An ex-studio boss tries to cast a crazy music superstar in the first film he’s producing. 3,704 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Ben had been working on Art Manning, hard, for almost a week now.
They had done business together in past, since Manning was a powerful lawyer whose roster of A-list clients could set a deal in motion and often helped close it. He was regarded as a combative litigator, but also as a top-notch negotiator – something not always said about powerful entertainment attorneys.
When Manning came in to negotiate a deal, he never inadvertently killed it. He was not one of those lawyers whose art collections were more celebrated than their legal skills.
Ben knew that many industry lawyers were only too happy to have Manning in on a negotiation. It was one way of assuring that they would get the best possible pay-out for their client – as long as they were on the same side of the table as Manning.
Now Ben needed help for the new independent production company he was starting. He didn’t want to admit it, but he’d been unnerved by his most recent industry party. He had never thought that roughly a third of his guests would leave once he was no longer head of a studio. Was this something he needed to worry about now? Should he prepare for a life of slights? His name falling off an important agent’s call list? Never making it to the top of the queue to buy a Gursky? Ben cut off this line of thought. It was a waste of time. He had built his many relationships over years of doing business. Relationships were what mattered in Hollywood. People would always take his calls.
This picture was a good starting point. It would grab that attention of everyone in town. Over the years, many different directors and producers had tried to set up this script. But it had eluded, even stumped, them all.
Ben was certain that he had the key. Howard would make it work. Ben decided that it was going to take longer than he had planned to assemble a deal. A slog, not a quick march. But he had the skills – and patience – required to win. And winning was all that mattered.
He was also not so sure how helpful Manning would be. If he decided to come through, it would mean a lot for Ben around town. Ben would be regarded as a real player making real pictures – not gleaning scraps thrown to him by the studio at his departure as head.
Ben had taken properties with him when he left Lucent. There was one in particular he had long believed could be a hit. But he needed a superstar like hip hop artist Rick Howard to make that happen. And Manning was the gatekeeper.
There were other gatekeepers, of course. Many pilot fish were blocking the access to Rick Howard. Ben had been slow in realizing Manning was the key.
Ben had wasted almost three days wooing Howard’s manager, Mike Sorrento. He had even taken Sorrento to meet an influential art dealer. That was a mistake all around. The art dealer had told Ben that he had a special painting, so Ben took Mike in to see it. Ben knew, since he was giving Sorrento access to an important work, it would be a natural exchange for the manager to help secure Howard.
This art dealer was renowned for his iciness. He had a trick of only recognizing those he knew to be buyers – current or potential. Anyone else didn’t exist. He was so practiced at this that there was not a flicker of acknowledgment when he looked at people not worth his attention. His strange pale eyes looked right through them without blinking, like a chameleon’s. A membrane seemed to filter out all unnecessary people. Ben had always envied this attribute.
But the dealer had generated some warmth for Sorrento. He asked his assistant, another in the seemingly endless succession of beguiling hand maidens to art, to bring in something to drink. Then, responding to some secret signal, the young woman brought out an exquisite Monet canvas of Giverny. It was a misty dream in blues and greens, owned, the dealer explained, by the same family since the great-grandfather had purchased it directly from the artist.
But Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme had shaken the painting loose from the library walls of the family’s secluded Swiss villa and the collapse of the energy market had propelled it to the dealer’s Beverly Hills gallery. It had never even been loaned for an exhibition, the dealer crowed; this was the first it had seen the light of day in public since the family acquired it more than a century before.
Ben felt in control, the feeling he most savored. It felt good that he still had enough clout to introduce Sorrento to such exclusive art. And Sorrento seemed impressed. He said immediately how much he admired, and liked, the painting.
Monet is so easy to like, Ben thought, not complicated or demanding, the way conceptual or contemporary art could be. It is a safe choice – like an Armani suit, the default uniform of Hollywood. This Monet had all the appropriate bells and whistles. As Impressionists go, Ben had to admit, it was breathtaking.
Indeed, Sorrento seemed drawn to the canvas. He stepped in close, bending down to examine it. “Look at this paint,” he said, “It’s piled on!” As if unable to resist, he reached out and touched a whorl of vivid green, blue and white with his fingertips. Ben saw the dealer lunge for Sorrento’s arm, and literally hiss.
