One of the best analyses I’ve read about the appointment of Jeff Zucker as the new executive in charge of CNN was written by my good friend Brian Lowry. Lowry, Variety’s longtime TV critic, usually nails it, and he did yesterday as well.
Lowry wrote that in a press conference yesterday, Nov. 29, 2012, “Zucker repeatedly stressed maintaining CNN's journalistic values, but he, too, spoke of ’'broadening that definition of what news is’ and the need to compete with ‘anyone who produces nonfiction programming.’
“The goal, he said, is to respect CNN's tradition, ‘but not always being bound by it.’
“Practically speaking, if a primary objective hinges on improving the network's performance in primetime, that's a perfectly logical strategy. The problem is attempts to rival the appeal of ‘nonfiction programming’ -- a category so broad as to encompass reality shows that have virtually nothing to do with reality -- raise red flags about forays that have triggered criticism in the past, while highlighting the delicate balancing act any effort to ‘fix’ CNN entails.”
And clearly Zucker knows CNN must be careful in choosing how it broadens the definition of that is appropriate to air on its network. Thus, Zucker added during the press conference, “When I say nonfiction programming … I’m not talking about ‘Honey Boo Boo.’ But there is plenty of nonfiction programming that could fit very well under the CNN brand.”
OK, let’s figure out what that should be. I’m a big believer that much success can be derived from the KISS paradigm: Keep it simple, stupid.
So let’s look around the space in which CNN operates. Roger Ailes over at Fox News has created a juggernaut by brilliantly bringing conservative talk radio to TV. MSNBC finally figured out it could create a niche of its own by being the liberal/left alternative to Fox News.
CNN has staked out the “non-partisan” territory in between.
Phil Kent, the chairman and CEO of Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting System -- and the man who has hired Zucker -- was insistent during the press conference that “CNN doesn’t have an identity problem. We’ve had some executional problems. We can be executing more consistently, and not only in prime time.”
OK, so let’s say as a given that CNN’s “identity” will remain one that labels itself “non-partisan.”
I’ve long thought that what CNN should do is bring public radio to TV. Now hold on thar, fellow, you say, the TV equivalent to public radio is PBS.
Actually, it’s not.
How about NPR’s popular weekly comic news quiz program “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” becoming a weekend staple on CNN as well. The show already has a very loyal, upscale audience (here in L.A., it’s the single most popular show on NPR’s Southern California news showcase, KPCC) that would fit quite comfortably with CNN’s demo.
So far the only TV exposure I recall for “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” was an hour-long TV special a year ago on BBC America.
Wanna stretch the envelope? Develop a half-hour nightly version of “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” for CNN. Within weeks people will vaguely remember “Jon Who?” Please, as much as I like Stewart, is he really in the same class as “Wait Wait’s” Peter Sagal and -- dare I even mention his name out loud? -- the legendary “Wait Wait” antics of the great Carl Kasell? I think not, dear friends.
When it comes to interview shows, there are few "Piers" to public radio’s “Fresh Air.” Why isn’t CNN doing anything with the best interviewer in any medium, “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross, who works out of WHYY in Philadelphia. Gross and her entire team -- including stalwarts Dave Davies, David Bianculli and Ken Tucker, just to name a few -- are stellar. Clearly CNN could use a little “Fresh Air.”
Public radio’s “This American Life” with Ira Glass and his crew did some outstanding work for Showtime, but that ended in 2008. Last year Current TV reran that series. Glass has said he and his staff don’t have time to do a regular, weekly TV version of the show. Maybe Zucker can talk him into starting with monthly specials, and then let’s see what happens.
It’s been three years or so since Lou Dobbs left CNN. How about CNN doing a nightly simulcast of public radio’s “Marketplace," with host Kai Ryssdal. The lively, sardonic Ryssdal would quickly become a hit on CNN.
Here's another one: A weekly CNN show called "Car Talk." This might be the easiest to get on-air quickly, since the two virtuoso's who created that mega-hit for NPR, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, stopped doing any new radio versions of the show in October -- though reruns continue to be popular running on public radio stations. I can see CNN's Greg D'Alba and the rest of his ad sales team salivating at the chance to bring a TV version of this show, with its accompanying upscale audience, to the Mercedes Benz's and BMW's of the world to sponsor.
You get the idea.
Zucker has the opportunity to make much of what’s on CNN a lot more compelling. An impressive beginning to that transition that would excite a lot of us would be to make CNN the TV version of the best of what public radio stands for and does best. It would be a great fit to what CNN already represents.
Why You'll Watch Lifetime's 'Liz & Dick' -- Though It's Another Lohan Train Wreck. And the Movie You Really Should Watch Today
Having watched “Liz & Dick” starring Lindsay Lohan (Lifetime, 9 p.m. ET, premiering tonight, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012), I think Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara gets it exactly right when she says what really works against this telefim biopic is its script.
As McNamara writes: “It would be easy to blame Lohan, who plays Elizabeth Taylor, for the film's failure, if only because Lifetime has gone out of its way to market the movie as Lohan's comeback picture and to play up the similarities between the two women. These are, as far as one can tell, limited to them both having been child actresses and afflicted with addiction issues. Alas, Lohan is not at all convincing as Taylor but in her defense it is difficult to imagine why anyone actually thought she would be.”
And, as McNamara says, the film just “careens through the decades-long relationship between Taylor and Burton with more petulance than passion, knocking down gin bottles and rumpling silk sheets for no better reason than that's what it says to do in the script.”
McNamara adds, “Unfortunately Lohan and co-star Grant Bowler [as Richard Burton] have about as much sexual chemistry as Kermit and Miss Piggy and none of that couple's tenderness.”
All of which is true and all of which will not prevent “Liz & Dick” from being a hit in the ratings. Hell, if I hadn’t already seen it, I’d tune in. Unfortunately, it’s just another train wreck in Lohan’s continuing head-shaking journey through life, from which most of us voyeurs cannot avert our eyes.
And the film’s got a tabloid title guaranteed to lure us in: Lindsay Lohan in “Liz & Dick.” What the? Taylor and Burton were show business and celebrity royalty. They were Elizabeth and Richard, not Liz and Dick.
