CHRISTMAS FICTION: An artist thinks he’s come up with a wonderful way to find film content and wow Hollywood. 2,674 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I had never been treated so rudely in my life. I was in a meeting at a major Hollywood studio, sharing my creativity and insight with a top executive, only to be given the bum’s rush by three security guards. As if the humiliation of being dragged out of that office, down the hall and through the lobby wasn’t enough, I was also thrown, literally tossed, onto the street. Onto asphalt, not gold.
The indignity began that November when I read that a major movie studio had bought the film rights to The Christmas Cottage. Not only was opportunity knocking on my door, it was ringing the bell. Hollywood, an insatiable beast, had run out of ideas. Filmmaking was and still is a lowly art form rising to its greatest level of incompetence. While most studios keep producing re-remakes and re-re-remakes, this studio was trying to be an innovator.
The Christmas Cottage is a painting by Thomas Kinkade, the “Painter of Light” as he is affectionately known in America’s shopping malls, who composed a warm-hearted landscape featuring a snow-covered cottage nestled in cozy woods.
I saw this new development as opening a Pandora’s Box in the world of cinema. Why stop with a painting? There are many images and objects that can have a high concept. Hollywood has already made films from board games and Legos. Sculpture, conceptualism, postcards, Campbell Soup Cans and traffic signals could also be made into blockbuster entertainment.
I wasn’t sure what the studio had in mind for its feature about The Christmas Cottage. Wouldn’t Picasso’s Guernica make a better movie? How about the hard “R” of any Odalisque by Matisse? Or, given the current trend for Christian entertainment, would not The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Bosch scare a heathen back to God? But who was I to question the superior intellect and creativity of the Hollywood sensibility.
The Christmas Cottage is full of snuggles, but short on plot. I knew this could be the big Tinseltown break that I had been waiting for. I started to sketch out my Oscar acceptance speech. I knew my ideas would wow the film executives, but it was hard to get even a Prada shoe into the studio’s door. Fortunately, a friend of a friend’s friend knew a call girl who knew the drug dealer of a psychiatrist who was on friendly terms with Moshe Chen, a development executive there. After many phone calls and a threat of extracurricular exposure, I was granted an appointment.
I ironed my shirt, brushed my teeth and stopped drinking for several hours prior to the meeting. When I walked into Chen’s leather-walled suite, I was ready. He was sitting in a wingback throne and did not rise to greet me. Maintaining an air of creative authority, I barreled into the office with glad-hand outstretched.
Unfortunately, I was too excited to notice the shoeshine boy who was working on Chen’s brogues. I tripped over the lad and landed in the executive’s lap. Chen shoved me off and I sprawled into the kid. Black polish smeared my white shirt like a Franz Kline painting. I hate such awkward moments. All I could do was smile wanly, nod and comment on the beautiful weather in November.
Once order had been restored, Chen cut to the chase. “Why are you here?”
“Well, I’m a painter and an arts writer, and…”
“I’m sorry for your troubles,” he interrupted, “But why are you here?”
“I think I have some plot ideas for your Kinkade epic,” I stammered. “I think I have some good concepts that…”
“Do you get paid for your ideas?” he challenged.
“Well, no." I shrugged weakly. "I’m in the fine art world. We work for free." Then I fired back boldly, “But I’ve got matzoh!”
Moshe Chen buried his face in his hands and echoed, “Yeah. Oy.”
The only sound in the room came from the shoeshine boy who was packing up the tools of his trade. The executive looked at his watch with despair. Chen knew it would be another five minutes before his secretary would buzz in with the facile excuse of an urgent call, and rescue him.
Resigned, Chen eyed me through laced fingers and said, “OK. Wow me.”
Hollywood reveres enthusiasm. Passion for the project is far more valuable than the idea. Only fever produces film. If you want a greenlight, you’d better be prepared to lie on the train tracks.
I crouched down, feigning a wrestling move. I clapped my hands to up the tempo. “OK!” I began. “John Throttlegate, patriarch of the large and loving Throttlegate clan, dies of an apparent heart attack at the Thanksgiving dinner table…”
“It’s a Christmas Cottage!” thundered Chen.
“I know. I’m not there yet,” I replied. “The death of the old man, who didn’t leave a will, sets off an interfamily squabble to gain control of the Christmas Cottage, a family vacation property which has appreciated considerably in the overheated real estate market. This family drama…””
“No!” interrupted the executive.
“Uh, screwball comedy?"
“Little Mary has polio. It’s a real tearjerk—“
“No!” Chen kept one hand over his face and slapped his desk with the other. “No!”
