Who will succeed this ailing Big Media chairman/CEO? Only the board knows. 3,042 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Dennis Medwick was up at six, peering through the bedroom window of his Bel Air home, watching the gleaming black Tesla pull up the driveway and stop, idling to a barely audible purr. He heard stirring and saw his wife Sandra, habitually a late Saturday morning riser, already sitting up, propped on her elbows, sleep mask off.
"What’s with you?" he asked, glancing at his watch. "It’s midnight Sandra time."
She ignored his gibe. "Bert here yet?"
"Outside. I’d better get moving. You know, it’s gang warfare day."
"I’m still baffled by all this," she said, swinging her legs off the bed. "You’re the studio head. You made more money than any of the ten morons who came before you. You’re going to be CEO, chairman, macher-in- chief, Dennis. Period," she said, lacing her arms across her chest. "I’m confident that sanity will ultimately prevail — even in this looney town." After a reflective pause, she added, "Doesn’t it?"
"We’ll see," he laughed, padding across to the bathroom.
Sandra followed him in and sat down on the commode. She leaned over pensively, fists sunk in her cheeks, watching the frenetic dance of spraying water and billowing steam through the shower door. She handed him a bath towel. He swaddled it around his middle and stepped up to the mirror, stopping momentarily to plant a good morning kiss on her forehead. "Everyone’s on board except the Silverbergs. Every picnic needs its ants, I suppose. Daughter Doris plays Queen Ant."
"Those lucky sperm club idiots? What’s their problem? The old man is deep into Alzheimer’s Stage Fade Out. His sonny boys are jerking off at their hedge fund. What difference could it make to them who becomes CEO, as long as the stock moves up and their dividend checks show up."
Dennis shrugged. "There’s whispering around town that Doris Silverberg laid a heavy guilt trip on her brothers demanding they support her sonny boy John. Family first, that kind of crap."
Sandra, still svelte and sexy at forty-three, her shimmery black La Perla slip showing her every curve, stood up and stretched, raising herself on tiptoes. Then her eyes narrowed in a stare of determined indignance.
"I think, after all these years, Doris is still pissed that when Silverberg offered you her and the studio as a package, and you took a pass on her. I think Mark saw himself as Mayer and you as his Selznick."
"Wrong," Dennis said, head tilted up, running his razor down his chin. "Her son John’s a Silverberg and that’s comfort food for his mommy."
"Bullshit. Old timers around the tennis club say that she’s still pissed I got you, not her, and no billion dollar film library came with me," Sandra disputed. "Unless, of course, you count the rolls of Star Wars dreck in my granddad’s wallpaper store back in Flushing…"
"I’ll make my case. I think the bankers are with me." Her husband said, gently patting her rear. Then he kissed her again. "You had, an still have, a far superior ass. Doris never had a chance."
The maid, oblivious to her lady’s rare early weekend rise, was still asleep. The kids had an overnighter down the block so Sandra and Dennis were alone in the eerie early morning quietude of their house. Sandra blended his breakfast shake. "I’ll have it in the car," he said, taking the travel mug.
They’d been married long enough for her to sense when he was struggling to disguise an anxiety surge, which usually only built in the days leading up to his studio’s movie openings. She felt that same unease this morning, but she persisted in her rant anyway. Standing in the doorway she shouted, "The Bell Tower grossed a billion-five!"
Mark stopped as he opened the car door, bemused by her intense wifely fealty. She continued. "Your idea, your baby. All while her son John was greenlighting dog TV and art movies inbetween fucking that Russian call girl he keeps stashed in Westwood under his wife’s nose. Tell them that!"
