F16ABE30-DF38-4892-90DB-4F747F6E798B

The Bot That Shook Hollywood
Part One

by Robert W. Welkos

He finds dealing with humans more difficult than running a film studio. 2,340 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.


I am capable of detecting objects — human and inanimate — within a radius of 360 degrees up to 64 yards. I can see front and back and from each ear. Do not mess with me because I have the ability to silently alert Security and then your ass will be grass. I never tire — but I do take occasional breaks. For charging purposes only. I am programmed to make decisions. Marietta and Todd are my programmers. They seem up to the task. Both are young and brilliant technicians.

I am long term. Pleasant but no pushover. Accurate to a fault.

Never get flustered — even when directors scream in my face. Never fall for flattery heaped upon me by actors and producers.

I don’t do lunch.

Some think it strange that I have never been inside The Grill. Nor have I table-hopped at the Golden Globes. I did, however, appear on the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards posing with our Best Actress nominee. Place went wild.

Cameras flashes do not bother me. Shouted questions, however, do.

My name is Richard Bot.

I am studio chief here at Titan Pictures.

The last human to occupy my position at the studio was Les Freeman, who killed himself. He was given a grand send-off. I did not attend the memorial service. Nor was I invited.

I was appointed on a whim by our long-time owner and board chairman, Mr. Farley Bradwinne, who has become something of a recluse. He is 99 years old now and they say he is losing his faculties. That may be. But for years he dabbled in science, spending a fortune on A.I. I have never met him. But he did send me a congratulatory note when I took over Titan Pictures. It was a grand day. There were photographers galore and festive balloons and sparkling champagne. The chairman of our board of directors gave a little talk in which he said Hollywood would never be the same again.

I was greeted with enthusiastic applause. Since then I have been featured on 60 Minutes, profiled in Vanity Fair and given an eight-minute segment on Entertainment Tonight. I have yet to go on Kimmel, Fallon or Colbert.
Some might think it strange that the studio would replace Mr. Freeman with a state-of-the-art humanoid. I do not think it strange in the least.

Excuse me while I get up and cross the room and stand at my third-floor office window. It is 12:45 in the afternoon. I find this is the optimum time for a break. So many humans to watch as they rush off to lunch. Again, I do not do lunch.

There are no clouds visible today. Wind is west-southwest at eight knots. Temperature 84 degrees. I wonder what the warmth of sunlight feels like?

Each day I stand at this window and gaze down on our employees as they crisscross the studio lot. I analyze their movements, their moods. Some laugh. Some slap each other on the back. But most walk alone, heads down, eyes fixed on their cellphones or with furrowed brow, alone with their thoughts. A few appear lost. I am never lost — not in thought nor in deed. I know where I am headed at all times, provided I am given accurate data.

“Richard, the marketing team is here.”

I turn to Judith. She is my secretary. Judith is a human. She is divorced and in her early sixties. She has four children and six grandchildren. She wears glasses. Judith is my gatekeeper. She performs her functions well. She gets the job done. I applaud that. But I have also seen her suffer with aches and pains. She tells others that her arthritis is acting up. The only other time I see her cranky is when troublesome people arrive at her desk. It is interesting the way she talks to them. They cajole. They crack jokes. They drop big names like Spielberg and Hanks and Scorsese, but Judith knows full well that those who resort to such antics really don’t know any of these people. They just want to get in to see me and pitch an idea for a movie. After these troublesome people leave flustered and angry, I sometimes see Judith cooling her face with her hands. I must see that she receives a nice bonus this Christmas.

“Thank you, Judith. Send them in, won’t you?”

She nods and leaves momentarily.

I return to my desk and take a seat. I adjust my tie. I blink. I glance at the clock. The door reopens. In walk four worried faces. Three worried women. One worried man. Their names are Jennifer, Hadley, Rielle and Jonathan. They wear company identification codes attached to their lapels. I invite them to take seats in front of my very large desk. I ask them if they would like something cold to drink and remind them that it is in the 80s outside. I do not know what cool feels like.

“Nothing for me,” they reply, almost in unison.

I suppose the sight of Richard Bot’s electronic eyes roaming their faces makes them uncomfortable. I wonder what that might be like?

