The studio credits czar finally comes face to face with his comeuppance. 1,651 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The numbers for the weekend were in and they were bad. The big fall release was a big bomb. A stinker. Guaranteed to cancel out any profits for at least a fiscal quarter. It was like planting a lawn and watching mud come up. Whoever thought that a film about a beautiful girl lost in the woods being chased by a mutant bear was a winner must had been smoking way too much of the recreational stuff. The mechanical bear turned out to be a better actor than the star. When the script called for the character to be injured, she couldn’t even manage to whimper with any authenticity. Jeffrey had heard children’s talking dolls that sounded more real. So it was another loss after the studio had just taken a half-billion dollar write-down in the last quarter on three heavy-effects movies that "underperformed.” Like that gentle phrase could somehow tidy up another red ink disaster.
What Jeffrey knew immediately was that everyone needed to be sprucing up their resumes because the people in charge always figured that cutting overhead was the way to solve the mess they’d created. Jeffrey wondered why they never thought about firing themselves. Instead, some bean counter ran his finger down a list of names and salaries and decided: this one in, that one out.
Just like what he did on credits.
Jeffrey opened yet another binder of the crew deals. This one in. That one out. He checked the spellings and any strange credit requests. That morning, a dolly grip wanted to be credited as Jim "Jimbo" Smith. But Jeffrey hated nicknames and that was why Jimbo’s was gone. The pen’s tiny flick. The black line. The small gesture. Not even a second’s thought to deny the credit. Goodbye, Jimbo.
A studio credits czar rules his kingdom unless or until confronted. 1,711 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Sometimes the smallest gestures had the biggest consequences, didn’t they? The pebble to the windshield that eventually cracked the whole thing. The chance meeting at a premiere that neither was supposed to attend. Say if one morning thirty years ago, a development executive at Fox hadn’t argued with his boyfriend before coming into work, Jeffrey Baummann might had sold the script that set him on the path of a successful writer. Or twenty years ago to the liquor store a minute earlier, and Jeffrey would have bought the lottery ticket that won a hundred mil and not the someone who did right in front of hm. Ten years ago if not for a missed red light, Jeffrey might have met a different woman who could have been his wife. That morning, expending not even a calorie, he crossed out a name on a draft of end title credits for one of the studio’s films.
With the flick of a pen, a black line moved a half-inch right and one less dolly grip went into the roll.
Jeffrey was the studio’s credits czar, a nickname from an old boss to make him feel better when she declined his raise. Afterwards, the late head of publicity at that same studio said at a big meeting, "Oh Jeffrey, you’re the poor bastard who has that job." It certainly got a laugh.
This was what he did: prepared the main and end titles for the studio’s films which meant he looked at lists and lists of names, deciding whose would go in. He eliminated many of them with a small gesture. There was no attempt to find the private echo, this one resonating, that one not. He had a template. He filled it in.
The ex-WWII Army officer with the mogul relative isn’t sure showbiz excites him. 2,201 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
December 1945 – On the set of MGM’s Up Goes Maisie shoot
Dave pushed the studio mail cart around the perimeter of the darkened sound stage until the sudden burst of brilliant light from a working set flooded his eyes. It was a scene set in a business school classroom, one of the opening shots in a Maisie series film; rows of cute extras taking their places at typing tables. Watching them from her chair, awaiting her call, was the film’s star, Ann Sothern. Every Maisie movie was a cash register for the studio and she was its cashier. She sat legs crossed in ankle-strap shoes, in a tight dress, waiting for the director’s signal to take her place for the shot. Dave had seen so many famous faces since he’d began at MGM the month before that Ann Sothern, though lusciously sexy, was by now to him just another recipient of studio mail. Up close, even the thick mask of makeup couldn’t distort her perky blonde beauty. Her smile broke out her dimples and her eyes radiated that glow he’d come to see as only emanating from actors with the elusive star quality that created box office.
Dave Meltzer had strict instructions to hand-deliver a letter only to her, not to any maid or assistant. It was a fat envelope plastered with registered mail stickers from a law firm. At her dressing table, she studied the pages, following the text with her pen. “What do you want to do after the mailroom?” she asked Dave, picking up the phone.
