A movie studio executive on the hotseat has to learn how to play hardball – or become the ball. 3,076 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Three hard policy guidelines had trickled down from the board of the Galaxy Gateway Film division of Global Media Corporation, arriving in the development department with the authority of Papal Bulls. The last quarter’s earnings miss had spooked Wall Street and battered the stock. The subtext: no more mammoth budget CGI comic book movies or prissy little art flicks on pain of death. The first email edict ordered the film executives to never greenlight a prestige project. (“We’re in the business of making money, not winning awards.”) The second: never touch prestige sequels to old classics. (“They rarely make money and generational memories are melting faster than ice cubes in a Scotch on the rocks on a sun deck in Palm Springs.”) And third: modern film sequels will be financed only if first worldwide grosses were over $350 million. (“Therefore, Skycatcher 2 may be our last sequel ever.”)
That morning, Amelia Donaldson, head of development, replied to the company chairman as soon as she received the directives.
“Just a fast heads-up. I expect to meet with actress Amy Harding tomorrow to listen to her pitch about a Chinatown sequel she’s salivating to produce now that we’ve bought Paramount which owns the remake rights. Yes, I did point out to her that Robert Towne’s The Two Jakes crashed and burned in 1990 because it was a disjointed clunky mess. She’s undeterred and has that passionate conviction that bats away facts like so many flies. Bottom line: I need to take this meeting but it’s a kabuki dance. I’m only listening because we need Amy to reprise her lead in the medieval Skycatcher sequel. I’m afraid if we don’t at least look like we care, she’ll find any lame excuse to take a pass and break our balls even though a sequel commitment was part of the original deal."
Hal Springer, the studio’s Chairman, emailed back:
“Amelia, think of this as a leadership test. You can shuck and jive but absolutely make no commitments. I don’t need more tsuris from New York. Just get her to confirm she’s in for Skycatcher 2. No Chinatown sequels. If Towne couldn’t bring it off, nobody can. P.S. Wipe these emails.”
The next morning, Amy Harding, dazzling flavor of the month blonde goddess to over eight million followers on Twitter since her tour de force performance on the Skycatcher fantasy epic, drove to Culver City with her agent in tow. Confident that given who she was and the original’s $850 million worldwide grosses that year, she had convinced herself that her Chinatown sequel pitch was a done deal. Especially after her rep Ken Licht had assured her they had the studio by the short and curlies.
“You think they’d blow the relationship?” he whispered as they stopped for a light on Sunset. “They’ll kiss your ass. Shirley Temple carried the entire Fox studio on her back during the 1930s. That’s you now. Amelia has no place to hide. You’re her Shirley Temple.”
“And you’re sure The Two Jakes bombing won’t kill the project with Amelia’s board?”
“It was a bad movie — period. Our focus in Gittes is on rounding out Jake and the faint drumbeat of WWII.”
Amy’s new stardom’s mantra was familiar, the kind heard for decades in Vanity Fair interviews with hot young movie stars bitten by the creative bug. Amelia was reading the magazine’s annual Hollywood issue the morning of her meeting with Amy. “What I really want to do is produce and maybe even direct,” she’d told the profiler. “I’m not sitting around waiting for the sag and bag of my body to end my career. This business is all about creative control. I expect to have a few projects of my own greenlit very soon.”
Amelia shook her head, flung down the magazine and lunged for the Xanax bottle in her top desk drawer. She sat back, closed her eyes and threw back the pills with a tumbler of Fiji water. A slide show of the seventeen Chinatown sequel pitches she’d already listened to over the years flashed across her mind. She turned to her assistant, handing her back the magazine, “What bullshit. Nobody but nobody will ever write a script as good as Chinatown. It wasn’t so much what Polanski did, it was the Towne script.”
Arms twined across her chest, Amelia tapped an impatient toe on the floor. “She’s due here in fifteen minutes. How am I going to tell her about this new no-remake policy? Think her agent even knows she’s headed for a courtesy pitch jerk-off?”
