What Matters in Hollywood Today

7:22 AM 4/25/2018

by Ray Rahman

Photographed by David Needleman

What's news: John Lasseter's "sabbatical" is nearly done — but can he ever return to Disney? Plus: Inside the rise of Hulu, picking apart MoviePass and breaking down Comcast's bid for Sky. — Ray Rahman

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On the cover: Hulu beyond The Handmaid's Tale. The streamer faces a promising yet uncertain future, writes Natalie Jarvey:

Largely because of Handmaid's — and also Hulu's fledgling Live TV service — the company has been on the biggest growth spurt in its 10-year history, closing in on 20 million subscribers, per insiders, up 18 percent in just the past four months.

Granted, that's still a fraction of Netflix's 125 million global subscribers or Amazon's 100 million Prime customers (the company doesn't reveal how many watch Prime Video), but then Hulu is strictly a domestic operation, at least for now. Cover story.

Potential hazards: Hulu's fractured ownership structure — with Comcast, 21st Century Fox, Disney and Time Warner all holding a piece of the company — hasn't exactly made for a streamlined decision-making process. On the contrary, the slow pace of development is known to frustrate creatives.

Keeping up: The overheated market for content has pushed up the cost of talent to a point where smaller players like Hulu often get priced out. Hulu's annual war chest is said to hover above $2.5 billion — chump change compared to Netflix's $8 billion global content budget for this year, or even Amazon's $4.5 billion for last year.

Joel Stillerman: "Money matters, and we are certainly capable of writing a big check," says Hulu content chief Joel Stillerman, who arrived from AMC in June. "But that doesn't help you land a project every time."

The Disney deal: If completed, it would give Disney a 60 percent majority share of the company — and nobody knows exactly how that would play out.

Going international? CEO Randy Freer admits that's something the company is actively considering but acknowledges that the moment may have passed, since most popular TV shows have already been sold internationally. "I'm figuring out how we solve that puzzle in a way that is economically viable."

Internal friction? Multiple sources suggest the board played a role in Hulu's decision earlier this year to pass on Carlton Cuse's Locke and Key, which was said to be a favorite of Stillerman's. Freer denies board involvement, suggesting instead that it didn't fit with his strategy for Hulu.

J.J. Abrams: "They had the ambition and they had the talent, but they were still getting their sea legs," Abrams says of the company pre-Handmaid's Tale. "Now they're in this terrific rhythm. There's a threshold that gets crossed when you become galvanized. That's where they are." Full story.

  • Breaking Records?

    Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

    Avengers: Infinity War sets its sights on a historic weekend, writes Pamela McClintock: 

    Disney's and Marvel's mega-superhero mashup is widely expected to score the top domestic debut of all time for a superhero pic when unfurling in theaters this weekend and kicking off the summer box office.

    Tracking suggests it will open north of $225 million, but many believe it has a shot at overtaking fellow Disney pic Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($248 million) to land the top North American opening in history (Disney is being conservative in sticking to a $210 million-plus projection). Full story.

    Review: "This grand, bursting-at-the-seams wrap-up to one crowded realm of the Marvel superhero universe starts out as three parts jokes, two parts dramatic juggling act and one part deterministic action, an equation that's been completely reversed by the time of the film's startling climax," writes Todd McCarthy. The takeaway: "Marvel hits the jackpot again." Full review.

    What others are saying: "Infinity War leaves viewers up in the air, feeling exhilarated and cheated at the same time, aching for a closure that never comes...." — Rolling Stone.

    “The Ocean’s Thirteen of spandexed heroism, if you can imagine a version of that movie with two times as many Brad Pitts and no poker dealers." — Time Out.

    "Its intimations of grief and terror feel shrewdly attuned to what is happening in the actual, unmarvelous world." — The New York Times.

    The future of MoviePass...

    Too good to be true? As the Helios- and Matheson-owned app burns through a $200 million war chest amid stock swings and studio skepticism, its 2 million customers — expected to grow to 5 million by year's end — are impossible to ignore.

    Profit model? Helios and Matheson CEO Ted Farnsworth tells THR that MoviePass is making a profit on 88 percent of its subscribers, those who are basically using just one ticket a month.

    As for the 12 percent of heavy users, "They are evangelists for the service," he says, noting that as recently as two years ago, MoviePass was spending $51 to acquire each sub; that cost is now zero.

    Profit...sharing? While MoviePass pays full price for tickets, about $8.97 apiece, Farnsworth figures he'll soon get about $6 of that back on every transaction as more theaters kick back not only some of the ticket revenue, but also concession purchases. AMC Entertainment begs to differ, saying it has no intention of sharing anything with MoviePass.

