Two first-time film producers get schooled by the reality of teaming up together. 2,909 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
In other parts of the country, networking is largely structured, taking place predominantly through civic organizations, professional groups, and charitable institutions. In Los Angeles, where showbiz is king, the phenomenon is far more random yet ubiquitous. Business ties are often formed at parties, screenings, and social gatherings. Others begin at gyms, yoga and Pilates classes. Even pre-schools and Little League games provide opportunities, as do weddings and funerals, plus Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Also never to be overlooked are meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
It was thanks to AA that Russo and Adler became acquainted. Initially, it was little more than the kind of brief acknowledgments exchanged by regulars. But one Monday evening, instead of heading directly home in the aftermath, Russo agreed to join a group headed for late night coffee. As six "Friends Of Bill W" grabbed a booth away from other denizens of the night at a 24-hour diner, Adler nodded at Russo. "Nick, right?"
Russo nodded. "And you’re Jerry?"
"Guilty as charged."
Once orders were taken, group talk superseded individual conversations; it was only when the two men were strolling toward their cars afterwards that Adler rekindled their brief chat. "So what do you do?" he asked Russo.
TV sitcoms survive on babies, weddings and controversies – in that order. 1,749 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The ballyhooed nationwide talent search for a Muslim-American actress to play the lead in Alisha Loves Fred concluded with the selection of Chandra Parva, a stage-trained ingenue whose TV worked consisted mostly of Law & Order and Criminal Minds roles as the girlfriend or wife of suspected terrorists.
The network’s marketing guru Nina made certain that her staff touted Chandra’s American background. Born and raised in Iowa, even a member of the 4H Club, Chandra was not too dark or light complexioned, and she possessed just the right amount of spunk to make her interesting but not threatening. Still, it wasn’t sufficient to quell the Twitter-sphere where the most popular deprecation called her “a honky in a hijab.”
Casting for Fred narrowed down to the minor country music singer Blake Cummings, a Bakersfield native and bland enough Christian to pass muster. Again, his selection was trashed on social media.
This controversial sitcom is in trouble and network execs are in crisis mode. 1,953 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The first thing they agreed on in the programming meeting was that Alisha Loves Fred, a proposed sitcom about the romance between a Muslim feminist and an Evangelical redneck, was a horrendous concept. The second thing they agreed on was to take it straight to series. A full season’s commitment without a pilot.
As the senior executives shuffled out of the conference room, JoJo Travis, the network’s programming president, JoJo arrived back at her office, reached into her desk’s side drawer, popped a Xanax and washed it down with a shot of whiskey, hoping to quell her immediate buyers’ remorse. Then she whispered to her assistant, “Tell Nina I need to change my quote in the announcement release. It sounds too much like the one I made when we were dealing with the ‘Asian situation’.”
Nina Torkay, the marketing Executive VP, had worked at the network long enough to predict a wreck before the train had even left the station. She understood the politics behind this particular decision but the release announcing the series was ready to go. That JoJo would delay it by fussing with her quote and possibly jeopardizing the story leaking to the trades – for which Nina would be blamed, of course – was merely another glamorous perk of her profession choice.
A film update of Don Quixote from the Star Wars director and Indiana Jones hero? 2,049 words. Excerpted from the 2018 book Critically Acclaimed. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Directed by George Lucas. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Starring: Harrison Ford, Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jürgen Von Himmelmacher.
Quixote Jones, an adaptation of the formerly un-filmable Don Quixote, arrives in theatres today as one of the most highly anticipated films of all time — for all the wrong reasons. It’s the movie equivalent of a freeway pileup: we can’t help but gawk, especially after the controversy that preceded its release.
From the inception, it had all the makings of a financial and artistic bomb.
We were all so sure it would fail.
And we were all so wrong.
A space movie with a $2.5 billion budget? That blew up a planet? Excerpted from the 2018 book Critically Acclaimed. 1,505 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Directed by Naylon Beauregard. Starring: Angelina Jolie, Toni Collette, Jude Law, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Zhang Ziyi, Robert Duvall, and Jason Robards.