“Liz & Dick’s” screenwriter, Christopher Monger, co-wrote the script for HBO’s 2010 Emmy-winning “Temple Grandin,” which was one of the best biopics in recent years. How could he fall so quickly from that fabulous feature to this felony?
Clearly one mistake was that he needed to concentrate on fewer events in the lives of Taylor and Burton, instead of trying to cram their entire relationship into an hour and a half.
Better your time spent today watching (or DVRing and watching later) a truly seductive and courageous performance by Elizabeth Taylor. Today, in a little while, on TCM at 2:30 p.m. ET, Taylor is in one of her sexiest, most provocative roles: Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
The performance speaks for itself. The courageous part was taking place behind-the-scenes when the movie was being made in 1958. Taylor, 26 (the same age Lohan is today) was two weeks into shooting the film when, tragically, Mike Todd, her third husband, was killed in the crash of a private plane. They had only been married about a year. Taylor was devastated. It's been written that besides Burton, Todd was the one other love of Taylor's life.
Richard Brooks, the director of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” talks about what happened in the book “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute,” edited by George Stevens Jr.
As Brooks recalls in the book:
“Saturday they were going to take [Mike Todd’s] body and Elizabeth to Chicago because they were going to bury him on Sunday. I got a call from Elizabeth’s secretary, who said, “I think you ought to get up here because this girl is hysterical. She’s about to go off the deep end.” So I went up to the house, and … I walked into the bedroom and [Elizabeth] took one look at me and started screaming, “You son of a bitch! I guess you’re here like all the rest of these bastards who have been here all day long! ‘When am I going to go back to work?’ ”
Executives from the studio -- including the producers of the movie -- had gone to see Taylor “with flowers and doleful voices and all that crap, but what they finally got around to asking each time was ‘So, how soon do you think you’ll be back, honey?’ Well, she saw me and figured it was the same deal. I said, ‘Elizabeth, if you don’t want to come back to this movie, don’t come back. It’s a movie -- that’s all it is. If you don’t do it, they’ll start over and find somebody else to do it. If you never want to come back, that’s fine.’ She said, 'Well, I’m not. I’m never coming back. Fuck you and the movie and everybody else.' "
For the next three weeks or so, Brooks filmed around her. Finally, Taylor came to the studio to see Brooks. The director continues, “She arrived in a car with the window shades down, and she said, ‘I think I’d like to come back to work.’ I said, ‘It’s up to you.’ 'I don’t want to see that producer down here. If he comes on, I’m leaving. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to work. Maybe I’ll start and something will happen.’
“The next day she showed up. I think she worked an hour. That day after that, for a couple of hours. By the end of the week she was working four or five hours. Never missed a day and was never late. … So that’s the story. She finished the picture and we finished on time.”
Come January, Scarlett Johansson will play Maggie in a Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
If we’re lucky maybe one day Johannson will appear in a biopic of Taylor that will honor Elizabeth’s celebrity in all its glory, including her acting and her very public private life.
If you are expecting a Comedy Central-esque roast of Eddie Murphy in sister network Spike TV’s tribute to the comedy legend, you would be mistaken.
What you will get in "Eddie Murphy: One Night Only,” airing tonight at 10 p.m. on the cable net, is a serious lifetime achievement type of tribute, laced with laughter from fellow comedians including Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Arsenio Hall, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan.
It's the first-ever televised tribute to the comedy icon, and the show will take you on a journey from Murphy's childhood through his iconic characters on “Saturday Night Live,” like Buckwheat, Gumby, Mr. Robinson and James Brown, which rocketed him to stardom in the early 1980s.
You'll see clips from “Raw,” which remains the highest-grossing stand-up comedy film of all time, and bits from movies including ‘80s hits like "Trading Places," "Coming to America," "Beverly Hills Cop" and "48 Hrs.," as well as more recent hits such as "Shrek" and "Dreamgirls."
The program taped several weeks ago at Beverly Hills’ historic Art Deco Saban Theatre, dressed to look like a swanky nightclub filled to the rafters with revelers.
Here's a taste of the proceedings:
"There's not one comedian that could say he didn't want to be like him,” said Foxx as he took the stage and went on to laud Murphy's famous red leather outfits.
And then, not as svelte as Murphy was and still is, Tracy Morgan appeared in one.
"He's my comic hero, but his real legacy is that he made comedy sexy,” Morgan said, before opening his red leather jacket to reveal what looked like a decidedly unsexy pop beer belly. "I walked in his shoes at ‘SNL’ and so did Chris Rock."
Murphy's brother Charles talked about how as a kid, Eddie would watch TV and say, "When I grow up, I wanna be on that," and that at the age of 8 he was already telling world-class jokes.
Adam Sandler admitted he also wanted to be like Murphy. "30 years later, everyone still wants to be Eddie,” Sandler said.
After a clip from 1982’s “48 Hrs.,” you wanted to hear from Nick Nolte, but he wasn't among the all-male cast of scheduled presenters, which also included Samuel L. Jackson and Russell Brand.
Chris Rock talked about how Murphy took him under his wing when he first to moved to L.A. "About three weeks in, I got my first white girl," he recalled, in another allusion to Murphy's sex appeal.
Spoiler alert. The show’s highlight comes after an “SNL” clip of Murphy spoofing Stevie Wonder singing "My Cherie Amour,” and then when the lights come up, Wonder is at the piano and proceeds to belt out a rousing rendition of the classic hit. The crowd went insane. And Wonder went on to perform “Higher Ground.”
Then it was Jeffrey Katzenberg’s turn to pay tribute to Murphy, particularly his character Donkey in the Shrek films. "I have to follow that?” he said.
"No one plays multiple characters like Eddie," said Arsenio Hall, who also compared parts of their anatomy.
“Eddie Murphy reinvented the action comedy," said director Brett Ratner. “Without him there would be no Chris Tucker, no Chris Rock, no Dave Chapelle."
Martin Lawrence talked about how "Raw" inspired him and Keenan Ivory Wayans reflected on their times at the Improv in New York 30 years ago.
