A ‘Severance’ Salvage Job and Hollywood’s Executive Amnesia

Can Ben Stiller pull off a salvage job on “Severance” Season 2?
Can Ben Stiller pull off a salvage job on ‘Severance‘ Season 2? Photo: Oliver Contreras via Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
April 28, 2023

News and notes from across Hollywood about some of the industry’s most timely and talked-about storylines: Disney vs DeSantis, the Jeff Shell fallout at NBCU, Iger’s third round of layoffs, and more…

  • The Shell (waiting) game: At this point, most of us have heard the rumors regarding fired NBC Universal C.E.O. Jeff Shell’s supposed womanizing while at NBCU and, before that, at Fox. I love good gossip as much as anyone, but these allegations are really only relevant if the women, like CNBC’s Hadley Gamble, worked for the company—which seems to be the case in at least one years-ago alleged scenario going around town—or if Comcast knew about prior incidents at Fox and nevertheless hired and promoted Shell anyway. We’ll see.  

  • Disney vs. DeSantis, grab your popcorn: No, I won’t be charging Bob Iger a consultant fee after he took my advice in last Thursday’s WIH and sued Florida governor Ron DeSantis for retaliation, a pretty clear First Amendment violation. It’s worth reading lead litigator Daniel Petrocelli’s whole complaint (click here) for a good example of how to craft a lawsuit for public consumption. The suit goes well beyond the legal arguments to portray Disney as a benevolent corporate citizen (it paid $1.1 billion in taxes last year, we learn, yet it’s not disclosed how much profit the company extracted from all those Genie+ passes and turkey legs sold in Orlando). Disney, if you read the lawsuit, is also the almighty savior of the Central Florida economy. That’s despite the sweetheart tax and development deals it has enjoyed for more than 50 years. Petrocelli is clearly earning his $1,800 an hour there.    

  • Disney layoffs decoded: I certainly don’t want to minimize the pain of a large-scale layoff like the one that Disney is enduring this week. But… many in the entertainment units were actually expecting worse, especially when reports hit last week that 15 percent of the Hollywood teams would be eliminated. That ended up not happening, per Disney sources, at least not in this round. Iger’s 7,000 employee target across the company, with $5.5 billion in total savings, is more than half completed as of today, with about 4,000 layoffs and positions unfilled between this week and a previous small reduction. In Marvel terms, Phase 3 of the layoffs are set for late May, leaving about a month more for Disney employees to sweat through their Iron Man masks.

  • The long con at CinemaCon: Sony’s Tom Rothman wins the Pinocchio honor of the annual theater-owners convention. “For the past three years, as the punditocracy pissed on your business, we at Sony held fast,” Rothman announced on stage on Monday during his usual profanity-laced tirade against streaming. “We were the only major studio devoted entirely to theatrical.” Uh, really? Entirely? I seem to remember Rothman’s fire sale of Sony movies to streamers during the pandemic. From Tom HanksGreyhound (to AppleTV+) to Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle (to HBO Max), from Kristen Stewart’s Happiest Season (to Hulu) to Kevin Hart’s Fatherhood (to Netflix), and from the animated Mitchells vs. the Machines (again to Netflix) to Camilla Cabello’s Cinderella (to Amazon), Rothman urinated quite a bit on theatrical. Hotel Transylvania 4, which probably could have been a decent hit in theaters in Fall 2021, went to Amazon for a reported $100 million—presumably, Rothman didn’t share that cash with the theaters.

  • Amazon’s $300 million manhandle: So, what does nearly $300 million get Amazon Studios, I mean beyond six 40-minute episodes of Citadel? Turns out not much, at least not with critics. The Russo brothers globe-hopping wannabe franchise-starter is sitting at 57 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, low even for an Amazon series, and it’s generating tons of snark in the C-suites of other streamers. We’ll see whether audiences show up—Amazon is already in for season 2.   

  • Severance searches for a savior: Can Ben Stiller pull off a salvage job on Severance Season 2? The Apple TV+ series, which earned 14 Emmy nominations for Season 1, has been plagued for months by pricey problems, including scrapped scripts and the dreaded showrunners who don’t speak to each other. Dan Erickson, a newbie creator who wrote the original pilot, and Mark Friedman, a more experienced writer-producer who was paired with Erickson, ended up hating each other on the first season, per multiple sources. Friedman was gonna bail on Season 2, but Stiller, who directed most of the first season and is returning for a big chunk of the second, interviewed potential replacements and couldn’t find anyone he liked. So he and Apple went back to Friedman and decided to replicate the toxic environment of Season 1. Shocker: That didn’t work, scripts were a problem, and Apple—disappointed and embarrassed that they’d gone down the wrong road but looking at Severance as a hit and an awards magnet—started talking about Seasons 3 and 4. So Stiller interviewed several writer-producers to come in and beat out a third season before the likely WGA strike, and ended up quietly hiring Beau Willimon, the House of Cards creator who most recently worked on Disney+’s fantastic Andor (that show’s creator, Tony Gilroy, secretly consulted on House of Cards), and who Stiller is already working with on a feature adaptation of The Seven Five, a documentary about police corruption. Willimon got a rich deal to come in for Season 3, but he quickly saw that help was needed on Season 2, with episode costs ballooning to the $20 million range. So for a few months now, Willimon has helped craft a back half of Season 2 and a template for Season 3, with the show being delayed significantly in the process. (Apple TV+ declined to comment.)    

  • Oscar’s Andrea Riseborough rule: Tomorrow’s the big meeting where the Academy board of governors will determine the campaign rules changes for this coming season. Post-Riseborough-gate, look for a major clarification of what kind of member lobbying is allowed, especially on social media and via member-hosted parties. The much-debated expansion of the theatrical release requirement—from one theater to as many as 15 or 20 of the top markets, which I wrote about last month—will also likely be discussed, though the topic is not on the agenda for a vote tomorrow. Those eligibility rules will be determined later this year and be implemented for the 2025 Oscars to allow distributors time to adjust their release plans.

  • Finally, a requiem for Corden: Westerns… variety hours… late night talk shows? Many see tonight’s exit of James Corden from The Late Late Show—and the demise of Late Late as a CBS franchise—as the first steps in a march to obscurity for late night. Maybe. I tend to agree with Ben Winston, Corden’s producer, who I interviewed on The Town yesterday, and who agrees that the genre is just sitting there waiting for reinvention for streaming. Whoever figures that out is gonna get super rich, and it’s probably not gonna happen by mining old I.P., like CBS is doing with the cheap, Chris Hardwick-free reboot of the game show @midnight that will replace Corden.  

    One thing’s pretty clear: Corden, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Seth Meyers will almost certainly be the last to do what they do on broadcast TV for the price they command to do it. The economics of the $20 million-plus host at 11:35 and $10 million host at 12:35 (plus producing fees on other shows!) don’t really work, and everyone seems to recognize that the digital ad pennies will never make up for linear TV dollars, no matter how viral the clips go. John Oliver makes broadcast host money for just 30 shows a year, per sources, but that’s on HBO, and he wins the Emmy every year.  

    It’s bizarre. If you compare this YouTube clip of Steve Allen’s original Tonight Show back in 1956—topical monologue, bizarre stunts, celebrity and musical guests, stand-up comedy— it’s not all that different from Fallon’s show last night. How is that possible? Corden’s Late Late Show actually flirted with that next frontier, producing taped segments good enough to spin off and, importantly, to stream worldwide. But like the others, Corden kept all the trappings of the Allen Tonight format, with the nightly topicality that’s an absolute killer in an on-demand streaming environment. Before this genre dies, who’s gonna truly reinvent it?