Critic

by Nikki Finke

Can a longtime film critic survive after panning the latest Tarantino and Coen Brothers oeuvres? 3,435 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.


Even though he was executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, Wilson did not care much for movies. He would never admit it, of course, but his experience and interests centered on national politics, foreign policy and sports. Hard news consumed him — local news as well as news from Washington and Baghdad and Moscow and Beijing. The arts pages were left to deputy editors. Of course, he realized the newspaper’s need to cover Hollywood. The Detroit News covered the auto industry. The L.A. Times covered the film industry. That was that.

So Wilson was obliged to deal with Hollywood. Every few months, he dutifully met the studio moguls who said it was a shame that so many movies were filmed in Canada or Louisiana because of the availability of more lucrative tax credits than in California. Couldn’t the newspaper run more articles about that? In turn, Wilson urged the moguls to buy more advertising which had declined severely with the growth of Internet movie sites. Wilson knew it was a losing battle.

He found them all just a little too smug, and he preferred to spend time with the newspaper’s numerous other constituencies. The auto and real estate people who complained that the paper was anti-business, black and Latino leaders who complained that they weren’t covered enough in the paper, the police chief and his deputies who complained they were misunderstood by reporters, the Jewish leaders who complained the paper was unfair to Israel, the Asians who complained that the articles ignored them. It went on and on. But the problems of these people — as different as they were — seemed real.

The movie guys, and they were all guys, walked into his office with the noxious aroma of entitlement. “Spare me,” he told his secretary whenever the moguls wanted a meeting with him.

But Wilson was a smart editor and, whatever his personal tastes, he knew that there were readers out there who consumed the comic pages and horoscopes every day. Just like they read about the movies every day. Don’t mess around with the comic strips and horoscopes. Don’t mess around with the movies. Besides, the edict from the publisher was to boost online readership. And movies, with their appeal to younger demos, were central to that strategy along with television and music. Circulation was falling at every newspaper in the country, including the L.A. Times. More and more readers saw the newspaper only online, the key to survival.

In recent years, Wilson had hired a reporter to cover the music industry, and a critic from Rolling Stone for rock, rap, hip-hop and anything non-classical. He also promoted Sara, a young reporter, to run the Arts section. And Wilson depended on her because Wilson had more important matters on his plate than the movies.

Except for Charles.

Charles was approaching 70 and had been the L.A. Times film critic for what seemed like 200 years. It was time to replace him. Easier said than done.

Charles had been a classmate of the publisher at Princeton. They remained friends. Everyone knew the critic was untouchable as a result. Beyond this, Charles had a base of loyal readers, the older demographic whom the L.A. Times could hardly ignore. So Wilson had avoided dealing with the Charles situation for as long as possible.

Charles was a charming, generous and slightly eccentric fellow. He wore a bowtie and vested suits. His accent was somewhere between Boston and London. His father had been a banker who left Charles a lot of money. The critic bought his shoes on Jermyn Street. He seemed thoroughly out of place in the newsroom. Which was, of course, deliberate.

Charles would periodically invite Wilson and his wife to dinners at his home high in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking the Bowl and the Westside. On clear days, you could actually see the Pacific. The home had once belonged to Barbara Stanwyck, and Charles loved taking visitors to the cellar where the actress had kept her smuggled liquor supply during prohibition.

Wilson’s wife, Margo, had been an actress who’d played small roles in films and TV before they had children. She was utterly charmed by Charles because she rarely met people like him anymore: men and women who adored Hollywood and embraced the fantasy. Margo and Wilson lived in Pasadena, and so much of their lives revolved around the newspaper except when she dragged him to Disney Hall or the Pasadena Playhouse. Wilson was grateful when Margo found friends to join her at a movie every other week so he could work or watch sports. Charles brought Margo back to a world that she missed.

"I used to have fun when I was young and poor and single and sharing an apartment on Pico and going to auditions,” she once told Wilson, " Now I’s all boring small talk that drives me out of my mind God, I’m a good wife."

What made a visit to Charles’ home special for was not only the cast of characters who showed up there but also the movie memorabilia crammed inside. Photos inscribed to him from Audrey Hepburn ("Darling Charles, Come back to Rome soon!!!”). and Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall and Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds and even Marlon Brando. ("Charles, You’re one of the good ones. Bud.) Framed on the living room wall was the front page of The New York Times headlining the death of Marilyn Monroe. Another framed story covered Judy Garland’s demise. There were two large film posters: one of Citizen Kane signed by Orson Welles ("To Charles, A friend. Always."), and the other a poster of Funny Girl (signed "To Charles. All my love. Barbra.")

Margo always told Charles, in all honesty, "Your home is fabulous." Even Wilson agreed. At Charles’ home, the subject of the L.A. Times never came up. Thank God. The guests — retired actors and producers and agents — spent the entire evening drinking and laughing and exchanging biting gossip about the old moguls and Bette and Joan and Cary and Jimmy and Kate and Spencer. It was funny. It was shocking. "Oh my God, I’m dying," Margo would say, choking with laughter, after a story about Daryl F. Zanuck that she could never repeat. One time, Charles invited Margo to accompany him to the Academy Awards. It was the high point of her year.

Hollywood was Charles’ life. He had found his soul there. It was not just the movies and the star actors and famous directors and big studios that had infatuated him since age 15. He’d moved from New York at 18, went to USC and came to live in Los Angeles and never left. There was no other possible place for him.

The problem now was that Charles’ reviews had turned leaden, stuck in some time warp of the 1960s. No, the 1950s. Maybe even decades older. His critiques were mocked by mean-spirited Hollywood bloggers. Even Wilson’s daughter Ally, a Yale Drama School senior, said she looked at the L.A. Times online every day out of loyalty to her father, and found Charles an embarrassment. Let’s face it, she told her father, no one she knew even read movie critics anymore,

Wilson knew that Charles’ taste was out of fashion and didn’t need his daughter to tell him what was painfully obvious. Wilson saw for himself how the critic loathed all these new and often pretentious and sometimes violent films welcomed by the younger audiences. Yet the idea of gently easing Charles into retirement was almost unacceptable.