“What you have done is nothing short of remarkable," Tyler Perry said to Murphy. “You blazed a trail -- you are brilliant. All the laughter comes back to you, a million-fold.”
After all the praise, all the memories, all the laughter and the songs, it was finally Murphy's turn. "I don't get touched easily, and one thing struck me during all this. I look like Seal,” he said. "There are people here I haven't seen for years. It's like happy birthday for two hours."
And for Murphy fans, the two hours won't be enough, but it will be very satisfying.
The Most Outrageous Experiment Ever Conducted in the Movie Industry. Do Those Working in the Movies Know the Difference Between John Ford and Henry Ford? Should They?
[Note: It was 30 years ago this month that Film Comment magazine published this article, after I had submitted it to the magazine, unsolicited. It had taken me more than six months to conduct this experiment, which I think remains the most outrageous "test" ever conducted with those who work in the movie industry. Film Comment published this article with the headline "The Great Script Tease." ]
When was it, last night or the night before? You stayed up and watched the late show, so engrossed that not even a dozen commercials discouraged you. And when the movie was over you thought to yourself, “Damn, they don’t make ’em like that any more.”
Well, why don’t they? Would the people in today’s Hollywood recognize a great film if it stared them in the face? Are superb screenplays rejected because agents do not know the difference between John and Henry Ford?
I wanted to find out, so I sent a screenplay around. Not just any screenplay, mind you, but the screenplay of a late-show classic, one that was mentioned in the top ten of all-time favorite American movies by a Los Angeles Times readers poll in 1967 and again in 1978. A film that the members of the American Film Institute, in 1977, voted among the top three American films ever made, one that TV Guide in 1977 polled as the most popular, frequently shown film on television. A movie which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943, as well as Oscars for its writers (Howard Koch, Julius J. Epstein and the late Philip G. Epstein), and its director (Michael Curtiz). Yes, movie buffs, let’s play it again—the one, the only, “Casablanca.”
I sent it to agents, rather than to studios, because none of the major studios will read unsolicited screenplays. To prevent accusations of plagiarism, they return them unopened. But studios and producers do read screenplays from agents. An unknown writer submits the screenplay to an agent, and if he or she decided to represent the writer, the agent submits the script to studios and producers on the writer’s behalf. But how to find an agent?
The Writers Guild of America represents writers in the motion picture, television, and radio industries. For one dollar they will send an aspiring screenwriter a list of agencies that have signed an agreement with the Guild, specifying certain terms between the writer and the agency. (For example, the agreement limits the agent’s commission to ten percent.) There were 217 different agencies on the list. Since the Guild will not recommend any of the agencies, I sent the screenplay, “Casablanca,” to all of them. The results offer a telling look at the movie biz.
NINETY of the agencies would not read the unsolicited script I sent them. Seven of the agencies never responded despite my repeated efforts to contact them. Eighteen of the scripts presumably got lost in the mail.
Eighty-five agencies did read the screenplay, submitted under my favorite pseudonym, Erik Demos. Instead of calling it “Casablanca,” I used the title of the original (unproduced) play it was based on: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” I made only one alteration (in the script): Instead of calling Rick’s sidekick Sam, in the script I named him Dooley, after the actor who played the part, Dooley Wilson.
Thirty-three of the agencies recognized the script, and most reacted playfully. From John Crosby and Associated came this note: “Have some excellent ideas on casting this wonderful script, but most of the actors are dead.” In the same vein, Alan Greene of the Gage Group wrote: “Unfortunately, I’ve seen this picture before: 147 times to be exact.” International Creative Management (ICM) also recognized the script and speculated on my motives: “If you are trying to make a point about how the unrepresented writer has no chance of having his material read by an agency or production company, you have made a mistake in selecting ICM.” The agent, Patrick Faulstich, went on to explain that script readers at ICM “make every effort possible to cover unsolicited scripts and respond to their authors with personal and professional suggestions and comments.”
Incredibly, three agencies, Seiden & Associates, the Larry Sugo Talent Agency, and Lil Cumber Attractions wanted to represent the work, and a fourth, the Irv Schecter Co., had a more involved plan in mind. Though tempted, I politely refused all offers. I phoned each of these agencies, however, as soon as I received a contract or a nibble.
When Seiden & Associates sent me a contract, I phoned the boss, Dave Seiden, who told me, “You’ve got just as good a chance with us representing you as anybody else.” I then spoke to the person who read the script:
ME: It’s called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
SHE: Want to hold on a minute…O.K., well if you’ve received a contract then it has merit.
ME: Do you remember the script?
SHE: Yeah. I’m the one who read it. Hold on a minute…I thought it was very good and, like I said, it has merit. We’ll see what we can do with it.
ME: You don’t have any criticisms of it?
SHE: No, no, no, just if it’s written well…
ME: Have you been reading scripts for a long time?
SHE: Yeah, quite a while. As far as I know, it has merit enough to market it.
ME: Think it would be good for a feature film?
SHE: It sounds like it would be good for TV.
ME: It had a lot of Bogart qualities, don’t you think?
SHE: Well, if you had that in mind, fine. It’s hard for me with that particular story to picture anyone in particular. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.
I told her I’d have to think about signing the contract.
After eight-and-a-half-weeks and one follow up letter, I heard from the second talent agency that wanted to represent the script. The outside of the envelope informed me that it was the Frank Vass Talent Agency doing business as the Larry Sugo Talent Agency. Inside I was shocked to read:
“Dear Mr. Demos, We tried to call you , but your phone is not listed. We like your script and submitted it to a studio.”
I immediately called the agent who signed the letter.
ME: Which studio did you submit it to?
SHE: I really don’t tell.
ME: Don’t you have to have my permission to do that?
SHE: Oh no. You don’t pay us—we are a special kind of agency. You don’t have to pay us anything until we sell something for you. Then there will be a contract with the studio, a lawyer, and you.
ME: You do this without contacting me first?
SHE: Yes. There is a 90-day period when we don’t make any contracts with any writers or talents while we see if the studio likes the material…You have a good story line. You have interesting characters. Rick is the most interesting character in it. And the couple—he is a Czechoslovakian? His name is Laszlo. Are you Hungarian?