“Not sure. I’ve only been here a few weeks.”
“Nothing got you gaga to write screenplays, direct, produce, or at least hump some of these gorgeous girlies around here?”
“I push my cart around hallways, between offices and over sound stages. I stack mail, hand it to the people and go on my way.”
“You need to start shmoozing, kid. Talk to the people you deliver to. Make friends. Kiss a few asses. Learn the landscape.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Dave said. “Thanks.”
A WWII U.S. Army officer contacts his macher relative in the movie biz. 2,999 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
April 1945 – Trier, Germany
A G.I., spent by battle fatigue, trudged away from his platoon during a bivouac at the edge of a forest and tried catnapping under a leafless tree. He looked up at its naked branches still cobwebbed into the overcast skies. A red-winged blackbird sang on the branch above him, a harbinger of a Spring that seemed late in the morning chill. But the song was a sleeping pill and the soldier folded his arms, took off his helmet and nodded off.
After an all too brief catnap, the first soldiers in C Company arrived. The G.I. roused, looked up and saw Lt. Dave Meltzer grinning down at him. “We’re moving east in hour, a mop-up operation. Meanwhile, relax.”
The officer and the G.I. smoked in silence a while, heads tilted toward the brooding sky. “I’m already back home in my head, sir” Quinn said, tapping his temple with a sigh.
“Patience buddy. It’s a matter of a week or two.” Lt. Meltzer rubbed his stubbled chin and asked, “And home is…?”
“New York — only for a month, tops. Then I’m off. My old man is pushing me to go to Hollywood and look up a family connection. Maybe back-door myself into a movie job.”
Lt. Meltzer nodded. “So I’m told. Mr. Louis B. Mayer. My old man’s family came from the same town in Russia as Mayer. His grandmother and Mayer’s maternal grandmother may have been sisters. Could be a familial delusion.”
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.”
EXCLUSIVE: Michael Tolkin debuts the beginning of his novel-in-progress about a veteran executive’s humiliation when he has to start over in Hollywood. 2,974 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Chapter 1 – Out With A Scream
For thirty-five years, I was the right hand man to John Brine Trubb, the legendary producer who would have been immortal if he hadn’t died. I had the privilege of being at the old man’s side when he went out with a scream. It’s the great puzzle of Rosebud that no one was in the room to hear Kane’s last word, but three of us were there to hear the Trubb’s final adios. JBT’s attorney, Redoubtable Maize, always too fancy with his allusions, heard in the old man’s dying expression the horror of Don Giovanni dragged into Hell at the foot of the Commendatore’s statue, agony after defiance. JBT’s special friend Auspicia Renn, his Abishag, said that it was the sound her rather older lover made when he was in ecstasy on Ecstasy. A logical guess, but wrong; from my catbird seat forward of the curtain that hid his day/nite bed on the Gulfstream, I knew too well the shape of the sordid bellow she was able to draw out of him and I can arbitrate the credit for his final yodel; she loses. No, JBT’s death shout was a blend of the old man’s two favorite moments in all of cinema, opening with the start of the cattle drive in Red River, the close ups of cowboys waving their hats in the air, calling Yee-Haw! And blended with the "Yah-hoo!" at the end of Dr. Strangelove, when the great Western actor Slim Pickens rides the nuclear warhead out of the bomb bay, setting off the end of the world. I kept this observation to myself, as JBT would have wanted. “Hum this every morning when you brush your teeth: never share your personal taste,” he used to say to the people he knew in the business, the people who looked up to him. It was a ridiculous mantra, bad advice, meant to send his enemies, which meant all of you, in pursuit of wasting someone else’s money. Pursue failure. That was the message inside the advice however justified by the circumstances. He had plenty of good advice, too, look at what he did, but he never shared it, not even with me.
The funeral service was austere but per his manifesto, surprisingly well catered for a crowd of three hundred or so, although I had no appetite after my first pass at the pastry table, when attorney Redoubtable took me aside. When his first words were, “Look, Martin,” I could have written the rest of what he said, or hired a writer to do it, at scale.