Almost. Until Wilson read Charles’ scathing review of the newest Quentin Tarantino film. That’s when Wilson knew that Charles had gone too far. Sara, the Arts editor, walked into Wilson’s office with the newspaper folded to Charles’ review and simply said, "This is awful." Wilson had seen some of Tarantino’s films with Margo and  had actually enjoyed the Brad Pitt film about the Nazis  and the movie about slavery with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx. But Charles had loathed both films causing online ridicule from bloggers who, Wilson told Sara, were vile and self-promoting pricks.

But the savagery towards Charles escalated when he excoriated Tarantino and the Coen Brothers both of whose new films were being touted for Academy Award nominations. Which meant advertising.

As if that weren’t enough, Charles had trashed the comedy with Nathan Lane and Channing Tatum about a transgender couple in an Alabama town. It was one of the year’s biggest hits. Sara’s voice trembled when she spoke to Wilson. "I’m sorry, sir, but Charles is an embarrassment."

It was time to gently ease Charles out of the job with the agreement of the publisher. So Charles was named "critic-at-large," which meant critic of nothing.  Charles waited a few weeks and then decided to take a buyout and leave the paper. "It’s time," he told Wilson with a smile. Wilson detected a sadness in the smile, which made him feel miserable.

There were several farewell dinners for Charles, some of them attended by older studio chiefs and agents and even Debbie Reynolds and Shirley MacLaine and Kirk Douglas. Charles was a tradition. And there weren’t too many traditions left in Hollywood. "A class act," said one of the studio chiefs. "The L.A. Times will not be the same without Charles," said another.

Driving home from the fancy party at Spago that night, Wilson told Margo. "This can be a shitty job.". Margo was furious. "Why the hell don’t you just get rid of everyone over the age of 40," she said. They drove the rest of the way in silence.

But now the newspaper had to find a new critic.

Wilson and Sara read the reviews of newspaper critics in Boston, Atlanta and Seattle. They scoured Salon and Slate and Rotten Tomatoes. Some of the critics were terrible writers. Others opined like petulant children. The few good ones refused to leave their jobs. Wilson even thought of moving the theater critic to the movie side, but then rejected that idea. "I want to get rid of him next," Wilson told Sara. Finally, Sara suggested the critic from the Village Voice. But Wilson was reluctant to hire from one of the alternative papers where self-importance and pomposity usually reigned among reviewers. Nevertheless, the paper flew the Voice film critic Sean to L.A. because he also had his own blog and wrote frequently for Slate and other national sites. He was in his early 30s, slim, humorless and almost unbearably confident. His eyes darted when he spoke.

Wilson found Sean’s reviews not only angry and snide but cluttered with references to arcane films. Worse, he never stopped writing about himself. At their luncheon interview, Wilson grew uncomfortable when he realized that Sean couldn’t help giving the impression that, if he took the job, he was doing the LA Times a favor and not the other way around. Unfortunately, a terrorist attack in London cut short the interview. Wilson was consumed with that story, and then the sudden retirement of a U.S. Supreme Court justice two days later and a police shooting of an unarmed black kid that week. The newsroom felt like a war zone. Wilson passed Sara in the hallway. "I have no time to spend on finding the fucking film critic," he said. "Just bring on Sean.".

Weeks later, Wilson told his wife that making a decision — any decision — in the midst of breaking news chaos had been a dumb mistake. Wasn’t it one of the first rules of management that decisions should be made calmly and not in the midst of crisis?

Sean’s first review was a takedown of Clint Eastwood, a living legend who had just directed a film with Matt Damon and Emma Stone about veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The film’s strong reviews in The New York Times and online sites made Wilson and Sara uncomfortable. "Does this guy realize he’s writing for a large audience and not the Greenwich Village crowd?” Wilson chided.

Sara winced because a NYC friend of hers had just confided to her, "Even people in the Village don’t read the Village Voice anymore." Sara told this to Wilson and said she felt like an idiot for hiring Sean.

"Don’t," replied Wilson. "He’s only a movie critic."

Sean’s next few film reviews were harmless. But then he went after, of all people, Steven Spielberg. It took guts. It took arrogance. It took stupidity. Spielberg had stretched himself and made a modern-day version of Macbeth with Daniel Day-Lewis and Clare Danes. The film had made the cover of Vanity Fair and stirred huge publicity. The stars and Spielberg appeared on Charlie Rose. When the online reviews trickled in, some were respectful while others were raves. It only worsened for Wilson and Sara when The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New Yorker as well as reviewers in London and Paris deemed it one of Spielberg’s best and perhaps his most inventive film. Even Wilson and Margo went to see the Spielberg film and found it mesmerizing. So did Sara.

The head of Universal called Wilson after Sean’s review panned the film. "Who is this fucking putz?" were the movie executive’s first words. "Not that anyone gives a shit what this asshole says. We used to read Charles, who by the way told me Steven’s movie was great. We don’t read this moron." Then the mogul abruptly hung up.

Sean had his fans. KCRW began a weekly program featuring his film commentary. He began an intimate weekly series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art interviewing "promising" – meaning unknown — filmmakers. He became a persona in the tiny world within the tiny world of indie and festival films, most of which disappeared after one or two public screenings.

That Thanksgiving, Wilson’s daughter Ally came home from Yale. Wilson went into her bedroom and sat down as she was unpacking. "I have a question for you, sweetheart. A few months ago, you complained to me about Charles. But you said something else to me: that no one you know reads newspaper reviews. Is that true?"

Wilson’s wife walked in and heard the last part of her husband’s question.

Ally said, "No one over the age of 40 reads reviews anymore."

Margo said, "Make that 60. I don’t read reviews anymore — especially this new guy’s."

