OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A newbie NYC filmmaker visits L.A. after his documentary is shortlisted. 3,168 words. Art by Thomas Warming.
Rick was making $175,000 annually at a midsize law firm in New York City as a second-year associate with a bright future. He did corporate work and mostly real estate transactions. There wasn’t a lot of law involved, but he had to deal with an ever-changing cast of characters. It was about who had control, who had leverage, who had cash, who had financing. No two deals were alike, and it was Rick’s job to stand up for his clients when others were behaving badly and to smooth out issues when his clients were the ones behaving badly.
The truth was Rick didn’t feel that much commitment to his work. He he felt no personal stake in it. Much of what he did was accumulate files on his desk and make them disappear to somewhere else. What Rick most enjoyed was the process of property development by transforming the most prosaic piece of land or building into something new and different at its highest and best use.
As a second year associate, Rick was required to do a certain amount of pro-bono work (which theoretically meant “for the public good” but actually meant “for the good name of the firm.”) Rick’s contribution was helping his alma mater Columbia Law School raise scholarship funds. A worthy cause and, in the eyes of the firm, a great networking opportunity. For this year’s annual dinner, Rick had the idea to make a short documentary about Supreme Court Justice and Columbia Law grad Benjamin Cardozo.
Cardozo was an interesting story. His family traced its lineage back to the Spanish Inquisition and were among the first Jewish families to arrive in New York before the American Revolution. Cardozo’s father was a judge accused of corruption and forced to resign from the bench. Benjamin was determined to restore his family’s good name through an unimpeachable legal career. He became the first Jew appointed to the New York Court of Appeals. Cardozo was invited to give the prestigious Storrs Lectures at Yale University and, as a co-founder of the American Law Institute, wrote many texts which became legal standards. In 1932 President Herbert Hoover appointed Cardozo to the U.S. Supreme Court where Justice James Clark McReynolds, who was openly anti-Semitic, held a brief over his face whenever Cardozo read an opinion. Nonetheless, Cardozo served on the highest court until his death following a stroke in 1938. He was known for his sly and stylish turns of phrase in his legal opinions such as “Justice is not to be taken by storm. She is to be wooed by slow advances,” or “Fraud includes the pretense of knowledge when knowledge there is none,” or “Expediency may tip the scales when arguments are nicely balanced.”
Rick received permission to film a great amount of Cardozo photos, artifacts and memorabilia. He interviewed Columbia Law professors and alums, Cardozo descendants and even some Supreme Court Justices to talk about the jurist’s importance. Rick didn’t know anything about making a film much less a documentary but he wrote it like a college essay. Rick enlisted a friend who produced commercials to use his equipment and shoot the interviews. Rick paid an NYU film student to edit the footage. The film clocked in at some 17 minutes and was lively.
Rick soon found that, for once, he actually enjoyed what he was doing while mastering thefilm’s focus, the details, the interactions with the various people. When he showed the documentary at the Columbia Law School fundraising dinner, it was an instant hit. One of the alumni worked for a movie chain and agreed to screen it. Another was a PBS board member and presented it to the show P.O.V.. Still another showed it to HBO.
And to Rick’s great surprise, another alum submitted it for consideration as Best Documentary Short Subject to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. A fact that Rick forgot when, many months later, the announcement came that his Cardozo film made the shortlist of 15 films in that category being judged for an Oscar.
Then the calls and emails started coming in from producers, agents and other attorneys: Had he considered turning his documentary into a feature? What other projects was he working on? Could he come out to LA to discuss them? Rick knew better than to take this attention seriously but he was excited at being seen as a filmmaker. Despite his natural cynicism, he felt a certain giddiness about the possibilities.
Seeking advice, Rick called a classmate who had grown up in LA and now worked at an entertainment law firm. “Always take the meeting,” said the attorney. “What’s the worse that can happen?”
Rick had a week’s worth of vacation saved up and decided on a Wednesday to Sunday visit. He didn’t know a lot of people in L.A. but he called all the ones he knew and they sounded eager to see him. But when Rick told his parents about the trip, his father was less than enthusiastic, commenting, “Lala Land? What’s there for you?”
Rick didn’t know. But he wanted to find out. He had to pay his own fare and car rental. His pal David Rothberg found him a place to stay. Other pieces fell into place. He booked meetings at William Morris Endeavor, CAA and Paradigm, Steven Spielberg’s production company, Ron Howard’s & Brian Grazer’s film unit and a few indie producers. And then there was Seth Meadows, who’d moved to LA right after college and was now running the production company of a well-known producer whose last hit was more than a decade ago. Seth had been one of the first to reach out and send congratulations when Rick had made the shortlist for the Academy Award. Seth had left a voicemail saying, “If you want to have lunch on Friday, just call me that morning to confirm.” Seth was more than an acquaintance but not truly a friend. They’d rode the bus to school together for most of high school but never socialized.
