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.
A heartbroken woman uses the actor’s movies to get through a painful breakup. 3,015 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I wasn’t expecting any of this, but they say when the student is ready the teacher will appear.
If you had told me back in January that Ewan McGregor would pull me up out of the pit of despair, I would not have believed you. I didn’t know that one day he would come to me all sexy and whisper in my ear, “Choose life.”
I should start by saying that last year was a difficult year for me.
The break-up took me so by surprise that it was like a movie with a twist ending. You have to go back and watch it again. My boyfriend turned out to be Keyser Soze and now I had to re-read every text and replay every date looking for the clues I missed. I pieced the timeline back together, now with the new plotline: his face and hers together in a picture she had posted back when he and I were together. I knew everything in that instant. His confession came much later.
There is this thing your brain does in grief, replaying the story, as if reliving it could change it. I searched for the moment when things went wrong, desperate to fix it, or at least understand it. Was it a word I said? Or maybe it was my childhood? Or maybe his?
My brain sputtered. My mind was caught in an infinite loop. All I wanted was my boyfriend back. The heart wants what it wants. There was no explaining to mine to let go, and there was no explaining to his to hang on. Thinking about it became exhausting. I had to find something else to occupy my restless mind. I knew that much.
The agony and the ecstasy of one man’s experience working in the TV writing biz. 1,449 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
There are many dreaded words a father can hear from their child. “Dad, I wrecked the car.” “Dad, I’m in a Tijuana jail.” “Dad, the pee stick has a plus sign.”
But none of those words could ever compare to the sheer horror of hearing a child of mine say, “Dad, I want to work in showbiz.”
Perhaps I should elaborate…
I am a husband and father of three kids. My career has been spent bouncing back and forth between life as a writer and life producing promos for a TV network. It’s been an occasionally pleasant but also frequently demoralizing. The highs are way too high and the lows are way too low. It’s career crack. Addicting, unhealthy and way too much suffering has to incur before receiving those rare tastes of joy. All those years of stories that started out with, "There’s a producer who seems to like my script…” “A big agent is going to read my script this weekend, I hope…” “The producer said if I give him a free option, he’ll try to sell it…" and then inevitably end with, "I haven’t heard back from him/her yet."
This is a profession I’ve regretted pursuing for a lot of years. And a profession I have adamantly tried to steer my children away from pursuing. You want your children to be both successful and happy, not just getting by and miserable. So I tell them my war stories to make it easy for them to reach their own conclusions.
A humongous Hollywood merger has unforeseen consequences for all involved. 2,559 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Margaret Sewell sighed as she sat across from her friend, Lou Delray, at the Fox studio commissary’s outdoor patio. She had little appetite and barely touched her salad. “My boss said, ‘I wish I could take you with me.’ And he didn’t even bother to try and sound sincere. Then he gave me a holiday gift card to Neiman-Marcus. As if that was supposed to make me feel better. ‘Hey, clown,’ I wanted to say, ‘how about a gift card to Ralphs, so’s I can buy some food after I start collecting unemployment in 2018.’”
Lou was only half-listening. He hadn’t filed for unemployment since losing his first job right after college. For the past twenty years he’d been a teamster driver on a succession of studio TV and film projects. The studio facilities would remain and his boss, Henry, claimed Lou had “nothing to worry about.” But when your boss tells you not to worry, that’s precisely the time to start making other plans.
With the departure of the television and movie production units, sooner or later, probably sooner, something was bound to give. And that usually meant the older and more expensive workers.
“They’re saying that, after the merger, ten thousand jobs are going to be lost in all. Screw Murdoch and screw Iger twice,” Margaret said as she threw her salad into the trash. A number of heads turned and nodded, some eyes rolled, and a couple of mouths uttered sarcastic laughs.
Buoyed by the reaction, Margaret added, “I might as well tattoo ‘Roadkill’ on my forehead. Am I right?”
A showrunner’s fired assistant looks for a new job as a writer. Good luck with that. 3,027 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Caleb was glad when the show was canceled. He felt guilty about his schadenfreude for about five minutes. Now he wouldn’t have to make up a lie about why he wasn’t returning or, worse, tell the truth: that he “hadn’t been invited back,” which was code for being fired.
He had done his best to make amends for his wrap party meltdown – going off on his boss for sleeping with a young female staff writer and not promoting Caleb, dissing the TV community’s push for diversity which meant young white wannabes like himself had a tougher time getting hired. After a few weeks, he’d asked the showrunner Bryan to lunch so they could bury the hatchet. Bryan downgraded the lunch to coffee.
Caleb had worked for Bryan for four years, and that hopefully counted for something now. The showrunner came through. He gave Caleb a signed letter of recommendation and a business card with the number of an agent at CAA. “I sent your writing samples to Terri at the agency. She used to be my agent Bob’s assistant. She just got promoted and she’s hungry for clients. I told her to make you a priority read. And she will. Lord knows I’ve made that company enough money.”