    The pratfall: One flaw in the model, though, is “when they use MoviePass to see major movies they would have seen anyways," says one analyst. "When MoviePass is subsidizing blockbusters, it will cost them a lot of money and they’ll be hurting." Read more.

    What's up at CinemaCon...

    John Fithian's state-of-the-industry speech: "The movie industry is not a zero-sum game," the National Association of Theater Owners head told the crowd. "There has been a lot of hype about the next 'disruption.' VHS. DVD. Streaming. Shortened windows. PVOD. Subscriptions and simultaneous release. Yet we never die but remain a strong business in the face of disruption everywhere else in the entertainment landscape."

    Questioning MoviePass: "NATO won't take a position on a model that involves pricing," Fithian said. "We do have three concerns about the concept of a subscription model. The first one is sustainability. If it's not sustainable and it goes under then you have millions of disappointed customers that will come and complain to us."

    His other two concerns: accuracy (in terms of how the model actually works) and privacy. Read more.

    Questioning LED: "Many of the studios think LED is the best thing since sliced bread," Fithian said. He added that many filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Michael Apted, "just went after us. 'You have to have projection.… Don’t just go the way of just being television.' Voices are coming at us from all sides."

    MPAA chief Charles Rivkin also spoke: "2018 is off to an even better start, thanks in large part to the leaps and bounds of a certain Black Panther. More than just the highest-grossing superhero film of all time, this movie has redefined a genre, marked a turning point in our cultural history and opened doors to artists and audiences everywhere. And there is so much more to come in 2018." Read more.

    Bradley Cooper shows up: "It's a big swing, this movie," Cooper said as he introduced the trailer for his Lady Gaga-starring film A Star Is Born. "I totally get that. You can't control what moves you. You can't contrive or manufacture something that moves you. This project was always around. It always stayed with me."

    Andy Serkis unveils Mowgli: The actor debuted two-and- a-half minutes of Warner Bros.' dark, gritty live-action/CG retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. "This is trying to delve into Kipling's book and the journey for Mowgli as a outsider, as an other, trying to find his identity," said Serkis, who directed the film.

    Aquaman sighting: The James Wan film made a splash when the film's first footage played during Warner Bros.' presentation. "I didn't want to bring anything, but they made me," the director said. (Also, Jason Momoa to emcee Will Arnett: “You are the best fucking Batman.")

    Toby Emmerich: "2017 was our best year ever with more than $5.1 billion at the global box office, led by Wonder Woman, It and Dunkirk," said the Warner Bros. film chief. "The broad scope of our slate gives us an advantage. And we have built our reputation on being filmmaker-driven."

    New Oscar rules...

    Mailers: Impacting the largest number of people will be a new policy that requires studios, distributors and filmmakers to use "an Academy-approved mailing house to send sanctioned awards materials for eligible films to Academy members," whether that material is physical or digital.

    Documentary changes: The Academy will now deem as Oscar-eligible any doc features that wins "a qualifying award at a competitive film festival...regardless of any prior public exhibition or distribution by nontheatrical means" — a big win for Netflix. See the rest of the new rules.

    Alden Ehrenreich spills the beans...

    A Han Solo trilogy? In his chat with Esquire, the actor let it slip that he has signed on for three films, saying: “I don’t know if that’s officially, uh, public. But — yeah. He also addressed the Solo rumor machine, including Phil Lord's and Christopher Miller's dismissal from the film.... Read more.

  • Comcast Shoots for Sky

    Getty Images

    The company has made a formal offer, writes Georg Szalai: 

    Comcast made its unsolicited nearly $31 billion (22 billion pounds) takeover bid for European pay TV giant Sky official, possibly setting off a bidding war with 21st Century Fox, whose late 2016 offer for full ownership of Sky it has now formally trumped.

    Sky: In response to the formal bid, which comes at a 16 percent premium to the long-standing offer from Fox, Sky said it was ending its formal support for the Fox deal, without immediately expressing support for Comcast's offer.

    Fox: The company said in a statement it "remains committed to its recommended cash offer for Sky announced on 15th December 2016 and is currently considering its options," concluding: "A further announcement will be made in due course."

    Brian Roberts: "We are delighted to be formalizing our offer for Sky today," said the Comcast chairman and CEO. "We have long believed Sky is an outstanding company and a great fit with Comcast...."

    What's next: Sky's independent board members are expected to now review the Comcast bid, and Fox will have to decide whether it wants to increase its offer. At the same time, Walt Disney, which has agreed to buy large parts of Fox, is expected to figure in the considerations for a sweetened Fox offer for Sky. Full story.

    Earnings reports...

