There’s a sucker born every minute and they all come to Hollywood. 2,579 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
It was Day 10 of their new life. Zak and his wife Cecily had won one of the biggest Powerball lotteries in the history of the game: $367 million after taxes with an immediate payout. Understandably, both of them quit their jobs teaching in the Boston public school system on Day 2. After that, they followed all the advice, especially not to make any major spending decisions during the first several months. They did purchase a new car on Day 3 and started making plans to buy a house on Day 7. They were doing everything they could not to go wild.
But by Day 10, all of that went out the window when Zak made his proposal. “I want to make a superhero movie,” he announced.
It goes without saying that Cecily was stunned. “What?” she said. That was it. That was all that was necessary.
“Look, I don’t expect you to understand, but it’s been my dream to do this. I’ve done some research. Other lottery winners got into the movie business as well. I know people who went to film school and they can help me figure out how to do it. I want to make a superhero film. I just do. I’m not going to let Bob Iger have all the fun.”
“What is this with you and Bob Iger?” Cecily asked. She had a point. Zak had once explained to her how he found the CEO arrogant, how he wasn’t an innovator, how he’d just made a few acquisitions to put everything right at Disney.
“He just bought stuff!” Zak lectured her.
“Yeah, he bought some pretty good stuff,” she said.
“Okay, fine, maybe he did. Point is, if he can make a superhero film, so can I. Now I can. I have the money.”
“You have no idea what you’re doing.”
“I have a plan. Let me tell you about it.”
So he did.
This was his plan. They had a little under $367 million at this point in the bank. They would help their family out by spreading about $5 million among the various members they felt were deserving. Then they would have $362 million left. Zak would invest $10 million in the best Vanguard funds, $5 million in Berkshire Hathaway (hey, Warren Buffet, after all), $5 million in some REITs and preferred shares, $5 million in dividend-paying securities with great dividend-growth potential (Coca-Cola, Apple, Disney, stuff like that), and $5 million spread over some equities that were a bit more risky but still looked good over the long term (Netflix, Amazon). Then, he’d leave $20 million in cash and certificates of deposit, maybe buy some bonds as well. That brought the total left over to $312 million.
So there was $312 million to make the superhero film of Zak’s dreams. He argued with Cecily that they didn’t need all the money anyhow because they would be set for life with what he’d just invested. Besides, he had a good friend who was as smart as one of those guys from Fast Money who could help them adjust their portfolio over time and maximize their returns (and he’d do it for free because this friend had always had a thing for Cecily).
Everything would be fine. Besides, Zak had graduated from Emerson College with a screenwriting degree. He’d never made it in Hollywood, but this was his dream, and life was short. He shut down every argument Cecily made. He even darkly pointed out that it was he who always played the lottery and that it was really his ticket, not hers. She countered that she could slap one hell of a divorce suit on his stupid ass.
Before things got too heated, he wisely and strategically apologized. They hugged and had make-up sex – a pretty cool make-up sex session actually, Zak thought – and everything was back in order. Cecily somehow found herself agreeing with his plan; she knew it was crazy but at the same time they were multimillionaires and, besides, maybe he would figure out how to make the movie for less than the $312 million he had budgeted, and further maybe he could sell the rights and recoup the money on the backend. Whatever; it was done now.
It was still crazy, though.
“I have to warn you about something. Remember that movie Other People’s Money with Danny DeVito?” Zak’s friend and new financial adviser Emeril asked.
“Yeah, I do. It was a play first, wasn’t it?” Zak recalled.
“It might have been, but to me, it was just a movie. The problem is, you’re about to become Other People’s Money. That money will no longer be your own. You’re just going to lose it.”
“It won’t happen. I’m smart about this kind of thing,” Zak insisted. “Seriously. I know what you’re saying. It’s good advice. I don’t even plan to spend all $312 million. I just need to figure out who to hire, who to talk to, all of that. I plan on hiring Johnny Depp. Figure his quote must be somewhat light nowadays because of his financial situation.”