But Sorrento had already stepped back. His eyes, however, remained locked on the painting. “Amazing,” Sorrento said in a soft voice. “But green just wouldn’t work in my house. Do you have something more purple?”
The dealer gave Robbins a quick hard look while he motioned the young woman to remove the painting. There was no secret signal now. Ben felt the gallery’s temperature plummet.
Ben and Sorrento moved on to Barneys, where they bonded over tropical-weight Italian cashmere, in various shades of gray, and Lucien skull crewnecks. Sorrento bought two jackets and three sweaters, working with Bernard, the salesman whom Ben had used for years.
It was at Barneys that Ben finally figured out Manning was the person to talk to about Howard. The lawyer exercised the real control here. Sorrento functioned more like the waiter, serving various projects. Manning was seated at the table.
Ben couldn’t believe he had missed this. He decided he must be more anxious about setting up his new company than he realized. He wondered how obvious it would be if he just walked out of Barneys, leaving Sorrento with Bernard. He signaled Anita and she beeped him about an important call that had just come in. Ben excused himself and walked outside to call Manning. He set up drinks for the next day.
The news of Ben’s nascent company was not public yet, but Art Manning was Hollywood’s eminence grise, and Ben bet he already knew most of this anyway.
At the Tower Bar, Ben sought the lawyer’s advice, and, in the process, laced admiration for Manning’s long and successful career with just the right amount of envy and admiration. Then, he turned to the subject of Rick Howard.
Art Manning heard Ben out. As usual, Ben gleaned only a minimal read from him. Yet, a day later, Manning began orchestrating a meeting with Howard’s brain trust. It was a complicated situation, though the whole town knew that Howard was looking for a career-changer. It had been a long time between hits.
Five years before, Howard had been the hottest recording star in the nation. His music videos were a cultural sensation. His concerts sold out online in less than 10 minutes. But the five years since Howard’s last hit was almost two lifetimes in the music business. A generation of fans had now grown up without seeing Howard on tour. They had not experienced his ferocious talent, seen his electrifying stage presence. He had followed the biggest-selling record of all time with two duds. But, despite everything, he was still a superstar. Ben believed that Howard continued to possess what had made him so thrilling to watch.
Despite Howard’s strange and insulated personal life. His lifelong anxiety about germs had escalated from an eccentricity into crippling wackiness. People used to joke about Howard’s obsession with Howard Hughes – but he had long since jumped the shark. Over the last five years, Howard had turned his sprawling home at the top of Benedict Canyon into a series of interconnecting germ-free chambers. He insisted any tour would need a portable, germ-free safe chamber. For Howard, whose career depended on tours, standing on a stadium stage, surrounded by trillions of free-floating germs, was ever more difficult.
The controlled environment of a sound stage beckoned. And Ben was here to offer a solution that he knew was win-win. As always, he had worked out the odds – and there looked to be no downside.
Ben knew Howard’s brain trust would assemble because they considered the singer a talent too big to fail. He had once held the world’s affection, he could gain it again. Fans loved to lift someone up after a fall. So it was possible – if everyone could agree on the right path out of the wilderness.
Art set up a dinner at Sorrento’s house, perched high above the Sunset Strip on one of the Bird Streets. The view was amazing, but Ben knew no one would be admiring it that night. Everyone was coming to address a big problem and Ben hoped they would realize – as so many had before – that he had the one good answer
Gil Skidmore, Howard’s primary agent, was set to be there. Harry Preston, the head of Lucent Records, his record company, was also due. He was bringing the young company executive who worked most closely with Howard – and who, like the singer, was black. So this was one of those rare high-level meetings where Howard was not going to be the only African-American at the table.
Ben had invited Milo Flintridge, since a director of his caliber would mean a lot in selling the project. Flintridge had not committed, but he had, nonetheless, agreed to help Ben pitch it. Ben realized this was a big withdrawal from the favor bank.
That made eight at the table. Any more would make it difficult to have one conversation. And Ben wanted no side chatter. He wanted the focus to be getting his film into production – clearly in everyone’s interest. He wanted the whole town talking about his company – and he knew this could make that happen.
