Steven Hill, original M:I star, dies at 94

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set, with Steven Hill, left, as Dan Briggs.

Steven Hill, the first star of Mission: Impossible, has died at 94, according to an obituary in The New York Times.

Hill enjoyed a long acting career, including a 10-year stint on Law And Order as D.A. Adam Schiff.

For fans of the spy genre, Hill’s one season as Dan Briggs, team leader of the Impossible Missions Force, is a huge “what if?”

As noted in The Times’ obituary, Hill did not work late on Fridays (standard operating procedure at the time on most series) in observance of the Jewish sabbath. It’s also discussed in detail in Patrick J. White’s 1991 book on the series.

Mission: Impossible had the longest run, seven seasons, of the 1960s spy shows in the U.S. But Hill would only be around for the first.

The audience knew little of Briggs. In the pilot episode, written by Bruce Geller, we’re told he had been away from the IMF for some period. In another episode, we see Briggs was a friend of a high school principal. Mobsters kidnap the principal’s daughter to try to get leverage on Briggs.

The IMF leader could be quietly ruthless. For example, there’s the end of the episode Operation: Rogosh. The IMF has pulled a con on an enemy agent, who is driven away by officials of his government. Barney Collier muses (Greg Morris) muses, “It’s too bad we had to let a man like Rogosh live.”

“We didn’t,” Briggs replies.

As time went on, Hill’s Briggs got less screen time. One beneficiary was Martin Landau, whose Rollin Hand character took on more importance. The other was Peter Graves, hired to replace Hill, starting with the second season.

One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Hill’s Briggs lasted the whole series. Regardless, Hill is being remembered as an excellent actor for other roles.

MeTV: Good-bye Mr. Solo, hello James West

metv logo

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., after a two-year run, is departing MeTV. But the cable channel isn’t dispensing with spies. It’s adding The Wild Wild West to its schedule.

The changes take effect Sept. 5, MeTV said on its website.

U.N.C.L.E. debuted on MeTV in September 2014, leading off a block of programming on Sunday nights dubbed “The Spies Who Love ME.” That block went away in the fall of 2015, but U.N.C.L.E. was televised early Sunday and early Monday. U.N.C.L.E. finale on MTV will be 2 a.m. Eastern Time, Sept. 5.  The 1964-68 series is being shown overnights on the Heroes & Icons channel.

The Wild Wild West will be on Saturdays at 6 p.m. ET, as part of the channel’s block of western program. The 1965-69 series, which had a lot of fantasy elements, will act as a transition for MeTV’s Saturday night lineup of superhero and science fiction shows.

H&I also shows The Wild Wild West, with two episodes from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET on Sundays.

Celebrating 35 years of Eon-MGM dysfunction

Barbara Broccoli

Barbara Broccoli

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the uneasy alliance between Eon Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After all this time, the relationship doesn’t appear to be getting any easier.

In 1981, MGM acquired United Artists after insurance conglomerate Transamerica Corp. threw up its hands, opting to get rid of UA and exit the movie business. UA had just dropped a big flop, Heaven’s Gate. Transamerica, which acquired UA in 1967, had enough.

Eon (and its parent company Danjaq) had a reasonably warm relationship with UA.

United Artists simply released the first nine Bond films made by Eon. The studio (which coughed up the money to actually make the movies) occasionally influenced the films. Most famously, it was UA that insisted on bringing Sean Connery back to play 007 in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. But for the most part, Eon had a pretty long leash.

The two sides grew closer after UA bought out Harry Saltzman’s stake in the 007 franchise in 1975 when the Danjaq-Eon co-founder ran into financial trouble. Still, UA executives thought a lot about Eon chief Albert R. Broccoli, including maintaining an office for him at UA headquarters in New York.

When MGM bought UA, things changed. The 2015 book Some Kind of Hero by Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury goes into some detail about this. Budgets tightened, as did studio oversight. There was a Danjaq-Eon lawsuit when MGM ownership changed at one point, a catalyst in the 1989-1995 hiatus in 007 film production.

Even after the lawsuit was settled, there was tension. Things were never as warm between Eon and MGM as when Broccoli and Saltzman cut their first deal with UA in 1961.

It didn’t help that MGM was long past its prime even in 1981, when it first got into the Bond business. By that point, MGM simply didn’t have the resources as other major studios.

By the mid-2000s, MGM was barely a studio. Sony Pictures actually released the last four James Bond movies, starting with 2006’s Casino Royale. Sony’s Columbia Pictures logo appeared with MGM’s Leo the Lion logo at the start of 007 films.

After a 2010 bankruptcy, MGM was mostly a television company, making series for cable channels. It financed a few movies annually, but released none of them. MGM cut deals with other studios to co-finance them, with the partner studios actually releasing them.

