A film that I am producing and arranging financing for:
During the years 1970-1974, as the Concert Chairman at my undergraduate school, Hofstra University, I produced a lot of really great shows: The Byrds, Procul Harum, The Allman Brothers Band, Stevie Wonder, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, Hot Tuna, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Grateful Dead, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Foghat, Savoy Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Albert King, J Geils, Alice Cooper to name but a few.
Obviously there are a hundred stories in that naked city, and as my memory serves me, I’ll spin a few. But today I’d like to reminisce about the big daddy of rock n roll himself, Charles Edward Anderson Berry, or as we all know him, Chuck Berry. Chuck’s 86th birthday is coming up in just a few days. We all should know Chuck Berry’s story of how he was born the fourth child in a family of six children in St. Louis MO in 1926. He was arrested and convicted of armed robbery when he was a teenager, got married right out of prison, had a baby and had gigs as a janitor, automobile factory worker and was trained as a beautician and lead a pretty ordinary life.
But then on May 21, 1955 Chuck Berry did something extraordinary, he invented rock n roll. He recorded MAYBELLENE for Chess Records and the rest, as they say, is history.
I booked Chuck in 1973. I believe his fee at the time was $2500. Most contracts for recording artists had what was known as “riders” attached to a standard vanilla agreement. The “riders” were special instructions to the promoter to make sure that the promoter provided certain “amenities” that a performer wanted. For example, Joni Mitchell wanted her dressing room filled with roses, The Grateful Dead however wanted oriental rugs in theirs. Well, Chuck Berry wanted something that was a little strange, even for musicians of that era. Chuck Berry wanted his band to be provided by the promoter. Me.
You see, Chuck traveled by himself. Well, sorta by himself. On this night Chuck was to be playing at the Hofstra Playhouse, a sweet little acoustically perfect theater that sat 1120 people. The Playhouse was the pride and joy of Dr. Miriam Tulin, Hofstra’s very conservative, prissy, middle aged chairperson of the Drahmaaaaahhhh Department. Dr. Tulin HATED me, the long hair hippy that brought the devil’s music into her Shakespearean Globe like palace.
When I read the Chuck Berry “rider”, I knew exactly who to call. My friend Jaime Frazier and his brother Charlie had a great local rock n roll band that would fit the bill perfectly: guitar, piano, drums and bass. I think I paid them $350 for the evening… they were thrilled. To be playing with Chuck Berry, they probably would have paid me.
The show was a sellout ($3 a ticket). Chuck was to hit the stage at 8PM, sharp. The band had done their soundcheck, but still didn’t have the set list… they had no idea what songs they were going to play that night. Lighting, however was set and ready. Everything was go… except no Chuck and no set list.
At about 7:30PM a Cadillac Eldorado pulled in to the parking lot. A thin man got out of his car and opened the trunk. He pulled out two guitar cases and headed towards the entrance. It was Chuck Berry and I was there waiting for him, after all he went on in less than a half an hour.
I reached my hand out to shake his hand but Chuck said ” Where’s the box office?”
I offered to carry his guitars but he said no. We opened the door to the box office and Chuck placed one guitar on the floor and the other one on a long table. He started to open the guitar case on the table and I had no idea what was going on. He turned towards me revealing an empty case and said ” Twenty five hundred dollars, let’s count it, now “.
I then realized that he wanted all of the cash prior to taking the stage and that he wanted to personally count it and stash it in his empty guitar case. Well, counting $2500 in ones took awhile. Finally at about eight minutes to eight, Chuck closed and locked the case, went out to the Caddy and placed it in the trunk. Walking back into the box office, he picked up his “other” guitar and walked around the back of the Playhouse into his dressing room. He took of his coat, grabbed his Gibson ES 335 and stood in the wings, stage left.
Standing off stage, I announced “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN… CHUCK BERRY!”
Jaime Frazier’s band was pumped and ready to go. Chuck Berry sauntered out onto stage and the crowd went wild.
The lights came down and I could hear Jaime yell above the din of the crowd, “HEY MR BERRY, WHAT SONG ARE WE DOING?.
Chuck turned around, gave his big ol’signature smile and with a twinkle in his eyes, just as the lights came on, said:
“A CHUCK BERRY SONG”.
In some of my other posts over the last several years I’ve written about some of my adventures in Rock n Roll. I thought I would take a few untold stories and roll em up into one post.
