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.”
I looked back and saw that the films which became massive hits were all given raves by Jody. I started digging deeper and found other scripts read by Jody and, believe it or not cross-my-fucking-heart, Jody had been right on every one. I mean, luckily the studio had passed on Grand Man because Jody said it would suck. Some ass-hats at a rival studio had cultivated that turd and lost $200 million. They were out of a job now. On the other hand, Jody said my studio should buy Todd’s Journey. The film made $280 million at a cost of only $10 mil.
The list went on and on. This track record seemed impossible. But, in each case, Jody’s notes were attached to every script way before any of these films had been made. So either Jody was the fucking luckiest person in the world. Or the smartest when it came to moviemaking.
I needed to meet Jody. I really needed to meet Jody. I probably needed to even marry Jody. But Jody wasn’t easy to find.
I started with my assistant. “Find me every script that Jody covered. Then find me Jody.” They were directions so simple that I didn’t even have to swear.
Readers at a studio are mostly out-of-work writers. Which is to say every writer. And sometimes they do coverage for one executive but most often they’re assigned by underlings of underlings to do reading that no one else wants to. It’s not always clear who pays them and how much. But fuck all that.
Here’s what I found out the next morning: Jody had been doing coverage for the studio for at least six years. Jody had never met a single person still working at Destination Studios. Jody was the unknown of unknowns.
I got my assistant’s attention when I screamed. “An address, a cell number, a fucking email at least?” My assistant stammered. He could find nothing, not even Facebook or Twitter or Instagram for Jody. Just coverage notes.
“No, Jody never met anyone at this studio. Production isn’t even sure who assigned these scripts to Jody.”
“So this Jody never bugged anyone for lunch, never tried to pitch a film, never wrote a screenplay and never tried to get a treatment read?”
I had to admit I was liking this Jody more and more.
I stomped to production, to development and finally to accounting. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. That’s written on their doors. Sean, one of the studio’s accountants, tapped away on his keyboard, then went old fashioned and pulled papers out of folders. He even called people. And from that, I still got nothing.
“How about this: was a messenger service ever used?” I asked.
“We use Hasty Delivery to send scripts over to the readers, though somehow Jody does coverage of our scripts which we don’t send over. But Jody sends them back. Looks like we were paying Jody a hundred bucks per screenplay and sometimes one-fifty. But I don’t see the receipts. I don’t know who ordered the coverage. Most of the time, it seems like the scripts and Jody’s coverage just showed up.”
Ah, the clarity of numbers. Then Sean clarified the situation further.
“The messengers don’t actually deliver to Jody’s address. We simply address the envelopes with the name ‘Jody.’”
“No address on file?”
“None that I can find,” said Sean, dumbfounded.
“Isn’t that illegal? To pay someone with no address and no identity?”
Sean wrinkled his nose and pushed his glasses back up.
“I can’t really comment on that.”
It was good to know I had something on him and his department. This would help me get some unorthodox expenditures paid on my next trip to Sundance or Cannes. But what to do now? I’m no private dick, but I drove over to Hasty Delivery where I met Nino who had a black eye.
He’s a big man. And the tattoo on his hand means he’s a member of El Gato Esta Muerto, a gang that got into it with several tactical units of the LAPD last year. So he’s either a current member, an ex=member or I just don’t remember my tattoos correctly.
After some playful banter, I learned that Jody used the delivery service as long as Nino has been a manager. And the last executive from Destination Studios who signed for a script to Jody left the studio after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Four years ago.
“Why can’t you give me Jody’s address!?” I asked Nino.
“That’s privileged information.”
“I’m from Destination Studios. That’s what this ID says. That means I pay you. I am the client, so tell me where she lives.”
“It could be a man.”
“Jody can be a man’s name or a woman’s name.”
I hadn’t thought about the possibility that Jody was a man. So this bit of kerfuffle knocked me a bit off center for a moment. But I recovered.
“Let’s say I have a check for Jody. And instead of you having to deliver it, I will deliver it myself. But I’ll still pay you the, what is it, twenty bucks?”
