A successful film studio is run with an iron fist. But is that the best strategy for its future? 2,711 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The old man was packing his things in a cardboard box – doing it himself. I just watched.
Jake Simon was going – really going. Hard to believe. After 15 years, 15 years, of one man rule by an angry, unpredictable son of a bitch. You could certainly say that. And you’d be right. But, of course, it was more than that. Much more. Anyway, it was over now – over and done in half an hour.
I remember the day I got here. How could I forget? I’d never been to a studio before – any studio. I’d just published my second novel to mild critical acclaim; and I suppose, to Jake, I was exotic, and I was “hot” – at least hot enough to hire as co-head of feature development.
Why do I remember that particular day? That’s easy. I was replacing a guy named Sid Blumberg, who was being demoted. Sid had gone to Jake and complained that I was an overrated, Ivy League hack. Not nice of him; but, hey, I get it, that’s the business.
Anyway, Jake calls me into his office with Sid still there. Sid stands there looking uncomfortable while Jake repeats what he just said about me. Kind of embarrassing. Then, Jake turns to Sid and says, “I’ve hired this man because he has rare talent – talent we badly need. Unlike you, this man’s an artist.” Then, suddenly, he points at my feet and shouts, “Kiss his shoe!”
Sid and I just stand there. What could we do? We do nothing.
Finally Sid says “Sure Chief, I get it. No more complaints from me.” He turns to leave.
Now Jake’s voice turns menacingly cold. “You worthless piece of shit. I meant exactly what I said. Now get down on your knees and kiss his fucking shoe!”
I just stand there, stunned. Slowly, Sid sinks to his knees in front of me and – yes he does – he kisses my shoe.
That was it. Jake tells us both to go. I walk down the hall to the men’s room, go into a stall and throw up.
I learned pretty quickly that this was just Jake being Jake. And there was so much more. The daily blow jobs at 5:30 PM; the complaints from secretaries and aspiring actresses about “harassment” and “abuse”; the payoffs in return for releases and confidentiality; the screams of other studios at Jake’s making last minute deals for properties they thought they’d locked up or at his stealing their best talent out from under them; and the even louder screams on the rare occasions when Jake finds he’s picked the wrong director and personally re-cuts the director’s film.
And, of course, there were the constant battles with the media and the persistent problem of “leaks.” One day, Jake calls me to his office. By this time, I’d been there a year, and was somewhat less terrified of him. Characteristically, he’s in a rage. “You remember that anonymous asshole who fed the trades the story about me and the waitress from Hooters?”
“Well I caught him.”
“Yeah, red-handed – doing it again – using his own phone, the dumb bastard.”
“You bugged his phone?”
“Wake up sweetheart, I bugged every phone in the building. Even yours. Don’t look at me like that. It’s my goddamn building.”
Another time, I’m sitting in Jake’s office and he takes a call about towing some car – a red Bentley convertible. He gives the license plate and wants it towed to an old warehouse on the studio lot. When he hangs up, I ask him what this was about.
“It’s about fucking Al Forstman. That’s what it’s about.”
“Did Al’s car break down?”
“No kid, Al’s career broke down. Son of a bitch thought because he’s President of Distribution – big fucking deal – he doesn’t have to listen to me. So he ignored what I said – did what he wanted – and it cost me a bundle. Well, he’s had it. I’m firing him – today – right now.”
“What does that have to do with towing a red Bentley?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“Thing is Al doesn’t know he’s fired yet. He’s taking his rich girlfriend to lunch at Spago – with her parents he’s killing himself to impress. After lunch, when they all come out in front of the restaurant and big shot Al asks for his gorgeous car, guess what? “I’m sorry Mr. Forstman, the studio’s towed it away.” Yeah, the fancy car we provided for his personal use is gone, repossessed – permanently, forever! Absolutely humiliating. Then, all at once, he’ll get it – the pompous putz. Standing there in front of Spago, it’ll dawn on him he’s been canned. Neat, huh?”
Well, that was how Jake handled troublesome executives. With lower-ranked employees he could be less subtle. One afternoon, I’m sitting with some lawyers in Jake’s conference room, arguing over sequel rights to a hit film. Jake’s taking a really tough position, growling that, based on the contract, there’s no room here for compromise. One of the lawyers says the contract doesn’t say what Jake thinks. “Read it yourself,” he says, handing Jake a copy open to the page in question.
Jake reads it slowly. He starts to turn red – always a bad sign. Then he picks up the phone. “Get Alan Putnam to my office right now!”