    NBCUniversal rises: "Comcast NBCUniversal is off to a great start in 2018 with over 10 percent revenue growth in the first quarter," Roberts announced. "NBCUniversal delivered double-digit EBITDA growth, fueled by impressive results at our theme parks, as well as our TV businesses' successful broadcasts of the NFL's Super Bowl LII and the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics."

    Viacom beats estimates: Helping make that happen was the fact that Viacom film unit Paramount Pictures, which has benefited from a growing TV production business and such releases as Annihilation and Sherlock Gnomes, swung to a profit, posting operating income of $9 million, compared with a year-ago loss of $66 million.

    Twitter's up: The company posted first-quarter earnings of $61 million, or 16 cents per share, exceeding Wall Street estimates, after a year-ago loss of $62 million. The result meant the second consecutive quarterly profit for Twitter.

    Sinclair and Tribune sell...

    23 stations: Still trying to appease regulators who worry that Sinclair will own stations that reach more than 39 percent of all American homes should it acquire Tribune Media for $3.9 billion, the companies have agreed to sell 23 stations to several competitors. See who's buying.

    Hank Azaria talks Apu...

    Opening up "The idea that anyone young or old, past or present, being bullied based on Apu really makes me sad," the actor told Stephen Colbert last night. "It certainly was not my intention. I wanted to bring joy and laughter to people."

    Letting go of the character? "I’ve given this a lot of thought, and as I say my eyes have been opened. I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers room…including how [Apu] is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do to me."

    Lauren Cohan talks Walking Dead...

    Confirmed: "I'm going back," Cohan, who's been locked in salary negotiations with AMC, told EW. "There's a lot more Maggie story to tell." The question: Will she be a series regular or play a lesser role?

    The Clayne Crawford saga...

    Apology: The Lethal Weapon star is making amends for his bad behavior on the set of the Fox reboot. The actor posted a lengthy apology on his verified Instagram page in which he detailed two incidents that occurred on the Warner Bros. Television procedural, admitting that he was "reprimanded twice" during the show's second season.

    Impact: Crawford's behavior has one of Fox's better-performing dramas on the bubble, as many connected with the series have said they would rather not work with the actor.

    Sources say that producer Warner Bros. Television is considering recasting Crawford's leading role — potentially with an actress — as the studio hopes to score a third-season renewal. Read more.

    Allison Mack's release...

    Out: The Smallville actress, charged in federal court with sex trafficking stemming for the alleged role she played in the NXIVM cult, will be released from federal custody on a $5 million bond.

    Potential recruit speaks out: Actress Samia Shoaib will appear on Megyn Kelly Today tomorrow to discuss Mack's alleged attempt to recruit her for NXIVM.

    The Bachelor team's new ABC dating show...

    The Proposal: That's the title of the 10-episode reality competition from Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss, which will feature 10 eligible daters competing in four pageant-style rounds to win the heart of a mystery suitor (or suitress) in hopes that the person says yes to the proposal.

    The host: Move over, Chris Harrison — this series will be helmed by former Bachelor and NFL star Jesse Palmer. The series will premiere this summer, but no date has been announced yet. Read more.

    Elsewhere in TV...

    Amazon gives John Krasinski's Jack Ryan an early renewal: The series, which won't premiere until Aug. 31, has already been handed a second season by the streamer. 

    Hulu moves: The streamer has canceled The Path after three seasons but is developing Less Than Zero, a drama based on Bret Easton Ellis' 1985 novel (and subsequent 1987 movie). 

    ► Lance Bass will executive produce a Lou Pearlman doc for YouTube Red: The company announced that it had ordered The Lou Pearlman Project (working title) for later this year, with the former 'N Sync member on board as an EP.

    Crackle renews The Oath: The Sean Bean drama has been re-upped for a second season.

    RIP, Bob Dorough: The musician responsible for some of the most popular Schoolhouse Rock songs as the show's musical director died at the age of 94. Read more.

    The Bad Robot interview...

    Castle Rock intel: "It's sort of an anthology," says Bad Robot TV chief Ben Stephenson. "Each season may or may not feature the same cast.... In the end, the plan is that this is all one big linked world where characters cross and co-exist in the same world."

    The overall deals trend: "I don't think one size fits all. The relationship that Ryan [Murphy] now has with Netflix, the one we have with Warner Bros., the model that Mark Gordon has [at eOne] — all of those are fascinating, and they're bespoke to the personalities involved. The more successful TV is, the more options there are for how you want to run your business."

    Bad Robot 2.0: "Because this company is run by a writer-director who's made a certain amount of big fantasy or sci-fi shows, it'd become known for that — which isn't a bad thing, but both [J.J. Abrams and I] felt that a good story is a good story, whether it's sci-fi or a relationship drama." Full Q&A.

