Kevin is joined by Hollywood journalist and studio executive, Peter Bart.
Peter Bart, Journalist and Hollywood Executive
Over an influential career spanning over 50 years, Peter Bart has played a key role in shaping modern Hollywood. He began as a journalist at The New York Times before becoming a studio executive at Paramount in the late 1960s and 70s, overseeing movies like The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown. He later served as Editor-in-Chief of Variety for nearly 30 years. Today, Bart continues to be a prominent voice through his writing for Deadline. With his vast experience and perspective, Bart remains a living legend in the world of movies.
Early career in journalism (05:16)
Peter shares how he got his start in journalism by asking outrageous questions. The New York Times sent Bart to Hollywood to cover the rise of TV, but he was drawn to the fascinating economics of the movie business.
Getting Into the Movie Business (08:15)
Bart became friends with Bob Evans, who brought him to Paramount as head of production despite no film experience. They reinvented the studio by making artistic, character-driven films based on novels vs big-budget spectacles.
Reinventing Hollywood (13:09)
Bart bought rights to novels and quality scripts like The Godfather. He shares how he wanted to make it an art film, but its popularity pushed the studio to make it more commercial. Bart shares how he and Evans often made movies without studio oversight in order to take creative risks on movies like Rosemary’s Baby, Paper Moon, and Harold and Maude.
Drama with Frank Sinatra (22:43)
Peter shares a behind-the-scenes story from Rosemary’s Baby. Director Roman Polanski’s demanding style angered Frank Sinatra, husband of the film's star Mia Farrow.
Returning to Journalism with Variety (27:01)
Bart shares that after 18 years making films, he wanted to tell the story of Hollywood’s shifts - filmmaker power transitioning to dealmakers/businessmen running studios.
The Future of Theatrical Films (43:09)
Kevin and Peter discuss the value of the theatrical experience. As the way people watch movies is changing, Bart believes audience energy hugely enhances films. He shares how the new generation is losing out by only streaming at home.
Tune in to hear Peter Bart share invaluable insights from his legendary career spanning studio executive leadership and entertainment. He provides a unique window into the reinvention of Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s, greenlighting seminal films like The Godfather. Peter makes an impassioned case for retaining the irreplaceable theatrical experience. With unmatched experience across epochs of the film industry, Peter's perspectives are a must-listen for any cinema fan.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guests: Peter Bart
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, Kari Campano
For more information about Peter Bart:
For more information about Kevin Goetz:
Audienceology Book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Audience-ology/Kevin-Goetz/9781982186678
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @KevinGoetz360
Linked In @Kevin Goetz
Screen Engine/ASI Website: www.ScreenEngineASI.com
Podcast: Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
Guest: Legendary Studio Executive, Producer, and Journalist Peter Bart
There's a little-known part of Hollywood that most people are not aware of known as the audience test preview. The recently released book, Audienceology, reveals this for the first time. Our podcast series, Don't Kill the Messenger, brings this book to life, taking a peek behind the curtain. And now, join author and entertainment research expert, Kevin Goetz.
Kevin Goetz (00:23):
Welcome everybody. Power in Hollywood comes in many forms. For example, there's the financial, creative, political, social, or media power. And there can also be a blend of multiple powers, or some can have different types of power at different points in their career. Like my guest today, the legendary Peter Bart. After starting his career as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, Peter entered the movie business and was in one of those rare seats at Paramount Studios in the sixties and seventies. Responsible for such classic films as Rosemary's Baby, True Grit, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, and Chinatown. Following his years as a studio executive at Paramount and MGM as President of Lorimar Productions, and then as a producer, Peter held a position as Editor-in-Chief of Variety Magazine for almost three decades and was one of the most influential journalists in the industry.
Kevin Goetz (01:26):
Over the years, he has also authored nine books and he's been a TV show host and a screenwriter. In 2016, Peter moved to Deadline where he is still a columnist and is a member of Penske Media Company's Board of Advisors. There's a funny joke that Peter Guber made in 1997 at a gala tribute to Peter. He said to the audience, “will everyone here who owes Peter a favor for having killed a negative story please remain seated.” The room filled with Hollywood's heaviest hitters erupted in laughter. Everybody stayed in their seats. I am so honored to talk to this icon of the industry, a titan really, who understands this business like no one else. Peter, welcome.
Peter Bart (02:16):
Thank you. I appreciate those kind words.
Kevin Goetz (02:20):
Those words, by the way, are all true. You started as a journalist, as a young guy. How did you get into it? What was the impetus for that?
Peter Bart (02:30):
I loved asking questions as a kid, and I thought, if you're a journalist, if you're lucky enough to get a good job, you can get away with asking outrageous questions of important people, and they have to respond. And from day one, to my amazement, I managed to get good jobs and asked outrageous questions. I remember when I, as a kid, joined The New York Times. Early on, President Kennedy was murdered. And I remember in a meeting where different reporters were assigned follow-up stories. And so one of the news editors said, Bart, you are calling the Supreme Court. Ask them how they reacted to this tragic assassination of the president. And I realized, boy, my dream has come true. Right at all, I can call every Supreme Court justice and ask…
Kevin Goetz (03:25)
They could say no comment, but <laugh>. Yeah. If they didn't say no comment, they'd give you an answer.