Amelia paused and then answered her own question. “I’m dead certain she thinks she has us by the balls. Which in a way she does. But this is what Hal calls a leadership test for me. Which means, ‘Put on your male armor, honey,’” she groaned.
Standing at her window, she saw Ken Licht’s Audi pull into a visitor parking spot. “Our goddess and her gnome are here.”
Amelia was wearing her lucky long and fashionably faded Eileen Fisher sweatshirt over black leggings and heels. Amelia’s assistant demonstrated an ebullient welcome as they came through the door, asked their beverage orders and showed them into the boss’s office. Amy was dressed like a 1940s movie career woman; a Rosalind Russell avatar to echo the period setting of her project. She wore a Robin Hood hat, wide shouldered black herringbone blazer, muted floral silk blouse, charcoal tight pencil skirt and vintage sling pumps. A remarkable personal trope for a 26 year old.
The actress didn’t walk through the door as much as she strode into Amelia’s hug. “You’re going to totally come in your bloomers after you hear this,” Amy said, producing a legal pad with notes from her bag as she sat down.
Licht, as short and squat as a bank safe, balding to a head shine, was in a caramel cashmere sport jacket and blue jeans. He did the requisite kiss-hug-kiss, then jokingly warned, “Get ready, Amelia. she tore my kishkis out on this one. But it is a totally phenomenal project. And we’ve already checked out a rights deal.”
The trio stretched the vapid chatter about tennis games, pricey nursery schools and Amy’s recent sleepless nights with her new baby boy. Then with a cool take-no-prisoners expression, the star suddenly switched off her make-nice face light. She flipped to the second page of her legal pad and began, her voice commanding.
“Okay, Ken, The iPad.”
Amelia leaned forward and put on her best intensely intrigued mask face as Amy began.
“Here’s the freeze frame. This is the last scene of Chinatown.”
On the tablet, Dunaway pulls a gun and shoots Huston and drives away with her daughter. The cops shoot Dunaway. The car horn sounds. One of Nicholson’s associates utters the famous line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
“This last scene rebooted is the first scene of Gittes,” Amy explained. “That’s the working title.”
“Interesting,” Amelia said in the tone of conjured sincerity she’d mastered with lots of listening to actors and actresses over time.
Amy wound into her pitch. “We start with Jake’s funk about Noah Cross evading punishment for his crimes as he walks away from the scene. Jake knows the whole world is Chinatown, a man with no illusions. Then the next morning, driving in the glorious Southern California sunshine, he’s got the radio on and is listening to a Tommy Dorsey hit. One can sense renewal on his face. He comes into his office and sees this incredible knockout Japanese beauty waiting at reception. Its Spring 1941, the horror of Pearl Harbor is nine months away.”
“She a Mata Hari?“
“No, that’s the twist. She’s a Nisei, a professor of Asian history at UCLA and worried about the sudden disappearance of her uncle who is a big-time diplomat. She fears foul play. Jake listens but he’s transfixed, smitten as never before, and we begin to see a side of him without his insouciant exterior.”
Amy’s eyes were riveted on Amelia, fixed to catch a first reaction. Was she mesmerized? Faking it?
“Jake listens to her fears about what has happened to her uncle. He’s been at odds with Tokyo and he’s a Yale man. He has roots, deep sincere roots, in the U.S. State Department.”
Amy moved through the storyline working through Jake’s investigation, his hopeless mooning for Miko, past Pearl Harbor and ending up guess where?”
Amelia turned up her palms. “Dazzle me.”
“In the midst of the Japanese Internment camp hysteria in February 1942. Jake battles the state and the FBI to save Miko from being shipped to the camps by solving her uncle’s murder at the hands of Japanese agents which is proof of her family’s loyalty. But, once again, he’s screwed. This time, it’s not Noah Cross getting away with murder but the lunatic moves of a terrified U.S. government that re-ignites his cynic’s genes.”
“That’s the final fade?”
“No, we fast forward to early 1946. Jake, still in his Army uniform, drives up to the internment camp to see Miko, whose been stripped of her gloss and glamour. She falls into Jake’s arms. ‘How are we going to make this work Jake? Americans are so angry,’ she says. ‘One windmill at a time, honey,’ he says. Then we fade.”