"What do they read? How do they get their information whether a new movie is good or not?" asked Wilson.

"Social media. Facebook,” replied Ally. “You look at the TV ads. You watch the trailers on YouTube. You just get a vibe. For instance, Rotten Tomatoes publishes a percentage figure of positive reviews for each major film. But I doubt that kids go to see a new movie simply because it received a high score there. But it’s an influencer."

“It’s not like the old days,” added Margo, “when you read Pauline Kael in The New Yorker and decided then and there whether to see the film based on what she wrote.”

Ally had never heard of Pauline Kael. Margo couldn’t believe it.

“Well, go to Amazon right now and order her books. Pauline Kael had clout.” Margo then proceeded to tell her daughter the Bonnie And Clyde story. How newspapers and magazines had dismissed the movie when it first came out, dooming it to die in oblivion. But Pauline Kael wrote a 7,000-word article for The New Yorker calling the film brilliant and revolutionary. The movie was re-released, and lines formed around the block in New York and L.A. The New York Times fired its long-time film critic over it, and the Newsweek critic rushed back to see it again and wrote that his first review was wrong and the film was, indeed, a classic. Time magazine put the movie on its cover, which in those days was a publicity pinnacle.

"That’s when critics meant something," concluded Margo.

"Those days are over," Wilson said. "No more."

That December, Wilson asked Sara to find out the online traffic for the music critic, the art critic, the dance critic, the drama critic and the movie critic. The music and art critics, both of them fine writers who had separately won Pulitzer Prizes, had gained in readership in recent months. The dance critic had a selective readership, relatively small but growing a bit over the last year. The drama critic’s traffic had dropped in recent months. But the clicks on the movie critic told Wilson everything he needed to know. In the first two weeks after Sean was hired, his traffic had soared considerably higher than Charles’. But the readers turned away after the first few paragraphs. By contrast, Charles’ readers stayed with the reviews until the end. In the last two weeks, Sean’s clicks had dropped precipitously. Now his traffic was the same as Charles’. And probably it would keep falling.

Two days later, Sara walked into Wilson’s and placed a printout on his desk. She was nervous. She avoided looking at her boss. "I wouldn’t bother you with this, but I think you should know. Let me read it to you,” she said. It was Sean’s Ten Best Movies list.

"The first film is ‘a futuristic and often stunningly beautiful Japanese film where sex dolls commit virtual hari-kari against a swirl of film noir intrigue, philosophical speculation, eye-popping images and science fiction cool.’ The second film is ‘a moving comedy turned tragedy from an Icelandic director that centers on two sheep-herding brothers who break their 40-year-silence when their herds descend into crisis.’ The third one is a Chinese film that’s ‘a hypnotically beautiful dream which opens with curls of smoke, eddies of water and men soaring across the frame as effortlessly as silk ribbons.’"

"I get it," said Wilson in a tight voice.

"The Chinese film is supposed to open in two weeks only at that art theatre in Santa Monica. I’ll skip the Nigerian film," Sara continued. "Fifth on the list is the Denzel Washington movie. Sixth is the Jodie Foster film directed by David Fincher. Then comes Spielberg. Then a Bulgarian film about – I kid you not — a struggling farm family.”

Wilson interrupted Sara. "This is his Ten Best Movies list? Mostly obscure foreign films that no one sees?"

She nodded. “He says The New York Times does it.”

"Well, tell him I don’t give a fuck about the pretensions of The New York Times film critics," Wilson said, nearly shouting. "I want the Ten Best American films."

Wilson was breathing heavily now. He picked up the phone and called the publisher as Sara left, Then Wilson put on his jacket and asked the paper’s deputy editor to take over the daily afternoon news meeting. That done, Wilson left the building.

It took him 30 minutes in rush hour traffic to drive from downtown to the Hollywood Hills. He pressed the buzzer. He heard Charles’ voice.

"Hello?"

"It’s me, Wilson."

A pause.

"Charles, it’s me. Wilson. Let me in."

Wilson heard the buzzer. The gate opened. He parked in the driveway and walked up the steps. The front door was open. Charles stood there. Wilson realized he had never once seen Charles without his uniform — the vested suit and expensive shoes and perfectly groomed hair. Or ever seen Charles without a smile or a morsel of gossip. Charles always left a trail of laughter wherever he went. But now he wore loose sweatpants, a flannel shirt and slippers. He was unshaven. Wilson realized that Charles had worn a hair piece all these years.

Charles was somber. "This is the real me," he said very quietly.

"No," Wilson said, "the real you comes to the office every day.”

Wilson awkwardly hugged him. Then the executive editor walked into the living room and sat on the sofa.

"Can I get you a drink?" Charles asked.

"Sure," said Wilson. "Vodka. No ice." Pause. "So what have you been doing?"

Charles lifted a large framed photo of Gloria Swanson walking down the steps of her mansion in Sunset Boulevard. Wilson looked at the inscription: “To Charles, my darling. I’m big. It’s the pictures that got small. Isn’t that the truth, my sweet. Love, Gloria." Charles said he was redecorating and placing the photo in his bedroom. Wilson watched him pour two glasses of vodka. Charles handed Wilson one of the glasses and kept the other for himself.

Wilson took a drink then asked, "Can you send me a list of the Ten Best Movies of the year? Sara needs it by tomorrow."

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About The Author:
Nikki Finke
Nikki Finke is Founder & CEO of Hollywood Dementia LLC and an authority on the entertainment industry. She is now writing showbiz short fiction for the first time. She is best known as Editor-in-Chief & Founder of Deadline Hollywood from March 2006 to December 2013. Before her 30-year Hollywood journalism career, Nikki reported on national, political and international news. @NikkiFinke
Jack Perry Show  1

The Andy Perry Show

by Ned Dymoke

A late-night TV talk show host is going through an existential career crisis caused by an anniversary. 4,767 words. Illustration by John Mann.