Peter Bart (03:28):
And with The New York Times, they always said some sort of comment. So I was spoiled from the start.
Kevin Goetz (03:34):
Well, let me ask you this. So you are covering Kennedy, you're covering the Kennedy assassination. You're covering important stories. Ultimately move into the business that we love so much and have so much fun being a part of. What as a kid, are you thinking about movies, about television? Like where were you at that point in your life as a youngster? Did you have a passion for it?
Peter Bart (04:00):
I did not. I was not really a movie nerd. I enjoyed listening to radio. People did that in those days.
Kevin Goetz (04:09):
Oh yes, radio <laugh>.
Peter Bart (04:10):
I'd go to movies, and I like the aura of the business, but I was really interested in other things. I was, among other things, interested in business and economics. I went to the London School of Economics and…
Kevin Goetz (04:25):
Was that sort like a semester type thing or was that?
Peter Bart (04:28):
That was a year, two years on scholarship.
Kevin Goetz (04:30):
Where were you doing your undergrad?
Peter Bart (04:33):
As an undergrad, I went to Swarthmore College.
Kevin Goetz (04:35):
Well, that's a very good school.
Peter Bart (04:36):
I love it dearly. But when I got out of London School of Economics, I had the old choice, do you go to film school or follow your interests? And I confess, my interest was more in business and in, even when I started writing about movies, the business of movies fascinated me from the start. Mind you, I did see lots of movies, and I loved the good ones. But my initial motivation was more driven by my fascination with the chaotic numbers of this business.
Kevin Goetz (05:12):
You mean like how movies got made or how they were financed, how much they cost?
Peter Bart (05:16):
Well, you see, when I joined The New York Times and after working in New York for some time, they sent me to California on this mission. They said, look, television's on the rise. Movies is a dying business. Don't write about movies 'cause they won't be around much anymore. The audience is all gone to television. My job in California was to write about the rise of Ronald Reagan. To write about the, the race issues. Racial tensions were rising in Los Angeles. I covered the Watts riots, for example. And I was allowed to write one article a month. And that's all about movies for The New York Times because the business, I was told, was passe. Then when I started to meet important people in the business and see the changes that were happening in the mid-sixties, I realized far from being passe, a whole new form of movies was evolving. So it was a thrilling time, and typically The New York Times had it wrong.
Kevin Goetz (06:19):
I can only imagine. How does a guy from The New York Times and sort of, let's call it, serious journalism, move into a studio position? How did you get that job?
*Peter Bart (06:29):
Like so many things in in Hollywood, it happens to be the people you knew. I mean, Bob Evans was a dear personal friend of mine. He's a very serious young man. In that era, he was such a different person than the image of Bob Evans as the showman and the sort of superstar character. He was then a very earnest, serious young man. He was trying to get a career going as a producer.
Kevin Goetz (06:54):
He was in the schmatta business.
Peter Bart (06:56):
He his, he and his brother were…
Kevin Goetz (06:59):
Peter Bart (07:00):
Were important people. They made a lot of money in dresses. Bob hated the business though. He would look dreaded when he'd have to go into a meeting about that. He always wanted to be an important person on the business side. He wanted to make movies happen. And of course, he did have a brief career as an actor and was the star of a couple of movies. And as he said to me right off the bat, he says, I have no talent as an actor and I keep getting these unbelievable roles. He even played Irving Thalberg, and he said to me, playing Irving Thalberg, I realized I am more like him. I want to be him. I don't want to be the actor playing him.
Kevin Goetz (07:46):
Sherry Lansing said the same thing as her as an actress.
Peter Bart (07:49):
Right. But that's bizarre. That's sort of some sort of weird psychological transference <laugh> I never quite understood.
Kevin Goetz (07:56):
Well, Bob was, as I remember and I didn't meet him until the late eighties, was a character. But man, I thought he was, if you had to sort of put a picture to the stereotypical in the best sense of it mogul, it would have been Bob Evans. Right?
Peter Bart (08:15):
<laugh>. But when I first knew him was quite a different person. And when he was offered the job of being the head of production at Paramount, which was weird, and he said to me, look, I have no qualifications for this job. I would like you to come with me because you are the only person I know who has less qualifications than I.
Kevin Goetz (08:38):
Oh, that's funny.
Peter Bart (08:39):
So I said, that's crazy. But more important, the business was changing so radically. One of the first pictures that we saw as friends together was Midnight Cowboy. And we looked at each other and said, this an X-rated play picture is going to win an Oscar and it is going to change the way people thought about movies. And the change was so breathtaking. Paramount at that time was making a Western starring Elvis Presley still. It was ridiculous.
Kevin Goetz (09:13):
That was the end of that era. Yes. It was just coming on the end of that era.
Peter Bart (09:17):
So, so Bob and I figured we could get away with anything because the studios were essentially broke.
Kevin Goetz (09:23):
Paramount didn't make Midnight Cowboy, who did?
Peter Bart (09:25):
No. United Artists released it due to a wonderful fluke.