While in bankruptcy, MGM produced a business plan saying it would ramp up 007 film production to every other year. That may have helped get bankruptcy court approval. But Barbara Broccoli, current co-boss of Eon, made clear in 2012 she had no plans to make Bond films that quickly.

MGM chief Gary Barber

MGM chief Gary Barber

Gary Barber, who became MGM chief during the bankruptcy, backed off. These days he doesn’t even mention that bankruptcy court business plan. Earlier this year, he said 007 films would come out on a “three-to-four-year cycle.”

Occasionally, on investor conference calls, Barber refers to “our partners at Danjaq.” Barbara Broccoli, meanwhile, doesn’t talk about MGM much.

Barber is trying to demonstrate that MGM is a viable company beyond James Bond. In part, that’s because MGM wants to sell stock to the public in three to five years.

This weekend, however, MGM got a reality check. Its Ben-Hur remake (released by Paramount) flopped badly. MGM only makes a few movies a year, so any flop is more painful compared with major studios.

For now, Eon/Danjaq and MGM are more or less in the same place they were 35 years ago.

MGM needs Eon to make James Bond films, still the studio’s biggest asset. Meanwhile, Barbara Broccoli wants to make dramas that have nothing to do with James Bond.

At the same time, Eon/Danjaq can’t make James Bond films without doing business with MGM, as much as Eon/Danjaq might like to do so.

It’s a cliche, but true. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

MGM watch: Ben-Hur remake flops in setback for 007 studio

MGM logo

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s remake of Ben-Hur flopped at the U.S.-Canada box office with a paltry estimated $11.4 million for the Aug. 19-21 weekend, according to Variety.

The movie finished No. 5 this weekend, according to a tweet by Exhibitors Relations, which tracks box office results. The flop occurred in a weekend that wasn’t robust for theaters. Suicide Squad, in its third weekend, was No. 1 at $20.7 million.

Ben-Hur was actually released by Paramount. After exiting bankruptcy in 2010, MGM isn’t big enough to distribute its own films. So MGM cuts deals with other studios to share production costs, with the partner studio getting movies to theaters.

Ben-Hur, based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, has been made as a film three times previously. The 1959 version, starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler, won 11 Academy Awards.

Here’s why this blog noting all this: MGM is the home studio for the James Bond film series, with MGM and Danjaq LLC (the parent company of Eon Productions) controlling the franchise.

In March, MGM chief Gary Barber said 007 films will come out on a “three-to-four year cycle. MGM doesn’t yet have a partner studio for Bond 25 after Sony Pictures’ most recent contract expired with SPECTRE. The next Bond film also doesn’t have a confirmed leading actor or, as far as anyone knows, a script.

When MGM was in bankruptcy, it produced a business plan saying it would get 007 films out on an every-other-year schedule. However, Barbara Broccoli, co-boss of Eon Productions, has made clear she’s not interested in making Bond films that often.

MGM in recent months has emphasized its slate of non-Bond projects, mostly in television. The studio only releases a handful of movies each year, so any flop hurts MGM more than competitors with larger film slates.

Ben-Hur’s flop also demonstrates that MGM’s supply of bankable movie projects outside of 007 remains limited. Since 2010, MGM’s other main movie property was the now-concluded Hobbit series.

MGM’s next film is a fall release of another remake, The Magnificent Seven.

1961: John Wayne’s 007 movie

The Comancheros poster

The Comancheros poster

There’s an old saying to the effect there hasn’t been an original plot since the ancient Greeks.

Well, you can believe it if you’ve ever seen the 1961 John Wayne western film The Comancheros.

The cast of the movie includes  Nehemiah Persoff as a wheelchair-bound criminal mastermind who has struck an alliance with Indians to cause a lot of havoc.

What’s more, the villain describes what he has built over 30 years as a business and a “society.”

“We have a society here, a society that’s different from anything visualized by people anywhere in the world,” Persoff’s character says. “The rules of this society are magnificently simple — transgress and you die…We as a society of thieves cannot tolerate stealing from each other.”

To get his point across, Persoff’s villain points to a poor wretch hanging by his wrists. “He stole.”

Now it’s not a stretch to see similarities with Thunderball (1965), where we witness a SPECTRE board meeting after the main titles. Ernst Stavro Blofeld executives a SPECTRE official who has embezzled from the criminal organization.

What’s more, there are scenes in The Comancheros where heroes John Wayne and Stuart Whitman have drinks and later dinner with Persoff’s villain.

They’re remarkably similar to scenes in 007 films where James Bond makes nice with his adversary, each trying to get a measure of the other. In The Comancheros, there’s even a sacrificial lamb played by Patrick Wayne, the Duke’s son, and an oversized henchman who has to be dealt with.

Finally, The Comancheros has an action-packed finale as the Texas Rangers come to rescue, not unlike Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

Still, The Comancheros runs less than 100 minutes. The climax is a lot leaner than what you see in 21st century movies which run well over two hours.