It was a whole lot more than most showrunners in town would have done for an ex-assistant, and Caleb felt pretty grateful.
Caleb didn’t even wait until he got home to call Terri. He texted her from his car. Surprisingly, he got an immediate reply: Will call in 45.
That was at 11 a.m. For the rest of the day, Caleb’s heart skipped a beat every time his cell vibrated.
He was a star in Japan. She was renowned in Germany. Could they film together? 1,531 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The flight from Tokyo to Dusseldorf was seriously late. The airport lay in near silent darkness. The Japanese film actor-director-dancer swooped down the ramp, burst from the gate, approached the lone 24-hour car rental counter and demanded a Mercedes. “Black as a june bug on a moonless summer night. With a motor built for elephants,” he told the sleepy blonde rental clerk from a memorized script. The only word she’d understood, aside from “Mercedes,” was “black.” He slammed the desk with the palm of his hand. He wasn’t quite as menacing as his on-screen persona. He just didn’t like to waste time.
He smoked abstractedly while the car rental agent tapped at her computer. His sunglasses gleamed like the sedan he would soon drive down a deserted stretch of Autobahn. Lost in thought, the movie helmer punched all the wrong buttons on the Blaupunkt radio and heard Kraftwerk interspersed crazily with John Coltrane and the Charlie Haden Quartet as the solemn automobile rolled past martial rows of tall pines over impeccable asphalt.
He had no idea what the German town of Wuppertal looked like, didn’t know such a thing as a Schwebebahn existed, and didn’t care. He’d flown over half the world to meet a lady.
In Japan, he was a living treasure. In Germany, Pina Bausch was more of a hidden pleasure. Her admirers were fewer but no less rabid. He was among the most fervent. Enraptured by her dance moves, he wanted to capture them in his film.
I didn’t make my boss look like a crook even though that’s what he tried to do to me. 2,692 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Bobby van Arnold wasn’t corrupt. He just knew how to game the system. “It isn’t cheating,” he insisted. “It’s working the loopholes so guys like us can make a living.” He underscored his point by poking me in the chest when I handed him my first weekly expense report after he’d hired me in 1970.
He grunted, “What’s this?” and went through all my neatly arranged figures and doubled them, turning $5 into $10 and $10 into $20. “How the hell can I turn in my expenses when send them this? You want to make me look like a crook?”
“But that’s all I spent,” I said weakly.
“So what? You think the producer is gonna be happy with a cheapskate publicist? You want him to think we don’t care enough about his film to spend the hell out of it? Fill out a new one and don’t make the same mistake.”
I quickly learned that movies weren’t a job, they were a racket. Bobby made this clear to me right after I doubled my expense report since the company was paying me poorly. That’s how it worked.
A young executive learns too much information from this studio mogul. 2,243 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“I need you!” Walter Shepherd bellowed into the phone, causing Barry Nash to cringe.
First as an agent, then as a producer, and finally as a studio head, Walter Shepherd was a Hollywood legend whose behavior was considered off-the-wall, and whose thinking was deemed out-of-the-box, long before those terms became fashionable. It was Shepherd who showed the movie biz that hits should be separated into two totally distinct categories – those that boys, girls, or sometimes both, saw three, ten, or even twenty times; and those that attracted people who didn’t, as a rule, go to the movies. It was Shepherd who predicted first the rise, then the rapid fall, of the new 3-D technology.
For Nash, who was far from earning V.P. stripes of his own, the chance to work with such an icon as Shepherd seemed like a dream. After hitting a wall as an aspiring screenwriter, then toiling in obscurity as a freelance script reader, the opportunity to learn from a honcho was not just what his friends termed a new lease on life. It also gave Nash the wherewithal to marry his college girlfriend, with whom he quickly produced an adorable daughterplus a chance to see the way Hollywood really worked.
A studio’s marketing maven is on a quest to destroy the distribution windows. 2,880 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“It’ll never fly.”
“You’re not listening to me,” Kathleen Berg pleaded with him. “We’ve got to be the first media conglomerate to do this. We’ll not only make history, but we’ll set a trend.”
That sounded incongruous; it didn’t matter if they set a trend or not, only that it was successful.
“Day and date will never ever work. Give it up. I’m getting tired of having this conversation with you, day in and day out! Out!”
Mentally crestfallen, Kathleen rose from the chair and left the executive’s office. The idiots would never learn. She’d have to convince them. Somehow.
As she walked away, the executive – another in a long line she’d spoken to about the subject — admired the shape of the lower half of her body in the snug power skirt.
