Screenwriter Dreams of 1987

My first break into Hollywood, came in 1987, when I landed a long-term temp job at Orion Pictures, working for Jack DeCrescenti in distribution. Okay, so it wasn’t exactly in Hollywood because the offices were in New York.

Worse, one could spend every day in those offices, as I did, and never see a single actor, director, prop-person or, well, anything that might foreshadow Orion’s big success, Bull Durham with Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

Like I mentioned, it was a whole floor dedicated to accounting, marketing and distribution. The first of many lessons that went right over my head.

Jack took pity on me and explained that the only person in Orion, who had anything to do with shooting films, was Eric Shontz, who oversaw New York City production, over on 5th Avenue, at Metromedia (the parent company, owned by the billionaire John Kluge). He set up an appointment. When I walked off the elevator, I entered another world. The floors were carpeted. Expensive paintings on the wall. Eerie quiet. I couldn’t believe I was still in midtown Manhattan.

Lesson number two. The closer you get to the really big money, the farther away you get from talk of screenplays.

Once in Eric’s office, I immediately launched into my spiel, waving my arms around, excitedly explaining the quality of my screenplay. Eric graciously listened. Finally, he said, “Max, can I tell you a story?” I said he could, though I believed Orion was losing precious time in getting my screenplay onto the screen.

“You know X who works on Woody Allen films, right?” The name sounded familiar. Eric continued, “he brought me a screenplay and asked me to show it to Bill (Bill Bernstein who ran Orion at the time). I did. You know what Bill asked me?’ What? I said. ‘’What does Woody think?’

Eric leaned forward, “I then held the script out and Bill wouldn’t even touch it.”

I’d like to say I understood Eric’s point at the time. I didn’t. Eric was trying to explain that Hollywood doesn’t produce screenplays because executives believe they’re good. Executives, even if they personally want to see a film made, run the risk of losing their jobs if they push something through that fails. They need to take cover from a current success, like Woody Allen (at the time). If X’s movie flopped, Bill could say ‘how could I know. Woody said it was great!’

The trick in Hollywood is to align oneself with success and maintain an alibi for failure. It’s an artform. Did I leave his office on a mission to connect with the latest star? Of course not.

My second break came when Eric got me interviews for potential PA jobs, with Ezra Swerdlow and G Mac Brown, both of whom were production managers at the time. I think the interviews went well, but tired of waiting a few days for a call, I decided I was just going to move out to Hollywood itself. A few days later, one of them left a message with my mother that they had a job for me (I actually wouldn’t learn this until years later).

In California, I drove to Orion Pictures, in Century City. I had to start over. I interviewed with a few people. Finally, I get a job with Julie Landau who maintained the movie budgets. Like everyone I worked with at Orion, she was a great boss.

Her husband is Jon Landau who would go on to winning an Academy Award for Titanic. In a very short period, Jon treated me to a few bits of cruelty that, painful as they were, opened my eyes to the stakes involved.

At Orion, in a closet near my desk, hundreds of screenplays lay stacked to the ceiling. Orion was about to make Dances with Wolves, which was a joke to many people I met. Kevin Costner was a huge star then, so Orion was making it, fearing they’d lose him if he didn’t. I rode the elevator with him once. He was glum. It was no scene from the TV show Entourage.

How do I distill my Hollywood experience into one paragraph for the purpose of this story? It’s not easy. I’m going to make a claim that might make you fall down in laughter. So please sit. Most people working in Hollywood would love to make your screenplay, if they could. Jack, Eric, Julie, and others, made a real effort for me.

I discovered that Hollywood is not a place of independent creatives struggling to the top, but a tight-money, highly competitive marketplace of loosely-formed groups, what I’d call “Hollywood Families”. A writer, director and producer might become group. A DP with a grip, etc.

Real luck, or success, didn’t start by getting one’s screenplay optioned, as I believed. Instead, it was becoming a part of a working Hollywood family. This is why when you look at any successful actor, writer, director’s history, you’ll often seem them part of a group where most in the group get breaks. Like SNL, or Second City, (or recently Upright Citizens Brigade) etc. History forgets the other groups that struggled for attention at the time.

It’s the reason why Jon Landau would do anything (and overlook everything seedy) to protect his relationships, first with Warren Beatty, then with James Cameron.

If I had got that call in New York, I’m virtually certain I would be working on film-sets today, doing technical work (doubtful my screenplays would have gone anywhere). I also doubt I would have married when I did, if at all.

In California, I eventually met Bill Bernstein. Yet when Marilyn found me a job at small film co-op in NYC, New Day Films, I left all my belongings in California and returned.

I continued to write. I took a class in TV writing. I found challenging and interesting work in data-analysis and computers. Eventually, we got married, had children. I joined the multitude of dreamers with a screenplay in the desk..then a box…then the basement…then a water-logged end in a flooded garage.

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