"Even a weak man should want to leave a legacy," Andy had said, rather off-handedly, to the man sitting next to him. It had meant nothing at the time, but years later it became difficult for his narrative to escape those ten words that had been so hastily scribbled down moments later.

They weren’t his last words, either. Those had been "Here it is."

And the first word Andy Perry ever spoke was "peas," blurted out at 14 months old from the back seat of his mother’s 1964 Ford Bronco.

Andy had said a lot of things between his first and his last words. It was in many respects his full-time job, and he was very  good at it. Every Monday through Thursday night, from 11 pm to midnight in New York City, he stood in front of a large group of people and a few television cameras and said a lot of things that in turn caused people to laugh. That was his job, and at times its sheer simplicity made him feel uneasy on a base level, as if he fundamentally should be doing something else.

He secretly envied people who work with their hands, yet found it hard to verbalize this to anyone who does lest they think he was mocking them. He could watch people cook for hours. And when he managed to escape the confines of the building’s television studio and his adjacent offices, he’d find an inconspicuous hole-in-the-wall restaurant nearby and watch the chef’s hands for hours.

This helped explain why he was an hour late to rehearsals on this particular day in late October.

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About The Author:
Ned Dymoke
Ned Dymoke is a writer whose work has appeared in Vice, Interview, Playboy, Esquire, Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Channel and other media under the name Ned Hepburn. He has published two books, Brother Louie and Life's Rich Pattern, and is currently writing for TV and film. He just finished a novel.
My Life Uncovered Part Two

My Life Uncovered
Part Two

by Lynn Isenberg

The screenwriter is made a shocking offer she can’t refuse. Continued from Part One. 3,094 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.


Hours later I lay awake on Corie’s couch thinking about the good night’s rest I can’t seem to manage. I flip on the television set scanning channels, but it only leaves me feeling agitated. I stop on the E! Network to watch the story of legendary producer Robert Evans, who gave us Love Story, The Godfather, and many others. I’m consoled by the battles he had to endure to get his movies made. His persistence and risk-taking paid off and I hope someday mine will, too. I flip some more, this time to AMC, playing Gone With The Wind. I watch as Scarlett O’Hara stands defiant and determined to survive. Magically I’m mesmerized, as if seeing it for the first time as opposed to the forty-sixth.

I calm down, reminding myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. My father inspired a love of movies in me. Films offer strength and courage, provide life’s lessons, spark laughter, elicit tears, and create the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, experiencing the vicissitudes of someone else’s journey, which helps you appreciate your own. I exhale and settle into a remedy of escape from my own problems in total solidarity with Scarlett.

It’s 8:00 am when Corie graciously drops me off at the mechanic’s shop. The first thing that Joseph tells me is that he’s got this cousin in the San Fernando Valley with a production company who’s always looking for good scripts. “I gave him your script last night. He thinks you’re a talented writer,” says Joseph.

“He does? He read it in one night?”

“Yeah. He wants to meet you. Go see him. You can pay me back in a month.” Joseph hands me my car keys, a bill reduced to a thousand dollars and the address to the Accent Film Company.

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About The Author:
Lynn Isenberg
Lynn Isenberg launched Focus Media for her writing, producing and marketing. Early in her career, she worked on studio films and co-created a cable design series. She co-produced the First Internet Film & Music Festival and founded the Hollywood Literary Retreat. Her first novel My Life Uncovered is excerpted here; her second novel is a fiction trilogy The Funeral Planner.
My Life Uncovered Part One

My Life Uncovered
Part One

by Lynn Isenberg

A talented female screenwriter loses her Hollywood dreams. Part Two posted. 3,212 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.


I can’t believe what I have just heard. I repeat the words that I think rolled off the studio producer’s tongue because I am suddenly unable to decipher the meaning of them.

“What do you mean there’s no deal?” I ask, my heart pumping furiously.

“There never was any deal,” he says, leaning back in his chair beside a pile of screenplays, contracts, and production budgets. “Who’d you say your agent was again?”

“Scott Sher at the Significant Talent Agency,” I repeat.

“Hmmm.I thought I knew all the agents at STA. Never met him,” says Lee Weston, a high-profile movie producer on the lot of a major film studio. “What exactly did he tell you… Linda?”

“It’s Laura. Laura Taylor. And he told me the deal was done months ago,” I affirm.

My memory can’t be that bad. After all, why would I quit my job at STA, the hottest talent agency in town, if there hadn’t been a deal? Scott had told me to leave and stick with writing. I wonder, can Alzheimer’s strike at twenty-nine? Maybe it’s some sort of studio conspiracy against struggling writers. Or perhaps this guy is an imposter and the real tanned-face Weston has the contract for my screenplay with him on a sandy-white beach in Fiji.

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About The Author:
Lynn Isenberg
Lynn Isenberg launched Focus Media for her writing, producing and marketing. Early in her career, she worked on studio films and co-created a cable design series. She co-produced the First Internet Film & Music Festival and founded the Hollywood Literary Retreat. Her first novel My Life Uncovered is excerpted here; her second novel is a fiction trilogy The Funeral Planner.
Bender In Aspen chair2

Bender In Aspen

by Michael Elias

A screenwriter after a life change meets a woman he’s determined not to love. 3,242 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.


Bender once wrote a screenplay about a man whose wife leaves him. Heartbroken and desperate, he visits a Voodoo priestess.

“Can you help me?” 

“Yes, my darling. I can make your wife fall in love with you again or I can make you forget her. Which would you like?”

Bender could hardly believe his luck. On the other hand, it might have been his wit, recent weight loss, tooth whitener, and the really cool socks he bought in London.

That’s what Ms. Dworkin said, “Those are really cool socks.”

Adding to Bender’s sprightlier step was the feeling that he was finally over the pain of his divorce.

“Bender, I don’t know about you but I’ve had enough. We can’t go on like this. I want out.”