It was the Spring of 1967, I was 15 years old, my friend Lloyd Hamoy and I went to go see Roger Corman’s THE TRIP in Manhattan. We walked around the city and of course decided to smoke a joint in Central Park. We wandered around until we found a secluded spot near Wollman’s skating rink. We sat at a park bench ready to fire up a big one… Panama Red as they called it back then. But, much to our surprise sitting at the base of a statue were two lovers, kissing. The woman was Asian and the man looked like John Lennon. Lloyd and I smoked our “reefer” but all along we argued about whether or not the fellow kissing the Asian woman was Lennon.
“What about Cynthia?”, Lloyd asked.
“But look at his tooth, it’s chipped just like John’s”, I replied.
For what seemed like hours ( though probably just minutes, after all, we were 15 and loaded), we parried back and forth… Was this a Beatle or not.
Finally, I got up the nerve and Lloyd and I approached the amorous couple.
“Excuse me, but are you John Lennon?”, I mumbled.
“No, I’m not”, the man said with an ever so slight British accent.
“See”, Lloyd said.
“Well, I guess I was wrong”, I replied “Let’s get outta here”.
It was only a short while later that we found out about Yoko.
As the President of One Pass, a video post facility in SF, I needed to travel to NYC every so often, to meet with Dan Rosen, President of Editel/NY, one of our sister companies. In the mid 80′s boutique hotels were all the rage in NYC and the most chi chi at the time was Morgan’s, located at Madison and 37th Street.
Morgan’s was redesigned by Andree Putman and it was dark, very dark. The walls were painted black, the ceilings too. The Hallways were lit by little hi intensity pin spots. The rooms were tiny and expensive. There was a breakfast room on the third floor that served coffee, croissants and bagels. And there were dark bronze elevator doors that opened to a black hole of an elevator, with, again, a pin spot on the ceiling, creating a small pool of light on a black and grey carpet. Your basic NYC black on black mausoleum.
I awoke early, 6AM (3AM PST) and headed to the breakfast room determined to get my money’s worth… a free bagel and a cup of JOE. Bleary eyed, I walked down the pitch black corridor to the elevator and pressed the call button. A few second passed, the elevator dinged and the bronze doors slowly opened.
In the elevator, pinspot lit, standing solo, in full on black drag, complete with sunglasses was Roy Orbison.
“Why, good morning Mr. Orbison ! “, I stammered.
The doors slowly started to close.
Roy didn’t even flinch and said ” Well, it might be good morning for you son, but it’s good night for me”.
And Roy was gone.
In a previous life, I was an audio engineer. I mostly mixed TV sports but every now and again I would be called upon to do shows like HBO specials, The Barbara Walters Show, The Perry Como Show, some concerts etc.
Over the years, I had built a relationship with a fellow named Ed Greene, the leading audio engineer of the 80′s. Ed Greene and Gene Crowe owned a mobile TV 45 foot expand-o truck, which was used for the February 27, 1980 broadcast of the 22nd Grammy Awards show at the Shrine Auditorium in LA. Pierre Cossette was the producer and Marty Pasetta was the director. And yours truly, was an assistant audio shlepper, which at the time paid $125/day for lugging around cables and setting up microphones.
We had a day before to set and rehearse and on the 27th, a few more rehearsals and then we went live over the CBS network to millions of viewers.
Bob Dylan was to perform his hit ” You Gotta Serve Somebody”. The plan was that the band would perform live as opposed to so many of the other performers who would sing to track. Dylan was set to rehearse at about 5 in the afternoon. His roadies brought out the gear and I, under the careful direction of Ed Greene was to set up and place microphones.
There on the stage of the Shrine, as I was placing a Shure SM 56 on Dylan’s Fender Amp, Bob walks over and starts to plug in his Strat.
I’m a HUGE Dylan fan. I named my son Dylan, I’ve seen him 20 times, I taught a course at a major University on Dylan, I have all of his work, I’ve read almost every book ever written about him. I am a Dylan groupie. I had fantasized about meeting him since Highway 61 Revisited.
I gathered myself… scared to death but alive with the thought that my hero, my idol, the Poet Laureate of the 20th Century was just inches away from me.
So, I stood up and looked Dylan straight in the eye and said…
“Sir, I just want to thank you for being the voice and conscience of my generation and for saying the things that we all wish we could have said”.