There are few things that end up being worth the wait, the gradual buildup of expectation until it outpaces whatever the final product could ever become. And, yet, Essential Target was poised to top even our own outsized hopes. The pedigree suggested as much. Writer and director Naylon Beauregard’s previous movie, Acceleration Homeward, netted just shy of $900 million in foreign and domestic box office totals. That film, an epic story of an entire civilization’s lifespan aboard a spaceship the size of a planet, revitalized the sci-fi genre and made stars of Jude Law and Toni Collette. It changed the way special effects can enter the storytelling process, reminded us how a singular vision can speak to so many people, and, most importantly, altered our perceptions of our place in this universe. It was, to say the least, as life-changing as film can be.
Essential Target, I must confess, does not succeed as a film in any traditional (or even nontraditional) sense of the form.
It is so ponderous and overwhelmingly large in its focus that our current screens simply cannot accommodate it. I sense that, even if a screen were made that encapsulated the entire dome of the sky, it would not do justice to the aims of this film. What the film does accomplish, through means that may or may not revolve around the act of filmmaking, is to once again cause us to question our necessity in the universe, our need to exist, our possible movement toward a deserved extinction.
She wants to make it in showbiz. But not by temping for the powers-that-be. 3,386 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I sit at a desk in a poolside cabana at a fairytale Spanish style estate in Bel Air. Platinum record plaques litter the walls, bragging. This cabana is the home office of the assistant to veteran record producer Matthew Vaughn. I am an undercover rock star (like Hannah Montana, only a little longer in the tooth) or so I’d like to believe, but I’m dripping with passionate stage fright. If only I could get on that stage. I could be somebody. Meanwhile, I’m a temporary assistant to the powers-that-be in the entertainment industry, while I “develop my writing and artistry.” That’s my pitch, but it’s getting old. My life is a dichotomy. A nightmarish fantasy. A fantastic nightmare.
This is the second consecutive Monday I am on this particular assignment — a two-day gig that terminates at 6:30 pm. It’s 11:23 am. I wonder what will come out if I write all day as a way to pass the hours. Oh, the hours. Springtime sun rays filter through lush tree foliage over the Spanish tile pool, through French doors, across the desk and glare off my laptop screen. It’s pretty. This place would be heaven if only it were mine. If only I were more than a temporary assistant living a temporary life.
I have been assisting entertainment types for twelve years now. I’ve also written a novel, multiple TV pilots, a feature, endless songs. I’ve come close to success. I’ve tasted it. But it’s never more than a taste on the tip of my tongue. None of my dreams have come true and the only bankable skill I have developed since college is the skill of assisting the powers-that-be in Hollywood. I know how to get them exactly what they want, no matter how ridiculous or seemingly impossible, on the triple. It’s a skill I’ve honed to near perfection, one many people around the world might think they would kill for. But it isn’t feeding my soul anymore.
The world loves entertainment. But everybody also wants to get paid for it. 2,078 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“We should just let him in,” Greer said, watching the cop on their CCTV feed.
“Oh, sure,” Hugo replied. “Just bring him right down and show him the whole setup.”
But his tone wasn’t as confident as his words — not nearly. He was her boss but she scared him with her dismissive coldness and chess-move thinking. She didn’t argue it now; she just hit a couple keys. “Officer?” she said into a microphone. “Or is it Detective?”
“Detective Evan Ridge,” the guy said, clearly knowing that it sounded good. “I’m here because a TV writer exited The Farmer’s Market at closing and crossed to a far corner of the parking lot to his silver-metallic Kia Soul. He carried takeout cartons and grocery bags and was jumped by three black-clad men. They beat him, emptied his pockets, took his stuff, stole his car, and left him gashed and bleeding.”
2,672 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“So it was murder,” Cary Grant said with a regretful sigh. As a member of Hollywood Park’s board of directors, he’d personally hired the young private detective to look into the bizarre death of Eddie Lomitas, who despite dying of suffocation in mid-race had remained in the saddle of a 20-to-1 long shot that had won in a photo finish. “Any idea how it was done?”