When the studio had sent out the press release about The Robbins Group, it announced the first three films. These were projects Ben had appropriated from the studio. So the Howard movie would be Ben’s first move after putting out his shingle. Double Or Nothing was to be his calling card. It had all the right elements. He liked its attributes: highly commercial yet imaginative; a leading industry player presented in a startlingly new light, a gritty urban movie grafted onto a heartwarming story of redemption. Ben knew it could be a winner.
Before the dinner, Ben had checked in with Louis, his Wall Street friend who even in this economic climate had helped secure the initial line of credit. Bringing in Howard, Robbins knew, would push this price tag higher than any discussed when setting up the company. Ben also needed to hear Louis agree this was a good idea.
Ben felt better after the call. Louis said extra funding could be found. Even in this economy, there was money sloshing about for movie investments. In harsh economic times, movies are one business that makes money – look at Hollywood during the Great Depression. In any case, many Wall Street investors yearned for a sexy investment like movies. The enticement of beautiful – and available – young women had lured East Coast money even before Jock Whitney financed Gone With The Wind. Before William Randolph Hearst swooned over, and set up a company for, the former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Marion Davies. Or before Joseph P. Kennedy obsessed over Gloria Swanson.
As Ben drove up to Sorrento’s, he assessed the situation with his usual gimlet eye. He had to concede he felt queasy about the dinner. It had been set up before he formally left the studio. Sure, his move was announced when Howard’s team agreed to meet with him, but he’d still been head of the studio – going to his office every day, tying up loose ends. Now that he was officially an independent producer, maybe some people expected to be there would decide not to show.
Then Ben realized he didn’t have to worry about people not showing up tonight. This was Art Manning’s invite, not his. He might lack social capital now, but Art was a man to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Ben was smiling as he got out of the car. People would not have recognized it, though, because it was the closest thing Robbins had to a real smile.
Sure enough, when he walked into Sorrento’s home, just about everyone was already there. Even Howard had arrived, though, as usual, he was not speaking to anyone. He was at the other end of the room, playing with his pet squirrel.
The singer was notoriously shy, and had long ago adopted the protective habit of taking his squirrel everywhere – while he played with his pet, he did not have to speak to anyone. Ben remembered one night, about four years ago, when Rick came for dinner, and the squirrel had gotten lost. Ben had never been so close to a coronary as when he thought his dog would find that squirrel before he did.
Ben greeted Art with just the right degree of deference. As they shook hands, Ben clasped Art’s upper arm warmly, displaying gratitude, affection and respect. He then slowly worked his way around the room – except near Howard. They were all in the living room near the picture windows, drinking Diet Coke or name-brand water and making small talk until Milo arrived. Once Milo walked in, they moved to the dining room to get down to business. Howard put his squirrel in his pocket and joined them. As Ben had expected, no one had commented on the view – or the art.
At the table, Art Manning opened the discussion, welcoming everyone. He said that Ben was offering Rick a terrific opportunity. “Ben could explain it best, of course,” he stated and gave the floor to the newly minted independent producer. Ben began talking about the movie he planned. He spoke about how powerful it was; he detailed the plot, explained who he wanted for the other parts. He talked about where it fit into the marketplace and who it would pull into the theaters. Which was just about every demographic. Ben felt it was as dazzling a pitch as he had ever heard as a studio head.
He passed off to Milo, who gamely grabbed the baton, discussing how he wanted it to work. The others then joined in. Each talked about how to do it – not “if” but “when.” Harry Preston thought Rick should have two songs ready as the movie came out – in addition to the soundtrack. The agency was focused on the tour ahead, and Gil also analyzed the videos to be shot.
Hearing them talk, Ben knew he had pulled it off. With Art’s imprimatur, he realized he was about to put together his first independent project in more than 10 years. It felt good. The business had become meaner in the last decade, but he still knew how to get through the roughest riptides.
Rick, sitting in the middle of the group, had not joined the conversation. But this was not unexpected. All the men knew that Howard’s default position was silence, even with those he knew well. He knew that when he weighed in, it would close the discussion.
The chef served the first course, heirloom tomato soup drizzled with ultra-virgin olive oil. Conversation did not flag, even as they started eating. Gil analyzed videos that Rick could then use in live performance. He described the full multimedia experience – Rick could “jump” onto the screen from the stage at key points, and the show would move onto film. Then, Rick could jump from the screen back to the stage.