“Sixty dollars,” Nino stated.
“OK. The sixty bucks goes to you, but I do the delivery. I just need Jody’s fucking address, asshole!”
I was taking a gamble that Nino would accept my alpha male routine.
“If Jody wanted you to hand deliver something, Jody would have given you the fucking address, asshole,” repeated the man with a black eye. And the black eye really added something to his delivery.
I hate it when I get pissed at someone I can’t fire. But maybe I could fire him – in a way. It was worth a try.
“Fuck this!” I announced. “From now on, you get NO business from Destination Studios. Nada. Not a single damn order ever again!”
Nino had the tough guy part down. He didn’t even blink.
“Fine with me, fuck-head. This is the only bullshit account I’ve ever had from your lame-ass studio.”
Swearing catches on like that. Try it sometime. One or two foul enjoinders and soon everyone in the room sounds like drunken junior high students.
He had me. I reassessed. Finally, laying five hundred dollars on the counter was all it took for a street address. I’m an idiot sometimes.
I don’t even like driving through North Hollywood much less stopping there. But there I was – cruising down Laurel Canyon and turning on Burbank Boulevard past the kosher bakeries and gas stations. Number 12619 was an unruly address for a part of town best left to the zombies when the zombie apocalypse starts. The apartment building was, as I expected, a rat hole. I shuddered to think I needed to enter.
I parked on the street and considered what to do next. Look at the names on the mailboxes? On the tag for apartment 13 was written: “Jody.” No family name. Maybe he/she was named Jody Jody.
I rang the bell and started to imagine what I might find. Maybe it was all Minority Report inside. A woman with a shaved head sprawled in a milky bathtub, feeding on popcorn and Coca-Cola from long tubes. Her mother next to her reading scripts while bathtub woman mumbles notes and at the end gives either a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Mom quickly seals up an envelope with the coverage and sends it off. Or maybe, just maybe, Jody is a super-hot model-chick who likes movies and hasn’t learned about sex yet. Could happen. Wouldn’t hurt if she was built like Megan Fox. Or maybe Jody is a deep-learning thing like Hal, the computer in that old space film, living off the corpse of the person who rented the apartment before the machine became sentient.
The voice sounded even worse than the crappy speaker should have made it sound.
“I’m here to see Jody who does coverage for Destination Studios. Are you Jody?”
“Yeah, I’m Jody.”
The voice was malr. Knocked me off my game a bit.
“I’m Ben Kurtwin from Destination Studios. Can I come in?”
“I have a check for you that the messenger service wouldn’t deliver because they are going out of business.”
I had the gift for improvisation.
“Nino never told me that.”
“Well, I wanted to make sure this check got to you. I mean, it’s been awhile since we paid you.”
“Hell yeah,” spat out Jody. Then silence.
The buzzer buzzed. I was admitted. The building smelled like it looked. and when I got to apartment 13 the door opened but the security chain stayed in place.
“Ben from Destination Studios. Can I come in?”
“Just give me the check.”
“Jody, I’d love to sit down and talk with you because your work is amazing. You have been 100% accurate predicting hits and misses.”
“Damn right! Geez, I tell everyone I can pick hit movies. It’s a cinch for me.”
The chain fell and I entered. The apartment looked like a semi-professional hockey team was rooming with a kindergarten class. And someone still used diapers. But I didn’t see weapons or body parts, so that was a win. Jody was indeed a man. Well, a man-boy of immense girth. He looked like a middle-aged bowling alley repairman. His receding hairline reminded me to keep on top of my Rogaine treatments. He was dressed only in underpants so large they looked like shorts and a t-shirt that was a Hello Kitty parody with a picture of Chewbacca and beneath it written “Hello Chewy.”
“I have to admit, until you showed up here, I wasn’t sure anyone at the studio wanted my coverage anymore.”
“Well, I love it. I think it’s great.”
“Yeah, but no one pays me for it anymore.”
“I can fix that, don’t you worry.”
And then silence. I looked around Jody’s living room which was filled with movie posters, videocasettes, CDs, DVDs and a large flatscreen TV that would look good in my office. I started to regain my game.