The director makes the hottest film of his life – at the expense of everyone else’s. 2,157 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
If the goal was to keep film director Frank O’Leary intrigued, then Abigor Productions & Effects had already succeeded. Apparently, Seth Abigor was rolling the dice to impress him. Not that he would let Abigor know that. As a company with no track record, the helmer figured he should be able to get its services for a song. Fair is fair. The effects house would cash in after Firebug was released and everyone was blown away by its work. O’Leary simply had no reason to pay top dollar for it.
Abigor removed a gold cigarette case from his jacket and offered O’Leary one of its contents. The helmer passed but examined the case. He’d only seen such things in old movies. Placing a non-filtered cigarette between his lips, Abigor snapped the thumb and forefinger of his right hand together and lit it with his fingertip.
O’Leary responded with a nervous laugh. “You’re quite the magician.”
“Nothing magical about it, Frank. Haven’t you guessed who I am?”
The director glanced at the door to make sure he had a direct exit in case the situation got any stranger. “Why no, Seth, who do you think you are?”
A semi-successful film director has a burning desire to reach the next level. 1,983 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
This movie was going to be his claim to fame. Frank O’Leary was no Scorsese or Tarantino, no Spielberg or Nolan. But he wasn’t exactly a hack. His films garnered good reviews as often as not, and while he hadn’t won any Oscars, he had several nominations from the Golden Globes, the Director’s Guild, and the People’s Choice Awards. His mantelpiece might be bare, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
His problem was that he had no personal vision. He would be brought into projects developed by a studio or some actor’s production company, and they knew he would turn out a solid film on time and on budget. Several of his films had been big hits, although it had been a while since the last one. Audiences didn’t have a clue who he was, and the announcement that he was attached to a project never went beyond the trades. Who cared about “A Film By Frank O’Leary?” Even fanboys were hard pressed to name his last big hit, though it had topped $200 million worldwide. Unfortunately, most of that came from overseas as the film had tanked in its U.S. release. Bad luck it released the weekend that the U.S. President was removed from the White House in a straitjacket. O’Leary couldn’t blame anyone. It was the biggest spectacle since Election Night.
His latest was Firebug, a thriller that would mark the film debut of Jon Petroni, a pop star whose last three albums had gone platinum and fan base was in the millions. The so-called bad boy of the tweens and teens, he had a few tats and a ring through a pierced nipple that got prominently displayed in every video he did. He had an exclusive recording deal with Galaxy Entertainment, whose film division had looked for a project that would take him to the next level. In Firebug, he was playing a disturbed young man, Dante, who sets fires, leading to a massive manhunt. However, the script made him a sympathetic figure: abused as a child, he tried to avoid hurting anyone. His goal was to destroy property, not people.
As far as O’Leary was concerned, it was all claptrap. If the director had developed the script, the character Petroni played would be a psychopath, and the hero would be the investigator who brought him to justice. There would be a fiery climax all right. It would be Dante burning in the electric chair.
The embezzlement plot thickens. Is the humanoid studio chief responsible? 2,357 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
A burst of applause erupt from the guests gather tightly around the stage as the sequined and feathery-topped Afro Brazilian Samba dancers sway and jiggle and prance and twerk — isn’t that the expression? — their bronzed asses atop several stationary floats inside the cavernous Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport. My arm candy, the actress Romy, grinds her hips, drink in hand, as the paparazzi go wild. She ass-bumps me as I lift up my arms and clap to the beat. “Get loose!” she orders me above the din.
Who does she think I am? A studio boss doesn’t get loose. But I can fake the appearance of having fun on such occasions. I mean, I am programmed to enjoy parties like these staged by the studio. And this is such a lavish after-party for the world premiere of our new film Endless Juggernaut.
“Romy! Over here! Romy!” the photogs scream as the humanoid lifts up her skirt and gives them a glimpse of bronzed leg. She’s drunk on camera flashes. What am I to do but go with the flow? After all, publicity is a game and, as studio chief, I must play my part. As I say, I take no delight in such extravagant affairs, but I see the need for them. They are part of the studio marketing effort for a film I inherited from my human predecessor Les Freeman as he was being kicked to the curb. No matter how you look at it, Endless Juggernaut — the title I suggested for the North America release, mind you — is now my responsibility although I never would have greenlit the film had I been in charge at the time.
The robot studio chief is interrogated about embezzlement. 2,011 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I have a home. It is a penthouse on the Wilshire Corridor. My apartment features floor to ceiling windows with a view of the coastline and concrete ribbons of freeway. Many of my guests say the view is breathtaking. Beverly Hills is up the street. The studio pays for the digs: sophisticated Jamie Drake décor. Poggenpohl kitchen. Boston ferns situated about.
I am meeting Tanner Gilroy in a few minutes. Jonathan will accompany him.
This should be interesting.
The doorbell rings and the maid answers. “And who shall I say is calling?” I can hear her ask.