It occurred to Bender to suggest they stay together another ten years and then re-evaluate the marriage, but he knew he didn’t have the energy for more couples therapy or workshops at Esalen where he and Nina had taken Connecting Through Conflict, Recovering Resiliency And Reversing Depletion and finally, Letting Go And Moving On with Tom Marshalek, PhD.

Damascus occurred at a screening in the Writers Guild Theater. From his seat in the last row, Bender saw Nina enter with a middle-aged man in a Harris Tweed jacket and a brown turtleneck. Ordinarily, Bender would have pronounced him an asshole for trying to look like an English professor. Instead, he thought, my ex-wife is with an English professor. Bender’s conversion continued: the English professor looked like a nice guy and Nina seemed happy to be with him.  He watched them settle in their seats. The man put a leather elbow-patched arm around Nina and she tilted her head against his shoulder. For the first time Bender realized the truth of Dr. Marshalek’s mantra: if you really love her, why wouldn’t you want her to be happy? Nina was in good hands. The cloud lifted and the movie began.

And now he was in a taxi heading to Aspen with Ms. Dworkin, the woman he’d met in the boarding area of the Los Angeles Airport who asked him about his socks.

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About The Author:
Michael Elias
Michael Elias belongs to the WGA, DGA, the Academy's Writers Branch and its Foreign Language Committee. His produced screenplays include The Jerk, The Frisco Kid, Serial, Envoyez les Violons, Trick Baby and Young Doctors In Love. He wrote and directed the jazz drama Lush Life. He co-created the TV series Head Of The Class. His TV adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Dead Man In Deptford is set with John Maybury to direct. His first novel The Last Conquistador was published. Glimmer Train's Short Story Award named him a finalist.
Closing the deal FINAL2

Closing The Deal

by Allison Silver

An ex-studio boss tries to cast a crazy music superstar in the first film he’s producing. 3,704 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


Ben had been working on Art Manning, hard, for almost a week now.

They had done business together in past, since Manning was a powerful lawyer whose roster of A-list clients could set a deal in motion and often helped close it. He was regarded as a combative litigator, but also as a top-notch negotiator – something not always said about powerful entertainment attorneys.

When Manning came in to negotiate a deal, he never inadvertently killed it. He was not one of those lawyers whose art collections were more celebrated than their legal skills.

Ben knew that many industry lawyers were only too happy to have Manning in on a negotiation. It was one way of assuring that they would get the best possible pay-out for their client – as long as they were on the same side of the table as Manning.

Now Ben needed help for the new independent production company he was starting. He didn’t want to admit it, but he’d been unnerved by his most recent industry party. He had never thought that roughly a third of his guests would leave once he was no longer head of a studio. Was this something he needed to worry about now? Should he prepare for a life of slights? His name falling off an important agent’s call list? Never making it to the top of the queue to buy a Gursky? Ben cut off this line of thought. It was a waste of time. He had built his many relationships over years of doing business. Relationships were what mattered in Hollywood. People would always take his calls.

This picture was a good starting point. It would grab that attention of everyone in town. Over the years, many different directors and producers had tried to set up this script. But it had eluded, even stumped, them all.

Ben was certain that he had the key. Howard would make it work. Ben decided that it was going to take longer than he had planned to assemble a deal. A slog, not a quick march. But he had the skills – and patience – required to win. And winning was all that mattered.

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About The Author:
Allison Silver
Allison Silver is the executive editor of Reuters Opinion. She was Politico's Opinion editor and Los Angeles Times' Sunday Opinion editor as well as an editor at The New York Times Week in Review and founding editor of the Washington Independent. Her brother is Joel Silver, the film and TV producer. She just completed a Hollywood novel Lulu In Babylon excerpted here.
Dinner at the Bigelows FINAL

Dinner At The Bigelows

by Linda Boroff

A Hollywood cad tries to seduce an innocent teenaged girl only to get what he deserves. 2,824 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


At age sixteen, Tessa Markey learned once and for all that fate would not be thwarted. No matter how elaborate her avoidance strategy and cautious her moves, fate simply bided its time, and then it came for her.

Tessa’s father was a singer and actor who had once “turned Hollywood on its ear,” according to Tessa’s mother. But the bottle would not leave him be. His frequent absences had elongated, like a piece of chewing gum stretched, until the connection with his family became a tenuous strand. The year was 1966: Tessa and her mother now lived in a grimy white stucco apartment house in south Santa Monica that stood as a testament to the past decade’s casual building codes. The place even had a name, “The Spafford,” written with a flourish above the entrance in silver glitter gone gray and dour, like an aged starlet. Tessa thought of the suffering that resided behind every door in her neighborhood. The homes were flimsy, with cheap siding and fiberglass awnings bolted on cockeyed. The yards were patchy and sparse, littered with battered toys and obsolete engine parts. A fever seemed to emanate from the windows, from the very crevasses of the sidewalk. At night, shouting and screams pierced the dark along with sounds of shattering glass and occasional gunfire.

The Spafford fronted the deadly torrent of rush hour traffic on Olympic Boulevard, which every morning Tessa crossed at her peril to catch the city bus to school. The high school clerks knew of Mr. Markey’s fondness for pills and liquor. They also knew that, after her husband left, Mrs. Markey’s own nervous condition had worsened, limiting her to part-time work.

“Well, Mom’s in the bucket, too,” noted the junior class guidance counselor to the attendance clerk. “Either we find little Miss Markey an after-school job or she is going to end up on the wrong side of the tracks.”

So the high school placement officer sent Tessa Markey to babysit for the Bigelows’ two children. Hugh Bigelow was the vice president of finance for a large movie studio. (“I count the beans for the big boys,” he would explain.) He was a pear-shaped Texan with watery blue eyes and flaxen hair pasted across the reddish dome of his skull. His accent was redolent of sagebrush, dogies and lariats, which may have been why Ida Bigelow talked over him. Mrs. Bigelow was small and quick, with curly light brown hair that fell to her shoulders. She came from one of those states that were all jammed into the upper right side of the country and whose names had to be printed out in the Atlantic Ocean.

