About That Open Letter To Warner Bros…

The shade that consumed the internet.

Last week Movie Internet got really excited about an article on a website called Pajiba, an article with the title "An Open Letter to Warner Bros CEO Kevin Tsujihara About Layoffs, Zack Snyder and Donuts." The article, written under a fake name (the name of a character from Big Trouble in Little China... a Fox movie) takes WB CEO Kevin Tsujihara to task for the poor quality of Suicide Squad and the generally lackluster WB slate this year. The article says that if Tsujihara ran a donut shop and the donut shop kept fucking up the donuts, he would be out of a job. But what got a lot of attention from the web was a sentence where this former employee claims to have heard from inside sources at WB that Wonder Woman is also a mess in the making, the latest DC film to not work. That's what got picked up and what forced director Patty Jenkins to take to Twitter denying that her film is a mess. 

I don't begrudge Pajiba for running this garbage. You do what you gotta do. What baffles me is how many sites picked up this story, one that on its face is absolutely worthless. I suspect it's because a lot of people who write about the movie industry don't know anything about the movie industry. Before anyone takes that as a sick burn, here are two things to keep in mind: I have been writing about the movie industry for fifteen years now, the last eight in Hollywood itself, and I wouldn't say I have any particular expertise about how this weird, fucked up and often childish industry works. Number two, always remember the maxim that William Goldman gave us: "Nobody knows anything." This is the greatest truism in Hollywood, and it reflects the way a lot of the movie business runs on panic and fear. 

Why is this story worthless? The big reason is that being a 'former employee of Warner Bros,' which is how letter writer "Gracie Law" identifies herself, is meaningless. Warner Bros employs a whole bunch of people, very few of whom are actually involved in high level movie making stuff. This story was presented by many sites as an 'insider speaks' kind of story, but nowhere in the open letter does "Gracie Law" present anything that hints at her bona fides. Before we decide she's an insider we should know where she worked - was she an exec? I'm gonna say probably not, because her open letter contains zero new information or insight into how Warner Bros works and how Tsujihara operates, and in fact contains evidence that she doesn't even know anything about box office (skip to the last paragraph for my finishing move on that one). Law's letter doesn't have the ring of someone who is in the room for meetings, but it also doesn't even have the ring of someone who hears the gossip that flies around the offices on the lot. She does speak of two locations on the lot - Star's Hollow, an outdoor set, and the fitness facility (which she never visited) - but anyone who works on that lot could have been to/known of those places (hell, I've never worked there and I have visited both. I guess I have seen more of the studio lot than this anonymous writer!). I don't see any evidence at all that "Gracie Law" was in any position to know anything about the inner workings of Warner Bros. I would say that anyone who worked for WB on the lot - whether they worked in the gift shop or in janitorial or in some minor office support role in post-production - would have received the same memo from Tsujihara about layoffs. 

So right off the bat there's no reason to really take this open letter seriously (and that's even setting aside the fact that it's written anonymously, which reeks of base cowardice). But there's more. In a lengthy list of WB's sins in the last couple of years "Gracie Law" somehow neglects to mention Mad Max: Fury Road going on to win a whole bunch of Oscars (despite the studio having no faith in it. Were she an insider this would actually be one of her main arguments, that even when WB does well lately it's totally by accident). She calls The Hobbit trilogy, which made just under 3 billion dollars worldwide, a case of diminishing returns (and while the films did make less money with each release, they still all made A WHOLE LOT OF MONEY. And look, I don't like the movies either, but the decision to go from two films to three may have cost the final film some BO but upped the general BO of the entire series. There's easily an extra half billion dollars brought in by adding a movie, and that's just theatrical). She doesn't really talk about WB's new strategy of silo-ing its tentpole properties to focus on them but she sure does get mad about this year's Comic-Con presentation, a dog and pony show that - wait for it - only matters to the fans. 

That is what my big takeaway from this open letter is - she's a fan. She's a fan who not only doesn't understand how a studio is run but how big business works. Did she work on the lot? Maybe, but again, she definitely wasn't privy to anything of any interest. And that's the next thing: her claim that Wonder Woman is a mess. 

Is it? Who knows. The movie is ten months out; Jenkins et al probably still don't have anything beyond an assembly cut. An assembly cut is that version of a movie you hear about when someone says the first cut was four hours long; when someone tells you that understand they know little about how movie-making works. An assembly cut is basically everything they have shot put together in one big, ungainly mess that has to be chopped down and whittled away at. It's what you start with in the editing room, and it often has little relation to what comes out the other side. 