When Rick arrived at LAX, the light was so bright that he reflexively put on his sunglasses. He rented a red Miata convertible. He knew he was a cliché in the making but didn’t care.awl. He drove past gated driveways to the Airbnb where he was staying just off Mulholland Drive on Coldwater Canyon at the crest of the hills that separate Los Angeles and Beverly Hills from the San Fernando Valley. Rick pulled up to a rustic 1960s A frame-type home designed by architect A. Quincy Jones with a view. There was a memo on the dining room table inviting him to take a beer from the well-stocked fridge and a swim in the sparkling pool. Chips and snacks were left out along with a Wolfgang Puck frozen lasagna and a stash of California cannabis. Life was good.
"To L.A.!" Rick cheered standing in the backyard and then taking a long satisfying pull on a Corona.
Within 20 minutes he was shedding layers and sitting by the edge of the pool, his feet dangling in the water. It felt good. But then his cell rang began chirping. Rick walked back inside and picked up his phone to discover that he had 7 voice mails and 23 new emails.
It took until the third voicemail from Hollywood on his phone for Rick to figure out that while he’d been in the air en route to L.A., the nominees for the Academy Awards had been announced and his film had not made the cut. The other calls and emails were all his previously booked appointments cancelling.
Rick decided to grab another beer.
Around the third or fourth beer Rick decided not to return early. Instead he would treat the trip as a vacation. He would relax, be a tourist, get to know L.A. and enjoy himself.
The next day was hot and sunny. He put on a bathing suit, applied copious amounts of sun cream, went out to the pool and set himself up on a chaise. The house looked out over the city to one side and up a mountainside to the other. As a tonic for his trip so far, Rick rolled a thick one and puffed away with abandon.
Baked and baking, his mind emptying, Rick looked out across the pool and what he saw made his heart stop. There, staring from behind the hedge was a bare-chested man holding a long machete.
The man was short and muscular with thick black hair and dark brown skin that glistened in a way that could be menacing if you thought he was about to kill you – which Rick thought was a distinct possibility. Voices inside Rick’s head screamed a string of expletives loudly. In that moment Rick suddenly understood how the Manson murders had forever changed Los Angeles, turning a sunny paradise into a slasher flick because Rick knew with certainty that there, high above the hills of Beverly, if he screamed, no one would hear it.
Rick looked to the man; and he looked at Rick. For a moment, their eyes locked. And then the man hoisted his machete… to trim the hedge.
Someone had forgotten to tell Rick that the gardener came on Thursday.
The rest of the day went better. Rick drove down to do some sightseeing then hours later headed back to the rental home. Back on the patio, Rick took off his clothes and fell into the pool and floated. He liked LA. He still didn’t really understand the city but he certainly had a better sense of the lay of the land now.
The next morning, Rick retook his position on the chaise. There was no point in returning to New York without a tan. It was Friday and although Rick did not have Seth’s cell number handy, he called the general studio number and asked for him. The phone rang several times before it was answered by a young woman with a distinctly English accent – perhaps a bit too British to be real.
“This is Rick Stern. Is Seth available?”
“Seth is in a meeting. What is this about?” said the secretary
“We’re friends from high school. Seth suggested we have lunch today I’m calling to find out where and when is good for him.”
Rick sat on hold for a few minutes wondering if Seth did in fact have a meeting. And then the secretary came back on the line: “Seth will meet you at the Polo Lounge at 1."
Rick arrived at the Beverly Hills Hotel a few minutes early. As he was driving there, his phone rang. It was the secretary saying that Seth was delayed and would meet him there closer to 2. Rick had no idea what you wore to lunch at the Polo Lounge. In New York, he had his revolving cast of suits. Rick decided on a black blazer white shirt, tailored jeans and Italian loafers – that seemed as LA as he could muster. He handed his car to the valet and stared at the Bentleys, Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked at the entrance while his Miata was whisked away.
Rick was directed to the Polo Lounge and took a few unsure steps inside before the maitre d’ looked up.“Seth Meadows for two at 2,” Rick said, knowing he was early. The maitre d’ looked at his Rolex conspicuously. Rick saw a patio garden straight ahead that was very light and charming and thought being seated out there would be nice. It felt very California. So he was a bit disappointed when the maitre d’ took a hard left into an interior room with a row of booths that looked out to the patio. Rick was seated in the middle booth.
Then the waiter appeared. “Are you Rick Stern? Mr. Meadows sends his apologies but his meeting ran long and he can’t make lunch. He will call you later to explain.”
The waiter delivered this with all the delicatesse of a funeral director. Rick understood: Seth had heard Rick’s film didn’t make the list of final nominees for the Oscar. So much for their shared history.
The waiter was still standing there. “Will you be staying for lunch?” he asked.
Rick thought about it for a second. He was hungry. What the hell. “I will. Let me have the tortilla soup and then the McCarthy Salad.”
But now he had to find the restroom. As Rick walked down the staircase and admired the Palm tree wallpaper, he was a bit confused where to find it until he saw a man emerging from a corridor to his left. Suddenly, Rick heard the guy calling to him.
“Excuse me,” he said.
Rick turned to face him.
“You went to Bronxdale, right?”.