Dylan pulled his guitar cord out of his Fender, glanced at me from the corner of his eyes and said ” You’re welcome”, and then walked away.
The Rolling Stones
In October of 1981 I was working at One Pass Video as its sound engineer and head of production operations. I was sitting in my office in the China Basin Building when the phone rang. Queenie Taylor of Bill Graham Presents asked if I could put together a crew for a small venue musical event. I asked her who the band was and she said ” No one special”.
We loaded four Ikegami Hl79A cameras, two one inch Sony BHH 500 VTR’s, a small GVG 1200 switcher and a 24 input Yamaha audio console. I threw a crew together and we drove the short distance to the Embarcadero to set up at Bill Graham’s WOLFGANGS (formerly the Old Waldorf).
About 10 of us showed up at 444 Battery Street and loaded the elevator to take the gear up to the second floor venue. It was strange being in a night club early in the day, the smell of rancid beer and cigarette smoke still hung in the air. After several hours of technical set up we were ready for the evening. The small stage had a set of drums, a bass guitar rig, two electric guitar rigs, piano/keyboards and not much more.
When we got back from our dinner, we took our positions, setting audio levels and video. Out of nowhere, the doors flew open and several large dudes walked in and did a security check and swept the premises. I thought to myself… “What the hell?”
Five minutes later, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, Bill Wyman, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger bounded onto the stage! Sound Check… and I’m the audio guy. I’m setting levels like a madman… eq’ing like Rasputin…. and, the Stones launched into “Under My Thumb”. Twenty people in the room, no frills, just us and the Rolling Stones.
For four or so hours Mick pranced, Keith smoked and Charlie was like a frickin’ metronome. They played and played for just this small gathering of 20 people… song after song after song.
Under My Thumb
When the Whip Comes Down
Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)
(The Temptations cover)
Let’s Spend the Night Together
She’s So Cold
Time Is on My Side
Beast of Burden
Waiting on a Friend
Let It Bleed
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Let Me Go
Start Me Up
Honky Tonk Women
All Down the Line
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Street Fighting Man
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
At about 2AM… they stopped.
They left in a Jumpin Jack flash, the entire crew had not known what had hit them. As we were packing up, Queenie Taylor told us that it was a dress rehearsal for tomorrows show at Candlestick, and oh BTW… she gave us all tickets for the show!
It’s been over a year since the Visual Effects Society has issued their hopeful VES 2.0 letter to the industry. Many on the board of the VES have stated that there is action being taken by various subcommittees within the VES and that this is a difficult issue that needs a great deal of research and a strategic plan. I contend that the time to be effective is quickly slipping through our fingers. I believe that given the structure of the VES, its charter as well as its management and its board of directors, make addressing the issues that the Visual Effects industry face, an impossibility.
The VES is an honorary organization whose charter is to further the art and science of Visual Effects. However, both art and science need to be well funded for those disciplines to exist. Over twenty years ago, I tried starting a visual effects trade association called AVEC ( Association of Visual Effects Creators, French for “with”). Unfortunately because of paranoia, the association never really got off the runway. There were two meetings held but all of the major VFX companies of the day (ILM, BOSS, APOGEE, DreamQuest) were so mistrusting of each other, AVEC quickly became SANS ( French for “without”).
Years later, Tom Atkins had started making some noise about starting a new visual effects community effort, the VES. I was at the time apprehensive about this new organization, fearful that it would not have a business component, which I felt then and now, is the critical issue facing any industry, particularly ours. I mean, without a healthy and vigorous business climate, any industry is doomed. Lo and behold, the VES board at the time did not want the VES to be involved with business issues.
The Visual Effects Society (VES) is a non-profit professional, honorary society, dedicated to advancing the arts, sciences, and applications of visual effects and to improving the welfare of its members by providing professional enrichment and education, fostering community, and promoting industry recognition…
I decided there and then that while I love awards shows and honoring great visual effects, I fully understood that visual effects artists and visual effects facilities needed to make money to continue to make great images. Imagery was the heart of our industry but money was the blood. I decided that the VES while well intentioned was misdirected, and so I withdraw my involvement.