SHE: Because Laszlo is a Hungarian name. I am Hungarian. And I know you made Laszlo Czechoslovakian, but there are a lot of Hungarians in Czechoslovakia.
Finally, the agency agreed to return the script to me with a list of the studios contacted, along with any comments the studios might have had. No such list was ever forwarded to me. Instead, a note to me stated simply, “You are not our client. Good luck.”
The third agent who wanted my signature on a contract was Lil Cumber. Her letter also wanted to know: “Who did you have in mind for the roles of Rick, Ilsa, etc.?” I thought that was worth a call.
ME: What exactly did you like about the script?
SHE: I liked the construction, the characterization, and the plot.
ME: You asked me who I had in mind for the roles….Well, Humphrey Bogart…
SHE: I meant somebody available now.
ME: Somebody like Bogart….
SHE: So all you have is a generalization…. I don’t know if your script is sellable, but I think that with the intrigue from the Mideast and the whole mystique of it has potential.
A writer learns to tolerate the interminable wait for a response. For example, over a six-month period I sent the Irv Schecter Co. three follow-up letters and made four follow-up phone calls before I could find out what happened to the script. In the end I was told that Schechter did not feel there was a market at the time for World War II stories. However, the man I spoke with did have some good news. He wanted my permission to send the script to a literary agent in New York to see about the possibilities of turning the script into a novel. Again, I respectfully declined the offer.
EIGHT agencies noticed the similarity of the script to “Casablanca,” but didn’t notice that it was, with the exception of changing Sam’s name to Dooley, exactly “Casablanca.”
For instance, said one: “I don’t know if it was my imagination or not, but I found it somewhat like ‘Casablanca.’ ” I thought the beginning was almost exactly like it.” What about the rest of it? “Well, no, then it departed more.”
Another agent suggested that I “take it a bit away from ‘Casablanca.’ The idea did intrigue me. I just think you need to rework it…you have excessive dialogue at times.”
Furthest out, perhaps, on the spectrum of responses were the shenanigans of Alex Jackinson, an agent located in New York City. Two months after I sent him the script, I received this response in the mail:
“If, by now you made a good agency connection—fine; if not, feel free to write me again. I read your script, and I may well have some suggestions to make.
Any suggestions you might pose about me; clients, experience, etc., etc., are all answered in my book.”
Jackinson enclosed a page of clippings from trade journals detailing the success of his clients, a page of blurbs extolling the virtues of his book on publishing, and an order form ($5.95 plus $.50 for sales tax and mailing charges).
I called Jackinson and told him I was more interested in his comments on the script. He refused to say anything about it on the phone, and instructed me to write him again. After I did he responded,
“Dear Erik Demos:
Yes, I may well have some suggestions to make (about the screenplay) but there are a few pre-conditions. One, you will have to read my book. The one thing for which an agent never has to apologize, is being a good salesman, so to say. So I am pushing my book. But there is a totally different reason why I want you to know me. You will not have to buy a copy—the L.A. Public Library had ordered five copies of my book, and they are still in circulation…Two, I will want to see copies of your correspondence with other agents.”
Another order form for his book was included. In a final correspondence Jackinson wrote, “My suggestion is that, to bridge the gap between ‘talented writer’, which you are now, and ‘professional writer’, which is yet to come, you need professional help. And that will have to be paid for. I could recommend a ‘literary surgeon’ who would help you, but are you ready to accept professional help????”
I decided the Oscar-winning screenplay did not need to go under the knife.
There was a grab bag of agencies that perceived either problems with the script or its suitability for the marketplace. The Memminger Agency told me, “What I didn’t like about the screenplay, as I recall, is that it started out with almost a documentary feel…. I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could’ve been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it. I think other than that it could’ve worked for you.” Lois Lane (honest) of the Sackheim Agency advised, “Put it away and when things like that come back out again—or after you’ve gotten something else sold then you can bring that out and sell it. The writing is excellent, so there’s no problem there. I’m not saying that you’re not a good writer-so-go-sell-shoes.”
The Larry Karlin Agency warned, “Never send a screenplay unsolicited!!!!! I gave you five pages to grab me—didn’t do it.” Said Alan Nicolette, assistant to Ansley Q. Hyman: “Too much dialogue, not enough exposition, the story line was weak, and in general didn’t hold my interest.” I try not to take criticism personally, and I hope Howard Koch and Julius Epstein don’t either.
Charlotte Trejos of the Trejos Literary Agency penned: “Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script. Try for a script that has audience identification and one that can be filmed in the U.S.” The Carol Ferrell Agency had the same misconception: “Interesting script, but because it is done on location we feel it would be a difficult sell.” Just because the script says, “Set in French Morocco,” one needn’t film there. “Casablanca,’’ after all was shot mostly on the Warners lot.
Paul Dekeyser at John La Rocca & Associates had a specific suggestion: “I regret to say that we will not be able to help you with your script. I strongly recommend that you leaf through a book called “Screenplay” by Syd Field, especially the section pertaining to dialogue. This book may be an aid to you in putting a professional polish on your script, which I feel is its strongest need.” I contacted Mr. Field and asked him what he thought about the screenplay of “Casablanca.” Although he never read the screenplay, Field said he’d seen the movie four times. It worked each time, he told me, and he loves the dialogue, too.
I called the Ray Rappa Agency after three unanswered follow-up letters over a period of five months. Observed Rappa, “It’s a good script, but in this business it’s more the deal and what you’ve got cooking for you packagewise. It’s not an easy row to hoe when you take a new script and a new writer.”