But Devin, you say, you've reported that you've heard movies are a mess very early in the process. That's totally correct! Sometimes movies are a mess very early in the process, and sometimes they never get fixed. Sometimes it's clear that nobody working on a movie shares a vision for it, or that the studio execs see the movie very differently than the filmmaker does or the filmmaker was unable to capture his/her vision on set. Sometimes these situations result in disaster, sometimes they result in classics (remember, Mad Max: Fury Road, the great unmentioned movie in this open letter, was a total fucking wreck the entire production). What's important is to understand why a movie is a mess before you report on it. Take, for instance, my reporting on Suicide Squad and its reshoots, which was eventually backed up by The Hollywood Reporter. It wasn't just that I heard it was a mess, I heard very specifically that what the studio wanted from the movie - a tone like that popular first trailer - was not what David Ayers had delivered. That's a recipe for a real mishigoss, and it turns out it was. But how is Wonder Woman a mess? I'd like to know, and I think any good reporting on this should include some kind of specifics (note I said reporting - this sort of cheap gossip is fine for Twitter, but if you're running it on your site hopefully you have something to back it up). 

There are other things that bug me about this reporting of the movie being a mess (and about it being picked up so widely). One thing is that I have known, over the years, studio employees - even exec level employees - to have absolutely no fucking clue what they have on their hands. I'll never forget being told by Paramount employees that Zodiac was a total disaster. That movie is my favorite film of the 21st century. I remember being told by someone in the know that Guardians of the Galaxy was a nightmare. It turns out that person saw an in-house screening that removed all the jokes from the movie (Marvel's process was weird as fuck), and what they saw was nothing like the finished film. But even setting that aside, there's one huge red flag that pops out to me:

Who the hell is "Gracie Law?"

By printing this piece as standalone op-ed (hilariously filed under 'thinkpieces') Pajiba has done a thing I really dislike - they've protected themselves from any criticism and they've allowed this person to stand behind anonymity. What I mean is this: when I report something, it has my name on it. I will not divulge my sources (it's always funny when people demand I do that. They clearly have no idea how any of this shit works), but I put my name on the line. I am reporting what I was told, information that I have vetted to the best of my ability. I don't repeat stuff that gets sent to me in random e-mails unless I can confirm it with other sources. I have some sources who I know, whose access to information is clear to me because of their position. But that's all on me - I put my name on the thing so that when it's wrong, I'm at fault. And I have been wrong! Like, really wrong, not just "The severed hand was in the original script for Episode VII but nobody admitted it until this summer" wrong. Anyway, there's an anonymous person who is shielded from any fallout from making these claims and Pajiba is cloaked from fallout because they just printed her letter without any sort of editorial context. There is not the name of an editor attached to the piece, and there is no intro or outro explaining why Pajiba felt that this piece was worth publishing, or that they had vetted "Gracie Law"'s credentials. 

"Gracie Law" isn't wrong in a larger sense; I don't think Tsujihara is doing what he should be doing for this studio, and as someone who has been covering movies for a decade and a half it's sad to see Warner Bros flounder after so many years of being one of the finest in town. At the same time I don't think "Gracie Law" understands that Warner Bros does more than make movies, and that their profit streams are diversified in ways that she doesn't even begin to take into account. I think she doesn't understand what it means when someone's name is on a movie as a producer (hint: just because George Miller will be credited as a producer on Justice League doesn't mean he had a single thing to do with the movie. He didn't). Her complaints about Zack Snyder still having the keys to the kingdom are already months out of date. She's complaining about a state of being at DC Films that doesn't exist anymore. Is the new state of being any better? I don't know, but if your rant about the state of WB's DC movies doesn't even mention Geoff Johns I start to suspect you don't know what the fuck you're talking about.

So what you have is a fan-oriented piece that doesn't seem to fully understand the workings of the studio system (no shit that Kevin Tsujihara doesn't get fired when a movie flops. Welcome to literally how all business works) and that has no claim to authority because it's totally anonymous and even the publishing site isn't putting their stamp on it. It's a piece that is puddle deep and only repeats stuff that everybody on Reddit has already been saying, mixed with a little sophomoric anger at business and a heaping helping of DC fanism. And it includes an off-handed bomb thrown at a movie that is the center of a lot of attention these days. Again, I don't begrudge Pajiba for running it, although I wish they had put their editorial cred on the line when they did so, but I am baffled by how many other outlets picked it up. Yeah, it's a slow news week, but come on. This is the sort of thing that feeds into the conspiracy theories that get thrown about on Reddit, that the media has it in for DC movies. 

Don't get it twisted: I'm not particularly defending WB here. I think the studio can do better, and I'm hopeful that the Geoff Johns era will see an improvement at least in their DC movies, if nothing else. I'm just trying to explain to you guys why this open letter that became such a big deal this week is... kind of meaningless. 

One last thing: Law says she wishes Tsujihara had to sleep in his car until WB had a #1 movie of the year. Well, they had a #1 movie of the year in 2014 with American Sniper, from the director whose Jersey Boys she couldn't understand the studio releasing. 

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