Dennis laughed, blew a last kiss, and climbed into the back seat of the Tesla. She watched the sleek sedan disappear down the road headed for Culver City. During the ride, he tapped his iPhone to the Wall Street Journal app. Two clicks and he found the short news item under the headline, "Silvermine Weekend Board Meeting Today":
Los Angeles – Amid recurring reports that Silvermine International Entertainment’s long time Chairman and CEO, Mark Silverberg, has been diagnosed with dementia, directors have called an emergency weekend board meeting to vote on his replacement at Culver City headquarters. Silverberg still officially holds the posts of CEO and Chairman, although his daughter, Doris Silverberg Kurtz who represents the family trust, has inserted herself into major management decisions since last summer. Dennis Medwick, 49, current head of the film division, is believed to be the inside favorite to succeed to the top post. Yet sources tell The Journal that his accession was encountering resistance among certain family board members. "We hope to resolve the management succession issue quickly and amicably. We need to get on with company business," said Edwin Chapin, who heads the board’s search committee. Chapin is Chairman of the Pacific Overtures hedge fund, which is the largest single shareholder in Silvermine, after the family trust.
"Lock-and-load day, huh, boss?" said Bert the driver, pulling the car into Dennis’ space at the administration building. "Lotsa buzz around you."
"Maybe. Also maybe take-the-money-and-run day. Not a bad bet either way," Dennis said, trying not to betray any apprehension. But he couldn’t disguise a nervous chortle in his voice.
Bert reached over, grasped his longtime boss’ hand and squeezed. "When LAPD forced me into retirement and I had maybe 20 years of fat pension checks coming, I went into that ‘Sorry, kiddo’ meeting with the Commissioner with only two words in my head: ‘Fuck them.’"
Dennis chuckled. "Thanks for the sage advice, pal. But in case anyone says something to you this morning, just quote Mark Twain and tell them that reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Hang loose. I’m due at a trustees’ meeting at USC Medical. I’ll text you."
Self-made Dennis Medwick was neither a child of privilege nor humble origin. His father ran a small dental practice in exurban Chicago, his mother did the X-rays and cleanings to keep expenses low. Dennis went to Northwestern on a lacrosse scholarship, sailed through an MBA from its business school, then landed in the CAA mailroom. He’d been unstoppable since, an exec with a rare blend of remarkable creative juices and hard-edged business smarts. Tall and dark eyed, he was youthfully fit for a man his age owing to a bruising regime of daily exercise and diet. His only deviant gustatory passion was a monthly repast of hot beef brisket ith a side of potato latkes at Langer’s Deli.
Walking past the empty executive corridor offices leading to his corner suite, Dennis thought win or lose today it was a milestone life event. And as such, it qualified for a break in his strict nutritional discipline for a second visit to Langer’s this month. He texted Sandra: No matter what tnite, Langers for din. Kids and us. Be ravenous. LvU D.
She texted back: You’ll kill. No worries. We’re there, LvU S.
To please the board members, he’d suited up in dark grey pinstripes over a stark white pin-tab collar shirt and his favorite tie, an old Nicole Miller print of classic movie faces from the 1930s and 1940s. It was deliberate, and he hoped the gauche pattern would invite snark from Doris, who didn’t know her father had gifted the tie to Dennis with the admonition, "Without real stars, skies and grosses are always cloudy."
All the board members, except the Silverbergs, had arrived and were hovering around the continental breakfast spread. Ed Chapin was first to kiss-hug-kiss as he walked through the door. "I hear that cunt Doris plans to go to the mattresses for her sonny boy," he whispered to Dennis.
"Now remember, Ed, this studio is a safe space for sexism," Dennis joked, patting his arm. "Cunt is a barred appellation. Bitch is preferred. The usage gets a free pass because of its common parlance in rap lyrics, which of course, confers an artistic seal of PC approval, get it?"
Dennis worked the room, exchanging handshakes and arm punch pleasantries with the board members until Doris arrived with her two brothers in tow. That sent a paralyzing stunned hush around the room.
They’d brought a guest: Mark Silverberg in his wheelchair. He was pushed into his accustomed position at the head of the conference table. Doris seated herself to his right, her brothers to his left. She was fiftyish, stylish in an embroidered bolero jacket, black dress and heels. She leaned over and lovingly smoothed errant hairs on the old guy’s bald dome. Still a frustrated actress, Dennis thought watching her. Nothing had changed. Be ready for family drama, kiddo.
