning more details in the hours and days to come and we will share that with you."
+ Hoda Kotb sat beside Guthrie today, though it's unclear who will sit in for Lauer in the coming days. Willie Geist, Carson Daly and Al Roker (as well as Kotb) will no doubt all be pitching in. Will they go so far as to bring in Megyn Kelly as well?
+ Over at ABC, Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos addressed the news as well. “You can just tell that they’re grappling with this,” said Roberts. Stephanopoulos added: “This is not over yet, we have a long, long way to go.”
+ Unlike many of the other high-profile firings in recent weeks, this one didn’t come after a published exposé in a newspaper or magazine. In fact, it looks to have come before one: CNN's Brian Stelter reports that the New York Times has been investigating Lauer for several weeks.
+ Donald Trump is already on the case. The president, taking a break from tweeting anti-Muslim videos, wrote: “Wow, Matt Lauer was just fired from NBC for “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.” But when will the top executives at NBC & Comcast be fired for putting out so much Fake News. Check out Andy Lack’s past!”
Elsewhere in TV...
► Fallon is falling further behind Colbert. As John Koblin reports in the New York Times, the November sweeps period was not kind to Fallon's Tonight Show. Colbert has boasted a larger overall audience for some time now, but now he's winning over the young demo as well: "Colbert cut into Fallon’s lead among younger viewers, finishing 57,000 behind him, according to Nielsen data. That’s the closest the CBS host has come to Mr. Fallon among 18- to 49-year-olds in the 27 months the two have competed head-to-head."
+ Now Fallon is in danger of falling behind Kimmel, which would make The Tonight Show No. 3 in late night — once an unthinkable proposition.
+ Interesting nugget: "Mindful of Fallon’s sunny nature, NBC executives had hoped that Colbert’s surge in the wild early days of the Trump presidency would die down once the national mood had settled. They envisioned a time when this pair of temperamentally different hosts would trade victories week to week."
► CNN is skipping the White House Christmas party. "In light of the President's continued attacks on freedom of the press and CNN, we do not feel it is appropriate to celebrate with him as his invited guests," the network said. CNN added that it will be sending a "reporting team" to Friday's event to cover any news that develops from it.
► ESPN layoffs hit 150 employees. Network president John Skipper announced the cuts in a memo to employees on Wednesday morning. Those affected were mostly people from the studio production, digital content, and technology departments.
^How Meghan Markle got her big break on Suits. Jeff Wachtel, who served as co-president of USA Network, talks with THR about casting the princess-to-be. Lesley Goldberg writes:
"The big question at the beginning was going to be her chemistry with Patrick J. Adams," NBCUniversal's Jeff Wachtel says about the early Suits casting process for an actress to take on the role of Rachel Zane, the paralegal who would become a love interest for Adams' Mike Ross.
Markle was up for the part against Kim Shaw, an actress who Wachtel would go on to cast in MTV's short-lived dramedy I Just Want My Pants Back that was produced by the same company (Hypnotic) behind Suits.
"[Shaw] was a little bit more traditional blonde girl next door; [the decision] was a tough one because they were both really good," Wachtel says. "And Meghan had a certain type of sparkle and was a little more urbane, a little more worldly." Full story.
+ Speaking of Wachtel: He'll be moving to London to run NBCUniversal's international studios. His replacement has yet to be determined.
► Tom Hardy reunites with Peaky Blinders creator, BBC for Charles Dickens series. Stephen Knight will adapt a series of classic Dickens novels over the next few years for the BBC, starting with A Christmas Carol, with Ridley Scott's Scott Free London producing in association with Tom Hardy's Hardy Son & Baker outfit.
► AT&T wants a trial by February to determine Tine Warner merger date. The government wants to wait until May after a merger deadline, but AT&T is seeking a super-aggressive timetable. In new court papers, AT&T also says the government is looking to shield competitors like Netflix, Google, Facebook and Apple from competition.