Only Rick, Gil insisted, had the grace to pull off these seamless inter-media leaps in a live performance. Left unsaid was the fact that it meant Rick spent less time on stage. He would be offstage in his germ-free pod. But everyone knew.
Ben picked up on this use of film to talk more about the strength of his project and what it could mean for Rick. As Ben was speaking, Howard started to weep.
Now, most of the men in that room had sat with a star who was crying. This was not that unusual or even surprising. These men accepted that entertainers, especially actors, depended on their ability to be in the moment, fully present to their emotions. A spate of tears over losing a prized part, or a prized boyfriend, was not uncommon. Ben knew from experience that you handled a big star as you would a tearful baby, giving them something equally shiny – whether a different part or a possible hook up. The most passionate storm would pass.
But, even as he continued talking, Ben felt this was different. For one thing, Howard was not making a sound. He just sat there, at the center of the table, tears coursing down his face – a haunted silent movie in a world of sound. Howard seemed genuinely wretched – these were tears of despair. He was, Ben decided, like one of those Dickens orphans, overwhelmed by misery. The producer had never read Dickens, but he had seen enough movie versions so it felt like he had.
Ben faltered for a moment, worried that the deal was going south before he laid it out. But he decided to continue. So he did – acting as if he could not see that Rick was sitting there, weeping. Ben was relieved as the others took their cue from him. They continued talking about the film, the related soundtrack album, the all- important concert tour. No one acknowledged that Howard was sitting there, crying.
Suddenly, Howard put his head down on the table. He was crying soundlessly as his face went into the soup. It stayed submerged. Preston had been talking, and he was suddenly at a loss for words – but only momentarily. He finished his sentence.
Ben, who had been making every effort to focus on Harry as he spoke, was now riveted on Howard, unable to look away. Ben felt the fascination you have when watching a car crash – except it was his producing career going up in flames, like an old movie shot on combustible celluloid. He had a strange suspicion that the others were looking at him, not Howard. But he kept his eyes on Howard.
It felt like Howard was submerged in that soup for hours. But Art had stood up at the other end of the table, and was walking toward him. As if on cue, Sorrento stood up, still holding his napkin. They helped Howard up from the table. The star was still crying without a sound. The table was silent – as if a giant mute button had been pressed.
Sorrento, with what appeared to be genuine tenderness, gently wiped soup off the singer’s face. One on either side of Howard, they walked him out. The table remained silent. Ben looked around, but the others didn’t make eye contact. Most were too busy studying their own soup.
After a few minutes, Manning returned. “Rick is going to lie down for a while,” he said. These were the first words spoken in the room since Preston had finished making his point. Art’s voice sounded muffled, strangely hushed for a man who usually commanded attention when he spoke. “Mike is giving him something to make him feel more comfortable. Clearly, this was a trying conversation for him. But I know he’s glad we’re having it. He understands things can’t go on like this.”
Preston stood up. “Rick obviously needs some rest,” he said, “This can’t have been easy. Why don’t we continue at some future date? We all need more time to think it through.
As he spoke, he was working his way around the table, shaking hands in goodbye. Ben wondered if he was only imagining that his handshake was more perfunctory than the others. On reaching Manning, Preston paused to pat him on the shoulder while shaking hands. Even now, he acknowledged Manning as elder statesman. “Art,” he said, “thanks for setting this in motion. Why don’t you have a long talk with Rick when he feels up to it? Then we’ll take it from there.”
Preston walked to the front door. Ben felt his deal was walking out with him. Short of tackling him, Ben realized, nothing he could do would stop Preston from leaving. Within a half-hour, if not less, Ben knew stories about this dinner would be all over town. He looked calm but his mind worked furiously: There had to be something he could do to salvage this.
“Thanks for coming, everyone” Ben started. “Thanks for accepting Art’s invitation. This was always a long shot. But we have, all of us here, had a long and successful history with Rick. We all know how talented he is – and continues to be. I was hoping I could do something to acknowledge just how much we all owe him.”
Ben knew it was not enough to save face. Saying that his movie project had really been about trying to help Rick through his time of trouble was not going to fool anyone in the room. It felt lame even as he said it. Everyone knew why they were there – and altruism had nothing to do with it. Like shame, Ben knew, altruism was MIA in Hollywood.
This story first posted here on January 28, 2016.