All in all, Amelia thought, it really was better than many of the Chinatown sequel pitches she’d politely endured. And certainly conceptually better than The Two Jakes. But orders were orders. Galaxy Gate wanted streaming series, low-cost TV binging bait —not films to placate flavor of the month stars.
The executive stood up — serious, focused, impressed – and gave her sugar-coated response. “It’s fresh. It shows us a hidden Jake. Nice finesse of the romance angle. And I do like the intrigue of the diplomat uncle’s murder. Who do you have in mind to do a first pass?”
Licht interrupted. “Of course, Towne. But there’s a present-day edge we need, so we’re thinking maybe Tarantino — if he agrees to Amy directing. Maybe Coppola would be challenged to give it a shot.”
What a world-class shmuck Licht was, Amelia thought, nodding politely at the absurdity of his pretensions. And Amelia kept nodding, like one of those bobble head dolls on the dashboards of pickup trucks. “Wonderful…”
“So what’s our next step? I think we need to call some people, take some meetings, talk a development deal,” Amy pressed.
This was no airhead, Amelia now knew. Amy Harding was diamond bright, a Yale drama school grad, the daughter of a surgeon and a mother who was a physics professor at CalTech. She had the gene pool and reportedly an IQ of 155. She’d shown real chops on Broadway in a limited run of Othello, done O’Neil and, most recently, a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. All to rave reviews. There was no blowing her off with “love ya baby” clichés and “let’s do a think on this and meet again” bullshit.
“Can you do a ten-page treatment? Don’t agonize over it — just a tight overview of the plot. Let’s look at it together next week,” Amelia said. “Meanwhile, while you’re here, I need an answer about your Skycatcher 2 availability date?”
“The Skycatcher sequel is a go if the Chinatown reboot is a go.” Licht said firmly.
“Apples and oranges, Ken,” Amelia said, casually straining not to sound testy, or worse, kick him in the balls right there and then. “Amy, we need a date specific for you on the set.”
Amy’s toughness broke through. Amelia saw this was no ploy. “If no Chinatown, then it’s not apples and oranges. It’s oil and water, Amelia. Otherwise, see my lawyer. I am not fucking around.”
Amelia forced a smile through gritted teeth. “Don’t misconstrue. I’ll wait for your treatment. We’ll talk.”
“We’ve got meetings set for the rest of the week if you guys pass. Don’t sit on this. We’re home team now but it’s easy to change uniforms if we have to,” Licht threatened.
The trio hugged and kissed. Then Amelia watched the pair drive off. She collapsed back in her chair and screamed an ear-splitting “SHIT. SHIT. SHIT.“ Amelia then emailed Hal:
“Re: Amy’s Chinatown sequel meeting. I listened attentively and made the right noises. It’s a noble effort, not awful but awful close to awful. I stalled Amy into working on a ten page treatment to buy time. But they are in a take-no-prisoners state of mind. I couldn’t get her to okay the Skycatcher 2 start date unless there’s real development cash put on the table. Do we green light a development deal or start sniffing around for an Amy replacement? I’m inclined to wave bye-bye. Talk to me.”
Hal emailed back:
“You’ll have to sort this one solo. Bottom line: no Chinatown sequel. It’s a test of wills. I want good news.”
That night at home, Amelia shared her rock and a hard place woes with Ben Stone, her long-time partner and an early retiree from an obscenely successful tech startup he’d recently sold for $40 million. Happily, her five-year relationship with Ben had already yielded Dora, 4, the love of her life.
“Honey, help me here. I’ve got to piss on Amy’s pet project without blowing my job.”
“What’s to worry? I’m here and so is my checkbook. Fuck Amy Harding and her creative itch. Why not just tell her straight out? You really think she’s going to let you guys cast someone else for the sequel?”
“Brave words,” Amelia replied grimly. “But this could get very ugly very fast if we just pass.”
“Let’s worst-case this. You turn her down, she waves goodbye. Hal lays the blame on you. You quit or are fired. So fucking what? Dora needs a few siblings anyway.”