Though it was six months before I got any reaction form Barr/Wilder & Associates, David Wilder amplified on Rappa. “It’s just the type of thing you can’t sell. If you’re going to sell a show to the studios they are buying things $2 million and under. They’re buying your horror movies, your action-adventure movies, your “Conans,” your “Sinbad the Sailor”—that type of show. That’s what people are looking at. A new writer today, unless you can come up with an action-adventure type of thing, I mean T & A, I’m talking Tits and Ass type of show, or your horror thing—
“What you’re trying to do is get your foot in the door. And your script, in my opinion—and I’ve been in this business a long time—is not going to get your foot in the door. If I gave a hundred eighty-nine page script of a horror movie—not animal horror, but person horror—they’d read it right away because that’s what they’re looking for. A young writer brought in a script two weeks ago almost like “The Exorcist” and a company bought it and the kid’s directing it. That’s how fast it happened. So I think you want to do the greatest writing you can do, but you should write something you can sell—that people are looking for.”
One year and two months after I sent the script to the Walter P. Sage Talent Agency it was returned with apologies. I called Sage:
ME: You didn’t mention if you read it or not. Did you like it?
SAGE: I’d kind of have to reel back—I’ve read and read and read…
ME: World War Two—took place in French Morocco—
SAGE: What do you want from me?
ME: I was wondering if I could get your comments on it.
SAGE: If I really wanted to chase it, really wanted to do something, hell or high water wouldn’t keep me from it. But do me a favor, do yourself a favor—keep writing, for God’s sake, keep pursuing—don’t be put off. Keep me in mind. Send me something we can both get excited about. You took the trouble to sit down and pour your heart and your time and everything else into your work. Keep writing. Keep pursuing. Because there will come a day, believe me when I say this to you, there will come a day when quality things will be seen. It’s just not the material I care to pursue at this time.
ME: What kind of material excites you?
SAGE: Everybody is swimming north. You swim south…Something that has an escape in it. If someone is going to pay $5-$12 to see a film, they want escape. The biggest success today is “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It’s purely escape—like James Bond. It’s not gory, it’s not morose, it keeps you on the edge of your seat. You completely forget the outside world; you completely forget your troubles. You’re wrapped up in identifying with the people up there on the screen. You’re creating a state of mind in the audience’s mind. That’s what to do.”
ME: You don’t think I accomplished that?
SAGE: I think? You know. Stay away from the comedic. You’re asking me what sells. The day of the gore is over. Everybody thinks if you write something dirty, filthy, and a lot of blood in it, and violent, that you’re gonna make a million dollars. But that day’s over.
WHAT, as they say in Hollywood, was the bottom line of my foray into the world of agents? Seventeen agencies that said they read the script would not say why they rejected it. Many were just plain rude. Two said they read the script, but then decided they had not read it. In all, of the eighty-five agencies that claimed to have read it, forty-one rejected it outright, eight rejected it and thought the script resembled “Casablanca,” three wanted to represent it, and one wanted to turn it into a novel. Only thirty-three agents recognized a rose by another name.
The comments of the agents who did not recognize the script are fairly representative of all those who rejected it and serve as their own indictments. Yet one must remember those thirty-three who did know what they were reading. Since the Writers Guild won’t recommend agents or agencies, it would seem that just recognizing “Casablanca” is as good a recommendation as an aspiring screenwriter can get.
Finally, it is worth asking what does one have to do today to become an agent in Hollywood. In California, where most of the agencies are based, obtaining the necessary credentials is relatively simple. The state requires formal application, fingerprints, a $1,000 surety bond, a $150 office license fee, your intended schedule of fees, and two affidavits of character.
In addition, California’s 1959 law states, “No talent agency shall knowingly permit persons of bad character, prostitutes, gamblers, intoxicated persons, or procurers to frequent, or be employed in, the place of business of the talent agency.”
I presume this is a necessary safeguard, so I am sure our esteemed California legislators will have no objection to my proposed amendment. I would add one more category to the list of miscreants barred from employment in an agency: “those unable to recognize the screenplay of ‘Casablanca.’ ”
Copyright by Chuck Ross.
Postscript: What would happen if someone repeated this experiement today? While "Casablanca" is available on DVD and Blu-ray, it's not shown much on TV anymore, so fewer and fewer people are familiar with it. So my guess is that even fewer agents -- a lot fewer agents -- would recognize it today.
And of those agents who wouldn't recognize it, would they want to take it on to try and get it made? While I think the script of "Casablanca" remains one of the greatest of all time -- and still holds up tremendously (as does the movie made from it) -- I think there is little doubt that it would be tough to get it represented today, let alone made.
Diane Sawyer Going Loopy on Election Night Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg Regarding the Problems at ABC News
The headlines about Diane Sawyer continue to explode over the Internet. A few hours ago the Philadelphia Inquirer posted its story: “Diane Sawyer Goes Election-Night Loopy.”
This follows such headlines as “TV viewers wonder: Was ABC News' Diane Sawyer drunk during Election Night live coverage?” from the New York Daily News, and “Diane Sawyer's loopy election night behavior sparks speculation,” from the Los Angeles Times’ Show Tracker blog.
Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore took notice as well, and wrote a piece about Sawyer’s odd on-air behavior on Tuesday night, Nov. 6, 2012, so the story was picked up by hundreds of news outlets both in the U.S. and internationally.
Furthermore, the tweetosphere went wild spreading the news of Sawyer’s odd behavior. Sample: “Diane Sawyer is declaring the winner to be chardonnay!”
Here’s how reporter Meredith Blake of the L.A. Times’ Show Tracker blog described Sawyer’s behavior: “Throughout the evening’s broadcast, the anchor frequently slurred her speech, stumbling multiple times over President Obama’s name and, at one point, calling him ‘President Barack.’ She also seemed distracted and easily excited, asking off-topic questions about the Obama campaign’s use of exclamation points while leaning heavily on her desk as if for support.”
Here’s one of the many videos that are up on YouTube showing Sawyer on Election Night:One would think that ABC News would want to immediately tell everyone what was up with Sawyer that night. Yet, as Moore wrote in his AP story, “ABC had no comment.”
Sawyer, who seemed back to normal on Wednesday night’s broadcast of “World News Tonight,” did not mention anything about her erratic on-air behavior the night before. Her one tweet that seemed to reference her behavior said: “Read your tweets the good, bad, and the funny. See you on ABCWorldNews."