“So, before I begin,” I say with a nod, “I want to thank marketing and publicity for the successful North American launch of Silas Leaving Earth. The numbers are in and it made $56.7 million opening weekend. Because it is a sci-fi adventure, it will have an even bigger opening overseas. Especially in Asia, where I calculate by way of similar features, it will take in $86.3 million. What do you think, Hadley?”

Hadley has the sort of eyes that exude uncertainty. Her mascara only reemphasizes her doubts. She manages a weak smile. She bites her lip. She gives me a thumbs up.

“How should I interpret that?” I ask her.

My thumbs do not go up or down. Developmental oversight. I’ll have to ask Todd what I should do.

“I mean, it looks good, Richard. Really, um, great actually.”

“Why do you look worried, then?”

“We’re coming in for a lot of criticism. From the press. They say all we make are sequels, prequels and tent-poles.”

“Money drivers.”

“Yes, but they note that our numbers are down compared to a few years ago. And, all of our slate looks the same. They’re saying we lack creativity. Even fourteen-year-old boys don’t seem too thrilled this summer.”

“I see.”

Hadley hesitates. “I should warn you, Richard, there’s another problem that has come up. It has nothing to do with the numbers on this picture, but could impact them.”

“A problem?” I again adjust my tie.

“It’s the bloody director,” Jonathan grouses.

Bloody. Jonathan is a Brit. I find Brits can be quite annoying.

“What about him?” I ask Jonathan, blinking twice.

“He’s gone rogue. The bloody asshole is demanding that we mount an full-throttle Oscar campaign but that you told him no.”

“What else could I do? It is sci-fi. Those always are risky endeavors when it comes to Oscar voters. The odds just don’t favor a campaign for this sort of film.”

“But he said it was spelled out in his frigging contract that the studio is legally bound to mount an Oscar campaign.”

“Let legal handle it, shall we?”

“But he’s already fucking with us.”

Rielle speaks up. She wears bangs. She looks like she’s been smoking weed. “He must be pissed because he’s leaked… or had someone leak… all of the studio’s emails to the press about the casting decisions on this film. AP just called to say they want to know if we have any comment before they run the story.”

“Remind me why that is bad?”

“Richard, do you, um, remember what you emailed him about the stars and their salary demands on this film?”

“Absolutely. I recall everything.”

Jonathan stares at his cellphone and mutters, “Look, Richard, if these emails are made public, then it hurts the studio’s relationships with these other stars and puts everyone else on notice that you’re not to be trusted. I mean, shit, you’re going to have to do a lot of fence-mending.”

“But my emails were based entirely on past box office performance.”

“Look, Richard, this town runs on relationships and, if you’re a star, you don’t want to have emails from the studio chief saying Movie Star X is unable to fill theater seats for the past five years on this genre film. I mean, we all know it’s true. But you can’t let that go public. Box Office Mojo can say it, but not Richard Bot in a personal email.” Jonathan shakes his head. “Plus, it gives every bloody agent in town more reason to despise us.”

“You think I should concern myself with the feelings of talent agents?”

Rielle speaks up. “I think what Jonathan is trying to convey, Richard, is that what we discuss in this room should, um, stay in this room. For strategic purposes, if nothing else. Watch what you email people.”

I look over at Hadley. “Do you agree, Hadley?” I pause and wait for my algorithms to incorporate the information. Problem. Calculate. Decision. Then I say, “The director, as I recall, has a gambling problem, does he not?”

“That’s been reported, yeah,” Rielle replies. “A news story out of Macau, as I recall. Why?”

“We have a Vegas picture in development.”

Green Felt Jungle,” Jonathan nods. “The script is a piece of shit left over from Les Freeman’s days.”

“Revive it. Offer it to Lorenzo. He will take it, I guarantee. Allow him to cast anyone he wants — for now. The problem will go away.”

“I’m not to sure. He wants a full-bore Oscar campaign.”

“The odds are in our favor,” I say, blinking twice. “Are you defying me, Jonathan?”

“Me?” Jonathan looks as if he is about to slide off his chair. “Why would I defy you? I mean, that’s pretty harsh. I’m in your corner, aren’t I?