“Not yet,” McNulty admitted. “But the former L.A. medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Noguchi is working on it. The tox screens have all been clean. No trace of any known poisons.”
McNulty continued the report to his client.
“Lomitas wasn’t very well liked,” the P.I. said bluntly. “Most everyone I talked to thought he was an asshole. Except for you. How come?”
“Twenty years ago, his mother worked for me,” Grant confided. “She was my live-in housekeeper and cook. I agreed to provide financial assistance to the single mother and her son Eddie for as long they needed it. And I believe his mother deserves to know the truth about how her son died.”
McNulty recalls the Cary Grant case that made the Tinseltown P.I.’s career. 2,623 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
On May 31, 2015, McNulty watched the bulldozers and wrecking balls smash and grind Hollywood Park into dust. It was being torn down to make way for a new multi-billion dollar football stadium. Ironically, it had neither been a park nor in Hollywood. It was a race track. And for decades horse racing was the only legal form of gambling in California. By the mid-1980s, Hollywood Park had become one of the most popular horse racing venues in the world. But now, as McNulty watched its destruction, he recalled how it had helped put the then 25-year-old’s newly-established detective agency on tinseltown’s radar. In later years, newspaper columnists would refer to McNulty as “The Hollywood Eye.” But back then he was just another Hollywood gumshoe looking for a few well-heeled clients.
“A friend of mine is in need of a good private eye,” McNulty’s Pal, comedian Lenny Hazeltine, said over the phone. “I couldn’t think of one so I gave him your name.”
“I appreciate that,” McNulty said. “Who is it?”
“You’ll know him when you see him,” Lenny laughed and hung up.
Ten minutes later, the door to McNulty’s office opened and in walked Cary Grant.
Yeah, that Cary Grant, the legendary actor and leading man from all those old movies on TCM. He was 81 when he walked into McNulty’s office, a bit thicker but still handsome with a full head of perfectly-barbered white hair and chicly-attired in a crisp white shirt, blue blazer and grey slacks.
“Lenny tells me you’re a detective,” Grant said after the introductions. “Are you a good one?”
Hollywood may have too many award shows but everyone still wants to be a winner. 1,929 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Hollywood – 1978
"And the winner is," heralded Artie Edgar, hesitating a beat in an effort to heighten the suspense.
Known mainly for his role in the made-for-cable comedy series, Geezers, Edgar had been tapped to emcee history’s first cable TV awards program, the Inter-Connected-Networks awards, or simply, the ICONs.
The program was being televised nationally on every cable channel, a joint effort to elevate awareness of the non-conventional fare now being offered by a myriad of new programming services.
The year was 1978, fifteen years before the cable industry’s first Emmy nomination. For its time, however, the ICON awards were the symbol of excellence in cable programming.
"The ICON goes to Burlesque Heaven," Artie Edgar gleefully announced.
The wannabe TV scribe meets the show’s head writer who is arrogance personified. 1,637 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Manhattan – 1954
I set up my new working area right by the only window in the room. The glass pane was so filthy you couldn’t see if it was night or day.
Milky came over to inspect. “It’s so crowded in here, Rocky, that you’re gonna have to lose some weight or park your ass out the window to make room.”
I decided to join in. “Is that a window or am I looking at a large glass of tomato juice?”
Milky thought this over and a little smile came to his face. “Okay, not bad. But take my advice: you’re gonna be dealing with four of the smartest and funniest people in television so you better stay on your toes or you’ll be eaten alive. You know how I know this? You see that Emmy award on the shelf?”
I looked over at the bookshelf that hadn’t seen a dust rag in years and found the Emmy with a bra hanging off one of its wings.
“This ’53 Emmy,” Milky continued, “tells you we are the best comedy writing team in television, at least for last year. And that…”
He stopped in mid-sentence, looking at the bookshelf and then around the room. He went to each desk and looked underneath. He even searched in the wastepaper basket and in the closet. He stopped and rubbed his chin and then threw up his hands. He looked over at Hattie.
“Where the hell is it?”