Also found on YouTube is this video from about 15 years ago (and posted on YouTube in 2010), showing Sawyer preparing to go on-air on ABC’s “Primetime Live.” In the video, you’ll see her sipping some red wine and taking some prescription pills just before the broadcast starts:
Dunno about you, but if I moderated one of our TVWeek events and behaved like Sawyer did on Tuesday night, my bosses here at Crain would haul my ass into their offices faster than ice cream melting in a microwave (to borrow a Dan Ratherism). Not only would I have to explain what was going on to them, I certainly would feel compelled to apologize to everyone who attended the event for my behavior, and give them a detailed explanation as to why I behaved like I did.
But that’s not apparently what happens if you are ABC News and Diane Sawyer.
Unfortunately, it’s part of a pattern that seems to be emerging at ABC News under the direction of ABC News President Ben Sherwood. That pattern is primarily a lack of transparency.
On Aug. 20, 2012, ABC News posted a news story that was widely picked up by news organzations worldwide. The headline of that story was "'Top Gun' Director Tony Scott Had Inoperable Brain Cancer." (I'd link to it, but ABC News took it down.)
The information about Scott having “inoperable brain cancer,” according to that ABC News story -- which carried no byline -- was a “source” close to Scott.
Later, ABC News replaced that story with a second story saying that its first story “was in doubt.”
That second story quotes the assistant Los Angeles coroner saying that Scott’s family told the coroner’s office that they were not aware that Scott had brain cancer.
At the time an ABC News spokesperson released this statement to TVWeek: "ABC News continues to report the most recent facts on ABCNews.com, including our previous reporting and the conflicting statement from the coroner. ABC News is attempting to reach Scott's family to confirm the assistant chief coroner's statement. After speaking with the family or a representative of the family we will update our reporting accordingly. If it comes to light at that time that incorrect information was reported, ABC News will issue a full retraction and apology."
We waited. And waited. Finally two months and two days later, the L.A. County Coroner’s Office released a report on Scott’s death. That same day ABC News posted this: “Please Note: ABC News previously reported that director Tony Scott had inoperable brain cancer and cited it as a possible reason for his suicide. The Los Angeles County coroner's report on Mr. Scott's death listed no evidence of brain cancer. ABC News has retracted that Aug. 20 story and extends a formal apology to Mr. Scott's family and friends.”
I then spoke to someone at ABC News, on background, to see what had transpired over the two months since ABC News had originally said Scott had inoperable brain cancer.
I was told that ABC News had continually tried to contact the Scott family or its representative (no name was given) and ABC News was told that the family either had no comment or would not talk to them.
I was not able to find out who at ABC News talked to the source who said Scott had inoperable brain cancer, or who the source was. Had the source gotten the information wrong, and if so, how? I could not find out.
I was told that ABC News management had investigated what happened and had found the reporting in this instance not up to par.
Later, an ABC spokesperson told me, on the record, “Our number one responsibility is to be accurate. This reporting fell well short of our standards.”
That’s all the spokesperson would say. I was told during my investigation that ABC News waited so long to make its retraction and apology because it was waiting for some confirmation that Scott had no brain cancer, and ABC News didn’t get that confirmation until the coroner’s report came out.
What I still don’t understand is why, when ABC News realized that its reporting on this didn’t meet its standards, it didn’t retract the story right then?
I don’t understand why ABC News won’t tell us who the reporter was who got this wrong.
I don’t understand why ABC News won’t tell us how the reporter got it wrong.
I don’t understand why ABC News didn’t make sure the information the reporter had gotten -- that Scott had inoperable brain cancer -- was bullet-proof correct before they went public with it.
When I asked what procedures ABC News was putting in place to make sure this wouldn’t happen again, I was told no new procedures were needed, since what happened is that the reporting fell short of standards ABC News already has in place.
But earlier ABC News had published some information about the alleged shooter in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater case that turned out to be incorrect because that reporting also didn’t meet ABC News standards.
Asked about both the Aurora and Tony Scott errors recently by The Hollywood Reporter, ABC News President Sherwood answered, “We made some mistakes, we corrected them immediately, we studied them closely and learned from them, and we are committed, as always, to getting it right. When you open up the pages of a major newspaper or a magazine, you inevitably see the correction box where every day, every week, every month, journalists doing their best manage to make mistakes.”
I find that answer fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. ABC News has not been anywhere near as transparent as it needs to be.
As I’ve outlined above, ABC News needs to give detailed explanations about these errors and transgressions. That Sherwood, Sawyer herself and other top management at ABC and Disney apparently are not embarrassed enough by Sawyer’s on-air behavior on election night to think the public deserves some explanation for it is bizarre and unacceptable at the least.
At the worst, the lack of transparency about the Sawyer incident and these other lapses will eventually undermine ABC News of credibility with its viewers, which will likely mean fewer of them will turn to ABC News programming. That would eventually affect the bottom line, and that would likely, finally, draw some serious attention to this lack of transparency at ABC News.
ABC News should act now and not wait that long.#
Forget About the Intersection of Madison Avenue and Vine Street. Power Players Want to Know More About the Junction of Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue -- The Real Reason Obama Did So Well in the Swing States and Won Re-Election
Yes, it's true that the Republicans have problems, in general, with women, Hispanics and black Americans. As many pundits have noted, the evolving demographics of the country don’t bode well for a national party that is so overwhelmingly white.
In Ohio, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was no doubt also hurt by his public opposition, four years ago, to the public financing part of the auto bailout, which was the bailout’s key component.
But if you drill down on President Obama’s re-election victory yesterday, what’s really impressive is how well he did in the swing states in general. The swing states are: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Of those states, he only lost two, both of which he won in 2008: Indiana and North Carolina. And they are the two most Republican-leaning of the swing states.
The reason Obama did so well in the battleground states is that his on-the-ground organization was steeped in micromarketing techniques, many of them used by smart brands in the private sector every day.
A good overview piece on this subject is Allison Brennan's "Microtargeting: How campaigns know you better than you know yourself," which she posted Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, on CNN’s website.
Brennan writes, “Surfing the Web leaves a trail of browser history that allows marketing companies to glean insight into personal interests. Do you read The New York Times or watch Fox News? Do you have children? Do you shop in high-end stores or hunt for bargains on eBay? Do you support the Sierra Club or Club for Growth?