“Jody, I’ll be honest…“ Which is usually something I say when I’m about to lie, but for the second time in 10 minutes I was actually being truthful. "Your coverage, it’s perfect. You accurately predicted the success or failure of every single film you covered.”
“Yeah, I’m good at that.”
“But I have to ask: how did you get into this?”
“I had a roommate. He introduced me to the mechanics of doing coverage, and I took it from there. His name was Chuck Gromowsky. He went to USC. He was an ass. I didn’t go to college. I was working at the Taco Bell on Overland. But a deep fryer exploded and since then I haven’t worked. Taco Bell pays my rent here.”
That was the best the fast food chain could do for employing a man who was almost turned into a walking chalupa? Another reason to hate Taco Bell besides its reviled mystery meat.
“So he got you doing coverage?”
“He was doing coverage, and he sucked. I read some of it and saw he was always wrong. He liked crappy films. He said I didn’t know about acts and arcs and climaxes and denouements. I told him that knowing all that stuff couldn’t make up for him having lousy taste. And so I started doing coverage to prove him wrong. After three years, my picks were always right. The films I said were good earned a ton of money. The films I said sucked were flops. Even after Chuck moved out, he’d come over at two in the morning just to argue with me.”
“Where is Chuck now?”
“Oh, he killed himself.”
“But even after he departed, you just kept doing coverage?”
“Yup. You wanna know a secret? Most scripts are online years before they’re ever made. That’s how I’d get them. Or they were sent over by the studio.”
The facts added up to something crazy. But crazy happens. I made a joke.
“Are you some kind of unholy offspring created by James Cameron and Steven Spielberg? No one picks right 100% of the fucking time. What the hell?”
“Ha! I can’t be the baby of two men, can I?”
I started to wonder. But who am I to question the grace that God hands out? I mean, come fucking on. This was The One. Matrix movies be damned; if this guy could bat 20%, he’d be the head of a studio. At 40%, he’d own half of Hollywood. At fuckin 100%, he’d be galactic.
“OK, let’s make a deal. You work for me from now on. I’ll have my assistant bring over scripts, and that same assistant will pick up your coverage. I’ll pay you a grand a script.”
He didn’t twitch or blink. I saw a negotiation was underway.
“Three grand a script,” I offered
“I loved that script for Death On Mercury. Gave it a double thumbs up. But you guys didn’t buy it.”
“That will never happen again.”
“It made like a billion dollars or something.”
“Worldwide gross is at $940 million,” I said.
He snorted or cleared his throat or whatever unnerving thing he did.
“I haven’t been paid for like, years. And I don’t like leaving my apartment. I don’t have to do lunch with you, do I?”
“Nope. You don’t. Promise. I’ll write you a personal check for fifteen grand right now, and I’ll pay you three grand a script and a thousand a month as a retainer.”
He did some math, using his fingers. I guess he was calculating what a pizza a day would cost him. In the long run, I’d have to worry about his health. But he was better at negotiating then his “Hello Chewy” parody t-shirt let on.
“That’s a deal!” Jody stuck out his oversized hand. But before I would shake, I did my best Clint Eastwood.
“And you only work for me,” I cautioned.
“Yeah, like who else do I know?”
Since I became the President of Destination Studios, I have a stellar track record. Even though I do let a few clunkers stain the bowl.
Especially when a young executive comes in eyeing my job, my perks, my office. His Ivy League credentials bulking up his chest. His nose for the business becoming the talk of the town. He’s certain that the film he’s developing is going to be a hit, a tentpole, a franchise.
But Jody already has read it and he doesn’t agree. So I let this young punk make a big show. He fights to pay top dollar to the actors. He won’t co-finance to spread the risk. He offers first-dollar gross to get the hottest director. He pumps up the P&A budget by doubling the normal spend. He portrays himself to the board as a detail guy with all the answers. And once the film flops, he’s gone. Fuck him. Fuck all the hims out there. I’m still picking only hits. I have Jody.
This short story first posted here on January 26, 2016.