Kevin Goetz (09:30):
Oh. Because Michael Childers is one of my husband and my dearest friends. Right. And of course, his husband was John Schlesinger. So he's still talking so much about that movie and how unbelievably forward it was and ahead of its time. Yeah. Ratso Rizzo. Right.
Peter Bart (09:47):
I actually knew Schlesinger before I knew Childers, and John was a brilliant facet. John Schlesinger was a great director, but he was a bit lost. He wanted to make a picture in America. He didn't understand America or New York, and Midnight Cowboy was a great accident of history.
Kevin Goetz (10:07):
Whew. Wow. Okay. You mentioned before, while we were setting up the studio here because it's right next to Universal, that oh, I have memories of going up and seeing Lew Wasserman, and you mentioned, everyone jumped into action to get you through the gate. What was your relationship with Lew Wasserman? Why would you go see him?
Peter Bart (10:28):
Well, again, as a very young person at The New York Times, with that warning that you shouldn't write too much about movies 'cause they're dying. We got to know each other 'cause I was a kid reporter on The Times he wanted to be mentioned to be in The New York Times. He wanted to be covered fairly. And because the business was changing so fast, he saw me, I think to a degree. He says, this kid is an opportunity really for us to get better press.
Kevin Goetz (10:59):
Did you forge kind of a friendship?
Peter Bart (11:00):
We did, yeah. Even after his retirement, I would have lunch with the great Lew Wasserman once a month. And I enjoyed his company. By that time, he'd go into a room, people would freeze.
Kevin Goetz (11:14):
I can't help but think of the scene in The Fabelmans, I dunno why this reminded me of when the character went to see John Ford. Yeah. And to me, it was the best scene in the movie. Yes. And he walks in, and the unbelievably four-time Academy Award winner John Ford is like saying, hey kid, go into that picture. That dynamic somehow just played in my head.
Peter Bart (11:40):
And Peter Bogdanovich was one of the first people who, as a reporter, who I got to know. And then of course, I didn't realize that he yearned to be a film director. But, but, Bogdanovich was the ultimate film nerd and was sort of the model for, in a number of those pictures, for the young up-and-coming director. But I always felt that when I got to know him, he should have had my job because I wasn't prepared.
Kevin Goetz (12:10):
Yeah, why is that?
Peter Bart (12:10):
I wasn't prepared to choose what books to buy, what pictures to green light, what stars...
Kevin Goetz (12:18):
Well, how the hell did you end up doing it, though?
Peter Bart (12:20):
Because Evans and I were running Paramount.
*Kevin Goetz (12:23):
But you weren't just running Paramount, you were reinventing probably what I would consider, if not the Golden Age, certainly the second Golden Age of Hollywood, ushering in the seventies, which was the beginning of the independent film movement and a change in the way we interacted and perceived, and audiences really embraced film that way, I felt. Was it just an accident?
Peter Bart (12:47):
We gave it a lot of thought. Look, I was a journalist in this job at Paramount. I felt the way I could contribute most would be to buy the rights to really interesting novels that were coming out and to base films on the good stories in those novels.
Kevin Goetz (13:07):
And what were some of those?
*Peter Bart (13:09):
Well, that's when I read The Godfather and a really sort of mediocre script that nonetheless, I felt had great opportunities called Love Story. And when I bought the rights to Love Story, I went to the writer of the script and said, look, I want you to write a novel, novelize this 'cause it would be a successful novel. Bob and I believed that if you could make a book into a hit, a movie would come out of that. I think that's a thought that many people today have forgotten. They don't understand the value of books, both in terms of they're known, that people talk about 'em, and secondly they have stories to tell. Because most directors today, particularly of streamers, have no idea how to structure a story <laugh>. So I started buying novels, and evidence liked the novels that I started buying. And even like The Godfather, we bought it as a 60-page outline.
Kevin Goetz (14:11):
I was going to say such not an obvious movie at that time, right? What struck you as the sort of the DNA of that that you thought would make a successful picture?
Peter Bart (14:24):
I thought that the story was brilliantly constructed, and I thought it was an important novel about a family and a great love story and about the way the Sicilians found a way of adapting their codes to that of American capitalism.
Kevin Goetz (14:42):
So the relatability is probably really in that family dynamic and what we would do anything for the family first.
*Peter Bart (14:49):
But here's what's misunderstood about The Godfather, and I don't want to get caught up in just talking about that, but the background of The Godfather is totally misunderstood. What was interesting about it was that it was a brilliantly researched gangster story. But the trouble was that, and Bob Evans said it right up front, gangster movies are old-fashioned. That's Warner Brothers a generation ago. So how can we make this into not just a gangster movie, but a different kind of narrative? So we decided we would make an art picture, not a gangster movie. A friend of mine named Francis Coppola, a beat-up old actor who had gotten cold named Brando. We set out to make a $6 million, not a $60 million art movie called The Godfather. And we set it in development. And one terrible thing happened just as we had finished the screenplay and we were set to go with Coppola and so forth. The nightmare happened that the book got published and instantly became the number one book in the world. Oh. So the studio said, you can't make this as an art movie. You have to make this as a big commercial gangster movie.