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – On November 24-25, 1947, forty-eight studio moguls surrendered to HUAC’s Red-baiting. 2,492 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
As a hotel employee of some 20 years, Nino was used to keeping the secrets of guests. But this was the first time they ever made him swear to it on a copy of the Old Testament. The request came as he was setting up his bar in the third floor function room of New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria. Nino knew this wasn’t a drinking crowd; if anything, they were a complaining crowd. Because whenever the Hollywood moguls stayed at the swank hotel, they bitched that business was always bad no matter how much money they were making. He recognized some of the guests from their previous visits as one powerful executive after another entered, many greeting each other in Yiddish.
A spread in Life magazine had come out that morning entitled “The Movie Hearings.” Written by Sidney Olson, the article purported to reveal how Reds were trying to take over the movies, and why the House Un-American Activities Committee had summoned a galaxy of star witnesses to expose the supposed conspiracy. Many during the October 10-20 hearings had testified willingly — but others had noisily defied the commiittee, triggering the gavel of HUAC Chairman J. Parnell Thomas. Ten writers, directors, and producers who had refused to discuss their beliefs and associations were called The Hollywood Ten. Now the suite was filling with film studio brass who not only had been friendly witnesses but also shared the HUAC Chairman’s impatience with the First Amendment.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” warned Barney Balaban, the President of Paramount Pictures. “When you get the heads of all the movie companies in one room, it’s called restraint of trade.”
“Who’s restraining trade?” asked Harry Cohn, the President and Production Director of Columbia Pictures. “We’re just talking business.”
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – A superstar couple with a secret grapples with HUAC’s purge of Communists inside the movie industry. 4,474 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“How’s this? Take my right side, fellas. That’s always my best side.”
Grant Strickland and his actress wife Lili Reynolds stood on the U.S. Capitol steps posing before a crescent of jostling still photographers as dozens of fans waved and reporters shouted questions.
“Grant, are there any Communists in the movie industry?” asked one newsman over the din. Strickland and Reynolds hooked arms and leaned toward each other for the press photographers.
“I’m not into ‘isms,’” the actor replied with a chuckle, “—unless it’s capital-ism!”
“And what about you, Lili? How do you feel about your husband appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee today?” another reporter called out. “Are you nervous?”
The former chorus girl who became one of Hollywood’s biggest draws as the sassy dame-next-door type whom men adore glanced up at her husband and then back at the questioner. “I’m here to support Grant — and also our industry.”
Given the seriousness of the HUAC hearings, though, she ignored shouts to dip her chin and show off her steely sultriness.
“Grant, what do you think of these hearings?” asked another reporter standing at the back of the horde.
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – Decades after the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings, a son confronts his father’s accuser. 4,692 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
We were halfway through Silas Raymond’s funeral when I realized that the fellow mourner I had been struggling to recognize was the man who had blacklisted my father. Two days later, I saw him again at Musso & Frank’s. He sat alone in a booth, watching the door as if he expected J. Edgar Hoover to burst in and arrest him. Then I thought, no, they won’t arrest him, they’ll arrest the people he named to Silas Raymond’s Motion Picture Industry Council.
Silas Raymond was the most notorious Red-baiter of the witchhunt era. Even though he didn’t sit on the House Un-American Activities Committee, he walked in goose-step with them. He said he could spot a Red within five minutes, and he decimated Hollywood’s creative community with a campaign of intimidation, guilt by association, and outright lies. That’s why I went to his funeral back in 1995; I wanted to make sure the son of a bitch was dead.
They planted him at the stroke of noon (though the stroke of midnight would have been more fitting) at Forest Lawn, and I remembered thinking that the low turnout for such a one-time heavyweight wasn’t because he was forgotten. It was because he’d outlived all of his friends and most of his enemies. I was one of the latter.
I behaved myself during the services, even though I wanted to put a stake in his heart right there in one of Forest Lawn’s smaller chapels. I needed to see who would show up to honor him. Among his handful of mourners were, appropriately, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
And Marcus Gottfried.