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About The Author:
Linda Boroff
Linda Boroff is a film scripter and award winning short story writer. She adapted the biography Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story (now titled Fast Fade) for producer Don Murphy. Her short story in Cornell University’s Epoch literary journal was optioned by director Brad Furman and acquired by Sony for a series on The Sundance Channel.
Savant

Savant

by Mark Fearing

A search for the script reader accurately predicting Hollywood’s hits and misses. 2,789 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.


I noticed a detail on a Tuesday afternoon that changed my life.

There I was, studio executive Ben Kurtwin, reading scripts from successfully made movies like some office assistant or film student. I know this will surprise you, but sometimes studio execs read scripts. Especially when they’re a junior exec clinging to their job. And let’s be honest – I don’t want to be fired because what the hell else can I do? I have no actual fucking skills.

Anyway, I was reading scripts from the previous few years’ biggest hits looking for the intangible that makes a popular film. All of these big-earning features had been offered to Destination Studios where I currently spend my days and many nights, but we’d bought only a few. Enough to keep on doing what we do. But I wanted to see first-hand what my dearly departed colleagues had missed and why we had passed on pictures that had gone on to make mountains of money. Maybe the answer lay on the page after all.

As I started to read Death On Mercury, the biggest moneymaker from last year, that’s when it happened. The detail I noticed wasn’t something in the script but from the coverage. The reader had given this screenplay a big thumbs-up and a high score and advised the studio to jump on it. The reader’s name was “Jody.”

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About The Author:
Mark Fearing
Mark Fearing is an author and illustrator who has worked in TV and New Media for Sony, Disney, Nickelodeon, Freemantle, Adobe, Apple, Dreamworks Online and Microsoft. His children’s books have been published by Chronicle Books, Disney-Hyperion, Dial Books, HMH Books, and soon by Knopf Books and Candlewick Press.
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The Dark Place

by J.M. Rosenfield

A TV reporter looks to explain a surprising tragedy on a female filmmaker’s movie shoot. 2,184 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


The plane was taxiing to the gate at LAX when the text came in, instructing me to turn around. No time even to run home, shower, and change. I caught the next flight back to Albuquerque where I met the crew, a local camera guy Juan, and his soundman Pete, the same two I’d used the day before. Their minivan was still packed with gear, so I sent them ahead and re-rented the dusty Grand Cherokee that I had turned in only a few hours earlier. There was some nervous talk from the news desk about efforting a live shot in time for the New York feed. But that plan went away after I explained it was at least a two-hour drive to Taos, and another fifteen minutes to the bridge. We’d be lucky to roll on anything before losing the light.

When I had first arrived at the location the day before, the film company was shooting their final scenes. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is the fifth highest in the U.S., a graceful configuration of inverted steel arches that towers hundreds of feet over desert scrub and sinister black basalt. The view extends to infinity across an immense crack in the earth’s crust, where vast open sky collides with flat scarred rock. You stand suspended on this desolate patch of two-lane highway and it feels like you’re floating over the edge of an abyss. It’s no accident the apocalyptic sight lines have graced wide-screen epics like Natural Born Killers and Terminator Salvation.

But the atmosphere on the set that day was relaxed. The light was bright and flat, the air crystalline. The road was closed to traffic and a few dozen cast and crew were going about their business, pleased to see us. There was one page in the script left to shoot. It was some walk and talk with the leads. Easy stuff. No action. Nothing too dramatic. All the heavy lifting had been done after eight weeks on location. It felt like a going away party, good vibes and plenty of practical jokes to go around. Lots of backslapping and “see you on the next one.”

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About The Author:
J.M. Rosenfield
J.M. Rosenfield has worked in many aspects of Hollywood film and media. He was location manager for On Golden Pond and Carny and produced the sci-fi feature Wavelength and its soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. He was a producer, writer, and segment director for Entertainment Tonight and newswriter at KNBC and KTLA.
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In The Land Of Nod

by Richard Natale

A famous actor and renown director find themselves in a terrifying scene together. 3,867 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.


Lew Baird removed his suit jacket and hung it in the closet, pleased to find actual wooden hangers, the kind that most hotels are afraid the guests will steal. He thought of removing his pants as well, just to keep them from wrinkling, but on the off chance that a maid popped in and found him in his BVDs, he decided against it. She’d probably sell the information or post it online and his Twitter account would explode with the pros and cons of his underwear choices.

Picking over the fruit and cheese basket, he decided to sample neither. The cheese would give him stink breath and the pineapple fiber might get lodged in his teeth. He had brought neither a toothbrush nor floss to the film junket. Of course, he could always ask some publicist to run out to a drugstore and get some. Seemed like an awful lot of trouble; not the act of dispatching someone to CVS, but rather the effort of having to summon a flack and convey his wishes.

Hang in there, just one more interview and the day will be over, he told himself as he eased into an armchair, shut his eyes and took a few of those deep relaxation breaths which Bo, his trainer, had taught him. If Lew could only think of a way to blow off that meeting tonight with Alice and her investor and ask Greta up for dinner. They could have Chinese or Italian and watch one of the Academy screeners gathering dust on the shelf of his home screening room. Then he remembered that his assistant had flown home for a family emergency. And since Lew didn’t travel with a posse, he had no one to pick up take-out from Mr. Chow or Spago. He couldn’t very well expect Greta to bring her own food; and he certainly didn’t want to be seen in public with her. The relationship was too new for that.

Before he could think on it further, he had fallen asleep. He was awoken by a meek looking woman. “Mr. Baird,” she said in a supplicant tone. “Sorry to disturb you, but we’re ready for your 4:15.”