Pretty soon, a tall, pale guy in an ill-fitting suit arrives. It’s Alan Putnam, an aging member of the studio legal department, about ready for retirement. He looks anxious. Who wouldn’t? It’s probably his first time in Jake’s office.
Well, Jake was Jake. He turns to Putnam and bellows, “Why are you so fucking stupid?”
Thinking this was a rhetorical question (as I did), Putnam says nothing.
But, if Jake knew what “rhetorical” meant, that wasn’t the kind of question he was asking. He points at Putnam, “Goddamn it, I’m talking to you. It’s a simple question. Why are you so fucking stupid?”
Well, what could Putnam say? “I was born stupid?” or “I don’t know why I’m so stupid?” The fact is he doesn’t say anything. He just stands there.
The lawyers and I are cringing.
In a quavering voice, Putnam finally asks what he’s done wrong.
“What you’ve done wrong, you fuckhead, is to jeopardize my sequel rights in the hottest franchise we’ve got. That’s what you’ve done wrong.”
Putnam starts to mutter some sort of explanation or apology. But Jake’s done. He waves toward the door, “Get the fuck out of my sight, you hopeless moron!”
Putnam leaves. Now, Jake turns to us with a smile. “Fellas, let’s not get bogged down in arguing about what the contract says. The movie business is like a small town. We got to get along with each other. So, let’s try to work this out like friends.”
That was Jake re-starting a process he loved – negotiating. The man thrived on negotiation – used every strategy known to man – and used it well.
His favorite tactic? Anger. That’s right – anger. Of course, I learned from Jake that the effective use of anger in a negotiation requires a two man team, “the crazy” and “the smoother.”
I remember once Jake made a deal to acquire a really valuable film franchise. Problem was, the next week, a powerful independent producer claimed he already had the rights to that franchise – in writing. Not good. So, we’re facing some costly and dangerous litigation and hoping to work out a settlement. The two sides had exchanged letters setting out their settlement positions, and a meeting was set to resolve the differences.
On the day of the meeting, rather than seeming anxious, Jake is calm and confident. Lighting a cigar, he assures me everything will be OK. He’ll be “the crazy” and I’ll be “the smoother.”
That afternoon, a conservatively dressed young lawyer from a downtown law firm is ushered into Jake’s office. After introductions, the lawyer takes out a pad and begins to go through the various open points in the deal. For convenience, each open point had been given a number. Our aim, of course, was to find a way to solve every one.
Well, the lawyer is pleasant and courteous, and Jake is at his avuncular best. For the first six points, things go surprisingly well. Sometimes the lawyer offers a compromise, sometimes Jake does. There are confident smiles all around. We’re getting there. It’s going to get done.
Then the lawyer reaches point number seven – a biggie. “You know,” he says still smiling, “we think the studio’s position on this one is basically unfair.”
Jake leaps to his feet, his face suddenly crimson. “UNFAIR?” he shouts, “UNFAIR? You dare call this studio UNFAIR? You get the fuck out of my office – right now! This deal is history. We’re going to court!”
His face white, his hands shaking, the lawyer grabs his papers, bumps into a side table and barely manages the giant brass handle on Jake’s door.
When he’s gone, Jake’s color returns to normal. He sits down and calmly lights another cigar.
“That went great!”
“Bet your ass. I thought I was pretty good as ‘the crazy.’” Now, tonight, let’s see how you do as ‘the smoother.’”
“Okay, what do I do?”
“You call that lawyer at home. Seemed like a nice guy. But, believe me, he’s shaken up. So’s his client – big time. You tell him you’re sorry I blew up at him; but I felt so strongly about what he said. Then, you suggest politely that, if you can get me to calm down and return to the table, would he come back for another try. See, kid, you’re ‘the smoother.’ You smooth it over.”
“What if he doesn’t agree?”
That night, I make the call; and Jake proves dead right, the lawyer does agree. He not only agrees, he sounds like I’ve saved his ass. Probably his client had counted on reaching a settlement at the first meeting, and blamed the lawyer for screwing it up. Anyway, the next afternoon, the lawyer returns to meet with Jake. Only, this time, when he gets to point number seven, he says, “I think we can go along with your position on that one.”
So, yes, Jake was a gifted negotiator. But he brought more than that to the job – a lot more. For all the havoc, anger and chaos he caused, for all his rudeness, crudeness and downright meanness, Jake Simon had moments you could even call greatness. The son of a bitch could certainly pick films. I’ll give him that. Filled a bookcase with Academy Awards. Made great choices – the right stories, the right stars, the right directors; and the films made a fortune – at least most of them. He put this studio on top – way on top.
