In this sequel to Age Of Anxiety, a middle-aged screenwriter and his pals game the studios. 2,313 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“Looks like you’re gonna have to find another beard,” kidded Mel Landsman as he and Bernie Saffran sat down at their Farmers Market table across from Bob’s Donuts. They were joined by the usual crowd: Leo Crowther, Paul Schumacher, Perry Blade.
“I’m not going through that charade again,” Bernie grumbled. “Not with anybody who uses the term smash cut.”
“Then you might as well start novelizing all your old specs,” Mel said. “After all, they only make a hundred movies a year but publish a hundred thousand books.”
“Publishing’s gotten as bad as movies,” Leo grumbled as he wiped cream cheese off his mouth. “Same mentality. All they want to know is, ‘Will it appeal to the post-literate generation?’ For six months, my agent’s been trying to sell my novel The Cremation Squad. The publishers want a film sale first and the studios want a book sale first. I’ve been thinking about rewriting it about cats. Cat books, they buy.”
“Nah,” chimed in Perry. “When The Jungle Book was a hit, I pitched Shakespeare for animals. King Lear would be a gorilla, the daughters would be monkeys, and I had a marmoset lined up for the Fool.”
“What happened to it?” asked Bernie.
“They decided to do Hamlet with penguins.”
Paul, who usually had a lot to say, was saying nothing. Bernie noticed. “Say something, Paul. CGI cat got your tongue?”
Paul finished his coffee, placed the paper cup gently on the table, twisted it in his fingers, and stared at each screenwriter in turn. “Listen to yourselves. King Lear with animals. Titanic with zombies. Desperately mashing up the stupidest plots you can think of. Shame on you.”
“Oh, and you’re Mr. Guiltless?” Mel shot back. “How long have you been trying to set up Attic!, that musical based on The Diary of Anne Frank?”
“We’re pathetic,” Perry sighed. “We’re all trying to sell pictures we wouldn’t even watch on fast forward. The truth is, our knowledge of film history kills us. The kids who are working today think their ideas are new because they haven’t seen anything old. It’s the blind leading the blind.”
“It’s the bland leading the bland,” Leo pronounced.
“Lemme ask you,” Paul turned to Bernie. “What was so bad about working with that Piersall kid? Was he a goniff or was there hope?”
“Only a little goniffy,” Bernie said, thinking back on their eight-week shotgun collaboration orchestrated by an agent. “He had the attention span of a fart. It was like when you’re trying to fix your car and you ask for a three-quarter inch wrench and someone hands you a bottle opener because he thinks it’ll work better.”
“Then how’d you manage to sell The God Guys?” Perry asked.
“I took my name off it and kept his on,” Bernie said flatly. “In this town, if they’ve heard of you, you’re dead. If you’re a newbie, you have a chance. They like discovering people. Go figure.”
“Then that’s our solution,” Perry decreed. “First, we need shit. If shit sells, we’d better write shit. Are we good enough to write shit?”
All the men nodded in agreement.
“Next, we need a name,” Paul said.
Bernie listened intently. He thought he was finished with Hollywood because he thought Hollywood was finished with him. A few years ago, after his 41st birthday, he’d felt like the title character in Invisible Man: forgotten, but not gone. He was stunned, therefore, when at age 45 he started getting studio calls again.
It wasn’t that he was suddenly lifted off the greylist. No, it was the stratospheric receipts from The God Guys and its two sequels that did it. His action scripts, based on the sordid revenge memoirs of his barber Alvaro, had been run through the studio gauntlet by Robbie Piersall, the 23-year-old embryo who happily took the credit for Bernie’s writing.
Time and again Bernie sat alone in his home office while Piersall drank mojitos with other 23 year olds who worked in development and hung on his every word when it had been Bernie’s words that had clinched the sales. Once the grosses started coming in, however, the truth leaked out that a writer whose face no longer had acne actually had written the hit youth-oriented trilogy. Then, giving truth to the lie, two scripts which Piersall penned on his own were found to be unfilmable.