+ AT&T and Time Warner employ Peak TV as a defense: "In only a few years, the way in which Americans watch television has radically and irreversibly changed." The defendants point to Netflix's plans to spend $17 billion on content; the video investments from Apple, Google and Facebook; Hulu's 47 million unique viewers; Snapchat's Olympic plans; and Twitter's streaming of live NFL games.
► HBO launches standalone streaming service in seven more countries. "We are making it even easier for consumers to become HBO subscribers," says the CEO of HBO Europe as the service hits Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
As he was building Pixar, Lasseter had developed a reputation for relentless borderline bullying conduct and for crossing lines into employees' personal space in the workplace. "They shielded and protected him," says a longtime Disney insider. How much did Disney execs know and when? Carolyn Giardina and Kim Masters write:
Disney declined comment, but one studio source, while acknowledging that Lasseter may have crossed professional boundaries, characterized his behavior as overly affectionate. When Lasseter apologized and went on leave, Disney said the company supported his sabbatical (Lasseter also is dealing with the loss of personal property in the recent Northern California fires) and is "committed to maintaining an environment in which all employees are respected and empowered to do their best work."
According to several sources, the studios' leadership recognized Lasseter's behavior was problematic. One source says it was "well known through the executive ranks." But given Lasseter's creative brilliance and track record of delivering hit after hit, "they shielded and protected him," adds a longtime Disney insider. This source adds that multiple employees "had talked to HR." Full story.
+ Who will replace him? The speculation is that a member of Pixar's storied "brain trust," the animation directors who meet regularly to review one another's work, will be asked to step forward. Here's a rundown of the contenders:
Elsewhere in film...
► In some more positive news for Disney, the first Avengers: Infinity War trailer is finally here. And it's every bit as epic and dramatic as you might expect. Watch it here.
► Mary Magdalene trailer also drops. The movie — starring Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and Rooney Mara in the title role, and directed by Lion's Garth Davis — got its first preview. Watch it here.
► Steven Spielberg's The Post named best film by National Board of Review. The movie also scored best actor and actress prizes from the group for its lead performances by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. This marks the first major awards for the film, which is sure to be a big presence at the Oscars.
► Did the Gotham Awards boost Call Me By Your Name's Oscar prospects? Scott Feinberg breaks it down: "The Gothams, I like to tell people, are to the Oscars what the Iowa caucuses are to a presidential election: They're the first 'results' to come in, so they get a lot of attention, but the reality is there's actually no reason to believe they tell us anything about what's to come. Call Me by Your Name may still win the best picture Oscar — and, in my opinion, it would be a worthy choice — but predicting an Oscar victory for it because of a Gotham nod relies on false logic." Read more.
► Regal stocks surged after report of merger negotiations. Shares of Regal Entertainment Group surged 8 percent Tuesday after reports surfaced that the movie theater chain controlled by Philip Anschutz was in talks to merge with the Cineworld Group, which operates more than 2,000 screens in Europe.
Hollywood workplaces are facing thorny questions amid harassment claims. With industry men being scrutinized like never before, some women are wondering if the pendulum has swung so far that a constructive dialogue is no longer possible, report Tatiana Siegel and Marisa Guthrie:
With every unsolicited hug and unwanted kiss playing out equally in headlines alongside accusations of rape and sexual advances on minors, there’s little differentiation between the subtle abuses of power and far more egregious behavior. And that is leading to uncertainty about what is appropriate in the new dawn.
“I feel like every man I know is afraid to talk to me. And that’s not an answer because we can’t do this alone,” says A+E Television Networks President and CEO Nancy Dubuc. “I’m a little perplexed, actually, I haven’t gotten any phone calls from powerful men or the agencies or peers with ‘Got any ideas for me?’ Or ‘Got a point of view on this that I should listen to?’ There should be a conversation. I think so much fear has been created. You can’t have a conversation in an environment of fear.” Full story.
► Fantastic Beasts sequel director defends his choice to cast Johnny Depp. David Yates' spoke to EW's James Hibberd, saying: “Honestly, there’s an issue at the moment where there’s a lot of people being accused of things, they’re being accused by multiple victims, and it’s compelling and frightening. With Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something. ... Whatever accusation was out there doesn’t tally with the kind of human being I’ve been working with.”