I danced back, like a prizefighter with enthusiasm and passion. “New idea!” I lowered my voice into a treble of impending evil. “Deep, very deep, in the dark woods, where–“
I skipped to the side like a song and dance man. “New idea! Fresh from the Syrian invasion, ex-Navy Seal Bo Hardware, now an unrepentant alcoho–“
Chen shouted “No!” but it sounded more like a wail. I interpreted this to mean that he was starting to come around.
The shoeshine boy looked up and said, “What if Bo Hardware helps Lil’ Mary with her polio and…”
Who does this kid think he is? I ignored the suggestion and turned to the executive. I had to give it my best shot. “OK! How about a teen sex comedy? We can re-title the picture The Christmas Frottage.”
Chen, who had placed his head on the table, sat up and said to me, “Do you really think that we would take any of your ideas for something as sweet and endearing as The Christmas Cottage? Good god man, where is your head at?”
“The lowest common denominator,” I replied, "I’m hoping to fit in."
That must have been the breaking point. Chen punched a button on his telephone console and barked, “Get me security.”
“Wait a minute!” I demanded, “You haven’t heard the musical dance idea. It’s…”
“Security!” he cried into the receiver.
“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa,” I said soothingly, trying to save the moment. “I’ve got an oil painting I did, 24 inches by 36. It’d make a great movie! The frame on it is incredible. Very tasteful!”
Chen was pushing the button repeatedly, “Security? Hello?” The phone was lighting up and beeping. “Hello?”
I was persistent because persistence equals passion. “Mr. Chen, Moshe, my pal. Wait a minute. How about a watercolor? It would make a touching and vibrant TV miniseries. Wait! A doodle! I’ve got a pen and ink on a bar napkin that could be a helluva sitcom!”
The shoeshine man, turning to me, said, “I’d like to see that!”
“Call the cops!” Chen was frantic. “There’s no security here.”
Just then, three plainclothes guards burst into the room. The first guy through the door stumbled and fell to the floor. The other two tripped and landed on top of him. All three quickly popped upright. Within seconds, they were on me.
I had come close to the streets paved with gold. Like every other aspiring actor, writer, director and conceptual artist, I had gone to the greater Los Angeles area, the great shining city by the sea, with hopes of vainglory, lush comfort and unending ease. My dream bubble had burst. The stage lights went dark. Showbiz broke me.
This is when the hopefuls without family connections, The Day Of The Locust Tod Hacketts and Faye Greeners, pack up and head home to Iowa. Not me. I was packing up to head home to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. My parents had just bought me a three bedroom with balcony and fireplace.
I made my goodbyes. I told Florico, a classmate from CalArts, that I was leaving. The Roma spat on the coffeehouse floor and poked his ringed finger at my nose, "You will stay. I see great strength and virtue." I was inspired by his confidence. I didn’t think I had it in me; that’s what my Dad always said, "You don’t have it in you."
Dinga, a transgender photographer who was in my MFA program at UCLA, said I shouldn’t give up so quickly. She said, "Try once more. Then give up and find a Safe Space."
I’m not the first fine artist to strike out in Hollywood. I’m sure Julian Schnabel was tossed around a bit before Mike Ovitz. Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer was box office DOA. Matthew Barney never found a narrative. Why not me?
Opportunity was howling. This time. This place. But the internet and the hand-held device had ruined storytelling. Our sensibilities were battered, ridden hard and put up wet, our sense of anticipation and joy pummeled into fifteen-second commercial arcs, content devoured like a rainforest. There were no more stories left to harvest.
But I knew that, as an artist who knew other artists, I was sitting on a diamond mine with fresh content right under Hollywood noses. With my advanced degrees from Harvard, UCLA, the ArtCenter and CalArts, I could corner the market. I pledged that the next time I marched into Moshe Chen’s office, he’d be shining my shoes.
I called my Pop and said, "Dad, drop the escrow on the penthouse. I’ve got fortitude and I need capital."
He was busy drinking and we were communicating through the maid. She said, "Fine."
I picked my target: working artists with a single A-level gallery or less. No one else was touching them. I knew that the stable at Blum & Poe or Gagosian were all hooked in with CAA, ICM, WME and the rest of the vicious agency alphabet. But this market was mine! I plowed through Culver City, Venice and Chinatown. I rarely got a rejection. I’d go to an opening, and grad students would start to pitch me. I was plucking artists on instinct. Didn’t matter what medium. I saw great plot and content in every artwork, even the Minimalists.
At first, many of my fellow artists thought it was a joke. "So, you don’t want the painting."