Suddenly, Bernie found himself in meeting after meeting. But he also spent those few months hearing “pass” from a succession of production vice presidents. Bernie finally realized that nobody wanted his ideas. They only wanted to be face to face with the old guy who’d gamed the system.
From that moment on, he just took meetings for the free bottled water and the occasional commissary lunch.
Bernie wasn’t the only good writer in town over 41. Most of them had become script doctors, secretly employed at tens of thousands of dollars a week to fix the screenplays of twentysomethings who couldn’t write for shit. Bernie knew it was common practice for a producer to buy a script from some young hotshot just for the bragging rights, then hand it off to someone two or three times the kid’s age to turn into something that could actually be shot. The town was full of script doctors who still had the chops but had lost their new car smell.
Bernie took a few of those gigs and happily used the cash to pay his monthly nut. But what he couldn’t get used to was being anonymous.
He knew there was a thin line between being nasty and being bitter. He may have strayed across it on more than one occasion. Today that didn’t bother Bernie if it didn’t bother the other screenwriiters at the table.
Now Leo was busy at the Farmers Market fleshing out the plan. “We need a real person to take the meetings. Even blacklisted writers had a front.”
Bernie shook his head. “Not any more. All you need now is an email address, a Twitter handle, maybe also a blog url, and someone to vouch for you. I may still have a vouch or two left in me. If they won’t buy my scripts, maybe they’ll buy one by — Corky Stackpole.”
“Who the hell is Corky Stackpole?” Paul asked.
“A character I cut out of an old script of mine. I always liked the name but I hated him. He can be our front and we won’t even have to cut him in.”
“Let me get this straight,” Paul said. “We all go home and write shit, then we say we’ve discovered a great idea from a 23-year-old named Corky Stackpole but it needs work, and we position ourselves to do the rewrite?”
“Exactly,” Bernie confirmed. “I propose we each keep fifty percent of our doctoring fee and pool the other fifty percent in case one of us accidentally writes a good script and nobody buys it.”
Everybody shook hands and clinked coffee mugs to celebrate. “Here we go, gentlemen,” Bernie said, hoisting his honey-dipped donut in a good luck toast. “We are now in the shinola business.”
Smash cut to:
That Friday, Bernie chose Richard “Dickie” Magnuson as the first recipient of a Corky Stackpole turd. “Corky’s new and a little weird,” Bernie explained. The Mercy Machine was an old spec which Bernie had written during the 2007/2008 Writers Guild strike that he’d known at the time was too lousy to take out. “He’s fresh out of college and bright as hell, but he has that thing where he’s afraid to leave the house. What’s it called? Agoraphobia. So he corresponds entirely by email.”
Monday at the Farmers Market, Leo told the others, “Dickie called me over the weekend and wants me to take a look at The Mercy Machine. He says the characters suck, but he likes the concept of medical school dropouts injecting themselves with experimental drugs and becoming superheroes.”
“Is that a yes?” Bernie asked, smiling and blushing at the same time.
“I’m getting to that,” Leo said. “He asked me if I could do a rewrite. I thought I’d offer it to you first, considering it’s yours.”
“Nah,” Bernie said. “I was written out before I even typed ‘the credits roll.’”
“Oh, and Dickie asked if this Corky kid had anything else.”
“Do you remember what Joe Gillis said in Sunset Boulevard while reading Norma Desmond’s ill-fated script Salome?” Paul reminded the writers. “’Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be. This promised to go the limit.’”
Once Paul, Perry, Mel, Bernie, and Leo stopped laughing, they all split up and headed home to dust off their archives on zip driEverves.
Within two weeks, everybody in the business was talking about Corky Stackpole and, predictably, bragging that they were the only ones who had actually met him in person. Then the complications started.
“Did anyone here send a Corky script called Scarface And Me to Gerry Cutner over at Warners?” Paul asked a week later at the table.
Bernie, who was tracking all the submissions, asked for the logline.
“It’s about a poor schmuck who was always cropped out of the group photos of Al Capone,” Paul said. “In the end he’s the accountant who finks on Big Al to the Untouchables. Thing is, Jerry didn’t want me to rewrite it, he wanted me to consult. He wants to pay me to advise.”