► Ridley Scott breaks silence on Kevin Spacey and All the Money in the World. In another EW scoop, the director tells Sara Vilkomerson how he reacted when he first heard the Spacey news: "Someone was like: Guess what? And that’s where it began. I sat and thought about it and realized, we cannot. You can’t tolerate any kind of behavior like that. And it will affect the film. We cannot let one person’s action affect the good work of all these other people. It’s that simple."
► Alexander Skarsgard, Randall Park join Seth Rogen in Flarsky. Skarsgard will play the prime minister of Canada, who is described as "very handsome” — though it’s not specifically the photogenic and popular Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Park, meanwhile, will play Flarsky’s (Rogen) newspaper boss in the movie about a down-on-his-luck journalist.
► CAA taps Nielsen's Steve Hasker of CEO of CAA Global. Hasker, who will join the agency’s board of directors, will oversee the intersection between CAA’s traditional work in representation and its other businesses and investments.
What happens to some of Time Inc.'s most iconic magazines now? Jeremy Barr reports:
Those in and around the company also are curious to see what Iowa-based Meredith does with some of the Time Inc. brands it will acquire. The conventional wisdom is that it will seek to unload news titles, including Time and Fortune, and such male-skewing brands as Sports Illustrated, three magazines that it reportedly balked at purchasing as part of a larger Time Inc. sale in 2013.
Meredith's strength — and its most remunerative advertising offering — is service journalism for female readers in such stalwarts as Better Homes & Gardens, Martha Stewart Living and Shape.
Meredith plans to slash costs by $400 million, and industry analyst Samir Husni expects it to wait a year or two before selling off or closing any brands. "If they can bring those magazines back to good profitability, I wouldn't be surprised if they sell all the weeklies, including Entertainment Weekly," he says. "It's so foreign to the DNA of Meredith." Full story.
What else we're reading...
— "The curious case of Best Actress vs. Best Picture." Daniel Joyaux writes: "A film nominated for best actor is 75 percent more likely to get a best-picture nomination than one nominated for best actress." [Vanity Fair]
— "Alexander Payne did not set out to make a movie about our times." Alex Pappademas writes: "Downsizing’s mix of schlub naturalism and toy-box invention has plenty of recent precedent in the work of Spike Jonze and Mike Judge, but it’s a significant departure from the approach that’s made Payne a critical darling among partisans of the Kind of Films They Just Don’t Make Anymore." [Esquire]
— "Why The Disaster Artist needed the Franco brothers." Amos Barshad writes: "In part, The Disaster Artist can be read as a spinoff of the real, public relationship of James, the oddball, and Dave, the cheery all-American." [Vulture]
— "When your movie is a hit for all the wrong reasons." Sarah Lyall writes: "Tommy Wiseau has made his peace with the cult status of his drama, er, comedy The Room." [New York Times]
— "Amy Sedaris is the weirdo the world needs right now." Scaachi Koul writes: "The low-profile comedian has long been on the periphery of mainstream success, but by operating outside our current cultural climate, she provides the perfect escape from it." [BuzzFeed]
— "Does Jersey Shore even belong in 2017?" Amy Zimmerman writes: "Because it was a true, slogan-creating, must-see TV, money-making cultural phenomenon, it’s easy to misremember Jersey Shore as a single moment." [Daily Beast]
What else we're seeing...
+ "Full Frontal's undercover sting." [Full Frontal]
+ "Saorise Ronan reveals her favorite SNL sketches." [Late Night]
+ "Daisey Ridley plays Star Wars-themed 'whisper challenge.'" [Tonight Show]
What else we're hearing...
+ "Grammy nominations; Alias Grace." [The Frame / KPCC]
+ "Summer of Love." [Young Charlie / Wondery]
Today's Birthdays: Gemma Chan, 35, Chadwick Boseman, 41, Anna Faris, 41, Andrew McCarthy, 55, Tom Sizemore, 56, Howie Mandel, 62, Vin Scully, 90.