A humongous Hollywood merger has unforeseen consequences for all involved. 2,559 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Margaret Sewell sighed as she sat across from her friend, Lou Delray, at the Fox studio commissary’s outdoor patio. She had little appetite and barely touched her salad. “My boss said, ‘I wish I could take you with me.’ And he didn’t even bother to try and sound sincere. Then he gave me a holiday gift card to Neiman-Marcus. As if that was supposed to make me feel better. ‘Hey, clown,’ I wanted to say, ‘how about a gift card to Ralphs, so’s I can buy some food after I start collecting unemployment in 2018.’”
Lou was only half-listening. He hadn’t filed for unemployment since losing his first job right after college. For the past twenty years he’d been a teamster driver on a succession of studio TV and film projects. The studio facilities would remain and his boss, Henry, claimed Lou had “nothing to worry about.” But when your boss tells you not to worry, that’s precisely the time to start making other plans.
With the departure of the television and movie production units, sooner or later, probably sooner, something was bound to give. And that usually meant the older and more expensive workers.
“They’re saying that, after the merger, ten thousand jobs are going to be lost in all. Screw Murdoch and screw Iger twice,” Margaret said as she threw her salad into the trash. A number of heads turned and nodded, some eyes rolled, and a couple of mouths uttered sarcastic laughs.
Buoyed by the reaction, Margaret added, “I might as well tattoo ‘Roadkill’ on my forehead. Am I right?”
The announced absorption of most of 21st Century Fox’s assets into the giant mega-corporation that still went under the benign name of Disney had only recently been announced and there were still legal and practical hurdles ahead. But, in all likelihood, within the year, the ground under Lou and Margaret’s feet would give way. While the Murdoch family would reap tax-free benefits in the form of Disney stock, the rank and file would forfeit their jobs, security and peace of mind, not to mention health insurance.
Margaret was fifty-five and had been an assistant and executive assistant at the studio since shortly before her thirtieth birthday. She still had ten years before she reached Medicare. “If the dirty bastards in D.C. don’t take it away from me in the middle of the night,” she groused. She’d had ovarian cancer a few years back and was currently in remission.
“You’ll be eligible for COBRA and for as long as Covered California is in operation, things should be okay,” an insurance broker had assured her. Not exactly warm comfort, given the steep price of COBRA insurance and Obamacare’s turbulent recent history.
Lou’s problems were different. Retirement was a far-off shore and he still had two kids to put through college. He’d placed some money aside every year. But college costs were outstripping his savings. Having to dip into them in order to survive would be unfair to his children.
Employees like Margaret and Lou might both find work again, eventually, but in positions without a net — a laughable concept since the one currently protecting them had just torn wide open. Margaret lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, Lou in a modest ranch in Torrance. Both might have to go in search of cheaper housing farther away from the city center.
Shortly after the initial seismic announcement of the Disney-Fox merger, the exodus had begun. Margaret’s boss, Yancy Cates, had been in the heat of negotiations for a new job at Amazon when the announcement was made. “It probably cost me $50G a year in my new contract,” he’d told Margaret.
She’d looked at him with the scornful eyes of Livia Soprano and mumbled a silent, “Poor you.”
“Well, I’d better get back,’” Margaret said to Lou, getting to her feet. “Yancy needs me to stay late to clear up some loose ends and with any luck I might qualify for overtime this week.”.
“They’ll move you somewhere else on the lot, don’t worry,” Lou reassured.
“I’m not worried about today or tomorrow. It’s having the damned sword hanging over my head,” she responded.
“Try to keep positive,” he said and they shook hands.
“Likewise, I’m sure.” She gave a weak smile and ambled off in the opposite direction.
Lou was fond of Margaret, whom he’d met through his wife, Sally, when she still worked at the studio before the kids arrived. Sally had been thinking of coming back, but that was no longer an option. Besides, she’d been out of the workforce for so long that she lacked the now mandatory tech skills. Being a fast typist and steno no longer cut it.
When Lou returned from lunch, Henry approached him and said they were short-handed today and would he mind moving some trucks over to the far side of the lot. Lou nodded listlessly but was more distracted than usual and it took him until after dusk to finish the job. As he prepared to move the final truck, he realized he’d left his car keys in his locker, and jumped out of the cab to retrieve them. He didn’t want to have to walk all the way across the lot again.
