I was driving west in a classically horrible L.A. morning commute on my way to Peter Chernin’s new office in Santa Monica, thinking about our regular lunches back when he ran the studio and I worked as a producer there in the nineties. Peter, who is now building his own media empire at Fox and had been president of News Corp. for over a decade, was clearly the perfect person to ask what had turned the Old Abnormal into the New Abnormal. First of all, he was incredibly smart about the business. But more important, I now realized that during those lunches, he was the first to warn me that the proverbial “light ahead” was an oncoming train. It was way before things turned obviously grim. Since I was reliably churning out pictures then, I didn’t take his gloomy talk about piracy seriously. I just went around saying, “The landlord has the blues,” and blithely fell into the future.
Peter wasn’t exactly having a hard time making the transition. Once he decided in 2009 to leave the number-two job overseeing the News Corp. media empire, he became the biggest producer at Fox (one of the biggest anywhere), with guaranteed pictures and huge potential profit participation. His first picture was the tentpole smash Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and he already had three television shows on the air. More recently, he released the smash Identity Thief, with Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman.
The long drive got me thinking about the contrast between the struggling Old Abnormal producers (and writers) and the soaring New ones like Peter. It was discussed at a fancy-pants dinner party I went to a week before.
“They’re completely broke,” said a studio head, when asked by me (of course) about how different things were these days. He spoke about famous players who regularly came to him begging for favors—a picture, a handout, anything.
“Why?” his very East Coast guest asked incredulously.
I recalled his exact words as I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic. “They have extremely high overheads,” he said to his guest with me listening in. “They have multiple houses, wives, and families to support. They’ve made movies for years, they were on top of the world and had no reason to think it would end. And then suddenly it did. They’ve gone through whatever savings they had. They can’t sell their real estate. Their overhead is as astronomical as their fees used to be. They’ve taken out loans, so they’re highly leveraged. It’s a tragedy.”