“Political strategy firms like Democratic DSPolitical and Republican CampaignGrid are gathering or buying up that data. They then match it to the publicly available voter rolls that were digitized as a part of a new federal law aimed at efforts to help improve voting procedures after the ballot controversies of the 2000 election.”
The article adds, “What these firms receive is detailed information about how often a potential voter has cast a ballot in addition to data on what they read, where they shop and other consumer behavior tracked for decades off line.
“Jim Walsh of DSPolitical said the company has so far aggregated more than 600 million cookies -- or tags on Internet user IP addresses that track movements online -- and has worked to match them against lists of some 250 million voters in the United States.
"This all is aimed at helping them determine how someone might vote and then reaching them wherever they go online.”
But to really drill down on the subject, and learn why Obama was able to utilize these techniques better than the Romney camp, you should read and study the articles Sasha Issenberg wrote for Slate over this political season.
Issenberg is the author of the book “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.”
In one Slate article he wrote, “[W]hile the groups on the right could conceivably catch up with Obama and his allies in the scope and funding of their ground-level activities, in terms of sophistication they lag too far behind to catch up in 2012.
“In fact, when it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era. No party ever has ever had such a durable structural advantage over the other on polling, making television ads, or fundraising, for example. And the reason may be that the most important developments in how to analyze voter behavior has not emerged from within the political profession.
“ ‘The left has significantly broadened its perspective on political behavior,’ says Adam Schaeffer, who earned graduate degrees in both evolutionary psychology and political behavior before launching a Republican opinion-research firm, Evolving Strategies.‘I’m jealous of them.’ “
Issenberg attributes the advantage the Democrats have in this field to “the mutual discomfort between academia and conservative political professionals, which has limited Republicans’ ability to modernize campaign methods. The biggest technical and conceptual developments these days are coming from the social sciences, whose more practically minded scholars regularly collaborate with candidates and interest groups on the left. As a result, the electioneering right is suffering from what amounts to a lost generation; they have simply failed to keep up with advances in voter targeting and communications since Bush’s re-election. The left, meanwhile, has arrived at crucial insights that have upended the conventional wisdom about how you convert citizens to your cause. Right now, only one team is on the field with the tools to most effectively find potential supporters and win their votes.”
In Issenberg’s articles he goes into arcane detail about the sophistication of the Obama team in both targeting supporters and then getting them out to actually vote.
In one article Issenberg talks about a young woman, Sarah, who was targeted by both the Romney and Obama camps. This past summer she was still living at home, and in what was a total miscalculation, the Romney camp “appears to have concluded Sarah was persuadable, and then assigned her into the issue bucket she fit best. In this case, she got assigned ‘the economy,’ which explains the series of at least 10 mailers she received about coal, welfare, deficits, and spending. ‘All my mail from Romney about coal seems completely irrelevant to me,’ she says.”
The article continues, “In August, Sarah moved out of her parents’ house and into an apartment complex in another Virginia county two hours to the northeast. She registered to vote there, and at the new address started receiving mail from Obama’s campaign for the first time. It was less demographically jarring: One piece dealt with birth control, another with rising education costs. Obama’s analysts clearly now saw her as one of those middle-of-the-roaders who was a good target for persuasion, and also probably concluded they had no other way to reach her besides through the mail: Unlike her parents, she has no landline at her current address, so if they had been trying to reach her by phone, or had planned to, that option was no longer available. (Obama’s campaign has experimented with individual ‘callability’ scores, refining the ability to predict how easy it would be to reach a given voter by phone.) Sarah says she has been planning to vote for Obama all year, and has never revisited that choice, though the campaign’s contact has successfully warded off any ambivalence. 'The mailings I've received have made me more enthusiastic about my choice,' she says. The campaign hadn’t converted a new vote, but it successfully shored up an existing one."
Meanwhile, the story notes, “For its part, the Romney campaign [had] still not given up on persuading Sarah, but appeared to have failed a more basic test of tracking voter behavior. The campaign was still sending her mail at an address where she no longer lives or votes.”
I imagine that in the next four years the Republicans will get much better at understanding and implementing the sophisticated strategies where Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue intersect.
Hurricane Sandy Relief Concert a Winner for Musical Highlights, Comedic Moments -- and Red Cross Fundraising
It's pretty surprising to see two grown men used to being in the spotlight get giddy in the presence of greatness. But when these men are NBC News anchor Brian Williams and “The Daily Show's” Jon Stewart -- two of New Jersey's finest -- and the man they're introducing is arguably the Garden State's most beloved icon, their reaction added even more resonance to the moving finale of Friday night's one-hour televised benefit, "Hurricane Sandy: Coming Together."
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band provided a rousing tribute to the superstorm's victims with a performance of "Land of Hope and Dreams." True fans of the Boss know that despite its title, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” from his 1973 album “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, just wouldn't have been appropriate under the circumstances.
Reminiscent of “The Concert for 9/11” a few days after the terrorist attacks, the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer gets credit for putting together a stellar list of artists to perform on short notice to raise money for the American Red Cross -- which resulted in donations to the tune of $23 million, the organization announced over the weekend.
In contrast to the E Street Band’s full-on electric performance, most of the artists, including Christina Aguilera, Sting, Billy Joel, Mary J Blige and Jon Bon Jovi, performed acoustic or stripped-down versions of their songs.
There were a few light moments, as when Jimmy Fallon sang lead vocals on "Under the Boardwalk" with Joel on piano and Springsteen as a backup singer. Or when Williams joked about growing up as a short Jewish kid in New Jersey. No, wait, that was supposed to be Stewart’s schtick.
Bon Jovi, another favorite son of Jersey, was shown in a taped segment visiting and commiserating with storm victims in his old haunts, before performing a haunting version of “Living on a Prayer.”
Images of the storm’s far-reaching destruction were interspersed throughout the show, broadcast from NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios and aired on NBCUniversal broadcast and cable networks and on HBO, commercial-free.