When he returned, the truck was gone and, in a flash, he realized what had happened. He’d left the ignition on and neglected to set the emergency brake. He turned slowly and his mouth dropped open. The truck had careened backwards down the city street set and crashed into the front stoop of a brownstone. Heart pounding, he ran to assess the damage. Only when he’d reached the site did he notice the two mangled bodies under the trucks’ wheels. The lorry had been was loaded with heavy camera equipment and had picked up speed as it rolled downhill, obliterating everything in its path.
“Oh god,” Lou said in a panic, glancing down at the fine leather shoes and tailored woolen pants legs sticking out from the wreckage. “Suits.”
Panicking, he broke into a trot, not even sure where he was going. As he neared the employee parking structure at the back of the lot, he saw Margaret. He took several deep breaths to steady his nerves. “Hey, Margaret,” he called out, nonchalantly. “So glad I ran into you. My car stalled and I was wondering if you could give me a lift back to your place while I wait for Sally to pick me up.”
He needed an alibi, he figured, and Margaret seemed like a gift from above.
Margaret thought it peculiar that Lou was perspiring, but knew him to be a sweaty kind of guy. “Okay, but I’m not going to put out for you,” she said, wryly.
“Probably for the best. Sally would knife us both in our sleep,” he joshed back.
Margaret’s Honda Civic had just reached Avenue Of The Stars when a fleet of police cars, sirens blaring, lights ablaze, raced past them headed down toward Pico Boulevard. “Geez Louise, what the hell?” Margaret said and the gulp in Lou’s throat was almost audible. “Guess I’ll loop around and take Olympic. Don’t want to get caught up in that mess.”
“Good idea,” Lou said, wiping moisture from his brow with his shirtsleeve.
They’d no sooner passed Westwood Boulevard than a giant helicopter with flood lights appeared and hovered over them briefly. Several smaller news helicopters buzzed around it like dutiful drones.
At that moment, Lou lost it. “Oh my god, what have I done?” he screamed and started to bawl.
“What are you talking about?” Margaret said, alarmed.
“Don’t ask me any questions. I don’t want to get you involved in this.”
Margaret pulled over to the side of the road and said, “I think it’s too late for that. What’s going on?”
“I killed two people,” he said through his sobs and Margaret reeled back as if she’d been struck. Then he added, “Not intentionally. It was an accident.”
“I should hope so,” she asserted, though it hardly seemed to matter. “What happened?”
Lou slowly dribbled out the details of the accident.
“Oh my god. Do you know who they were?”
Lou shook his head. “Only that they were big cheeses.”
Margaret was overcome by mixed feelings of nausea and pity.
Lou said, “Just leave me off here. I’ll call Sally and tell her where I am.”
“I’ll do no such thing. You’re my friend. We’ll think of something,” Margaret replied as she put the car in drive and proceeded to her apartment.
“No,” he argued. “That makes you an accomplice.”
“You been watching too many Law & Order reruns,” she said, trying to make light, though her arms and legs suddenly felt like lead. “I’ll order in some Chinese and we can put our heads together.”
For the first time in recent memory, Margaret felt a sense of purpose. That’s what friends are for, she told herself. Especially Lou and Sally, who always invited her to their Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations and Fourth of July barbecues. They’d even endured her two sorry-ass husbands before she’d cut both men loose.
Once inside Margaret’s apartment, she immediately turned on the TV. The news was everywhere. Networks, local stations, cable, but the newscasters were jabbering so fast that she found them hard to follow. Then, as if to answer every question, two instantly recognizable photos flashed on the screen.
“Holy shit!” she cried. Turning around, she looked at Lou who appeared to be frozen solid, eyes as big as saucers. She turned up the volume.
“According to Fox sources, the two executives had been in an all-day merger meeting and had gone out to get some air and have a private tete-a-tete,” the news anchor said. “They were walking back to the meeting along a secluded corner of the lot when a truck rolled down the street and struck them. They appeared to have been killed instantly.”
Lou just stood there for the better part of an hour until Sally arrived. Margaret brought her up to date and saw the color drain from Sally’s face. “But he didn’t mean it,” Sally said. “It was an accident.”
“Of course he didn’t mean it. Not that it matters,” Margaret said.
