Hollywood’s Second-Oldest Story: Jon Karp Signs With Rudin, Flees

For the last two weeks, members of the New York publishing and film worlds have put their many heads together to try to solve the dual-industry un-mystery of what happened to Jonathan Karp, the golden-boy Random House senior editor who quit publishing and went Hollywood, but did it the Manhattan way: as head of the New York office of super-producer Scott Rudin.

You know very well what happened. In one month, Mr. Karp was back in the snuggly arms of Bertelsmann.

In one sense, his story is an old one: A New York literary aesthete finds the movies inhospitable, gruff and unsuitable, discovering that his lower-paid gig as a big-shot book editor had more independence and provided more self-esteem than his job in the movie industry (which, since time very memorial, has humiliated, stomped, crushed and pulverized executives transplanted from books, newspapers and magazines). The executive then freaks out and returns home to the cozier, tweedy confines of a big publishing house. Fade

to black.

But even Mr. Karp’s publishing buddies–some of whom had started an office pool to wager how long he would last with the legendary Mr. Rudin, the bearded-bear Goldwyn-Selznick of modern-day producers–never imagined it would only take a month for their friend to run screaming from his West 45th Street office.

Mr. Karp, for his part, was reluctant to clear up the mystery. When reached on the phone at his New York apartment, Mr. Karp–who had the unmistakable tremor in his voice of somebody who had spent his Christmas break as a mine sweeper in Sarajevo–said only, “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

Mr. Rudin was only slightly more forthcoming. He described Mr. Karp as a “nice guy, a smart guy,” and wished him well, but declined to speculate on what led to his former employee’s departure. Mr. Rudin added that with the looming writers’ strike, Jonathan Karp’s state of mind wasn’t the big thing costing him sleep.

“We’re making seven movies for four different movie studios, the aggregate cost of which is probably $350 million,” Mr. Rudin said. “The aggregate investment in Jon Karp was probably $60,000. Tell me where my priorities ought to lie? Jon Karp was a blip on the radar screen to me.”

But elsewhere, the theories are flying about what transpired between Mr Karp and the best-known, most explosive Hollywood don, and how a publishing hot shot’s enviable star turn crashed so quickly into what movie people call “turnaround.”

“Karp probably glamorized the whole deal as being some 40’s throwback, where you had intellectual discussions about story and concept,” said one New York film executive. “When he got in there, Scott was barking orders via the phone and was never in there. And it’s a book mill in that office. Scott wants a Stepin Fetchit, and Karp just realized he wasn’t going to be Irving Thalberg.”

It’s fair to say that Mr. Karp’s vaunted career move was seen by some as suspicious from the start. After 11 years with Random House, Mr. Karp had, by all accounts, a terrific deal. He started at Random House during the tenure of former publisher and president Harold Evans, and did a stint as the assistant to Kate Medina, who edited, among others, John Irving and Alice Walker. When Mr. Evans resigned and Ann Godoff was elevated to president and editor in chief, Mr. Karp reportedly suffered none of the uncertainty usually associated with a shifting leadership. Mr. Karp began editing. For a time, the 36-year-old Mr. Karp–whose floppy brown hair makes him look a bit like John Linnell of the indie band They Might Be Giants–demonstrated his touch with tough guy authors like disgraced judge Sol Wachtler and developer Donald Trump.

Gradually, Mr. Karp became the first stop at Random House for the proposals and manuscripts of high-profile book agents, forming close business relationships with powerhouses like Amanda (Binky) Urban at I.C.M. and developing a clear line of communication with Ms. Godoff, a relationship that allowed him apparent free rein to purchase whatever books he fancied. “He was picky, but if he liked it, he would buy it,” one publishing agent recalled.

Mr. Karp also grew close to his authors. He developed a hands-on relationship with Mario Puzo, editing his last completed book, Omerta ; and when Mr. Puzo was ailing in 1999, Mr. Karp reportedly stayed close by his deathbed. Then, in July of 2000, Ms. Godoff named Mr. Karp publisher of @Random, Random House’s entry into the field of e-book publishing, which quickly acquired works from enraged femi-pundit Elizabeth Wurtzel and the humorist Henry Alford.