  • John Lasseter's Future

    Illustration by Guy Shield

    As the most powerful man in animation nears the end of a six-month "sabbatical" for personal "missteps," Disney CEO Bob Iger must soon determine his fate. Kim Masters writes:

    Insiders say Lasseter had amassed so much power that his underlings at one point told Iger they needed to check with Lasseter before carrying out Iger's instructions.

    Now if Lasseter returns, there is likely to be a negative reaction from some employees at Pixar and Disney who felt that Lasseter had bullied and belittled them and hogged credit for years. And there is the issue of his conduct with female employees: "If John goes back, it will kill women in animation," says a former Pixar insider. "The message will be so clear: Shut up and take it."

    Troubling behavior: Interviews with a broad swath of animators and executives suggest that as Lasseter achieved great success and power, he became increasingly imperious. At Pixar, some insiders called him "King John" and various other uncomplimentary nicknames.

    "He changed drastically as success and money came," says one former colleague. Said another: "The public didn't see that. The happy-ass guy in the Hawaiian shirt? That was a well-crafted persona."

    Steve Jobs was concerned: By the mid-2000s, Jobs had become concerned about Lasseter, according to a former high-level associate. The Apple co-founder may not have been comfortable with one man wielding so much power at Pixar, but there was more. Lasseter could be "mean" and "vindictive" while drinking, this person says.

    "He had ballooned up. Steve was afraid he would have a heart attack." Jobs wanted Lasseter to cut back on drinking and lose weight. "Steve tried," the executive says. "But then Steve got sicker. He wasn't around anymore."

    New exit: More recently, Pixar employees learned that longtime human resources chief Lori McAdams — seen by many as one of Lasseter's chief protectors — was leaving the company. McAdams did not respond to a request for comment.

    What's next: Some insiders believe Iger is quietly preparing to name new heads of Pixar and Disney Animation — those floated include Pete Docter for Pixar and Rich Moore and Jennifer Lee at Disney Animation. But some veterans are angry, saying that the company allowed Lasseter to dominate — and to take credit for the work of others — for too long, only acting in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Full story.

    The White House Correspondents' Dinner is coming...

    Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway are among White House staffers planning to attend April 28, and former Trumper Sean Spicer tells THR he’ll hit a few parties but not the “nerd prom” itself (“It’s somewhat lost its cachet”).

    While Hollywood guests will be sparse at the main event, look for media, stars and The Mooch at these key soirees:

    Friday: Shiri Appleby and Alyssa Milano hit the Creative Coalition’s Mayflower Hotel gala.... Kevin Bacon’s Bacon Brothers rock the White House Correspondents’ Jam at The Hamilton Live, along with NBC’s Lester Holt and his band....

    Saturday: Playboy's “No Tie” afterparty hosted by Cooper Hefner.... NBC/MSNBC’s party at the Art Museum of the Americas.... See the full party list.

    In other news...

    James Comey's blockbuster book: A Higher Loyalty sold more than 600,000 copies in its first week on sale, far more than the first-week figures of recent political tomes by Hillary Clinton and Michael Wolff.

    What else we're reading...

    — "Amazon childproofs Echo speakers, adds age-appropriate audio content." Wilson Rothman writes: "Alexa won’t let youngsters shop online, listen to foul lyrics or talk after bedtime — and she’ll praise children who say the magic word." [Wall Street Journal]

    — "How Marvel is rewriting its world order." David Sims writes: "The extended cinematic universe has been sweeping away its status quo — and questioning the very nature of superheroism." [The Atlantic]

    — "What The Handmaid's Tale gets right — and wrong — about the history of women and resistance." Olivia B. Waxman writes: "Though the society of Gilead and its Handmaids system are fictional, Atwood made a point of drawing on real history when she crafted that world." [Time]

    — "Sean who? An afternoon in Hannityville." Charles Bethea talks to the residents of an apartment complex in Perry, Ga., which has been revealed to be one of many properties owned by the Fox News personality. [New Yorker]

    — "How K-pop became a propaganda tool." Lucas Oakeley writes: "Ahead of Friday’s intra-Korean summit, the South put an end to its pop music assault at the border. But the country’s catchy music is a potent psychological weapon." [The Outline]

    What else we're seeing...

    + "Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Danai Gurira play 'Guess the Avenger.'" [Jimmy Kimmel Live!]

    + "Ice-T says reality TV is over." [Late Night]

    + "Beyoncé loves Anthony Mackie and Judy Greer." [Late Late Show]

    Today's Birthdays: Jason Lee, 48, Joe Buck, 49, Renee Zellweger, 49, Hank Azaria, 54, Al Pacino, 78.