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About The Author:
Richard Natale
Richard Natale is a film journalist and writer whose short stories have appeared in Wilde Oats, Chelsea Station, Gertrude and Off the Rocks. His recent novel Café Eisenhower was an honorable mention at the 2015 Rainbow Awards. His latest novel is Love On The Jersey Shore. Natale wrote/directed Green Plaid Shirt, an indie feature which played at film festivals globally.
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The Twittermorphosis

by Diane Haithman

A female screenwriter heeds her agent’s social media advice with unexpected results. 6,129 characters. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


Truth is stranger than fiction, but nothing is stranger than Twitter. Which is too bad because I might be spending the rest of my life here.

That’s right. I’m a successful screenwriter, stuck in Twitter. Find me. @GinaS

Correction: Truth not stranger than fiction, just way more stupid. Especially here in Hollywood.

Backstory: I’m Gina, 42, and I’m good. Writing creds: 2 dramas right out of USC, 3 romcoms and new script (all-girl theft ring on cruise ship).

Beating the odds, right? WGA 2015 stats say 89% screenwriters male. And over 40? Well, I can’t even. But I, Gina Sampson, was nailing it.

Also had boyfriend with no kids, no exes and no mommy issues. At 42. BOOM!

But no, not good enuf for my agent (male). Pious confabs urging Hollywood diversity just made him scared of losing the beach house.

Instead of encouraging me with new Meryl Streep program funding over-40 women in H’wood, my male agent just got more spooked.

So, wait for it: my agent (56, b’day party at Sugarfish) pulls me aside to say I’d seem more youthful if I had more Twitter followers.

Smash cut to me throwing up my yellowfin.
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Diane Haithman on twitter
About The Author:
Diane Haithman
Diane Haithman was an LA Times Calendar staff writer covering entertainment and arts for two decades. She is a frequent contributor to Deadline and Awardsline and other publications and published her first novel. She was film reviewer and Hollywood columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She serves on the adjunct faculty of the USC School of Journalism.
Bill Scheft 10 Sean Penn

My Time Is Up, You’ve Been Great

by Bill Scheft

The incorrigible Tommy Dash appears to be up to old tricks. But he also has some new ones. 3,742 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.


I’m writing this in the Admirals Club at LAX. Normally, I would just wait at the gate and time my Placidyl for ten minutes before I think they’ll start to board. But the red-eye to Newark isn’t for another three hours and I need to be clear-headed in case Sean Penn shows up to interview me.

That’s why I gave the guy checking names 50 bucks, and I can now drink for free and eat my weight in party mix.

I feel the need to write this post here, at the airport, because I’m still technically in LA. If you’re going to run your mouth on a show business site called “Hollywood Dementia,” you really should be here. Here. The Greater Hollywood Area. Actually, the Greater and Less Than Hollywood Area, which extends all the way to the prison where Liberace’s old boyfriend has a time-share. And you really should be in show business: film, television, long-playing records. They have yet to rule on whether stand-up is show business, although a maître d’ in a Vegas lounge once said to me, “You’re just a buffet that tells jokes.” Where I’m going doesn’t count, and whatever I’ll do when I get there certainly doesn’t qualify.  Reminds me of The Odd Couple when Felix, who has been ghosting Broadway reviews for Oscar, appears on a TV panel posing as Oscar’s doctor while Oscar feigns laryngitis. At one point, he snaps at John Simon, “You call what you have in Los Angeles theater?” Same thing.

Jesus, I haven’t even finished my first Wild Turkey and I’m quoting a 40-year-old sitcom? What a fucking hack.

Maybe that’s why I finally got shit-canned three weeks ago. Because I’m a hack.

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Bill Scheft on twitter
About The Author:
Bill Scheft
Bill Scheft was a 16-time Emmy-nominated writer for David Letterman from 1991 until May 20, 2015. He spent 12 years touring as a stand-up comedian until he was hired as a monologue writer for Late Night With David Letterman on NBC. He has authored 4 novels: The Ringer, Time Won't Let Me (2006 Thurber Prize For American Humor finalist) , Everything Hurts, and his latest Shrink Thyself. @billscheft
Heigl2 FINAL

The Assistant To The Assistant For An Actress Not Ms. Heigl

by Tom Ruprecht

A new assistant to a famous actress gets hired only to find out the reality of working in showbiz. 2,354 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


“First off, you’re not going to meet the actress who’s not Katherine Heigl, so let’s just get that little fantasy out of your head right now.”

Clutching her resume, Ally Larson nods.

Nicole sternly continues. “The job is to be my assistant. You assist me. I assist the actress who’s not Katherine Heigl. You get it?”

Again, Ally obediently nods although she really didn’t need the stalker chat. She has no burning desire to meet an actress who’s not Katherine Heigl.

“Seriously, you can forget that fantasy you probably have that you and the actress who’s not Katherine Heigl will be drinking Cosmos while she solves the problems of your love life,” Nicole scoffs.

Cosmos? Ally thinks everything about that screams 2008. Well, aside from the problematic love life. That is still very much a thing with 2016 Ally.

“Whatever,” Ally replies in keeping with the “I love 2008“ theme. “I honestly didn’t come here with any expectations.”

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About The Author:
Tom Ruprecht
Tom Ruprecht is the head writer of Comedy Central's The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. He previously wrote for How I Met Your Mother, Alpha House, and Late Show With David Letterman nominated for 11 Emmys. He wrote the book, This Would Drive Him Crazy: A Phony Oral History of J.D. Salinger.
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The Stand-In

by Steven Axelrod

The FBI and LAPD pursue the notorious Hollywood killer teaching a UCLA film class. 3,721words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.


Special Agent Phillip Kennis lifted the mini-bar bottle of orange juice and toasted his image in the mirror. He hadn’t taken a real drink in fourteen years and he had never been a breakfast drunk, anyway. But he wouldn’t have minded a touch of champagne in the Tropicana this morning. He finally had something to celebrate.