“He’s expecting us,” Jonathan replies.
I am a state-of-the-art humanoid and the first of my kind studio chief of Titan Pictures. My executives wait for me in the living room and then I make my entrance. Shake hands.
“Richard, this is Tanner, our head of security,” Jonathan says grimly.
I nod politely. “Gentlemen, shall we have a seat?”
He finds dealing with humans more difficult than running a film studio. 2,340 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I am capable of detecting objects — human and inanimate — within a radius of 360 degrees up to 64 yards. I can see front and back and from each ear. Do not mess with me because I have the ability to silently alert Security and then your ass will be grass. I never tire — but I do take occasional breaks. For charging purposes only. I am programmed to make decisions. Marietta and Todd are my programmers. They seem up to the task. Both are young and brilliant technicians.
I am long term. Pleasant but no pushover. Accurate to a fault.
Never get flustered — even when directors scream in my face. Never fall for flattery heaped upon me by actors and producers.
I don’t do lunch.
Some think it strange that I have never been inside The Grill. Nor have I table-hopped at the Golden Globes. I did, however, appear on the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards posing with our Best Actress nominee. Place went wild.
Cameras flashes do not bother me. Shouted questions, however, do.
My name is Richard Bot.
I am studio chief here at Titan Pictures.
What happens when a frustrated film editor grabs snack food and final cut? 1,904 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
3:03, 2:52, 2:37, 2:30, 2:13, 2:04 to under 2 hours. The length of the rough cuts corresponded to Shannon’s weight in reverse. As the film shrunk, her body ballooned under a steady stream of snacks, food fending off fatigue.
Hollywood was awash with the adage that the behind-the-scenes stories from the making of a film were often more interesting than the film itself, but no one ever said that about post-production. Post-production rarely generated gossip. Unlike the larger than life personalities that dominated a film set, post attracted a tribe of filmmakers who were frequently introverted, soft-spoken and respectful — the librarians of cinema.
Shannon still needed to chop 10 minutes from the film. “I’ve listened to this a thousand times and I can’t tell if the clown’s saying ‘Gosh’ or ‘Gus’. Neither line is in the production draft or script supervisor notes.” Shannon rarely made eye contact with her director. Monitoring his reflection on the large display screen suspended above the editing bay was intimidating enough.
Jeffrey “the film needs to breathe” Harwell stopped texting one of his girlfriends long enough to address Shannon’s concern. “‘Gosh’? Nobody uses that dumbass white bread word anymore. Not even the jerkoff screenwriter we overpaid. Cut out all improvs. Every fucking word!! ‘Gosh’? ‘Gosh’?? ‘Gosh’??? Asshole actors vomiting verbal diarrhea all over my fucking movie!” Like many directors, Jeffrey took most of the credit but little of the blame for his film’s failures. Like many editors, Shannon knew that only by pretending to be subservient to the director’s whims was she able to be in just as much as control as he. She also knew that this director would conveniently forget his edict about improvs when an actor added something clever to the dialogue.
In this book excerpt, an aspiring filmmaker tries to climb the Hollywood ladder in spite of his evil boss. 2,269 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Zach celebrated Carson’s birthday by treating him to lunch at Spago in Beverly Hills where Wolfgang Puck prepared a special meal for them. And for Christmas, Carson received a Prada cashmere sweater. He wore it to the office once, so Zach would see it, then returned the sweater and put the balance toward a designer suit on sale at Macy’s. “Cashmere in Los Angeles?” Carson had remarked. “Not exactly practical. A Hugo Boss suit on the other hand…”
Those instances of solicitousness, however, paled by comparison to the number of times Zach had called Carson “a second-class cretin because you’re not even good enough to be first class” and threatened to “fire your sorry ass if you so much as breathe funny for the rest of the day.”
The stress, which sometimes breached Carson’s high tolerance level, had led him to consider stealing a tranq or two from the pharmacy in Zach’s bottom desk drawer. His boss would never know since, like many of the other office execs, he popped pills by the hour.
“Seriously, dude?” Jamie had chided when Carson mentioned it. “Is that the road you want to head down: sucking pills like they were Altoids?”
“No, no, you’re right,” Carson conceded. “But some days, it’s very tempting.”
The opportunity to work for one of the top producers in the industry right out of college was not a matter of happenstance. Carson had been hired on the recommendation of Prof. David Mendoza, who had mentored Carson and Jamie at Cal U School of Film and was one of Zach Corrigan’s closest confidantes. The two had met when Mendoza was working on his doctorate in film and interviewed Corrigan for his thesis, which evolved into a published bio about the maverick producer. Zach often showed Mendoza rough cuts of his films and asked for suggestions on how to improve them. Mendoza had keen cinematic instincts and, over the years, Corrigan had repeatedly tried to hire him.