That was the name I finally connected with the face. A former film director, he was now in his low eighties, twenty years older than my father was when he died. We swapped glances during the services and then went our separate ways. Maybe he was wondering who I was, too.
A film editor gets the opportunity of a lifetime with the world’s greatest director. 4,163 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I liked Martin from the get-go. He was extremely polite, with an unexpected sense of humor, and eyes so intelligent and intense that most people feared him. Fortunately, I had grown up around a man with fierce eyes, my grandfather. Being his favorite, I was the only one of his grandchildren permitted to sit on his knee and – privilege of privilege – play with his beret.
This day of my interview to work at Kaleidoscope Studio, Martin was wearing a checkered brown and white shirt and brown corduroy pants, but no beret. Not that day.
“May I ask a question?” I say. He nods. “Why am I here?”
Martin breaks into laughter. “We have three films and three films in trouble,” he declares. His producers Forest and Gary nod in agreement.
Martin wants to take me on a tour of the studio. Once outside, something quite weird happens. He points to a black bicycle leaning against a wall.
“Come on the bike.”
Martin repeats, “Come on the bike.”
“I haven’t done this since I was two years old,” I tell him. But I jump on the front of the bike and off we go.
What script notes for Shakespeare would have said if Hamlet were in movie development. 772 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
FROM: DENISE MEZZOGIORNO, KEVIN OKRA
TO: BUZZ KAPLAN
RE: HAMLET, 9TH DRAFT (April 23, 1599)
Though we think the writer has moved forward in this draft, there are still a number of problems with the script. In the next pass the following points need to be addressed:
1. STATIC ACTION. The narrative flow is consistently staunched by a series of pointless digressions, unresolved subplots and superfluous dialogue.
2. LACK OF JEOPARDY. At no point is Hamlet in actual jeopardy. What jeopardy there is is manufactured by a series of murky and over-written monologues.
3. INCONSISTENT CHARACTER ARCS. The leading characters suffer from lack of clear motivation and resolution. In the end, no one seems to have learned anything.
4. THE LOVE STORY DYNAMIC IS MUDDLED. We think we have to take a serious look at Ophelia’s suicide. Having the principal love interest check out before the end is, frankly, a bummer. What if Hamlet, at the eleventh hour, saved her from drowning? We could maintain the pathos (she could still sing and act distracted) but avoid a downbeat and emotionally-unsatisfying resolution.
5. UNSAVORY ETHNIC STEREOTYPING AND LATENT SEXISM. Please delete the references to "Polacks" and dimensualize Ophelia’s character with greater self-esteem.
A successful film studio is run with an iron fist. But is that the best strategy for its future? 2,711 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The old man was packing his things in a cardboard box – doing it himself. I just watched.
Jake Simon was going – really going. Hard to believe. After 15 years, 15 years, of one man rule by an angry, unpredictable son of a bitch. You could certainly say that. And you’d be right. But, of course, it was more than that. Much more. Anyway, it was over now – over and done in half an hour.
I remember the day I got here. How could I forget? I’d never been to a studio before – any studio. I’d just published my second novel to mild critical acclaim; and I suppose, to Jake, I was exotic, and I was “hot” – at least hot enough to hire as co-head of feature development.
Why do I remember that particular day? That’s easy. I was replacing a guy named Sid Blumberg, who was being demoted. Sid had gone to Jake and complained that I was an overrated, Ivy League hack. Not nice of him; but, hey, I get it, that’s the business.
Anyway, Jake calls me into his office with Sid still there. Sid stands there looking uncomfortable while Jake repeats what he just said about me. Kind of embarrassing. Then, Jake turns to Sid and says, “I’ve hired this man because he has rare talent – talent we badly need. Unlike you, this man’s an artist.” Then, suddenly, he points at my feet and shouts, “Kiss his shoe!”
Will ambition kickstart his movie career or kill his marriage? 2,292 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“So, yeah, this is risky. But life goes fast, Emma. We’re both starting to realize that. In two years we’ll be invited to our fifteen-year high school reunions and the next fifteen years will fly by. I want to have fun making films.”