Kevin Goetz (16:08):
Charlie did that or who said that to you?
Peter Bart (16:09):
That to you? Yeah, Charles <inaudible>, who was the, the chairman of. So he said, you got it all wrong. This, you're making an art movie out of a great gangster movie that should be a superstar movie. And the whole idea of doing an art picture on The Godfather was sort of a radical idea. But if you, you see the movie today, you could see in every way in terms of even its production details, its cast, its pace, it's an art movie.
Kevin Goetz (16:39):
It's absolutely intentional and deliberate. And I just saw it in the recoloring or remastering of it at The Academy. And Francis was there with Talia, and they presented it. And it's even better than I ever remembered it being, like, it's so relevant. And many of your movies, I think of Chinatown now, did you find that as a book?
Peter Bart (17:03):
Yes, but another note on The Godfather, though, because you've often spoken that, and I think with validity, don't ever judge a movie until you see it with an audience. Oh, Now The Godfather was weird because I remember even the opening night, the premiere with a celebrity audience, when the picture was finished, there was total silence because the audience was sitting there and trying to figure out what did I just see?
Kevin Goetz (17:35):
Just stunned. Yeah.
Peter Bart (17:36):
It was, it is not the movie I expected. What happened to this shoot em up gangster movie? We have seen this very idiosyncratic art movie. How did that happen? So this was one case to your point where if you saw the movie even with an audience, there was sort of a shocked silence. People were surprised by it. They didn't react.
Kevin Goetz (18:00):
Was it ever tested with an audience?
Peter Bart (18:01):
It was not tested. That was prehistoric days. The many movies were tested that really because it was so cut.
Kevin Goetz (18:10):
Specific and art.
Peter Bart (18:11):
And also oriented. There's so much controversy about the editing of it because the studio tried to edit it to a shorter movie. The people who ran Gulf and Western…
Kevin Goetz (18:19):
They had that much hands-on at that time?
Peter Bart (18:21):
They felt it was too long and too arty. So they <laugh>, they cut a version that was 20 minutes shorter, and it was a lousy movie.
Kevin Goetz (18:31):
What did they know about filmmaking? Little.
Peter Bart (18:34):
<laugh>, if you are a company that had made nothing but lousy movies for a generation and all of a sudden you own the hottest best seller in the world.
Kevin Goetz (18:43):
I understand, I can understand that.
Peter Bart (18:44):
Then you don't, you're in confusion. You don't know what to think <laugh>. Anyway. I don't mean to get stuck on The Godfather.
Kevin Goetz (18:51):
No, no, no. I was asking about the audience, and I love what you said because you also are very, very vocal and have been in your career about this idea of don't believe the buzz, don't believe the good or the bad buzz. I think it might've been connected, the quote that I remember reading, to the Oscars, because, and I'm the same way. People will say, oh my God, it got a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes <laugh> or the Toronto Film Festival. They loved it. And I'm saying, okay, let's show it to real people and see what we really have.
*Peter Bart (19:24):
But the studios in that era of the sixties going into the early seventies, did not understand testing, did not know how to read the audience and adjust the movie accordingly. So there were movies that we ran that played very weak. The test screenings were more, you invited friends and family, and maybe now and then, you showed it to an audience in Pasadena. But it's very unscientific.
Kevin Goetz (19:54):
*Peter Bart (19:54):
And the cards would, they, no one knew how to write, asked the right questions. You've reinvented that whole science now. So we would have this experience of running a picture like Paper Moon, and people would say, whoa, what is that? Harold and Maude we tested at Stanford with students, and people were very cerebral audience. They, it was so different from movies of that epoch that sort of like half the audience would say, what the hell was that <laugh>? The other half were in tears. And so, now if you, today, Harold and Maude, I would love to have had the experience of taking that to you and saying, this is a strange movie.
Kevin Goetz (20:39):
And we would've said, it's a streamer <laugh>.
Peter Bart (20:43):
See, that's a perfect example of the kind of movie that's a very personal movie that affects people emotionally.
Kevin Goetz (20:52):
Recently, sorry to interrupt, recently, a filmmaker very recently in the last month or two said to me, this, my movie is like Rosemary's Baby. It's like Rosemary. And I finally said, in all due respect, Rosemary's Baby would not be made theatrically today. Yeah. What do you think about that? Do you agree with me on that? That Rosemary's Baby probably couldn't get a theatrical release today.
Peter Bart (21:19):
Rosemary's Baby would've been an ordinary horror picture today, and it would've been a streamer. So I had seen Roman Polanski's movies in Polish <laugh>. There's a brilliant perversity in Roman and his movies. And I said to Evans, you know, if we took this material, which could be ordinary and brought in a marvelously perverse director like Roman Polanski, we could end up with again a whole different kind of movie.
Kevin Goetz (21:52):
An elevated horror film.
Peter Bart (21:54):
An elevated, a really elevated and thoughtful, and disturbing movie. I called Roman, I said, I have a movie for you. I want you to come to Hollywood. He basically said to me, no way. I don't want to go to Hollywood. They're not going to let me make the kind of movie I want. I turned it over to Evans who did this brilliant sell on him and got Roman to come here. Unfortunately, now Roman as you know, because of mm-hmm. <affirmative> unfortunate activities, can't come to Hollywood today. So it's a tragedy 'cause he's in his eighties, and I would love for him to come here.