“You think Depp’s people aren’t going to look at you like a chump? I mean, those Hollywood types live for this kind of thing. They see private equity coming in to fund a slate, and they’re like, ‘More suckers, yay!” Emeril rubbed his hands together, widened his eyes like Golem from Rings, and sneered. Actually, a rather accurate impersonation. “You’ll probably be able to get the great Ian Ziering, though. Man, he should have won an Oscar for those shark films. His quote is probably higher than Depp’s!”
Zak ignored his pal. “You know what? I might go for a Downey Jr. cameo. To really piss off Iger.”
Emeril laughed for a good ten seconds. Ten seconds might not seem like a lot of time for a laugh, but it is. Just count one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, and you’ll see. That’s what Zak thought after his friend stopped. “Laugh all you want, dude, but you’ll see. I’ll make this happen.”
“Okay, I’ve had my fun. Anyway, I’ll set up the portfolio for you this week. Will Cecily be there when I do it?” In a negligee hopefully, Emeril thought silently.
Over the next several weeks, Zak worked hard assembling the team of friends that would help guide him through the process of putting a team of movie professionals in place. These pals were all Emerson alumni, and most did not work in the industry. One had been a PA on the Girls set, another had made an indie film that sold to some European streaming service no one had ever heard of during the Sundance festival. There were a couple of others, but all of their experience didn’t amount to much. It’s a funny thing, too, because this wasn’t the actual team making the movie. Zak needed to figure out whom to hire for forming a basic production company. Then they’d go after the Downeys and the Depps.
A few months later, Zak was happy with his progress. His wife was not. In fact, she had taken a secret meeting with Emeril about it.
“I don’t know, Emeril, he’s already spent, what, a couple million dollars? Just on preliminary stuff?”
“He has. I don’t know what to tell you. He’s obsessed with this movie.”
“Be honest. The movie is stupid, isn’t it?”
Emeril shifted his eyes. “Well…”.
“No, you can be honest.”
“I think I already gave my opinion.”
Cecily laughed. “Yes. That one syllable said it all. And he’s been so distant. I feel so isolated and alone. The movie is everything to him.”
Isolated. Alone. Perhaps this was his opportunity, Emeril thought. He placed his hand on her wrist. Comforting. Inviting. Cheating was so easy, sometimes.
Meanwhile, Zak was in L.A. taking a meeting with a studio exec. She seemed enthusiastic.
“I’m glad you’re as excited as I am,” Zak told her.
“Oh sure, I like the idea,” Amy claimed. “I want you to talk to an associate of mine named Roger Max. He runs one of the premiere prodcos in the industry. He’ll be able to bring your vision to the screen exactly as you want it. Then we can talk about distribution.”
Zak stood and shook her hand. “I can’t tell you what this means to me.”
She smiled. “He’ll feel the same way. Believe me.”
When he exited, Amy called Roger to let him know that some fresh fish was in town. As always, she would share in the fleecing per her usual commission.
The next day, Zak met with Roger. “So tell me about this movie of yours. Amy was very persuasive over the phone.”
Zak told Roger about the film. “It’s a superhero movie, but not like all the rest. I want it to be like Unbreakable, but not exactly. It would have that sort of tone. Serious, but not too serious, but still… serious. An anti-Disney/Marvel vibe. This would be a superhero movie for people who don’t want all the silly accoutrements of the typical Avengers kind of onscreen adventure.”
“The anti-Iger superhero feature.” Max smiled. Zak did, too.
“I guess Amy told you my feelings about him.”
“Indeed. Go on.”
“So, the movie is called The Screenwriterman. It’s about a guy in his forties having a mid-life crisis. He’s a graduate of Emerson College with a screenwriting degree, but he never made it in the industry. His name isn’t even listed on IMDB. He ends up teaching at Emerson, but he’s excoriated by all of his colleagues because he was hired even though he had no writing credits whatsoever. He basically knew someone who was in a position to hire him. He did make a couple of four-minute shorts himself that are posted on YouTube, but all the views are by students who laugh at him and write awful comments. That’s a theme throughout the film: he allows the comments so he can be reminded of his lowly status in life, a sort of self-flagellation thing. Makes the character more complex, I think. So he goes about his business but his students challenge him on his lack of credits and the other screenwriting teachers demand that he be terminated. He sends script after script to studio after studio, he enters contests and sends queries, and all he ever gets is rejection. Then, he decides he wants to commit suicide.