After close to half a million man hours including his own team and the state police and local cops in four cities in two states; after a closed door Congressional hearing, two review boards and a suspension over his methods and attitude; after a work-related divorce and eight months of eating Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese out of the microwave, he was finally going to arrest the Auteur.

The Auteur wasn’t some Rambo-like killing machine. He wasn’t even particularly fit. He was devious, not physically intimidating. Today, he was just an ordinary guy, standing in the pit of a lecture hall, teaching a course called Directing Actors — the tabloids would have a ball with that one. It was going down this morning, in a little more than an hour, when the film classes started at UCLA.

The paperwork was done – Phil wasn’t going to make that mistake again: no more cowboy stuff, no more improvisations. The judge had signed off on the raid just before midnight, and shaken Phil’s hand with a terse, “Go get him, son.” It was an uncharacteristic moment of warmth. Judge Howard Kyle was an unapologetic civil liberties fanatic who despised the Patriot Act and the men who took advantage of it. Phil had come up against him before. But this was different. Judge Kyle had seen the captured film — part of it at least.

“I walk out of regular movies all the time,” he said. “I walked out of Inglourious Basterds when they started beating people to death with baseball bats, and that was make-believe. I saw precisely as much of this one as the letter of the law required.”

So the Auteur had brought them together in a moment of bipartisan law enforcement and judicial solidarity, when nothing else had ever come close. That felt good. The Auteur had unwittingly created that irony, along with his high-end murder porn.

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About The Author:
Steven Axelrod
Steven Axelrod has written for directors Gil Cates, Irvin Kerschner, Roger Spottiswood and for Howard Intl, Hemdale, Concorde, Tapestry and Arama Films among others. Son of Hollywood writer/producer George Axelrod, Steven is currently writing a series of mystery novels for Poisoned Pen Press. This excerpt is from his noir thriller Heat Of The Moment published by Gutter Books.
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Bitter Tears

by John Donald Carlucci

An ingénue learns a lot more than she expects from her Hollywood agent. 2,890 words. Story and illustration by John Donald Carlucci.


Four weeks after I stepped off the bus from Atlanta and saw the street signs for Hollywood and Vine for the first time, I was standing on a small stage giving a monologue before several bored agents and managers.

My roommate had persuaded me to take part with her in a showcase that bit into my meager savings for $300. I couldn’t even afford ramen noodles with what remained, but I did what she wanted because I was that kind of go-along, get-along girl. Plus, I figured I was moving closer to my dream. Baby steps are still steps forward.

The smell of mold, pee, and something not dissimilar to despair permeated the lobby where I waited to pay my ‘appearance’ fee. Sharon had bailed at the last minute because she wasn’t feeling well, or so she said. That girl didn’t have what it took to make it here, and I expected to be searching for a new roommate once she ran home to mama. I looked over the list of agents and managers attending the event but the other actors said there was no one they recognized. I guess it was ridiculous to expect CAA to be at a cattle call like this.

I chose Jessica Lange’s monologue as Constance Langdon in American Horror Story. Season One. Episode Four. It was a minute long and I hoped to make a better impression hitting the crowd hard and fast. The room felt claustrophobic in its smallness as I walked out on the creaky stage. The lights were in my eyes. The assembly seemed short on audience.

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About The Author:
John Donald Carlucci
John Donald Carlucci is a writer and illustrator with recent work in the H.P. Lovecraft 20th Anniversary Film Festival, Strange Aeons Magazine, and Hollywood Dementia. He is currently developing Kid Lovecraft animation and his new horror novel Project Epiphany.
pic Nobodys Oscar FINAL - Warming

Nobody’s Oscar

by Nat Segaloff

OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: An unceremonious tale behind the history of Hollywood and the mob. 2,125 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


In a glass case at the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there stands in silent solitude a lonely Oscar statuette. It carries no name plate. And its hollow eyes stare in gilded oblivion at the countless people who pass it every day without so much as a moment’s curiosity. The award belongs to screenwriter Harper Monroe Farrow, yet it’s never been claimed. That’s because there is no such person, male or female, living or dead. Of this I’m certain.

The Academy, in its unyielding discretion, has never spoken of the orphaned Oscar. New employees are told only that it must remain under lock and key because AMPAS rules dictate it can go only to the person who won it. And no one has ever proven to be Harper Morrow Farrow.

Speculation abounds why this is nobody’s Oscar. It’s clear to me that Harper Morrow Farrow is a pseudonym. Some believe it belongs to the prolific Ben Hecht, who famously wrote or rewrote some 100 films during his colorful career and reputedly maintained a cadre of apprentices to churn out first drafts that he would polish before attaching his name and sending an invoice. Others say it was any of a number of contract writers fed up with scripting crap for their studios but who couldn’t take credit for the winning screenplay because they would have been fired for moonlighting. A few spin that it’s a blacklisted writer who died without revealing his or her true identity. Still more insist it was a Hollywood insider who dared not claim authorship of such a truthful screenplay.

The fact is that Harper Monroe Farrow won the vote for Best Original Screenplay in 1939 for the movie Beyond Utopia. Official records, of course, show that Gone With The Wind, written by Sidney Howard (but rewritten by Ben Hecht and others) was announced as the winner. Not to take away from David O. Selznick’s crowning achievement, but Farrow’s script for Beyond Utopia was deemed better written that year.

No copy of the Beyond Utopia screenplay exists anywhere — not in the Academy’s library or at the Writers Guild. Nor is the film available either because all prints were destroyed. Finally, anyone connected with the production has long since died. Trust me, I’ve searched for anything and anyone connected to this film.

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About The Author:
Nat Segaloff
Nat Segaloff is a writer and journalist who has been a teacher (Boston University, Boston College), studio publicist (Fox, UA, Columbia) and broadcaster (Group W, CBS, Storer). He has authored 12 books and the latest Mr. Huston/Mr. North: Life, Death, And Making John Huston’s Last Movie. He also produces documentaries.