“There’s no way out of this, is there?” Lou said and both women shook their heads.
“We could drive you down to Mexico,” Margaret suggested.
“No. They’ll find me. This is as bad as killing a cop. I don’t care about me so much. But Sally… The kids…”
“Don’t worry about us. Please,” his wife said, rubbing his arm.
“You know what this means, Lou,” Margaret said. “You’re about to be famous. Soon, everybody in the world from the president to the pope to friggin’ Vladimir Putin is going to know your name.”
And within hours of turning himself in, Sally at his side, Lou Delray’s face and every detail of his life had become common knowledge.
By the day of his arraignment, Lou had one of the top lawyers in Los Angeles, the ambitious and canny Lorenzo Ramirez, who’d agreed to defend him pro bono after calculating that the publicity surrounding the trial would make him a household name. From the moment he met Lou, he began taking meticulous notes, all the better to prepare for the future bestseller he’d pen once this was over.
The Wall Street Journal issued a blistering editorial, accusing Lou of malice aforethought and claiming the “accident” (their quotes) was in fact a deliberate attack on the rich by a union thug.
Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones portrayed Lou as the coolest of criminal masterminds, hired to execute two of the most famous entertainment moguls in the world. And brilliantly so, they speculated. He’d orchestrated the killing to look like an accident, taking Rupert Murdoch and Bob Iger unawares by slowly propelling the truck downhill when their backs were turned so they never knew what hit them.
Evangelicals claimed Lou was a satan worshipper and not the devout Lutheran he claimed to be. On The 700 Club, he was accused of being a secret agent for ISIS, Hezbollah, the Chinese, the Saudis, and of course, Antifa.
On the other side were Lou’s defenders who hailed him as a working-class hero. Whether it had been accidental or deliberate, he had struck a blow for the common man in this era of unbridled greed and materialism. He was lionized on social media as someone who had driven the money changers from the temple. Protests erupted at both Disney and Fox studios with clever placards featuring a giant man-eating mouse gorging on a disemboweled fox, trampling working men and women under their feet like an American Godzilla.
Lou’s fellow drivers started a GoFundMe site to help out his family. Strangers on social media initiated another, reaping almost a million dollars in its first week. Contributors received “Free Lou” buttons or t-shirts. Bono wrote a melodious ode to him with all the proceeds going to Lou’s kids.
Some tears were shed at Disney since Iger was generally well liked though certainly not by the employees pondering redundancy. At Fox, however, there wasn’t a wet eye in the house. Being a cog in the Murdoch machine had been a necessary evil but now that he had jammed the gears, his employees decided he’d merited the punishment he had received.
The sudden deaths of the two moguls left the merger deal in disarray. The stocks of both companies went into free fall despite assurances from the two Murdoch sons and Disney’s interim CEO.
Within a few months, however, new vultures were circling, ready to pick apart the Fox carcass and divvy it up amongst themselves. Disney continued its relentless pursuit for product, making runs at Sony, Paramount and Lionsgate, only to be swallowed up by another behemoth, Apple.
Since the prosecution was determined to characterize the incident as a homicide, the Los Angeles County trial was televised and the telegenic Lorenzo Ramirez became an overnight matinee idol. The steps of the courthouse were the scene of daily duels between attendees dressed as Disney characters as varied as Mickey Mouse and Goofy or Darth Vader and Thor, and Fox animated personages like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin and Stewie and live-action ones like Maria von Trapp and the Na’vi. Lots of fake blood was spilled and the fights went viral.
Margaret was charged with being an accomplice but the charges were quickly dropped. Nonetheless, due to her notoriety, no one at Fox wanted her at work. She ultimately quit and found a much lower-paying job at a tire warehouse, part of a national chain that fortunately provided health insurance. When one of her co-workers left to have a baby, she managed to get Sally a position there as well. Lou’s son and daughter used the proceeds from the college fund to further their education, though it did little heal their psychological scars.
Lou pleaded down to criminal negligence and fleeing the scene of an accident. After several appeals, his original ten-year sentence was reduced to five, only three of which he actually served. He continued to receive fan letters throughout the ordeal and into his first year in prison.
Then everyone moved on to a new scandal and forgot him.
And, except in business circles, Rupert Murdoch and Bob Iger as well.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
This story first posted here on December 27, 2017.