She tilted her head up, managed a thin smile and kissed him.
“Sorry but I’m not quite ready to flush my 18 years of toil and terror down the toilet bowl and become a nursery school taxi driver for a back seat crawling with kids. I must finesse this.”
“Then remember the mantra: when in doubt, just fuck ‘em all.”
Throughout a sleepless night, Amelia paced inside the house and out around the edges of the pool. Sitting back in a chair, she noticed her as yet unread copy of a celebrated CEO’s new bestseller: Ten Hard Rules For Playing Hardball And Winning. She fanned through the pages, reading lots of banal conventional wisdom and other forms of how-to book bullshit. But about fifty pages in she came across the quote: “You either learn to play hardball or you become the ball.”
She plunked herself down on the sofa and scribbled out bullet points on a legal pad, memorized them, then snuggled into bed beside Ben. “It’s fuck ‘em time,” she whispered.
The next morning, Amelia brgan acting on her bullet points. She first called an editor at one of the trades who was an old college classmate.
“Janice, this is way off the record. But we’re having a shitload of delays on the Skycatcher sequel. Amy Harding has suddenly decided she’s Stanley Kubrick…” Amelia sketched out the Chinatown sequel idea. “I need to hold Amy’s feet to the fire.”
“Actually, that’s not a bad sequel idea she has,” the editor said.
“Neither are half the other seventeen I’ve heard. That’s not the point. I need to start shooting Skycatcher Two.”
“So what I’m getting here is you need a bucket of freezing cold water thrown publicly over the little vixen via a straw man. Or should I say a straw girl?”
“Can you do it today? I have a meeting with actress Kelly Dayne and her agent in an hour. I’ll call you with a go signal.”
“I’m here,” Janice said, punching off.
Next, Amelia called Kelly Dayne’s agent to ask if she would be available to meet very privately about a possible role in the Skycatcher sequel. Kelly was Amy’s age, something of a lookalike, and had carved out a nice career taking every role Amy turned down.
“I see you as Zora,” Amelia said, handing Kelly the script. “It’s the top second lead. And scan the lead’s character arc, too. I might need you to stand ready in case we can’t work out schedules with Amy.”
Minutes after the pair left, Amelia punched in Janice’s number and asked, “Can you do it now?”
“It’ll be online within ten minutes.”
And it was. “Kelly Dayne Ready For Big Time? Exclusive! Sources at Dayne’s agency told us that Galaxy Gateway’s development boss Amelia Donaldson took a meeting this morning with Kelly. The reason may be because Amy Harding, slated for the Skycatcher sequel, may wish to skip the gig to develop what we hear is another sequel to Chinatown. Kelly would be perfect for the part.”
Fifteen minutes later, Licht was on the phone screaming at Amelia, threatening lawsuits and telling her what a piece of shit she was. “You can forget about Amy and Skycatcher 2…”
Amelia saw an email from her boss soon after.
“Leadership, baby. Good going. Do you really think Kelly could take on the lead? She’ll work for chump change compared with Amy. This could be a double coup. Keep me informed in case I have to contact legal. But I’ve laid eight to five with the guys on the board that you’ll hear from Amy before end of day.”
Early afternoon, an email popped into Amelia’s inbox:
“Kelly Dayne is not going to play my part. I’ve got to clear up a few things but should be ready to work in three weeks. Call Ken to confirm the exact date. P.S. We can talk about my Chinatown project next year. Let’s just make a great Skycatcher 2.
Amelia smiled and messaged Hal.
“Amy’s in, her reality bites email attached. It took that long to reduce her agent to a beaten dog.”
When her assistant walked into her office, Amelia was smiling, ankles crossed on her desk, sipping from a bottle of Blood Orange San Pellegrino.
Janice called. “So what happened?”
“Amy’s no bozo. She got it.”
“No, I was up all night. I’m going to take Dora to swim class and then crash.”
“Dinner at home tonight?”
“Yes, we’re watching a real cool reboot prospect,” Amelia said. “And naturally we’re bringing in takeout sushi.”