Well that was Jake – the bad and the good. At his worst, he was a monster. At his best, he was pretty damn good.
So what happened? Why was this force of nature leaving the studio he’d dominated and brutally “guided” for 15 remarkable years? I knew why. Jake took some high priced tax advice. Jake held 90 percent of the studio’s class “A” voting stock. The tax lawyer told him, “On your death, the stock can pass to your wife tax free. It’s community property. But, when she goes, her estate’ll owe a bundle. You want to enrich the government? Of course not. Your son Miles – he’s what? Thirty years old? You and Marge should put some stock in his name – only 10 or 12 percent to start with. Then add a little more each year. Over time, you’ll be way ahead. By the way, what does Miles do?”
“Nothing, he’s a poet.”
“Doesn’t matter. You won’t give him enough stock to do any real harm.”
And Jake followed that advice. Only then, he did something really stupid. He had a very public affair with the star of our latest film. “Public” understates it. They were kissing passionately in a booth at The Grill – at lunch time.
For Marge Simon this was too much. She divorced Jake and, of course, got her half of the stock. After the 12 percent gift they’d made to Miles, she got only 44 percent – same as Jake, but not quite enough for what she had in mind. But then, Marge followed some smart advice. For years, she’d ignored poor, dull-witted Miles. Now, she started being sweet to the poor bastard, spending time with him, setting up readings of his ridiculous poetry. After neglecting him since he was 10, Marge was suddenly his pal, his sponsor, his muse. Of course, sappy Miles stood by her side, loyal to “mums” throughout the divorce. More importantly, he voted his 12 percent of the stock just as “mums” directed. Go on, you add up the percentages: 44 plus 12 equals 56. And 56 equals goodbye Jake. So, there were lots of meetings and phone calls, some friendly, some contentious; but Marge made the right moves throughout the process, and, ultimately, the Board took the action for which she had planned and schemed.
So, thanks to Jake’s astute tax planning and Marge’s clever strategy, Jake got formal notice that he was no longer Chairman and CEO of the studio and that he was to vacate the premises “forthwith.”
Thus, the cardboard box. And so, this giant of the industry, slowly left his office for the last time. I followed him out to his parking space, carrying the box. As we approached Jake’s car, the head studio guard came around the corner.
“Mr. Simon, I wanted to say goodbye. You’ve made this a great company, sir. Thank you for that.” He put out his arms, “Do you mind?” Jake didn’t. They hugged – a studio guard, making bupkis, and Jake Simon, the super mogul, and they’re hugging?
When Jake turned, I thought I saw a tear on his cheek, but he quickly slid into the back seat of the car. As his driver pulled out, heading slowly past the line of soundstages, I saluted – first time since the army. Kind of silly, I guess.
Well, I thought, the King is dead. Long live the King. I turned back into the executive building and went down the hall into Jake’s office – my office now.
Big shoes to fill? You bet your ass.
Just then, my cell phone rings. It’s Marge Simon. She congratulates me and says how pleased she is the way things turned out. Then, she tells me to name Miles the new President of Production. It’s not like she’s asking my opinion on such an insane move. Not at all. She’s saying it like an order.
Unfucking believable! I didn’t design the entire strategy Marge used to outwit and oust Jake, plotting her every goddamn move, to have limp dick Miles Simon as my President of Production.
OK, so I didn’t mention my role in Jake’s demise. No surprise. I wasn’t very proud of it. But, listen, Jake would’ve done the same thing to me. This is Hollywood, pal, not the Boy Scouts.
Anyway, when I tell Marge she’s talking about a hugely important job and that Miles isn’t up to it, I get a new Marge Simon – a lioness defending her cub – only tougher. “Listen, buster, get this straight. If my son’s not President of Production by the end of the week, I’ll get rid of you faster and a helluva lot easier than I got rid of Jake.”
Well, there it was – my job or my integrity. It was no contest. Miles Simon was my new President of Production.
I settled back in Jake’s big chair. I thought back on all the bizarre twists and turns of my times with him, of its traumatic beginning and remarkable end and of all the complex triumphs, embarrassments and betrayals I’d seen and been a part of. How could I sum it all up? What would describe it? Well, after all, I’m in the movie business. So, I stole a line from a great screenwriter.
This short story first posted here on August 3, 2015.