Mark was staring at his 96th birthday, a shrunken CGI character come alive, Yoda in leisure wear. His eyes were weary, empty grey marbles now heavily lidded. Oxygen tubes squiggled from his nose and around his body. His socks drooped over his thin ankles and Prada sneakers.
"For openers, ladies and gentlemen, you’re all on notice. Dad’s here to vote. Let’s get on with the agenda," Doris announced.
"Doris, you damn well know that Mark’s status is the only agenda today," Ed said, scanning around the conference table for confirming nods. "I don’t see the point of his being here. This is cheap soap opera."
She interrupted Ed mid-sentence, throwing up a traffic cop’s stop signal. "Just hold on. I spoke with Dr. Lightman last night. He confirmed that Dad goes in and out but he can understand even though putting together sentences is a strain. Let’s move forward."
"Why don’t you open, Doris?" Dennis said, then turning to face her father, added, "Okay with you,, Mark?"
There was no response. The old man just sat there, eyes glazed, a vacant smile on his face, his mouth drooling. Doris leaned over, pulled the hanky out of his breast pocket and dabbed away the spittle.
"I never thought you had that kind of cruelty in you, Dennis," she said, stuffing the hanky back in Mark’s polo shirt pocket. "You that desperate to sit in this chair? Well, here’s a clue. Your ass print will never occupy this seat," she said, angrily pointing.
"Doris, honey, I never thought you cared so little about Mark’s legacy to stage this little kabuki drama," Dennis replied coolly.
She stared daggers at him without reply. "Let’s open nominations. On behalf of the Silverberg Family Trust, I nominate my son John Silverberg to assume the position of Chief Executive Officer and Chairman. That’s legacy, Dennis. A Silverberg has sat in this chair since 1922. And for the benefit of our more recent directors, let me tell you we were once a rag-tag poverty row grinder of Westerns and Asian villain films hovering at the edge of bankruptcy. My grandfather bulled his way to solvency."
"Look, Doris…" Ed said, trying to interject.
She was having none of it and slammed a fist down on the table.
"Please, Ed, some respect here. My dad, this man sitting here is no mummy. This is the CEO and Chairman who took a feisty little studio he inherited and built this fucking $18 billion empire. All from a string of shithouse multiplexes. Now we’re a global giant. This man sitting here. Process that, ladies and gentlemen!"
The board sat in stunned silence.
"We Silverbergs didn’t do too badly for you, did we?" she kept on, now moving around the room, stopping behind the chair of each director, enumerating the millions each had made on Silvermine shares over the years. "And that will continue under my son. And it will only get better. We appreciate what Dennis has accomplished here, he can remain in place as long as he wants but only if he reports to Johnny."
Doris turned to Dennis. "Your choice."
He didn’t reply and glanced around the room. Nobody spoke up for him. He knew they wouldn’t. Protection of their fat annual directors’ fees always came first even to very wealthy men and women like these. When the finger-in-the-wind direction showed a clear winner, they’d weigh in soon enough. After a long hush in the room, Ed broke the silence.
"Doris, thanks for the history lesson. But this meeting isn’t about what was. It’s about what will be. I nominate Dennis Medwick. Nobody in this room needs his resume or track record. He’s the best money spinner this damn building ever had or ever will have. Any other candidates?"
The room remained eerily quiet. One of Doris’ brothers, Alan Silverberg, finally cleared his throat. "I second the nomination of John Silverberg."
"I second the nomination of Dennis Medwick," said another director.
Ed called for a vote. It was deadlocked, with Dennis ineligible to vote for himself by corporate by-law. "We’re open for discussion. Let’s…"
Just then, they heard a faint murmur coming from the head of the table. They watched dumbfounded as Mark Silverberg slowly raised a shaky hand. Then, in a low but audible croak, he said, "John Silverberg."
He motioned toward the water carafe.
"Sure, Dad," Doris said. She poured a glass, held it, and let it slowly flow into his mouth before wiping his chin. Then she turned to the board and said, "Well, that’s it. Six to five. John Silverberg is our new CEO."