A wannabe TV writer starts his dream job amid the stuff and staff of nightmares. 2,220 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Manhattan – 1954
I guess it was the mid-fifties; the only way I can visualize New York in those days was in the leafy fall and the cold gray days of winter. It comes back to me like one of those art house films. Everything seemed painted in white, black and gray.
I was living a great life back then. I’d survived the Korean War and dodged working at my father’s bookkeeping firm by using the G.I. Bill to get into City College. That’s where I graduated with my English Lit degree and decided to practice my new craft in the NBC mailroom. A great job if you have no other ambitions in show business. You make all the right contacts and you have a little gambling book on the side. If you don’t screw up the mail, you’ll have a job for life. It was there I came to know Mort Schumacher, the Head of Programming, and started dumping my scripts into his mail slot.
I did this for three months: banging away at my father’s old Underwood at night and finishing a script every two weeks. The first one I personally handed to Mr. Schumacher and told him how much I wanted to write for television and why it was my life’s ambition to become the Chekhov of the electronic media age, and on and on. After, I’d just leave little notes attached: “Here’s another one! Hope you enjoy… Rocky.” Or, “Cranked this out in forty-eight hours and no sleep and seventeen cups of coffee. If you get the chance, please look it over… Rocky.”
My real name was Lucius Bauderchantz and my family called me Luther and my friends, Lucky. It was in the service — because of my stocky build, curly dark hair and bent nose — that they started to call me Rocky, after Marciano. This confused the hell out of my parents; when people would call the house and ask for Lucky or Rocky, mom and dad weren’t sure if they’d forgotten about another son hidden somewhere.
All of my hard work finally paid off one day when I was summoned to Mort Schumacher’s office on the thirty-eighth floor, all brass fixtures and wood paneling.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: Politically incorrect Tommy Dash reacts post-Oscars after trying out for Chris Rock’s Academy Awards writing team. 3,175 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.
Am I too late to call the 2016 Oscars "Straight Outta Caucasia"? Was I the only one who thought Chris Rock wore the white tux so at some point some guy in a bomber jacket would walk up to him on stage, hand a key and say, "It’s the red Lexus…" By the way, none of my business, but couldn’t they come up with a more empowering word for black people not showing up than "boycott?" I don’t think they’ll solve Oscars’ diversity problem by next year. But they will come up with the technology so the Teleprompter cannot contain the phrase "Rihanna’s panties." How about that Red Carpet? I haven’t seen this much side boob since Christie stood next to Trump. I’m confused. Before he started Apple, Steve Jobs was the "Sprockets" guy? Abe Vigoda was left out of the "In Memoriam" montage. But, to be fair, he’d been in it for the last 15 years. Forget his message, let me say this about Joe Biden. Clearly, he learned from listening to Jay Leno rattle off upcoming dates at the end of The Tonight Show… You can never have too many plugs. Right about now, Pope Francis’ publicist, Howard Rubenstein, is calling him saying, "Hey, you got mentioned in the acceptance speech for Spotlight!"
This is somebody’s fault, but not necessarily mine.
I thought I was supposed to be here, working on the Oscars.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: What really happens after winning an Academy Award? 1,739 words. Story and illustrations by Mark Fearing.
The Oscar sits on my desk coldly staring at me. I don’t remember bringing it to my production office on the studio lot. But here I am and here it is. Oscar looks great no matter where it’s placed. What do interior designers advise – create a focus in a room? Well, this is the fucking focus.
I don’t remember much about the last three days. Just shreds from the Governors Ball, my speech on stage, walking past George, Brad, Leo, Meryl, Angie and that smug J.J. who’ll maybe return my calls now.
As a producer, nobody in the real world has any idea what you look like, who you are or what you do. But when you win Best Picture and it’s your film – it’s your prize. Granted, I had to share with two more-or-less managers and an actor who magically became a producer when he decided to do the film. He was up for Best Actor, too. Didn’t win. What does that tell you?
Lily buzzes past my open door, she stops, she opens her eyes wide and she rushes in. “Oh my God, Mr. D, I didn’t know you’d arrived yet. It’s here!” Lily has a folder of papers in one hand and her iPhone in the other. She multitasks like a cyborg. That’s what you want in an assistant or office manager or office supervisor… whatever the hell the PC term for what she does is called this week.
