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Jon Favreau talks tentpoles at Variety summit

'Iron Man,' 'Cowboys & Aliens' helmer gives keynote at confab

Jon Favreau talked about the juggling act that filmmakers face in a world driven by technology and brand-driven entertainment. Disney’s Kevin Mayer spoke of how the digital disruption to showbiz’s traditional business models has been a good thing for congloms like the Mouse House.

A diverse lineup of panelists parsed everything from the state of the TV business to the market for original Web content to trends in digital advertising at Variety’s Entertainment and Technology Summit on Monday at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey.

Favreau offered a candid assessment of the state of play at the major studios for filmmakers these days.

“It’s shifting times,” Favreau said during his opening keynote moderated by Variety film editor Josh L. Dickey. “We’re dealing with the phenomenon of corporations making decisions based on a set of priorities of making companies money. There’s a lot of money on the line, and you have to make them their money back.”

Thus, “If you’re not making a movie that appeals to children or young males, you do not deserve to be in a movie theater during the summer,” he said.

Much of that appeal is a result of brand awareness, as Favreau, who scored at the B.O. with Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man” franchise, found out with “Cowboys and Aliens.” The film, based on a little-known comicbook, struggled to find an audience this summer despite stars like Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig; moviegoers gravitated toward other pics like the third “Transformers” and “The Smurfs,” properties recognized around the world.

That’s one reason why his next pic is “Magic Kingdom,” for Disney.

“As the marketplace becomes more brand driven, you’re appealing to a global audience,” Favreau said. “The stars here aren’t necessarily same stars in South Korea or Germany. But the brands are. People say, ‘I want to see ‘The Smurfs’ because I know what the Smurfs are.”

As a result, Studios have put a greater emphasis on technology, whether it’s 3D or adding more complicated, computer-generated special effects shots.

“Cowboys and Aliens” wasn’t shot or released in 3D by producers Universal, DreamWorks and Imagine, and that wound up hurting its rollout, Favreau said. “We didn’t get released in China and got none of the good digital screens here with 300 or 400 seats,” Favreau said. “We never played in the Cinerama Dome.”

Favreau isn’t opposed to 3D, but “as the technology gets better, the movies get more expensive,” he said. “When you get it right, you get ‘Avatar.’ When you get it wrong, you get Jeffrey Katzenberg crying out that it’s hurting the industry.”

Disney’s Mayer, who is exec VP of corporate strategy and business development, observed in his afternoon keynote Q&A that the entertainment industry was caught by surprise by the many ways technology has changed the game, but the process of having to come to grips with disruptive technologies has made congloms like Disney better. “I think it’s a very healthy thing,” he told moderator Michael Kassan, CEO of Medialink.

Mayer touted the strategic discipline Disney has brought to its recent acquisitions, including Marvel and Playdom. He noted that there’s value in allowing the companies absorbed to maintain their own identity or operations. “We don’t like to bring them in and just acculturate them entirely,” he said.

Mayer also lamented the loss of Steve Jobs, whose influence at Disney was considerable, he said. “He kept us on our toes,” Mayer said. “He wanted us to think big.”

The larger panel seshes provoked some interesting exchanges between participants. In discussing the changing landscape for the TV biz, execs differed on whether fall is a good time for cablers to launch original series, with Turner’s Michael Wright voting an emphatic no, while FX’s Nick Grad and Showtime’s Gary Levine said it was.

In a sesh about digital media campaigns, Alloy Media + Marketing CEO Matt Diamond pressed Comcast’s Marcien Jenckes about whether the growth of broadband penetration and over-the-top services like Netflix have taken away some of the gatekeeper power wielded by cable operators. Jenckes took the glass-half-full view. “It has opened up our world up beyond TV,” he said.

(Andrew Wallenstein, Shelby Hill and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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