“However, before he’s able to do it, he gets a weird email. It looks like a computervirus but he opens it anyway because, heck, a computer virus at this point is meaningless. It turns out to be an advertisement for a new screenwriting software app called ‘Real’. He finds the name odd because Real doesn’t convey anything about screenwriting. But the tagline is: “It’ll make your writing come alive.” He takes the free trial and downloads it to his desktop and cell. He quickly finds out that what he writes in Real becomes real, except only in his proximity. When he writes about a man and a woman having an affair, it happens right in front of him: two people come to life and recite the dialogue he composes. There are other rules about how it works, but for the most part the concept boils down to a screenwriting app making things come alive out of thin air.
“After a few days of fooling around with it, he realizes its limitations. For instance, he can’t turn himself into a screenwriter that has sold scripts to Hollywood for millions of dollars upfront plus points because it doesn’t work that way. He can only affect things near him for an ephemeral amount of time. But it dawns on him what Real can do after a chance encounter with a woman being assaulted in a mall parking lot. He’s witnessing the event, and it quickly occurs to him to open the app on his phone and create two seven-foot vigilantes to beat the crap out of the assailant. He does this and saves the woman. Then he makes the two guys run off. He keeps saving people like this until he realizes the trial offer is about to expire and he’s about to be locked out of Real. Well, the cost for the software is nothing more than a pledge to do good in the world. He then understands he’s been chosen to become a superhero, that the thirty-day trial was really a test of his character.
“He gets access to the full version and starts saving people left and right. He then documents his heroic exploits Casey Neistat-style on YouTube. He explains what he does, dubs himself The Screenwriterman, and the public sings his praises while law enforcement officials hate him because the public start calling him for help instead of the police. Whenever he saves someone, he does it in a creative and even entertaining manner.
“As the movie progresses, we find out there’s another person in town who has received the special screenwriting software, only he uses the app to create crimes instead of thwarting them. The Screenwriterman catches glimpses of the villain here and there and dubs him The Hack. The climax is a big battle in the middle of the city; the winner gets to keep the software for good while the loser disappears from existence. They engage in a war of creative wits to write scenes that see two monstrous creations of theirs fight to the death. In the end, The Screenwriterman triumphs over The Hack, and his YouTube channel makes him rich enough to make a movie based on Real. It’s bought by Disney on the condition that no one will ever know his true identity.”
“You’re going to need a lot of money for that climax, you know,” Roger warns.
Zak nods. “I got that covered. So, what – “
“– Do I think? I think it’s great! Unique. And I like that you want to go Unbreakable with it because Shyamalan is hot off that Split movie. Him and Blum, they make a great team.”
“Yeah, The Visit. Anyway, your thoughts…”.
“I’m in! What’s the title again?”
“That has a definite ring to it. Okay, go to the outer office and have Pete make you a schedule. We need to take some more meetings. There are a few things we need to do to iron out maybe one or two plot holes, but I think everything is all set.”
“One thing I want to say upfront: it’s my money, and while I will consider any and all suggestions, all final decisions rest with me. I have final cut, even though I’m not directing.”
“Believe me, that’s not a problem. This is your show. I’m the hired hand, remember?”
“Of course.” Zak was beaming inside. He felt better than he had when he heard the winning Powerball number announced.
They shook hands. Zak went to the outer office. Roger called his colleague Amy to laugh over what a piece of shit Zak’s movie was; they both agreed it was awful and didn’t make sense. For instance, why wouldn’t the main character just make a lot of money appear in his living room? And trying to make it with a tonal feel like Unbreakable was mind-boggling, especially if he was going to have this big creature fight at the end that would cost him millions. What an idiot, they both agreed. They also agreed that they loved Zak’s money. They would be sending this guy to all of their cronies; everyone would enjoy the spoils.