If you’re on the outside looking in, showbiz can look like the land of luxe—a private club populated by only the rich and beautiful, not to mention a bunch of high school geeks who view financial success as the best revenge against prom queens who never gave them a second look. We’re lottery winners all, living large, driving shiny Teslas to and from privileged jobs in gilded towers all to provide entertainment for the masses.
Though the previous statement is not close to true, it can sure as hell look like it because some insist on living the dream whether they can afford it or not. This is because at some point they turn from the hardest working class to the entitled class, not even recognizing that since the day they got their foot in the door, they’d been hooked and fed on a intravenous main line of poisoned Kool-Aid.
I recall a walk across the Fox lot with a former studio president who had since returned to a more-than-successful career as a legendary film and TV producer. It seemed to take forever because every ten steps it was if we we’d run into someone else The Legend knew, each demanding a private moment to kneel and kiss the man’s ring.
“It’s like you need to add time to a simple stroll across the lot,” I commented, “Just to compensate for all the ring kissing.”
“Not always flattering,” insisted The Legend. “When I was studio boss… and it’s somebody you don’t wanna see? Ooooof.”
“Like some agent you’d been dodging?” I assumed.
“Never dodged,” said The Legend. “At least I did my best not to. But once it was a director who we were in the middle of a negotiating a movie deal.”
“Yeah. He walked right up to me, stuck his finger in my face and accused me of fucking him.”
“On his deal?”
“Can you believe it? It got me so angry. Here’s this director, right out in the open, accusing me of fucking him over.”
Here’s where the slender, gentle man that I knew turned back the clock to those hardscrabble years growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, his chin jutting forward and his teeth clenching.
The Legend had asked the director to remind him exactly how much was the studio’s last offer. A million dollars, the director acknowledged before a more expletive-laden argument as to why he should be paid double that.
“’Listen pal,’ I said to the ungrateful prick. ‘You might think a million dollars isn’t worth you directing our little picture, but never ever assert that an offer of one million dollars is anything close to me fucking you!’”
Jesus, I thought to myself. He’s right. A million dollars is a lot of money for directing a movie. In human terms, the numeral one followed by six zeros is a bloody fortune for most of us scratching at the earth’s surface. It’s the competitive bubble that makes us believe our efforts are worth more than a common sanitation worker. Yes. It’s the market, of course. Supply and demand informs us that Matt Damon’s name above a movie title is more valuable than Syd Fleming’s.
Who’s Syd Fleming, you ask? Precisely the point.
Yet just because I live in a showbiz bubble and can demand service fees exponentially greater than the average cable installer doesn’t mean I’m excused from having a perspective beyond the overpriced European sedan parked in my driveway.
“Hey Doug,” called an A-List writer pal, “Wanna help me put a coupla guys together for an overnight to Vegas?”
“How we gettin’ there?” I asked.
“Private jet,” he gleefully replied. “Hour to fly there. Ten grand an hour. Four guy split. Practically free.”
“That’s a five-thousand-dollar round-trip,” I said, quickly calculating my end. “Where I come from, five large is nothing close to free.”
“Yeah, but you can afford it.”
“Affording it is one thing,” I argued. “Calling travel by private jet as ‘practically free’ is not, nor I hope it ever is, part of my lexicon.”
That wasn’t the first time I’d used that line. That’s because I’m about the reality check. As for the A-Lister who failed to rope me into a jetsetter overnight to Sin City, he’s become big on playing humble to the unwashed masses who flock to his movies. He’s a champion of the everyman despite his unchecked arrogance. When he was pulling down two hundred thousand dollars a week for production rewrites, he surmised that studios were getting too used to paying him on the cheap. A former studio honcho who could easily recall his middle-class roots, claimed disgust while trying to negotiate a two-week screenplay punch up from the A-Lister. One afternoon, while lunching at a popular valley Italian joint, the honcho spied the tiffany-gilded word jockey at a nearby booth. The honcho acknowledged the writer with a friendly wave. The A-Lister grinned back and wiggled three fingers in the air, reinforcing in six figure increments exactly how much he felt a week of his genius was worth.
“Imagine the arrogance,” bitched the honcho. “It’s one thing to think you’re actually worth that kind of dough. But I grew up with patches on my jeans. All I wanted to do was give him back my middle finger.”
In the end, the honcho paid the ransom only because the movie’s star, whom he was paying nine figures plus a percentage of first-dollar gross, demanded that the arrogant A-Lister be the scripter to polish her preciously comic dialogue.
Money well spent? Maybe. I don’t recall the movie or whether it made any box office coin. It was the smell that I couldn’t forget. It’s an odor that isn’t quite pagan hypocrisy. Like I said. I’m a capitalist and believe in the market as the primary and most important mechanism to set prices. No. The stink I speak of is contextual and derived from an often collective loss of perspective.
I used to roll pennies in hopes of gathering enough cents to purchase a gallon of gas. And that’s no claim on an impoverished past. I’ve suffered for little and I’m grateful to my parents for what comforts they provided. It’s just about perspective. Context. Understanding. And hoping to never forget something my sister said to me in numerous forms.
“That thing cost us a hundred dollars,” she’d share her complaint about some unforeseen family expense. “And that’s a lotta money to us.”
Indeed. That is a lot of money. And for humility sake it I hope it remains as such.