But in the meantime, Mr. Karp spent his spare hours on what associates described as his real passion: toiling as a librettist and lyricist for musical theater. Last September, Mr. Karp and his composer-partner, Seth Weinstein, presented a staged reading of I Know What You’re Thinking , a musical they wrote about a U.N. tour guide who discovers he can read minds after getting pelted in the head with a piece of fruit. Mr. Karp invited his publishing-industry colleagues to see the show, which begins with a musical number called “It All Began With the Melons.”

Just a couple of months after Mr. Karp’s promotion at Random House, Eric Steel, who had headed Mr. Rudin’s New York office for three years, announced that he was quitting to write and produce films on his own. Not long after, Mr. Karp reportedly sent a letter to Mr. Rudin, whom he had apparently met three years earlier when Mr. Rudin had optioned David Ignatius’ A Firing Offense , a Pelican Brief -type journalism thriller that Mr. Karp had edited. According to sources, Mr. Karp wrote that he was sick of books, sick of editing and wanted to get into film. Mr. Rudin, apparently impressed by Mr. Karp’s note, invited the Random House editor to meet him at his office, discussed the intricacies of the job and hired Mr. Karp at a salary that has been estimated at somewhere between $120,000 and $175,000. Mr. Karp then announced his resignation, finished his duties at Random House, passed on the books he’d acquired to other editors and sent out a final e-mail to friends, in which he announced that his editing days were finished.

“Although this means you won’t be getting any more free books from me,” the e-mail read, “there now exists the possibility that you will be invited to a glamorous screening with Ben, Matt, Gwyneth or Billy Bob.” One film executive in New York described the e-mail as “indicting and so humiliating and … so fucking embarrassing.” According to sources familiar with the situation, during the long vacation that Mr. Karp took before starting his new job, the e-mail was forwarded to Mr. Rudin, who was apparently not amused by Mr. Karp’s assessment of the glitzy component of his new job.

Before starting his new job, Mr. Karp got blond highlights in his brown hair, which was perceived by many as a way of ditching his old Bennett Cerf life for something a tad more, well, Val Kilmer.

What happened in the month after Mr. Karp started remains largely a mystery–though it’s no mystery that Mr. Karp was almost immediately unsure about his new job. According to one source, the other employees at Scott Rudin Productions guessed that he wouldn’t last two weeks.

Mr. Karp’s job–as glitzy as V.P. of Development may sound–involved more jimmying of manuscripts from the hands of 22-year-old publishing assistants than hanging out on sets drinking gimlets in Julianne Moore’s trailer. Mr. Rudin’s production company has long had the reputation of being more “literary” than most. That doesn’t mean that its projects are necessarily more highbrow, but that they purchase a higher ratio of books to scripts than most production companies. In the past several years, Mr. Rudin has bought Caleb Carr’s The Alienist , Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes , Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, as well as some pulpier stuff, like the as-yet-untitled and as-yet-to-find-a-publisher thriller by Walter Marks. Mr. Karp’s job, like those who came before him, was to ply book editors and Hollywood co-agents, who sell book rights for films, to make sure that Mr. Rudin had a crack at anything that would make a good–or at least profitable–movie. According to one source with knowledge of the situation, a clause in Mr. Karp’s contract gave him a producer credit on any material he brought in.

Mr. Steel, his predecessor, got producer credits for Shaft , Angela’s Ashes and Bringing Out the Dead , but he pointed out that it didn’t happen immediately. “No one comes into the world of producing and becomes a producer overnight,” Mr. Steel said. “It’s an incredibly long learning curve. There’s no way you’re going to be a producer after 90 days. If that’s what he thought, he suffered from really grand delusions.”

Most of those contacted by The Observer said that when it comes to guessing why someone has left Mr. Rudin’s office, it’s a safe bet that Mr. Rudin himself had something to do with it. Mr. Rudin, who has a production deal with Paramount and is considered the most prolific producer in the business (save a few notable exceptions, like Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment) has produced, since 1990, a string of commercial hits– Sister Act , The Firm, The Addams Family, The First Wives Club, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, Ransom and Shaft –while regularly indulging in smaller, more artistic “passion” projects like Marvin’s Room and Wonder Boys.

All the while, Mr. Rudin–whose legend has him sleeping rarely, dieting constantly and dressing year-round in the movie monk-wear of black sweaters and black jeans with white tennis shoes–has acquired a reputation for explosive verve. Apocryphal or not, the canon of lore that surrounds Mr. Rudin involves scenarios of projectiles aimed at assistants who showed up bringing strawberry FrozeFruit rather than lemon, of fire extinguishers unleashed, of loud noises.