Kevin Goetz (22:30):
And he's still making some good pictures and has over the years, thank God, brilliant in Europe.
Peter Bart (22:33):
Brilliant, strange man. But once again, Rosemary's Baby with that cast would've tested, it would've been difficult to figure it out.
*Kevin Goetz (22:43):
Absolutely. Because the story and the big idea has overtaken the unfolding and the character development and all of those things that have gone into so many of the great movies of yesterday. Yeah. It's really interesting to me. Before we leave Roman Polanski, I remember hearing a story about Mia Farrow and Sinatra. Can you share that with us? Well
Peter Bart (23:12):
Well, this was Mia Farrow's big break. She'd never done a character of this depth as in Rosemary's Baby. So she was doing great. But the trouble is, in order to elicit a performance from her, Polanski, Roman Polanski, the director, was having 10 takes, 15 takes there, as many as 35 takes.
Kevin Goetz (23:37):
In order to get to that performance?
Peter Bart (23:38):
To break Mia down from being a television actress into being the character.
Kevin Goetz (23:43):
But he was known for doing that always. Right? Yes. Many, many takes. And
Peter Bart (23:47):
And he was, but this, he was really…
Kevin Goetz (23:48):
Like Stanley Kubrick. Right?
Peter Bart (23:50):
That's right. Exactly. So one day, an attorney shows up in my office who identifies himself…
Kevin Goetz (23:56):
*Peter Bart (23:56):
As an attorney <laugh>. He identifies himself as Frank Sinatra's representative. And he said, look, I want to be straight with you, Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, that's a new marriage. Frank wants to produce a picture, and Mia is going to be the star. That will never happen if Polanski keeps doing 30 takes with me, and she's going to be a wreck, so she won't do my picture. So here's Frank Sinatra's message. It would be in the interest of your health and that of your family if you told Roman to limit to two takes. And I did not laugh at him, but I said, you know, what you're saying is so profoundly stupid that I'm not giving you a serious reply. If you want, I'll set up a meeting with you to say that to Roman and see what happens. He never took that up, and Roman…
Kevin Goetz (24:56):
And you never mentioned anything to Roman at all?
Peter Bart (24:58):
I, I told him that Sinatra threatened to kill me and <laugh> and I believed it 'cause I knew Sinatra. I mean I had, again, as a journalist, I had spent time with Sinatra. So I knew him and his friends. <laugh>.
Kevin Goetz (25:15):
I want to just ask you about Chinatown before we move out of Paramount because Chinatown was such a seminal movie and revered by so many. What was the genesis of that?
Peter Bart (25:26):
Well Bob Towne was a brilliant writer, and this came out of a collaboration with Bob and other writers. But again, it was a very dense story, and it was hard to stay awake through the screenplay because there was such details about esoteric subjects. The water distribution and water in California and Los Angeles.
Kevin Goetz (25:53):
Could not be more of a boring subject on paper.
*Peter Bart (25:56):
Exactly. It was very difficult to get it through. Remember Paper Moon? Like Paper Moon, set in the thirties, we intended to shoot it in black and white. You don't tell the chairman of the board that you're making a picture like that <laugh>. Most of the pictures that Evans and I made in that epoch we made secretly.
Kevin Goetz (26:17):
When we come back, I want to talk about the evolution into going back to journalism with Variety. We'll be back in a moment.
Get a glimpse into a secret part of Hollywood that few are aware of and that filmmakers rarely talk about in the new book Audienceology by Kevin Goetz. Each chapter is filled with never before revealed inside stories and interviews from famous studio chiefs, directors, producers, and movie stars, bringing the art and science of audienceology into focus. Audienceology, How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, from Tiller Press at Simon and Schuster. Available now.
Kevin Goetz (27:01):
How did you get lured back into journalism? Mostly, how did you get to Variety, where most people in the last, say 20 or 30 years, know you from?
Peter Bart (27:13):
Well, I had had four jobs in movies, and some of them were successful, a couple of 'em were not. But I really had frankly 15, 18 years, and I was getting a little sick of being the guy who said yes or no, 'cause sounds like a dream job, but it isn't. All of your relationships with filmmakers tend to be filled with tension because…
Kevin Goetz (27:43):
They’re always wanting something.
*Peter Bart (27:45):
The green light or the person who will say, I'm cutting your budget because it sucks. So, and frankly, after a period of time, those irritating relationships, I've had enough of that. Variety, which had been published for almost a hundred years, always was owned by a family. And the paper was sold. There was a new parent company, and they came to me with a great deal, and they said, look, if you would reinvent Variety, we think that the paper has been going downhill in terms of audience and finance, and we need a reinvention. So here's the deal, would you consider going back to journalism? And I thought, you know, that is fun. That sounds like a great job, particularly for this reason, there was a story to tell. There was a new narrative that Variety could own. And that is that in my epoch when I first started movies, the power in film were in filmmakers' hands.