“How old is he?” Perry asked.
“Now that you mention it,” Mel said, “Sandi Furnival at Fox asked me pretty much the same thing. She won’t hire me to write, but she trusts my judgment. I just signed a long-term consultancy for actual money.”
Turned out everyone at the table was over 41 and each had been asked by different production executives under 30 to be their script taster.
Bernie was baffled. “What’s happening here?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you what’s happening,” said a voice behind him. It was Jack Schiffer, carrying a tray to the Farmers Market table that he and his writers’ clique occupied near Phil’s Deli. “This town has exploded with work, only nobody knows who’s doing it.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mel.
“The spec market’s taken off like I haven’t seen it since The Last Boy Scout tore Hollywood a new one in 1989. Some kid named Stackpole started it, but now there’s more material being bought than the studios can ever develop. So what the young executives are doing is asking older guys like us to do their thinking for them.”
“Isn’t why they have readers and coverage?” Perry asked, dumbfounded.
“Don’t knock the work,” Jack said, picking up his tray. “Readers have experience with finished scripts, not scripts that need work. It takes a real screenwriter to know when something can be saved and how to do it.”
Bernie sat at home recycling a half-finished treatment for The Fountainhead set in outer space when Chaim Yonkel’s assistant called from Disney.
“Mr. Yonkel wants to know if you’d be interested in rewriting Second Thoughts,” she said.
“Never heard of it,” Bernie said. He began searching the title to see if it was one of his. “What’s the logline?”
“It’s a rom-com about a middle-aged couple who win the lottery only then their house burns down, their jobs get outsourced, and their marriage hits the rocks. But they’re redeemed by watching My Little Pony.”
Bernie suppressed a retch. He couldn’t help himself. “I’m impressed that you’d make a downer movie with middle-aged characters,” he managed.
“Oh, we’re going to change it to millenials,” the assistant said perkily. “We’ll save the house, keep the jobs, fix the relationship and change My Little Pony to vampires.”
“Who submitted it?” Bernie asked.
“Mitch Rosenbloom,” she said.
Bernie had never heard of him. He and Yonkle’s assistant worked out the terms in a few short minutes once they got past the stumbling block of how much h’ed get paid “just to read that crap,” and she sent him the script.
Meanwhile, Bernie’s heart jumped as he got Mel on the phone. "I think everybody our age is doing what we’re doing now. Could it be that we started a trend?""
“The pabulum has hit the fan,” Mel said. “The companies hired young executives who knew the audience but didn’t know enough about the craft, so they’re all hiring old farts like us. It’s the biggest cover-your-asses scheme since the invention of memos.”
“Good God, we’ve gone through the looking glass,” Bernie exclaimed, since he didn’t mind a little homogenizing of metaphors. “What you’re saying is that Hollywood is now being run, not out of CAA or UTA or WME or the studios, but out of geezer tables at the Farmers Market?”
Which is exactly how Bernie explained it to his co-conspirators the next Monday morning. “Enjoy it while we can,” he cautioned everyone. “These embryos all go to the same trainers, party at the same clubs, and hit Sundance and Cancun at the same time. Sooner or later they’ll realize they all have the same consultants. Until then, we celebrate maturity.”
Future film historians would later marvel how, for a two-year period, most of the movies emanating from Hollywood studios appealed to audiences under thirty but were written as well or better than anything released in the past three decades. No matter how screwy the concept seemed, the actual film played out with fully rounded characters who dealt with drama in realistic ways. It didn’t take long before adults started coming back to movie theatres, leaving the tentpoles to stream on iPads and SmartPhones. Journalists praised the industry for finally appealing to the 40 percent of the population they had hitherto been ignored. Profits soared from this re-enfranchised market.
“It’s like Billy Wilder said when he got the AFI award in 1986,” Bernie one day told his group over their upgraded lunches at Norah. “’We are not expendable. The fact is the bigger they get, the more irreplaceable we become. For theirs may be the kingdom, but ours is the power and the glory.’ Now pass the ketchup.”