At present, and over the last twenty years or so, the Visual Effects industry has been managed poorly. The companies that support the men and women that create the outstanding and outrageous images that propel box office on all tentpole movies have been unduly taken advantage of. Dozens of visual effects companies have gone bankrupt even after creating incredible value to producers, directors and motion picture studios. Profit margins for visual effects companies have been mostly non-existant even while box office returns on these effects laden films have soared.
Recently Peter Berg (Battleship) has publicly stated that the business to be in is the visual effects business as the lions share of tentpole films budgets goes towards creating visual effects. In the past, I’ve had lots of conversations with directors that feel exactly as Mr. Berg does. It’s hard for a Director or a Producer to understand that even though the visual effects component of a film is by far the largest line item in the budget, that given the cost structure as well as the deal structure of visual effects, there is rarely any money left to fall to the bottom line. I used to get in conversations with Mr. Cameron who constantly challenged the pricing structure of DD. Oftentimes he would be stymied that DD’s fee was far in excess of his fees… and he was the Director, the Producer, the writer, the editor and the cinematographer! Try as I may, he seemed to not understand that the costs against DD’s fees were oftentimes 90-110% of the actual fee. And while I am sure that Jim had expenses as well, they were far less than those of an effects company. Bottom line, Jim could reduce his fee by 50% and still make a profit and still have a back end upside as well. If DD had cut its fees by 50%, we would have easily gone out of business half way through production.
The issues facing the industry are complex and lengthy. Visual Effects Workers face growing problems around benefits, overtime pay, relocation and workload to name but a few. Visual Effects Facilities, given their inability to maintain reasonable profit margins are scrambling to do what they can to stay in business. Those efforts include opening up facilities in low cost markets, chasing the tax incentive and subsidies offered by various governments and cutting labor costs wherever they legally and at times, illegally can. Much of this desperate maneuvering by the VFX facilities have further exacerbated issues facing VFX workers. Yet 18 of the top 20 box office mega hits are laden with VFX. Something here seems unfair and in need of attention.
Given various governments willingness to sponsor the VFX industry through subsidies, the relatively low cost of entry for new VFX companies and the Hollywood Motion Picture Studios pressure to lower the cost of below the line production, the globalization of VFX has truly taken hold.
With globalization in full swing, the industry seems to have been divided into 2 types of skill sets. The super high end character animation and VFX continue to be produced by facilities in English speaking countries ( US, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada). These are the effects that drive the marketing of the current tent pole films. It seems that the major motion picture studio awards these large effects contracts to the likes of ILM, SPI, D Neg, Digital Domain, R&H, WETA, MPC and The Mill. Unfortunately, because of the fear of having to cover the massive overhead that these studios carry, these VFX studios are scarred to death by upsetting the six or so only clients they have. These large VFX houses, given the ongoing cost pressure by the studios, are constantly looking for ways to lower their costs. Each large VFX house is in a competitive bidding situation and the studio/clients take advantage of cross bidding between them. Each VFX company lowering their price, even though they don’t really know what it will cost to produce the effects asked for. This practice, along with the fear of pissing off a major director or one of the major studios generally drives the VFX studio to lose money on their work.
Then there is the other tier of work, the less glamorous work like roto, match moves, compositing, animation effects and the like that seem to be awarded to the lowest bidders. At present, to compete in this world the work needs to be produced by low cost labor. Today, much of this work is moving to third world countries or to government subsidized efforts.
All of the above is the result of the motion picture studios efforts, and understandably so, to reduce costs.
Most of us are aware of the direction our industry is moving. And because it continues to get worse, there is, understandably, discussion about how this might turn around. The VES…. well, let them continue doing what they do, though they’ve shown that they cannot be effective regarding a turnaround. Lately there has been a great deal of conversation around Unions and organizing the VFX labor pool. The reception of a Union however seems to be lukewarm. The Union organization process is daunting and from my point of view, it seems that it will only exacerbate the downward spiral of the industry.
A VFX Union under the auspices of either the IATSE or the IBEW, by their very nature would, even if very successful, only address workers in the US. The Union would have to get enough cards signed showing interest from workers in individual companies. In the case of VFX, that would be a gargantuan effort if even possible. Assuming employees of a given company decided to vote yes on being represented by a Union, what would that do?