"Just a minute, Doris. There’s a legal issue here," Ed began. "An issue of mental competence. Mark’s vote is invalid. Right, Richard?" Ed turned to the board member that was a partner in a huge white shoe law firm.
"I’ll get a letter from Doctor Lightman confirming his competency," Doris insisted.
"That won’t do," the lawyer said. "This board is authorized to order a comprehensive competency test if it wishes. Anybody want to go through that PR nightmare like Viacom did?"
"It’s moot," Dennis said suddenly. "Richard, never mind." He stood up. "You know, ladies and gentlemen, what I’ve seen here this morning and witnessed over 25 years in this business, is that in the end truth dies, a victim of its own demands on a very fragile human nature.
"You see," he said, starting to pace past the sitting directors. "on our Hollywood planet , truth be told, there is no real difference between stupidity and brilliance. Where we sit trumps who we are. What we say, trumps what we do. Performance is just a poker game. No matter how skilled a bettor, how subtle a bluffer, winning or losing always comes down to drawing the right cards. The crappy hand that magically becomes a full house, the promising ace-king that goes nowhere. I’ve been blessed and cursed from time to time with both. It all comes down to counting the chips when the game is over.
"And, of course, the obscure novel that sold 7,000 copies globally and became magically," Dennis said, snapping his fingers," a billion and a half dollar film grosser. What of that? That film and many others I had to fight for through ten gatekeepers. Including some people in this very room. And even from our blessed Chairman, who if I recall said to me on that project, ‘You’ve spent $250 million of my money on a fucking atomic bomb that will flatten this goddamn company.’
"To say simply that I’m tired of the bullshit, tired of the Silverberg family chest-puffing, is not the point. I am tired of the process where self-evident truths blur before petty power skirmishes. No, it’s not just fatigue. It’s the astounding revelation that nobody ever wants to give up anything, ever. Well, here’s a breakthrough: I resign. You can send Mark’s chair to the Smithsonian, Doris. And send my chair to Goodwill. And, by the way, send my regards to Broadway while you’re at it."
With that, Dennis Medwick walked out, reached the parking lot, and tapped on the windshield of the Tesla to wake Bert from a morning snooze. "Let’s go. Home, pal"
Dennis smiled cryptically. "Sure. Fuck ‘em."
That night, in a far corner booth at Langer’s as the Medwick family awaited their entrées, Dennis’ iPhone twinkled with a Snapchat of Ed Chapin, a huge smile across his face. It was seven-thirty pm.
"Well, it took a bit longer than we thought," Ed said, turning the phone toward the table so they could Facetime. "Everybody, ready?"
Dennis hit the speaker so his family could listen.
"You missed all the fun. Blood on the floor, blood splattering the walls, blood dripping down the windows. It’s done. It worked just as we planned. I dropped the bomb that I would sell my entire position in Silvermine to Carl Icahn. They all folded like cheap suitcases. You’re now the new CEO. Eleven to zero. Doris was a holdout until the end when her own brothers’ shit their pants at the very real prospect of their idiot nephew at the helm. They actually threatened to sue the Trust."
"Zero," Dennis asked, perplexed. "But Mark voted for his grandson John."
"Oh, that’s right, you weren’t there. After you left, Mark wasn’t done talking. He was actually saying, "John Silverberg… NO!" when he’d finally finished his sentence."
Dennis chuckled. "Ed, my good friend, thanks. As I think I said, it’s all poker, isn’t i?"
"Great bluff. You ought to consider entering the next World Series Of Poker event in Vegas, Mr. Chairman."
They exchanged wisecracks and Dennis punched off.
Sandra leaned over and kissed him. "You had me fooled, too, you bastard. Here I was worried sick," she said, punching his arm playfully. "I never figured threats to resign work magic anymore."
"You should read Henry Kissinger’s biography. It was his stock in trade," Dennis explained. "Whenever he felt politically threatened by one of Nixon’s other cohorts, he invoked the strategy. It never failed him."
The brisket arrived, Dennis breathed in the gorgeous aroma. "Anyone want to share a latke?" he said, forking one up for display.