"That’s correct. I just want the story rights."
"Then what are you going to put above the sofa?"
Others quickly smelled opportunity and bargained hard. An abstractionist and I were both looking at a linear painting of repetitive color fields. I was adamant. "I want the content. All of it."
The painter pointed his chin at his canvas, "But not the car chase."
I said, "OK. I can let that go." Heck, I didn’t even see the car chase. I wanted his artwork for the sex. The abstraction was a solid hard “R,” perfect for the Fifty Shades gals. So I turned to Mr. Savvy and said, "I’ll give up the car chase, but I’m dropping my offer twenty percent."
Once I got hep to the back-end deal, I was picking up content for literally nothing. I’d never felt so Christ-like. My fellow artists would look up, with tears in their eyes, and thank me as I stole their content for pennies on the dollar. "That’s right. A dollar down now for the wire, felt and ribbon sculpture, but you’ll get five percent more on the net profits years after the last VOD release in every international market!"
I started to call myself Louis B. Iger.
I wasn’t all pirate. I wasn’t one of those chest-thumping Cro-Magnon agency guys. I had sensitivity for story and human compassion. And I had a sense of box office. I could look at a large figurative painting of field and fawn, a photo of an anus or a performance piece with dew, and tell you what it was gonna gross on opening weekend. Down to the smallest foreign territory.
Soon, my portfolio was complete. I had genre content for every platform. I was ready for Moshe Chen. Should he need a long-form thriller, with hippies, on an HBO budget, in Florida for the tax breaks? "I’ve got a beautiful bright fabric print." Might he need a vehicle for cult indie actor Donal Logue? "Funny you should ask, I love that guy! I have a small clay sculpture, a large Serra-like steel installation and a fuzzy crochet abstract I’d like you to look at over the weekend."
Whatever Chen could imagine, I had new content. Pure. Fresh. High and low. The reservoir of Hollywood ingenuity is empty, dusty and dry. Like brave Gunga Din, I had the water! Moshe Chen would be begging for a sip.
I put on my best suit and tied a Windsor; I wanted to set the tone of the call. I picked up the phone and dialed Chen’s office. I asked for him and I gave my name.
The bright-sounding assistant put me on hold. I gazed out over the sunny geometric grid of Los Angeles. A Christmas tree already topped the Capitol Records building. I made a fist and admired my reflection in my newly polished nails.
The receptionist popped on the line, "I’m sorry. He’s not in."
I took a chance, "Sure he is. I can see him."
"Uh, yes. But your name is on the ‘Do Not Answer’ List."
"Actually, I’d like you to put my name on top of the ‘He’s Got Content’ List."
"Last time I met Moshe, I didn’t have what he wanted. Now I do."
"May I put you on hold?"
"Please." I checked my inbox. An artist introduced himself and attached his latest review from Artillery magazine. I sensed a gothic Tim Burton spectacular. I was still on hold when an ad popped onto my cell screen. It was for Thomas Kinkade’s The Christmas Cottage which had opened the day before. There was a click on the phone line, which was replaced by hold music. I emailed a reservation to Dan Tana’s. I made an appointment for an IV drip.
Finally, the receptionist came back. "Mr. Chen is not available."
I sighed loudly. I was a reluctant blackmailer so I said carefully, "I’m a friend of Moshe Chen’s psychiatrist whose drug dealer knows the call girl of a friend’s best friend. Just put him on."
"Just a moment, please." After a minute or two, she came back on the line. "Mister Chen has instructed me to tell you that…" she seemed to be reading from her notes, "you are an annoying motherfucker… Those are his words not mine… And that Thomas Kinkade’s The Christmas Cottage is tanking hard. We are no longer going to make movies from paintings or any fine art."
There was a commotion on her end of the line and Chen must have grabbed the phone. I immediately recognized his Yiddish-Cantonese accent. He screamed, "Go back to Iowa, Mister Box Office Erectus." And the line went dead.
Well, I did not go back to Iowa, but months later I did fly over it a few times. I took my friend Dinga’s advice and ran to a Safe Space. As I was nurturing myself with cozy blankets, Bose earbuds and Mac ‘n Cheese, I watched Thomas Kinkade’s The Christmas Cottage on Netflix. I really loved it. I’ve seen it about thirty-seven times now and I still get choked up.
Hollywood had spoken. Loud and clear. Once I regained my false sense of reality, I realized that I needed to hang out with a better class of characters. I stood up on unsteady legs and flew first class to Silicon Valley. I sold my portfolio of content for $350 million at the very first meeting. I cancelled the other two.
This story first posted here on December 26, 2016.