I was paying with a credit card. It was a basic business purchase—a thumb drive to hang on my keychain. I’d already bought eight or so before, but they’d either been misplaced, left behind, lost, or remained in my pockets and later discovered at the bottom of the washing machine. I figured this new one would be with me the next time I was away from the office and wanted to back up my words.
“That’s some kinda name,” said the Radio Shack store clerk.
“Excuse me?” I said, not really listening. I was already rethinking my purchase. Sure, the keychain flash drive was functional. But so would was the Spongebob Squarepants drive. It was awkwardly large, cartoon yellow, and maybe wouldn’t be so easily lost.
“Velvet Elvis E-N-T?” squinted the Radio Shack clerk, reading off my credit card.
“Oh that,” I said. “Company card.”
“E-N-T?” asked the clerk. “What’s that stand for?”
“Entertainment,” I answered.
“Velvet Elvis Entertainment,” repeated the clerk. “Is that your company name?”
“Just a name,” I said, preferring to move on with my transaction. I was going ahead with the keychain thumb drive and leaving the Spongebob USB drive behind as merely an amusing idea.
“What’s a Velvet Elvis?”
“Just a name on my letters of incorporation.”
“But the Elvis part? Is that like an Elvis Presley ‘Elvis?’”
“Somethin’ like that,” I said, probably too dismissive. I wasn’t exactly in the mood to explain the origin of the name of my loan-out corporation. I retrieved my card, stuffed the receipt in my wallet, thanked the clerk and headed out into the cold.
So what is a loan-out corporation? Beside it being something just about every successful actor, writer, or director has possession of, it’s pretty much a legal instrument allowing artists to limit liability and/or invest in a government backed 401K retirement plan. Contracts with studios or production companies are not made with a writer as much as they are made with the named corporation that employs the artist. In most cases, it’s a corporation with a workforce of one, where the artist serves as both C.E.O. and sole employee.
Aside from the retirement benefits and tax advantages of being able to write-off office supplies: a new laptop, upgraded software, research, movie tickets and over-priced boxes of Milk Duds, and all other perks from having my own loan-out corporation—the mightiest benefit might be in inventing the name which best suits me. Since few loan-outs are shingles to be hung out to attract business, as artists we clearly like to amuse ourselves and others with our corporate monikers. One of my favorites belongs to writer Scott Frank, who is president and owner of Seymour Movies, Inc. Another is Steve Martin’s company, Where’s My Limo, Inc. Jason Reitman’s in Watch Out for Bears, Inc.
The etymology of artist loan-out corporations can be simple or merely amusing. Others have origins. Like George Clooney’s Smokehouse Productions, allegedly named after the dank, old-school restaurant, The Smokehouse, that resides across the street from the Warner Brothers soundstage where his television show, ER was shot.
So why the hell did I go with Velvet Elvis Entertainment? It could be fun to make this a two-part post and turn this into a cliffhanger. I’m certain some of my most ardent readers would have some excellent theories. But stopping here would be both lazy and cruel. So here’s my explanation to every clerk and movie ticket seller who’s read the name on my credit card and either wondered or asked:
First of all, what is a Velvet Elvis? Well, in some parts of the world, it’s considered art. In others, merely bad kitsch applied by dirty street artists who will do anything for a peso. Nonetheless, there are some street painters who care not for the classic feel of canvas stretched over a frame, but prefer to stroke their brush across a surface of thin black velvet. Some of these prolific artists (usually found in Tijuana) love the medium so much that they often paint the same subject over and over and over and over, never mastering their image thus forcing them to try and try again. Oh, hell. Let’s be frank. There’s no great mastery in these works. Velvet art is a volume business. And to make a living, these artists who specialize in painting the likes of matadors in action, magical unicorns, or dogs playing poker, need to splash paint and sell by the cart-load.
But by far, the most popular (and my most favorite) subject is none other than the iconic king himself, Elvis Presley. He’s usually portrayed in that white, wide-collared jumpsuit, microphone poised as he poignantly sings something moving like, “In the Ghetto,” and nearly always with a tiny teardrop rolling down one rosy cheek.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a Velvet Elvis.
Still, you ask, why would I name something as important as my personal service corporation after something as nonsensical as this?
Well, it’s after a question I once asked myself. A question I choose not to forget. And it goes like this:
If I had the money and means to resurrect one of the greatest painters in human history—be it Picasso or Rembrandt or Van Gogh—and commissioned him to paint me a portrait of Elvis Presley on black, stretched velvet—would the result be a masterwork by a master painter? Worthy to be hung in the greatest museums of the world or sold for mega-millions at Christy’s in New York or London?
Or would it be merely a Velvet Elvis?
Yes, of course, it could or would be both a great piece of art and a Velvet Elvis. A thin line, separating the two.
In my not-so-humble opinion, that same thin line separates a film and a movie. The former represents the level of artistry to which many of us aspire. And the latter being a vehicle for entertaining the slobbering masses.
To me, a movie is essentially a Velvet Elvis. Because no matter how much artistic effort or social relevance or breathtakingly photographed panoramas that we endeavor to stuff into a feature film, we still require an audience willing to pay to see it exhibited. That means somebody is going to have to buy a ticket and, more often than not, they’re going to purchase a soda and a bucket of popcorn as an appetizer.
That’s right. For our good work to matter, we need to convince Mom and Pop Public, or more importantly, their children, to choose to spend their entertainment cash on a film that we may think is art, but they look upon as just another Velvet Elvis.
You don’t think so?
The same weekend I bought that thumb drive, I visited a middle America megaplex. A nice cross section of films were listed on the marquee, from big studio fare to some recent indie faves vying for mentions in the upcoming awards season. Due to the small town nature of the moviegoers, I noticed that just about everybody knew each other. Even the local Sheriff was in the building, taking a turn working the concession counter.
“Hey, Bill,” said one friend to another. “Whatcha seeing?”
“Catching Fire,” answered the man in plaid. “How about you?”
“The Butler,” replied the friend.
“Oh, that’s a good one.”
“Yeah, so’s that Hunger Games thing. Really liked it.”
There it was. Just like the thousands upon thousands of other brief conversations that take place in movie houses and work places from sea to shining sea. The simplest and most common review any film of movie receives. Folks liked it or they didn’t. Got their money’s worth or otherwise. Judging the relevance of the popcorn picture with the same common acumen as the Oscar contender.
A Velvet Elvis? Or a Van Gogh?
Maybe it’s a silly metaphor. But I like it. So much so that I named my loan-out company Velvet Elvis Entertainment as a reminder. And if that’s not enough, amongst my movie posters, book jackets, family photos, and other vanity bits of nonsense that decorate my writer’s lair, I reserve the most precious space for my most important work of art. A portrait of The King of Rock and Roll painted on black velvet. I bought it in Mexico. And I might argue that it’s the best twenty-five bucks I’ve ever spent.
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