Peter Bart (28:50):
By the eighties, when the Variety thing came up, the power had shifted from the filmmakers to the deal makers. And there was a whole new story about the fact that suddenly the studios were being owned by people who themselves had never seen a movie. They were in it because they saw the profitability and the new film business. So I felt there was a great story to tell about movies where this generation of people like, say, Steve Ross, who basically had been an undertaker, and suddenly he owned Warner Brothers. I mean there's a great new story to tell if you told it again.
Kevin Goetz (29:32):
Marvin Davis was an oil man.
Peter Bart (29:34):
Exactly. None of the new proprietors of movies were movie people <laugh>. So I felt what a hell of a good story to tell. I’ll take this on.
Kevin Goetz (29:43):
That's so fabulous to hear.
Peter Bart (29:44):
I never thought I'd stay with it for 20 years, but I thought it was a good narrative to tell.
Kevin Goetz (29:48):
And yet you were there for quite a while. Peter, I want to talk to you about the show you did with Peter Guber because something that I've really considered and am still considering is, wanting to do a show on camera. Mm-hmm <affirmative>. Tell me about how that came to be. Why Peter Guber, who I really admire very much and I've known also for a long time?
Peter Bart (30:11):
Guber's this great character who, we started in the movie business the same week practically. He was a kid who was given this great job at Columbia. At the same time I was starting at Paramount and we got to know each other and he's 10 years younger than I am. But we, we, we shared the same stories about, about finding our way, because neither of us was really qualified to do what we ended up doing. And so we became friends because we shared laughs about the mistakes that we were making.
Kevin Goetz (30:48):
It was called Shootout.
Peter Bart (30:49):
Right, because the way it was staged, we would, for the first few minutes, argue about a trend, a phenomenon in the movie business, or an experience that each and I had. And then we'd have guests, and we were worried as to what sort of guests would say yeah. Knowing that it was an argumentative show, it wasn't just a suck-up show, but you know, with the typical movie show, and we'd love your new movie, you're brilliant. And the minute it was on, after the first few weeks, everybody from Steven Spielberg to Francis Coppola to the top stars wanted to be on the show. Because they enjoyed the combat, they liked the fact that it was an argument. I mean, Robert Downey Jr. would come on and would say, you know, you did Chaplain, you did brilliantly, but you had the wrong angle. Why didn't you do it this way instead of that?
Kevin Goetz (31:41):
Well, wouldn't that be Dickie Attenborough's problem, not Robert Downey Jr's problem?
Peter Bart (31:46):
That's right. Exactly. But well said <laugh>. And we would talk about, again, in your expertise, the way in which pictures were being released and misunderstood in their promotion and so forth. So we got very heavily, for the first time, an audience show that got into actually the distribution and promotion of movies.
Kevin Goetz (32:11):
When you talk about the combative nature of the show, which to me is far more interesting than any other type of interview show, you as a journalist in your entire career, and I imagine from a boy, have had to endure a lot of criticism yourself. You have people like myself who've revered you over the years for many, many reasons. And I have many friends who think you are the most incredible man in the world. And I'm sure you've made a lot of enemies over the years because of what you've had to write. How did you reconcile that? I know I'm a guy who likes to be liked by everyone <laugh>. You can't really have that if you're in your position, can you?
*Peter Bart (32:51):
That's very complicated. One's relationship to creative people becomes complicated because, on the one hand, you want a writer, a young director, a producer, you want them to succeed. On the other hand, when they stumble, you are the one who has to come in and say, we have to cut your shooting schedule. You miscast this. Your ending doesn't work. All of the things that you have to communicate to people.
Kevin Goetz (33:23):
Oh, and which is why this program is called Don't Kill the Messenger.
Peter Bart (33:26):
Exactly. Which is absolutely appropriate. The trouble is that if you are the head of production of a company, you are the messenger in a way, in even a worse way because you're not recommending things you have in this awful situation. You are ordering things, and so much of your life is that of combat. Now I didn't go into journalism because I wanted to be loved. I went into it because I thought it would be interesting to ask questions and tell stories, try to get behind the facade. And it's the same way, therefore, when you're a film executive, because once again, you can't afford to want to be loved. You're going to be hated much of the time if not most of the time.
Kevin Goetz (34:11):
So funny you say that because what I've evolved into and what I now realize is my sort of leitmotif, if you will, is getting to the truth. My years as an actor and then, of course, moving into what I did was to get underneath the surface. So what, so what, so what to the point where you come up with the essence of the problem of the issue and then find positive solutions to recommend to fix something.
Peter Bart (34:40):
Kevin Goetz (34:40):
When it's not fixable.
Peter Bart (34:41):
Terrible thing, some pictures are brilliant because of the casting and are failures because of the casting. And if you see Terms of Endearment and it was brought to you for testing, that picture is brilliant because of the accident of Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine are brilliant in those roles.
Kevin Goetz (34:59):
And Deborah Winger.
Peter Bart (35:00):
And Deborah Winger, who an unlikely person. On the other hand, how many pictures are brought to you that are so horribly miscast, and there's nothing that you can do to change that?