Now it's ABC's turn today to solicit funds for the Red Cross throughout all of its news programs, from "Good Morning America" to "Nightline." Viewers can visit RedCross.org, call 1-800-HELPNOW or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
Here’s a clip of one of the NBC show’s highlights:
Why Baseball Remains Our Greatest Game, Despite the Low Ratings of the World Series. Lessons From a 104-Year-Old Man. Plus, the Giants' Greatest Fan, Who Once Said, 'There have been only two geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare'
As a Dodgers fan from age 6, I’m a lifelong Giants hater, but I damn near fell in love with them during the playoffs and World Series this year.
The postseason run of the San Francisco Giants, culminating in their 4-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, was exciting, thrilling and electrifyingly goose bump inducing. Watching the 10th inning of the last game of the World Series on my 55-inch hi-def TV, with the rain coming down on a cold, blustery night, reminded me of an image I first saw while watching “The Natural” on the big screen, when a home run sent sparks flying.
Some smart filmmaker can make an awe-inspiring documentary with footage from what the Giants did after the regular season ended: After losing the first two games to the Cincinnati Reds and facing elimination, they won the next three in a row. Then, they were down three games to one versus the St. Louis Cardinals in a best-of-seven series and won the next three in a row. And then came the unexpected four-game sweep of the Tigers.
Watching World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval was an inspiration. Physically he reminded me of pictures of Babe Ruth, and his feats reminded me of Ruth and Roberto Clemente. My favorite player who wasn’t a Dodger was Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates, mainly because I was so impressed that he was able to smack the bejesus out of the ball no matter where it was pitched. Like Clemente, Sandoval’s motto seemed to be “Come on, pitch it to me anywhere, strike zone be damned. “
While this year's World Series was the lowest rated in history (7.6 rating/12 share), let’s not bury baseball yet. Local and regional TV ratings for this past baseball season did fine. And almost 75 million fans attended baseball games this year, the most in the past four years. “Overall, the last nine years are now the nine best-attended seasons in the history of major league baseball, including the four successive record-breaking seasons from 2004-2007,” according to MLB.com.
Besides watching the Giants over the past month, I was reminded about the greatness of baseball with the recent passing of Jacques Barzun a week ago yesterday, on Oct. 25, 2012. Barzun, who was born in Paris but who was brought to the U.S. when he was 13 years old and stayed here the rest of his life, was, among many other talents, a historian and cultural observer and critic.
He died a month and five days shy of his 105th birthday. Just as remarkable, as his obituary in The New York Times said, “He wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book [the 877-page “From Dawn to Decadence”] at the age of 92 -- and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia.”
As a fellow insomniac -- I started writing this entry at 3:38 a.m. this morning -- Barzun’s my new hero. Barzun had many, varied interests, and one of them was baseball. He most famously once wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball …”
That quote is in an essay about baseball that Barzun included in his 1954 book “God’s Country and Mine.” I couldn’t find a version of it online to direct you to, but the essay is included in “Baseball: A Literary Anthology,” edited by Nicholas Dawidoff. I would recommend this anthology, published in 2002 by The Library of America, as a must-read for anyone interested in good writing.
Here, in just three consecutive paragraphs that are part of Barzun’s pitch-perfect, insightful essay, you’ll see how he’s captured the essence of baseball and its connection to life:
“Baseball takes its mystic nine and scatters them wide. A kind of individualism thereby returns, but it is limited -- eternal vigilance is the price of victory. Just because they’re far apart, the outfield can’t dream or play she-loves-me-not with daisies. The infield is like a steel net held in the hands of the catcher. He is the psychologist and historian for the staff -- or else his signals will give the opposition hits. The value of his headpiece is shown by the iron-mongery worn to protect it. The pitcher, on the other hand, is the wayward man of genius, whom others will direct. They will expect nothing of him but virtuosity. He is surrounded no doubt by mere talent, unless one excepts that transplanted acrobat, the shortstop. What a brilliant invention is his role despite its exposure to ludicrous lapses! One man to each base, and then the free lance, the trouble shooter, the movable feast for the eyes, whose motion animates the whole foreground.
“The rules keep pace with this imaginative creation so rich in allusions to real life. How excellent, for instance, that a foul tip muffed by the catcher gives the batter another chance. It is the recognition of Chance that knows no argument. But on the other hand, how wise and just that the third strike must not be dropped. This points to the fact that near the end of any struggle life asks for more than is needed in order to clinch success. A victory has to be won, not snatched. We find also our American innocence in calling ‘World Series’ the annual games between the winners in each big league. The world doesn’t know or care and couldn’t compete if it wanted to, but since it’s us children having fun, why, the world is our stage …
“Once the crack of the bat has sent the ball skimmiting left of second between the infielder’s legs, six men converge or distend their defense to keep the runner from advancing along the prescribed path. The ball is not the center of interest as in those vulgar predatory games like football, basketball and polo. Man running is the force to be contained. His getting to first or second base starts a capitalization dreadful to think of: every hit pushes him on. Bases full and a homer makes four runs, while the defenders, helpless with the magic power of the ball lying over the fence, cry out their anguish and dig up the sod with their spikes.”
Barzun also writes, “Happy the man in the bleachers,” as he praises baseball’s fans. And as I learned in Dawidoff’s indispensable anthology, the Giants never had a bigger fan than actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was larger-than-life herself. Bankhead reportedly once said: “There have been only two geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”
According to an excerpt in Dawidoff’s “Baseball: A Literary Anthology,” in Bankhead’s 1952 autobiography she wrote, “Attending a Giants game with me, say my cronies, is an experience comparable to shooting the Snake River rapids in a canoe. When they lose I taste wormwood. When they win I want to do a tarantella on top of the dugout. A Giants rally brings out the Roman candle in me. The garments of adjoining box-holders start to smolder.”
Bankhead also writes, “I was hysterical for hours after Bobby Thomson belted Ralph Branca for that ninth inning homer in the final game of the Dodger-Giant playoff in ’51.”
Geeze, did she have to bring that up? The first time I saw the footage of that I was hysterical too. Hysterically crying for my poor Dodgers.