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
“Aren’t you the guy,” the stranger said, “who scored the winning soccer goal against Greeley Day School with a kick from our 30 yard line?”
“Yes. I did.” Rick said with equal parts embarrassment and pride.
Rick hadn’t thought about in years. But as a sophomore on the varsity soccer team, in the game against their arch rivals, Rick who played full back had taken the ball away from their front line and thenwith only had a few seconds remaining to kick the ball out of there. Greeley had sent their whole team forward and the goalie had even moved up out of the box. Rick sent the ball flying. It went over the head of the goalie and bounced right into the goal, winning the game for Bronxdale.
“I was at that game. I was a senior at the time. Hell of a kick. Never seen anything like it,” the man was gushing. “Ben Witkowitz,” he held his hand out.
“Rick Stern. You live out here?”
“I’m a music attorney. I went to UCLA Law School, got a job at Universal and after a couple of years I went out on my own. Now my firm is the music department of a larger firm. What about you?’
“I practice in New York. Real Estate. Transactional. But I made a short film for a Columbia Law School event…”
“The Cardozo documentary? That was yours? They showed it at this year’s ACLU Dinner. Impressive. That’s what brought you out here? The film?”
‘Good for you. My lunch is about to end. I’ll come over afterwards and we can talk more,” Witkkowitz said.
As Rick made his way back to his booth, he saw Witkowitz having lunch with a group of people including a young rap artist who had recently starred in his first movie. As Rick tucked into his McCarthy Salad, he realized it was a Cobb. Whatever the hotel called it, it was really good. And the Ice Teas kept coming. He was halfway through his lunch when Witkowitz came by and slid into the booth.
“Jesus, how’d you get this table?’ Witkowitz said.
“Deepest Siberia, right?” asked Rick.
“No,” Witkowitz replied. “This is incredible. This is the hottest booth in the place and you’ve got it to yourself. See behind you? That’s Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the director and screenwriter. Straight ahead that’s Shonda Rhimes and Steve Berke, the TV showrunner and the NBC Universal CEO. Near them is Matthew Wiener who created Mad Men. To your right is Scott Rudin, the producer.”
“I had no idea,” Rick responded.
“Why should you? And if you don’t mind my asking, why are you eating alone?”
“I was supposed to be having lunch with Seth Meadows. He was in my class at Bronxdale. When my Cardozo documentary made it onto the list for Short Documentary Oscar, he called me to set lunch for today. But then I didn’t make the shortlist, and he cancelled.”
“Meadows? I know him,” Witkowitz said. “A little bit goes a long way. He’s a dick, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Please, feel free,” Rick replied, “Anyways, I decided to treat myself to a nice lunch. Tomorrow, I’ll sit out by the pool and then Sunday, I’ll head back to New York.”
“Yeah but predict that on Monday when you go back in to work, you’ll wish you were still out here.”
“Maybe. But what would I do in L.A.?”
“You’d do whatever you could,” Witkowtiz said. “Whatever you felt like. You’ve produced a documentary. Why not a feature?”
“I don’t know anything about the film business.”
“That’s good. There’re plenty of people out here who know about the film business. But they don’t know what you know."
“Which is what exactly?”
“That’s for you to figure out. But here’s what you do know – you know real estate. Well, intellectual property is not much different than real property: you option it, you develop it, you get approvals, you finance it, you make it happen, you market it.” Real Estate is a tough business because it’s all about the deal. The movie business is no different. There are so many moving parts that the studios pay large sums of money to anyone who can shepherd the process and get one made.”
Witkowitz was building up a full head of steam: “You already have a work ethic, you are already a professional, you know how to behave in a corporate setting, and how to get people to do what you want. That puts you way ahead of most people who are already in the film biz.”
Witkowitz paused. “Then again, what do I know?”
Rick laughed. “You make it sound easy. Maybe you should do it, too."
“Listen, I can’t understate this: the entertainment business is like the gambling business. It’s best to be the house. That’s what I’m working towards. But you’re a guy who makes goals happen in suprising ways. I’m happy to introduce you to whomever you want to meet out here.”
Rick smiled. This Witkowitz, whom he hadn’t known an hour ago, seemed like a player. And what he said made sense. There are great screenwriters, directors, editors, financiers and marketers from all over the world who come to Hollywood and succeed. But they all need help making the project happen, someone to be its champion.
That, Rick could see himself doing.
“Let me get you started," said Witkowitz. “See that guy over there in the tie and blazer talking to the guy in the sweatshirt? He’s a very successful filmmaker. His name is Arthur Golob. He used to be a lawyer. He likes to give office space to newbies like you, teach them the business, and then enlist them to help himself. In essence, you’ll work for him, even though he’s not paying you. Let him take you under his wing, for now. I can arrange it. He owes me: I got his son a job in the music industry.”
Rick was inclined to beg off. There was no reason to talk to Golob. But if he had learned anything about the film business, it was: always take the meeting.
This story first posted here on December 29, 2015. Oscar®, Academy Award®, and AMPAS® are registered trademarks of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ©AMPAS.