“Your speech was awesome. We were all freaking out!” she gushes.
I don’t remember my speech and I can’t find the paper it was written on but I knew enough to thank those that must be thanked. And you’d better write it down beforehand because, at that moment, you lose it. My heart was beating so hard I thought I was going to die. My tongue was stuck to the floor of my mouth.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: After a movie studio’s big awards night, the new boss plans changes. 1,442 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
TO: All Employees of Persistent Pictures
FROM: Bradford “Buddy” Newborn, President
RE: Studio Philosophy and Production Slate
We’re all proud of the eight Oscars that Persistent Pictures won last night under Bob Cutner’s management. We hope he gets to use his taste and leadership at another company now that he’s suddenly moved on to make way for me.
Since arriving to head the studio, I’ve seen many of you in the hallways, in the valet parking lot, and as I walk through the commissary on the way to my private dining room. But this is the first chance I’ve had to introduce myself since my father, Bradford Newborn Sr., bought the studio.
To quell some of the rumors and wisecracks I’ve been hearing through our advanced monitoring system, I am well aware that moviemaking isn’t anything like the strappy sandal business. It just so happens that shoes are only one of the many manufacturing interests of Newborn International. We also make small home appliances (“Nothing larger than a toaster oven” is our motto), breath mints and lacrosse equipment. We also had a major investment in the Miami Majors, an ice hockey franchise that I was in charge of running until it folded last year. Let me speak frankly: the Majors died because of poor public support, not because of that lawsuit from 12-year-old Jimmy Brewin after a puck got sucked up into the Zamboni and shot out into the stands, taking with it half his face.
I can report that Little Jimmy is doing well, all things considered, and loves his new nose, mouth and mansion.
Now, for studio business.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: The producer of a film nominated for big awards fixates on what to wear. 7,054 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.
He didn’t sleep the night before the Oscar nominations, which they announce on television about 5:30 am L.A. time in order to catch the prime morning audience on the East Coast at 8:30 am. He took an Ambien. Watched TCM, which played Hitchcock’s Marnie, not one of the director’s best. Charlie had met Hitchcock once, while working at Universal publicity. The old man was neither rude nor arrogant — like so many of the less talented directors now — just indifferent. His mind always seemed to be elsewhere. He was odd. He was intimidating. He was Hitchcock.
By 5 am, Charlie had his television on KNBC. There was a traffic tie-up on the 405 because of a minor car accident near the Getty. A liquor store robbery in Mar Vista. A seeing-eye dog missing in Griffith Park reunited with its tearful owner.
Charlie had lived in L.A. for 22 years. Why was local television so ridiculous here? His hands were shaking when he poured the coffee. On the TV there was some blather that people should bundle up because the temperature would stay at a chilly 63 degrees (arctic weather in L.A.). Meteorologists were predicting heavy rain by late afternoon in the Antelope Mountains then moving towards the Southland. They made it sound like a tsunami was coming. He put a drop of low-fat milk and a Splenda in the coffee cup.
He heard the trucks from the fire station a block away. On some evenings the noise woke him up but he was reassured when he heard the alarm bells. It was not a bad neighborhood. Only a few blocks from Abbot Kinney. But it wasn’t a great neighborhood, either. There was a gang stabbing in Venice a few weeks back. He wished he could move out of the apartment and live closer to Santa Monica or even in the Palisades.
He heard the two newspapers plunk against the door. He lived on the second floor. He had the Los Angeles Times delivered, though wasn’t sure why. It was a luxury to get The New York Times, but he still considered himself a New Yorker. He didn’t have too many luxuries. But getting The New York Times was one of them. He didn’t go to the door.
On the television now, two young actors appeared on the Academy stage with a grotesquely large Oscar statue behind them. The president of the Academy, who inexplicably got the job despite his years of failures as a producer, seemed nervous. He always wore suits like a banker, The trades always called him a "respected producer." Respected for what?