Inventing Hollywood Hardware

FADE IN: Your diarist is filing this dispatch from Los Angeles, where the Oscars are over, and life has returned to what more or less passes for normal in this sleepy little artistic community by the Pacific Ocean. The murderous jealousies, all-consuming vindictiveness and massive localized bouts of depression that normally accompany the run-up to the awards show have now dissipated. And with the departure of the New York celebrity journalists, fashion consultants and the rest of the spotlight technician corps, everyone’s lives out here have been left just a little bit richer-particularly if you belong to the psychiatric branch of the Academy, and were willing to let your patients book something called “a double session” in order to cope with their overwhelming misery at this time of year.

Now, for my fellow New Yorkers who may be somewhat irony-deficient, let me put this in more localized terms: Being in the entertainment business in Los Angeles, during Oscar season, without a picture in consideration, is a little like being in East Hampton, on a Saturday night during benefit season, without a single high-profile invitation. As proof, note carefully the mirrorlike modularity of the following East Coast/West Coast face-saving statements: “We never go out on weekends/Oscar night.” “I was invited to the Ross Bleckner/ Vanity Fair party, but didn’t feel like going this year.” (Please note, equally carefully, that none of this applies to your diarist, who is incredibly well adjusted, and offers this as an uninvolved observer, rather than a participating victim in this kind of social insecurity. Yeah. Sure. Right.)

Pure masochism aside, the purpose for my visit to Los Angeles is twofold: First, I’m being deposed in an intellectual property lawsuit that I’m not allowed to discuss here-save to say that my lawyers have objected to a request that I turn over every piece of e-mail I’ve written over the past five years, along with my computer, all my computer disks, all my files, notes, correspondence, contracts, and “any and all works of art” I’ve created during my career as a writer.

Annoying? Debilitating? You bet. But as someone familiar with the case, who believes it’s going to be dismissed, explained, “The problem is that everyone today thinks they’re Ken Starr. Everything’s a fishing expedition.” But in the meantime, I find myself actually sympathizing with Hillary and the two Bills: Clinton and Gates.

The second reason I’ve come to Los Angeles involves a conversation I had with the producer of the film I was rewriting in February, on the last morning of the job.

“So,” I said, walking into his office, as he was reading my work. “How do you like the new characters? What did you think of the renegade Mossad agent?”

“Interesting,” he replied, picking up a pencil, starting to scratch something out on the page. “But too dangerous. I’ve decided to make him an ex-K.G.B. agent.”

My heart began to sink. “And what about the Hutu warrior who’s wanted for genocide in Somalia?”

More scratching sounds from the pencil. “Interesting,” he sighed, “but I’ve decided that it would be better if he was,” long pause, “an ex-K.G.B. agent.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, feeling the anger rising on my cheeks. “Do you realize that when this film comes out, I’m the one who’s going to get blamed in The New York Times for all these tired, cardboard, bland, clichéd, humorless characters?”

The producer looked up from his furiously scratching pencil and smiled, beatifically. “Yup,” he said. “Film is a collaborative medium.”

So, as I attend meetings and legal proceedings out here-trying to pre-empt the damage I’m worried may be done to my reputation by having 7,238 ex-K.G.B. agents in a single script-allow me to offer a few notes and observations from the silly season in the Los Angeles basin.

Monica. Yes, I went to the Vanity Fair party. It was glamorous, it was glorious, it was glittering. And, up close and personal, Monica is truly larger than life. Or, as my wife put it, Barbara Walters and her cameramen either deserve an Emmy or a subpoena for creative camerawork. In either case, I now realize that Bill’s extracurricular taste in women always remained true to form, with different variations on the same big-haired theme: Where Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers are rooted in a K-Mart in Alabama, Monica Lewinsky is the back room at Loehmann’s in the Bronx.

The Real Story. Forget what you’ve heard about industry backlash against the Weinsteins’ Oscar campaigns, or the resurgence of Mike Ovitz, or the endless speculation about who’s not talking to whom among the partners at Dreamworks.

The real Topic A out here is that the movie business is now in the throes of a terrible recession. After years of putting out too many movies that cost too much to make and market-where the ripple-effect cost of the $20 million star was reflected in everything from “bet the house” ad budgets to $100,000 character actors who were demanding, and getting, $2 million-the business has now entered a serious contraction phase.

There are fewer studio films being made; major companies are ending production deals with hitless directors, stars and producers; development budgets have been slashed. (Disney, for example, is rumored to have cut its $135 million annual development budget by more than 50 percent.) Screenwriters, casting agents and producers are feeling the first pains now; within a year, it’s expected to affect everything from the price of illegal maids in Beverly Hills to real estate in Malibu.

Maybe it’s their own fault. On the other hand, perhaps some of these development executives deserve to be out of work. Case in point: Two days ago I was sitting in a meeting discussing the need for a lead character to “have a greater sense of mission” in life. I suggested a subplot about Chinese

babies-something about smuggling unwanted baby girls out of China. Across the room, a young development executive went blank. Chinese orphans, adoptions and Beijing’s one-child population policies were complete news to him. When his boss began to berate Junior for this astounding gap in his knowledge, he offered the following equally astounding retort: “Hey! I’m sorry. I guess I just wasn’t paying that much attention to anything during the early 90’s.”

The latest buzz word. Please update the following in your show-business lexicon: As the phrase “tent-pole film” (i.e. big summer event-movie that a studio builds its schedule around) was superseded by “high-concept film” (e.g. ” Speed is Die Hard on a bus”) which was, in turn, briefly replaced by “theme-park movie” (see Jurassic Park ), all these phrases have now been succeeded by the description “hardware film.” Or, as a producer enlightened me, using the Socratic form to explain this topic: “It’s real simple. Are we making a chick film here-cancer, kids and tears-or a hardware movie? Your call: Death in a hospital that grosses $32 million-or guns, ammo, and unparalleled destruction that does $850 million worldwide?”

“By the way, smartass,” this same producer remarked, later, when I called to clarify the terminology. “Just tell your readers one thing,” he said, his words bouncing off the walls of his office, over the speakerphone. “The key to any good hardware movie lies in following one simple rule:

“New York City is always destroyed first.”

FADE OUT. Inventing Hollywood Hardware