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.”
A wannabe filmmaker finds an unconventional way to get his horror script made. 3,216 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“You understand what I want you to do?”
“Yeah,” I said. It was easy to say it. Flowed off the tongue. I wasn’t even worried. What was that line from that Hannibal film, the one with the lambs? His pulse never got above a certain number, he was so relaxed? That’s how I felt. Relaxed.
“And you finance my film.”
“And I get gross participation, backend, off-the-top. The works.”
“The works,” he agreed.
I didn’t smile. But I should have. You don’t smile, though, when you make a Breaking Bad deal like that. I don’t mean a deal with AMC; I mean, a deal that will put you on the other side. For good. I was about to become a Walter White. And I was only in my early 20s.
Got to start sometime in Hollywood.
The wannabe director must decide whether to keep working in showbiz or keep dreaming. 2,306 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
On occasion, while circling the office and delivering the mail, Max tried to engage the studio’s executives in a conversation about a film that had especially impressed him or a book that he’d found particularly moving. Right, Max," was generally the disinterested response. Then they would ask him to make sure that their delivery got right over to Parker or Simons or Goldstein or whomever.
"Ratings, Max. Concentrate on the ratings," one of the executives finally told him. The man’s name was Drew Oberlin and he was only a few years older than Max. He had a big office, designer furniture, and a secretary who could have modeled. Max stood by the door looking in, his hair matted, his shirt clinging to his underarms. Oberlin spoke from behind his desk. "Concentrate on the ratings," he repeated. "That’s what matters."
Oberlin was immaculate in a dark suit and white shirt that snapped in starched perfection when he moved. He offered Max gleaming white teeth as if practicing for an audience, Max his mirror.
Max returned the smile, hesitantly, with more of a grimace.
"I’m giving you good advice here," Oberlin said. "Never mind art. Ratings. That’s all that matters. Say, could I ask a favor of you? I have some laundry that needs to be picked up…"
At Max’s urging, Oberlin read Max’s screenplays and reluctantly proffered the advice that Max might write better as part of a team. "Your work, well, it’s got class. But you’re not attacking the center of the marketplace."
A wannabe filmmaker who once showed promise now finds himself failing and flailing. 2,109 words. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jumping was a stupid idea, but it was only one of many stupid ideas that lately he had begun to seriously consider. Max stopped at the edge of the palisades of Santa Monica on a bluff overlooking the beach. A crumbling split rail fence — the top rail gone — stood between him and a drop of some 300 feet. The afternoon was warm and a mild salt breeze came off the ocean, the water glinting like the reflection of a million tiny mirrors. It was the kind of Los Angeles afternoon that made people believe they could do anything, live forever, stay forever young.
There was some quality in the light that touched him. He had seen it before in the films of the masters — Antonioni, Bertolucci, Fellini — his idols that no one appreciated now. All of them captured that quality. He tried to resist the impulse to lift both hands, thumb and forefingers spread, to frame a shot, but he couldn’t. He surveyed the ocean through the matte imposed by his outstretched fingers, and understanding came: the light had the quality of flawless diffusion, filtered by clouds and smog. It didn’t so much illuminate as caress its subjects, letting them stand out against the background.
Max pictured the opening. Glittering ocean, boats with sails billowed, skidding over the quicksilver surface. The camera begins an endless pan, inching left to right, faultless composition, brilliant framing. That rare combination that together produces Art.
Kael would say, "A genius with the lens."
From Denby, "He moves his actors like chess pieces."
Canby: "He achieves a new American sensibility."
The truth was sunset has always been his passion, the moment before the world plunged into darkness. And those reviewers? They were all dead now. Well, Denby wasn’t, but he might as well be.