Kevin Goetz (35:10):
Well, I call that a DNA problem. And you're absolutely right. When I often bring test results back after a screening, and they're okay, not great, but they loved the characters. It just happened recently. They loved the chemistry between the characters. But there was a lot wrong with the, I guess, the plot. Meaning just, you know what I mean, which is actually very fixable or can be fixable often without re-shoots and sometimes with re-shoots. But what you can't do is recast the entire movie. You're absolutely right. And that is part of the fabric of what you have. I go so far as to say we learned this in the acting conservatory I went to that casting, at least in the theater, is probably about 90% of the success of the production in film. I would probably say it's to 80 to 85%. Yeah. Still, a huge number or percentage of you gotta get it right.
Peter Bart (36:04):
But on the other hand, I've seen surveys now where audiences are asked, what determines your choice of a film to go see it, to watch it, and it's like 8% of the audience says it's the actors. Correct. I mean the whole thing has shifted around.
Kevin Goetz (36:22):
So, but I'm not saying about the stars. Yeah. I'm saying it's about the characters.
Peter Bart (36:26):
Kevin Goetz (36:26):
Because that you can't manufacture. That has to be there. But you’re absolutely right. Now they go because the big idea that motivates a big audience. That's the primary thing that motivates people. The other thing that motivates people, of course, is word of mouth. And word of mouth is driven by the sense of elevated. And I don't mean light, I mean elevated fun, elevated horror, elevated comedy, elevated special effects. Everything has got to go to that next level just as a ticket to entry now. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it used to be you can get by with it, which is why when I asked you about Rosemary's Baby, but for the fact that Roman directed it, it probably couldn't work because it just doesn't have enough incidents in it, you know?
Peter Bart (37:11):
That's right. But again, I think what today's audience is missing, part of the experience, and I feel this sounds ridiculous, I feel sorry for the audience in this way, that when I was on The New York Times as a young reporter, it was the end of that era when it was all about the big stars. Whether it was Henry Fonda or James Stewart or the, or any of the great actors and Peter Sellers who was in Being There. It was about the big stars, Burt Lancaster.
Kevin Goetz (37:48):
But even in the eighties it was about the big stars, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, you know those?
Peter Bart (37:54):
That’s right. But see, all of their deals at studios would help create the packages, finance the scripts, put the directors in place. So then they'd go to a major star, and they'd say, here's a great project for you and it's yours. You've gotta do it. That, by the eighties, even by the seventies, the stars had lost those contracts, and they didn't have studios developing scripts for them. So they were thrashing around. And with the exception of, again, you mentioned Tom Cruise, he was bright enough to realize his predicament and to develop his own projects and to be an active producer. He decided to guide his destiny and not to be thrown around like so many actors today in ridiculous roles.
Kevin Goetz (38:41):
A hundred percent. You and I, man, I love that you're part of the Tom Cruise fan club. Tom is one of my absolute favorite human beings. He's a terrific guy. He's a terrific actor and producer, and I'm so thrilled to have worked with him as closely as I have. So, I cannot let this program end without saying that I have felt like I've known you for, and rather intimately, for about 43 years. Let me explain. Your nephew happens to be one of my very best friends on the planet. Roger Bart. And we went to school together, we went to the acting conservatory together. Roger is a majorly successful Tony Award-winning actor. Couldn't be more proud of him. I've become now, I think, uncle to his daughter Eller and couldn't be happier for that either since she's about to start as my second assistant. And as a result of that, I mean, I've been to your childhood home in Martha's Vineyard. I know your brother, I mean, and your sister-in-law and your other nieces and nephews. I've even met Scout, your daughter. You had no sense that I was alive.
Peter Bart (39:51):
Correct. <laugh> For one thing, as you know, Roger Bart is an actor. He's a star. But like most actors, he doesn't confide a lot about his personal friends and the nuances of his emotional life. That's not what actors do. And Roger is a wonderful person, but he is first and foremost an actor. This is his fifth Broadway show, as you know, starring in Back to the Future, the Musical.
Kevin Goetz (40:18):
Opening in August.
Peter Bart (40:21):
Yeah. So it was not in Roger's mode to take me aside and say, by the way, I don't know if you know Kevin Goetz, but he really is like my closest friend <laugh> and uh, do you know him? He would never do that.
Kevin Goetz (40:36):
You know what's so funny? You remind me so much of your brother. And I always thought he was like a genius. So I said, well if he's a genius then I guess Peter has to be a genius too. You guys really, I need to donate your brains to science. I think because you're both so bright. And also, by the way, Roger's mother was another very bright woman. When Rog and I would talk about you, it would be as if you were this huge Hollywood mogul. And yet he never asked you for help. He did it on his own. You bet. I mean, that's a really fair statement, isn't it?
Peter Bart (41:12):
Yep, absolutely. Roger’s an actor and also a brilliant singer
Kevin Goetz (41:24):
And piano player and…
Peter Bart (41:25):
Kevin Goetz (41:27):
I know that because I was with him in Martha's Vineyard at the Seafood Shanty. Oh my goodness. When he was a singing waiter. Yeah, back 40 something years ago. Oh my gosh.