“No, I think you want to feel like an important filmmaker. You want to drive some German sports car around Beverly Hills and sit by the swimming pool with movie stars and get the cool table at Craig’s. You want to read about yourself in Variety. You want to be respected by people you hate. Fine. But there’s no way to get that stuff unless you gamble with both of our lives. You can’t spin it, Mike. Paramount is safe, that’s a fact. You have friends there. If something happens, they’ll find you a job somewhere else. You’re always telling me that getting fired is the best way to get a promotion by moving from studio to studio. It’s a club and you’re finally a member. If you turn your back on that, they’ll be rooting for you to fail. And when it happens, you’ll be tainted goods. Is that what you want?”
Mike spoke very slowly into the burning silence of her stare. “I am not going to fail.”
“Really? So then tell me: when have you ever succeeded?”
“That’s not fair.”
“My life is at stake. So, sorry, fair doesn’t matter to me right now. What matters is making you see the truth before it’s too late.”
Mike rummaged helplessly for something to say back to Emma. It seemed that all the words had been used up. There were just three left.
“I want this.”
Every movie career has ups and downs. But every marriage has a breaking point. 1,924 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jim pushed his glass aside and leaned forward.
“Let me tell you what’s really going on,” he said. “Bill Terhune has a deal going.”
“Bill Terhune always has a deal going,” Mike replied. “He probably had deals going in kindergarten – ‘You cover for me during nap time and you can have my cookie at snack.’”
“This is real."
“So was that. Not to mention the black market Lincoln logs. And the crayon exchange. Apparently he had the only sharpener.”
Jim had to laugh. “I mean it, Mike, this is serious. He found someone with money.”
It was the one sentence guaranteed to knock the smile off Mike’s face and silence him. This was what everyone was looking for, the seam of gold in the mountains, the genie in the battered lamp, the copy of the Declaration of Independence on the garage sale table: someone with money to make movies.
“Who is it?”
Can a Hollywood animation icon make it in the harsh world of NYC reality? 1,386 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming
Mickey was awful tired. The snap of life was long gone. The heartbeats and thought-waves had died out when the drawing stopped. After that, animation was only a matter of machines, and money. Walt Disney, who wasn’t the nice man his conglomerate’s PR department sold to the world, was long dead, his severed head supposedly stuck in a San Fernando Valley deep-freeze. Minnie, the she-mouse Mickey was supposed to love, had turned into a block of black ice with long eyelashes and too much lipstick. Minnie had nothing to say anymore. She’d been clobbered by life or its simulation, stricken mute as Pluto, that distant animal star. Mickey knew how love felt, but he’d never been happy with what it really meant, to him.
He felt rootless, lifeless, old. Born from a bottle of India ink and a stolen idea, made to move by brushes with destiny, forced to express emotions not necessarily his own, he nonetheless felt the urge to return, somewhere. Back to the well of blackness, the life-blood that tasted like the end, which is where it all began, for him.
Mickey didn’t say goodbye to anyone at the Studio. Not a word to Huey, Dewey and Louie, or whatever Donald’s nephews were called. Not a word to his supposed friend, that buck-toothed monster from another species. He couldn’t even bring himself to say that stupid name.
He didn’t leave a note, he just left.
An artist, his dealer and a studio mogul begin the most shocking of negotiations. 2,606 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“No! No! It can’t be done. The Post Office changed the rules and they can’t be sent through the mail any longer.” Why did I pick up the fucking phone? “Going through the U.S. Mail was an essential part of each artwork.”
Sue comes stumbling down the hall, half asleep and half naked. I’m staring at her pussy when I realize she is mouthing, “Who is it?” The bull shit on the phone continues.
“I don’t give a fuck how rich the S.O.B. is. I’m not in the movie business and never heard of the dude.” Doug, my art dealer, has some studio mogul on the hook and is determined to land him. I continue trying to explain why this simply can’t happen. “The Post Office changed the rules ages ago. It can’t be done. Final! End of conversation!”
I return the phone to its cradle with a crash. Can’t do that with a cell phone. I grab my shirt from the hook and feel around for rolled joints in the pocket. One left. Perfect.