One former employee, Jason Eaton, who began in 1994 as one of Mr. Rudin’s assistants and left in 1997 as Mr. Rudin’s director of development, said he wasn’t surprised Mr. Karp bolted so quickly. “He’s just lucky he managed to get out of there so early,” said Mr. Eaton, who now publishes an online humor magazine called Freedonian.com. “What happens with everyone is that you go in there and you’re like, ‘I’ve seen a lot of horror movies and heard a lot of horror stories about Hollywood, therefore I can imagine what Scott will be like.’ But no matter how bad you imagine Scott to be, it’s a thousand times worse. With Scott, it’s not really like you’re dealing with a person; you’re dealing with a force of nature.”

Mr. Eaton said he remembered a jungle of foliage sprouting in Mr. Rudin’s previous office in the Paramount building at 1 Central Park West after the producer instructed assistants to cover his punch and kick holes with potted plants. “Between the enormous potted plants everywhere,” said Mr. Eaton, “and the look of the faces on the interns and the assistants, it was like walking into Vietnam.” In fact, early in his employment, Mr. Eaton secretly wrote an Apocalypse Now satire titled “Get Me Apocalypse … Now!” with Mr. Rudin in the Kurtz role. Mr. Rudin’s discovery of the work hastened Mr. Eaton’s departure.

But others familiar with Mr. Karp’s fleeting tenure said the producer would barely have had a chance to talk with Mr. Karp, let alone to engage him in battle. In order to beat the writers’ strike, Mr. Rudin is currently producing seven films: an Iris Murdoch biopic starring Judi Dench, Ben Stiller’s Zoolander , Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums , a Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck action film called Changing Lanes and three other movies.

Perhaps Mr. Karp had the wrong idea going in. “Jon wanted to learn how to produce movies, and he was basically delegated to be a book tracker,” said one New York film executive who is acquainted with Mr. Karp. “I got the sense that he really thought he was going to be Scott’s right-hand man.” Mr. Karp, according to a source, was eager to go to the sets of Mr. Rudin’s current stable of films, a request that reportedly did not go over well with Mr. Rudin.

Still others theorize that Mr. Karp may have been disheartened by being unable to take part in Mr. Rudin’s sideline of producing Broadway musicals, or perhaps even producing his own. “Rudin may be the only movie producer who really cares about Broadway,” said another of Mr. Karp’s acquaintances, “and if I were Jon, and as a sideline wrote these musicals and that kind of job came up, it would seem to make great sense.” Mr. Karp, one source said, was made aware before he started the job that his work would be directed towards fulfilling Mr. Rudin’s deal with Paramount, not any of his theatrical work.

The key to the mystery of Mr. Karp’s departure may reside with a manuscript for a book called The Labyrinth , by Mark Sullivan. The book, a straightforward non-literary thriller about an undersea-cave rescue, had been submitted to publishers but hadn’t sold. Then it came to the attention of Mr. Rudin through Mark Roybal, a 27-year-old book tracker who has been with Mr. Rudin for four years. Meanwhile, according to sources, Mr. Karp had brought a few of his own books to Mr. Rudin, who promptly turned them down as “very uncommercial.” Mr. Rudin bought The Labyrinth, Mr. Roybal’s baby, apparently without consulting Mr. Karp. On Jan. 26, Variety reported that Mr. Rudin had bought The Labyrinth , noting, “The acquisition is the first book deal Rudin Prods. has struck since former Random House editor Jonathan Karp joined the company as production veep.” Three days later, Variety reported that Mr. Karp had quit his job with Mr. Rudin. While the story referred to the Labyrinth deal, it also noted that Mr. Karp “was not involved in the acquisition.” Mr. Karp had reportedly faxed his resignation to Mr. Rudin, who was away from his office and who afterwards made no effort to dissuade Mr. Karp from leaving.

According to one Scott Rudin Productions insider, Mr. Roybal will soon be given the job that Mr. Karp so hastily vacated. Mr. Roybal referred calls to Mr. Rudin’s office. Though he doesn’t have the publishing-house pedigree or experience with authors that Mr. Karp had, no one seems to think that’s going to be much of a problem.

“Mark started as Scott’s assistant,” said one New York-based film executive. “So he has no creative experience really, but he does have a lot of experience handling Scott, which in the long run probably serves him better.”