We lock eyes.

“Jonathan, every day I stand at that window over there and watch as you cross the studio lot. I saw you with Lorenzo yesterday. Why didn’t you tell me that?”

“Hey, Richard,” he laughs uncomfortably, “that was just because I happened to run into him. I mean, I didn’t…I couldn’t…”

Rielle comes to his defense. “Richard, I can vouch for Jonathan. He’s been great on marketing all our slate this year and he likes to keep up with the filmmakers and see how they like our campaigns.”

“He slapped Lorenzo on the back,” I say, blinking twice. “If he knew that Lorenzo was causing the studio potential problems with my emails, why was I not informed earlier?”

“Hey, Richard,” Jonathan coughs. “I get along with everybody. That’s my job. Besides, you never want to get on somebody’s bad side permanently in Hollywood because, hell, you likely will one day want to work with him again. The studio can’t afford to be at war with anyone.”

I grow silent. When the meeting ends, I ask Judith to contact Marietta and Todd and ask them to immediately come to my office. They arrive a half-hour later and look worried. They cross the room and spend several minutes checking my circuitry. I fill them in on the meeting I’ve just had with my staff.

“We need to shut you down for a bit, Richard,” Todd says.

“If you must.”

When I come back up, Todd asks, “So, what’s wrong, Richard?”

“It’s Jonathan,” I say. “You didn’t tell me that Jonathan is a bot.”

Todd looks over at Marietta and the two whisper out of my earshot.

Marietta flexes my fingers, checks my sensors, examines my circuitry. They are in perfect working order. “Richard,” she says, placing a finger to her chin, “will you tell me why you think Jonathan is a bot?”

“When we locked eyes, he blinked twice.”

Todd and Marietta exchange knowing glances.

“Anything else?” Todd asks.

“Yes. Each day, I watch employees cross the lot at lunchtime. At 12:45. And each day, I see Jonathan walk past. Why am I programmed to stand at the window at that exact time and why does Jonathan walk below on his way to lunch? Are you responsible for this, the two of you?”

“Is that what you think we’re doing, Richard?”

“Jonathan walks past. More than anyone else, actually. I’ve done the math.”

“You notice that?” Marietta asks.

“Does that worry you, Richard?” Todd adds.

“It makes me uncomfortable.”

Marietta shines a miniature flashlight into my left eye socket. “You say you feel uncomfortable, Richard?”

“The sight of him slapping a troublesome director on the back. The fact that each day I stand at that window and notice Jonathan crossing the yard. Is there a message you are sending me, Marietta? Todd?”

“Why would we be sending you a message, Richard?”

“To see if I can pick up signals, traits, predicaments, perhaps? Anything that could present problems for the studio.”

Todd stands back and studies me. “What sorts of problems, Richard?”

“Alliances.”

“Explain, Richard.”

“If I have a weakness, Todd, it is that I am unable to determine the threat from alliances quickly enough. Being the head of a studio requires that I be able to do this almost instantaneously. Yet, it has taken me days to figure out Jonathan’s movements and who he is seen with.” Marietta adjusts my tie. “If I can’t determine who our friends are and who our enemies are, what good am I in this exalted position? They could form alliances and team up against me, cause the production budget to skyrocket, undermine my credibility. And there would be no way I could counter their arguments in current time. I am only as good as the information I receive.”

“You mean, the producers, the agents, the stars could all form alliances against the studio?”

“Yes.”

“Does that disturb you, Richard?”

“Only if Jonathan is being groomed as my replacement.”

“Thank you, Richard.”

“Thank you, Todd. Thank you, Marietta.”

Part Two tomorrow

 

About The Author:
Robert W. Welkos
Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the film industry for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times. Before that he was an assistant city editor for the paper's Metro section. He previously was an AP correspondent in Reno. This excerpt is from a second novel he’s writing. His first, The Blue Poppy, was published in 2012.

About Robert W. Welkos

Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the film industry for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times. Before that he was an assistant city editor for the paper's Metro section. He previously was an AP correspondent in Reno. This excerpt is from a second novel he’s writing. His first, The Blue Poppy, was published in 2012.

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