Well, the Union would then negotiate a contract with that company governing the ways in which that specific company would compensate its employees. Sounds great, but… having run both Union and non Union companies, I can safely say that a Union shop is more expensive to run than a non Union one. So, the additional costs of running a Union shop will be borne by whom? Remember, the motion picture studio, the client, is constantly applying pressure to LOWER costs. Remember, the Visual Effects Facility has little wiggle room as they have no margins. And finally, international companies without Union contracts, subsidized by their governments or located in countries with very inexpensive labor pools will offer motion picture studios even more attractive alternatives.
The next argument I hear is always an interesting one. Great artistry always wins, China/India doesn’t have the skilled artisans, we do things better and more economically. Well, yes….. for now. It’s only a matter of time before those statements no longer hold water. Don’t believe your own hype. Talent has no borders. Creativity is not an American birthright. The world is becoming smaller, cultures are blending, technology democratizes art.
Is there a solution? If the VES has been unsuccessful and Unions make matters worse, is there any hope?
One of the key issues is to understand that the VFX industry is a global one. While today’s concerns might be varied depending upon one’s geographical location, we must recognize that any solution needs to be a global solution. I believe the core issue, that influences all other issues, is that VFX facilities are not paid appropriately. If there were indeed profit margins, many of the issues such as benefits, work week, residuals, work environment and relocation would be fairly addressed. Additionally, contracts, payment schedules, control of the whims of directors and producers, change orders, turn around time need to be collectively agreed upon by both clients and vendors alike. And finally, the issues regarding tax incentives and subsidies need to be brought to light and the governments that support those subsidies need to be educated and lobbied to understand the long term effect those programs have on the industry as a whole and their particular segment within their borders.
The first step in executing the above is the formation of an International Trade Association. And so here we are again, full cycle yet 20 plus years later. Let’s hope that the powers that be are less paranoid today than back in the 80′s. The time has come to organize.
Los Angeles, the city of angels.
A city built in the middle of a desert. A city built on dreams. A city built on great storytelling. So much has been said about Los Angeles, all one need do is watch Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE and one starts to understand.
I first moved to LA in 1993 to start Digital Domain. I dreaded the move, having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for for almost two decades. San Franciscans, especially those of us in media, hated LA. Moving to LA was considered to be the great cop out. The city by the bay had a long standing issue with its big sister 400 miles to the south. The Giant/Dodger rivalry was just the tip of the iceberg. San Francisco had long been the financial capital as well as the most sophisticated city in California, or so we thought. San Francisco had a history, albeit only one that spanned about 150 years. LA seemed like its history started when Hollywood did. San Francisco had a very diverse population, not just in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of one’s vocation. The Bay Area was not a company town. One could go to a party and meet people that were employed in various fields. Los Angeles on the other hand seemed to be very segregated. There were folks that were in the “biz”, folks that wanted to be in the “biz” and the other fifty. San Franciscans always put LA down. Angelinos thought San Francisco quaint.
It took me awhile to get comfortable with names like Cahuenga or Tijunga, or that when driving on a freeway, when I used my turn signal to indicate that I wanted to change lanes, all the other cars would speed up, ensuring that I would stay in my lane, and miss my exit for Port Hueneme (?). I was, and to an extent, still am confused by Freeways that have names instead of numbers. Sometimes the freeways have the same names but different numbers and sometimes the same freeway will go in all directions, north, west, east and south. WTF!!!!
But I first realized just how strange LA was when I went to my first LA movie premiere party. TRUE LIES premiered on July 15, 1994. The screening was at Mann’s Village in Westwood but it was the extravagant party afterwards that made me uncomfortable. I arrived at the location with my then wife, and was treated as the nobody that I was. I walked around the party watching all the “beautiful people” air kissing, feeling very out of place. After about an hour of this, I decided it was time to leave. As we were walking out, someone from the press saw me and tried to get my attention. Once there were cameras flashing at me, a crowd gathered. Someone mentioned I was Cameron’s partner and then I was surrounded. Being Jim’s partner never felt so good… really. One second, I was invisible, then one second later having had some connection with a famous director, I was “someone”.
Years later, after my divorce, having dated a few “wanna be” or more to the point “never was” actresses, I really got it. One night, my date said to me that she had been out the other night at an industry event and had met the writer of CRASH. I got pretty excited because CRASH had blown me away and I had quickly become a fan of the writer/director.
“Wow, you got to meet Paul Haggis, what was he like?”, I said.
” No, I met Jim Franklin, the writer”, she protested.