Today, The Comancheros is best remembered as the final film for director Michael Curtiz, who earlier directed Casablanca. It’s also the first teaming of star John Wayne and composer Elmer Bernstein. From 1961 onward, Bernstein worked on a number of the Duke’s movies, including Wayne’s finale, 1976’s The Shootist.

If you go to YouTube, there’s a version of The Comancheros where the image is small (presumably the poster believed this would avoid avoid reaction from “the copyright police”). There’s another YouTube video with a sampling of Bernstein’s wonderful score.

 

Mission: Impossible 6 hits snag, Deadline says

Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise

The sixth Mission: Impossible movie has been halted until Paramount works out a deal with star-producer Tom Cruise, Deadline: Hollywood reported.

Here’s an excerpt:

EXCLUSIVE: Paramount Pictures has stopped the ticking clock and halted early pre-production of M:I6 Mission: Impossible. The studio won’t start up again until salary is worked out with franchise star Tom Cruise. The studio had hired between 15 to 20 people in London to start the soft prep work after writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and Cruise worked out the beats of the film, and McQuarrie went off to write the script. Those hired had just begun to work on the design of visual effects, and were told today to stop, we learned.

Some background: Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, released last year, was a hit. Its U.S.-Canada box office of $195 million was almost as much as SPECTRE’s $200 million.

The 2015 M:I film was originally scheduled to come out on Dec. 25, 2015. Paramount moved it up to the end of July that year. It was an astute move. The M:I movie avoided Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Also, the M:I film got the jump on 2015’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie, crushing that spy film at the box office.

Meanwhile, there has been a lot of drama at Paramount’s parent company, Viacom, including the ouster this week of its CEO, according to THIS NPR STORY.

Cruise, 54, has gotten a lot of mileage from his M:I franchise. The first Cruise M:I movie came out 20 years ago. After Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation came out, Paramount signaled it wanted another film in the series as soon as possible.

Now, there’s uncertainty what will happen next.

 

Memo to studios: Get your costs under control

Poster for SPECTRE, one of a series of overpriced movies.

Poster for SPECTRE, one of a series of overpriced movies.

The other day, this blog published a post about how SPECTRE spent too much for at least two scenes. But the 24th James Bond film isn’t unique in that regard.

Things have gotten crazy as studios pursue a “tentpole” strategy of a few expensive films that support their entire film slates.

A more recent film, the comic book-based Suicide Squad from Warner Bros., debuted earlier this month and has worldwide box office of more than $480 million to date.

Thursday on Twitter, two entertainment news writers, Jeff Snider of Mashable and Scott Mendelson of Forbes.com, posted about whether Suicide Squad should be considered a hit if it tops out at around $600 million.

Before we take a closer look, let that figure sink in. People are seriously debating whether a movie based on a comic book unknown to most of the general public is or isn’t a hit after generating $600 MILLION in ticket sales.

Anyway, here’s the gist of the posts about Suicide Squad.
 

Granted, there is a difference between whether something is popular and whether it turns a profit for its studio.

The classic example is 1963’s Cleopatra, which sold an estimated 67.2 million tickets in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Box Office Mojo website. That’s in the same neighborhood as Goldfinger’s 66.3 million in the region.

Despite that, Cleopatra is remembered as a movie that nearly bankrupted its studio (20th Century Fox) while Goldfinger is remembered as a huge hit. Then again, Goldfinger had a budget ($3 million in 1964) that ensured profits while Cleopatra couldn’t cover its costs despite being seen by a lot of people paying for theater tickets.

In the 21st century, the decimal places have shifted but the lesson remains the same. It’s in the interests of filmmakers and studios not to spend for the sake of spending.

It’s absurd that a movie has to surpass $1 billion to be considered a hit. It’s also borders on the irresponsible.

Even with inflated ticket prices, there have been only 26 movies all time that have $1 billion or more in global box office. Yes, that’s not adjusted for inflation. Regardless, selling $1 billion in movie tickets is hard. Very hard.

In our post about SPECTRE, we detailed two scenes (a car chase and an explosion) where spending a lot of money appeared to be point, not story telling or dramatic choices. But SPECTRE isn’t alone.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, ended its theatrical run with global box office of almost $873 million. Yet, it’s seen as a disappointment for not making the $1 billion mark because, gosh, any movie with Batman and Superman should have been a cinch to make $1 billion.

None of this is new. Go even further back and directors such as D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim got into trouble for overly expensive movies for their day. Clint Eastwood, as he transitioned into directing, witnessed ridiculous spending for the 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon. As a result, Eastwood has made acclaimed films as a director but he’s also known for efficiency.

Decimal places change, but the lesson doesn’t. Movies have always been a balance between art and commerce. Studios can, and should, watch their spending. It’s still possible to make good films on a budget.

That doesn’t mean cheap spending. Movies like SPECTRE and Batman v Superman can’t be done on the cheap. But it calls for smart spending.

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