Peter Bart (41:35):
<laugh> Roger and I come from a family that's the opposite of these, these warm, loving families. Everyone knows and supports everyone else. The important factor in the Bart family is no one knows other members of the Bart family. It's a very distanced bunch of people. It's like a strange, it's not the same model, but it's like the sort of crusty New England family where you don't talk about your problems or your relatives <laugh>. And that is sort of the way I know when I was a kid, my parents were pleased that I was a member of the Martha's Vineyard Country Club. That was the important association to them. I was not born in Brooklyn. I wasn't this wonderful family like Woody Allen's and so forth, <laugh>. You know, that was not our upbringing at all.
Kevin Goetz (42:25):
And what’s so funny is that you and Roger are both these really incredible creative minds and didn't have that kind of upbringing. Yeah. And yet you found that in yourselves and succeeded not having that.
Peter Bart (42:41):
No. Yeah. My parents were teachers and that's what they believed in. They believed in their discipline and they believed in the importance of teaching. The entertainment business was totally removed. And Roger's father, they wanted him to become a great scientist and go to MIT.
Kevin Goetz (43:01):
Like they did.
Peter Bart (43:02):
Yeah, so again, you know, parents who want your kid to go to MIT, that's not exactly a show business preparation. <laugh>,
Kevin Goetz (43:09):
Let me ask you something, if I may. What's going on with theatrical movie going in the future, and I mean the not-too-distant future? Where do you think things are? I know I have very strong feelings about it, but you have had now six, seven decades in the business and can really give us perspective because you have seen disruptions throughout that time.
Peter Bart (43:31):
For the record, I would love to write a column for Deadline where I ask you that question because I think you're in a better position than most, than any of us.
Kevin Goetz (43:41):
Well, everyone asks me that question and…
Peter Bart (43:43):
They ask you a dumb question, like what is the difference between a movie and a streamer? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Now that's a very profound sort of dumb question and I'd love to talk to you about that because I think…
Kevin Goetz (43:54):
Well, we're going to lunch after this to discuss it.
Peter Bart (43:56):
And I think your audience would love to…
Kevin Goetz (43:59):
Do people still want to go to see movies in a theater?
Peter Bart (44:01):
Yes, but again, the people you are testing are people who see movies on their lap. And the movie going experience, which I think is a rich experience, is simply not part of the lives of our grandchildren. For example…
Kevin Goetz (44:17):
I call them digital natives.
Peter Bart (44:19):
<laugh>. That's a good expression. But that is an impairment I think because that rich experience of seeing a movie with an audience and getting their feedback, even if it's like Parasite. I mean I loved seeing Parasite with an audience that was half Korean.
Kevin Goetz (44:40):
Probably great, oh.
Peter Bart (44:40):
Because of the reactions of people. I think that kids today just see it alone. They don't understand how enriching it can be to enjoy the reactions and to sometimes be appalled at the reactions of other people in the audience. That, to me, so reduces the experience of movie going that I feel sorry for that next generation.
Kevin Goetz (45:05):
And at the same time, there is a great story recently that I heard of a major director who said his favorite movie of all time was Jaws. Right. And he said, and I've never seen it in a movie theater.
Peter Bart (45:17):
Right. That's interesting
Kevin Goetz (45:19):
Because a great movie can withstand any platform. I think it can. Yes. It's enhanced. It's for sure. Yes. Embellished. Embellished.
Peter Bart (45:29):
When you feel those around you laughing, I mean in your book, you mentioned the experience of seeing Borat with an audience. There was Something About Mary, pictures like that where you had an audience convulsed.
Kevin Goetz (45:42):
Peter Bart (45:43):
Now that's different. You, you can see, run the movie and think, you know, that's funny.
Kevin Goetz (45:48):
Even What's Love Got to do With It. I remember when Angela Bassett, as Tina Turner said, I don't want anything, just my name. The audience literally stood up. We were in Pasadena. The audience stood up in a wave, like at a ball game, and was like apoplectic. Right. You don't get that on your lap.
Peter Bart (46:10):
Yeah. And that's tragic 'cause the experience is different and diminished.
Kevin Goetz (46:16):
Peter, what can I say, except this has been an absolute pleasure and honor to have you here to speak with me about your recollections of some of these great movies, great times. As you said, I'm going to now use the word epoch. I love that expression. And please, please come back. Please memorialize everything you've done because our new generation needs to hear where the hell they've come from. So, thank you.
Peter Bart (46:46):
Well, given your experience and knowledge of the business, it's a delight to talk to you.
Kevin Goetz (46:51):
And to our listeners, I hope you enjoyed our interview. I encourage you to check out Peter's Deadline column and some of his films and books that we've discussed today. For other stories like this one, please check out my book, Audienceology, at Amazon, or through my website at KevinGoetz360.com. You can also follow me on my social media at KevinGoetz360. Next time on Don't Kill the Messenger, I'll welcome the Academy and Emmy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky. Until then, I'm Kevin Goetz, and to you, our listeners, I appreciate you being part of the movie-making process. Your opinions matter.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guests: Peter Bart
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, Kari Campano
Audio Engineer & Editor: Gary Forbes
Produced at DG Entertainment, Los Angeles