“No, Lucy, the writer’s name is not Jim”, I said.
“He showed me his card… he was the writer of CRASH”, she continued.
Los Angeles, the city of lies.
I wondered, is this the way it works in this town. Fake it till you make it.
When I started DD, I needed to hire a handful of senior people that would help me build this new company. DD needed technologists, producers, visual effects supervisors, artists, finance people, lawyers , human resources and a plethora of others that would allow us to scale up to become one of the largest studios of its kind in the world. Many of these folks I had known over the years and some of them would come highly recommended from folks I had known over the years but a few would come to our attention from folks that we didn’t know.
One fellow, (who will remain nameless, though I’ll call him Richie) , came recommended from folks that I didn’t know. I met him and his wife and while he was charming, well connected and very senior, it was his wife that won me over. She seemed so down to earth. I offered him the position and I did so never having checked any references. He had been in the business for a very long time and seemed to know everyone. Some said he had the greatest rolodex ever. Unfortunately he did not live in LA and so when we hired him, we had to offer him temporary housing for a short while, until he relocated to the LA area.
I guess Richie had been used to the “high life” in his previous positions because he demanded to be put up in a very toney Santa Monica hotel. I assumed that he would stay at the hotel for a week or so until he found an available rental. Richie stayed for a long time. We later found out that he had cut a deal with the management at the hotel that after DD had paid its bill, the extra amount that the hotel billed found its way into Richie’s pocket. Richie was a piece of work, he only traveled in style…. town cars, business class, five star hotels, rooms with a view. Richie was wild. Richie didn’t know much about technology, filmmaking or for that matter, much about anything. Though Richie seemed to have “secrets” and knowledge of certain indiscretions about powerful people in the biz. Richie would accompany me on all the speeches I would give. Richie had the uncanny ability to open doors. Richie was tan, well dressed and glib. Richie spent company money like we were, well, rich, which we weren’t. This went on until we discovered that Richie was doing certain things that didn’t fit well within our code of ethics, and so, Richie was fired.
Well, that didn’t stop him. After all, this is LA. This fellow has gone on to several high profile gigs, now gives speeches himself (though he has borrowed a bunch of his rap from others) and has, according to some sources, said that he personally started Digital Domain.
That all being said, I guess I too have succombed to the LA syndrome as well. In the late 1990′s, for some strange reason ( maybe because of Rich), I was considered to be a leading expert on technology. Digital was a catchword that appeared everywhere. I was actually voted to be one of the top 100 most influential persons in the digital world in 1998. Hmmm, don’t believe what you read.
It is because of that lofty position that I received an invite to write an article for Qwest Communications annual report. Mark Dowley, a senior executive at McCann Erikson asked me to write something about the digital age for Phil Anschutz, at the time, Chairman of Qwest Communications. He made me an offer that I found difficult to refuse. In return for said article, I would be invited to the 2001 PGA Pro Am event, The International at Castle Pines Country Club in Colorado. I was, at the time, an aspiring golfer. I fell in love with the game after reading my friend’s book, “Golf In The Kingdom”. I was, and still am, a terrible golfer, though when Dowley asked me what my handicap was, I thought if I told him the truth ( a 29), I would not be invited. I lied and told him I was a 14. I don’t remember what I wrote but I do remember the golf.
I flew to Denver where a car was waiting to whisk me off to Castle Pines. I checked into the lodge and was told that I would need to be downstairs bright and early, 6AM. I don’t think I slept that night, I was so excited by the thought of playing golf on this course in this event. Six AM came quickly. I put on my golf attire and headed to the lobby. I got on the bus with a lot of white middle aged guys and we drove over to Castle Pines. It was pristine. I checked in and found out that my pro was to be Mark O’Meara. We were to play best ball, that is the best shot of the foursome would be played and the other three in the foursome would drop their ball at the spot where the “best ball” lied. Then each of us would hit again, and once again, the “best ball” would be the next drop, and so on.
At check in, each amateur received a goody bag which included a great putter and a pair of Nike golf shoes. We also met our caddy. My caddy was named Steve. Steve was about 30, stood about 6 feet tall and most probably had a single digit handicap. Steve wore a white jump suit and emblazoned on his back was “ROSS”. Wow.
We headed to the driving range. There were press and spectators everywhere. I grabbed a 7 iron and started hitting perfect 155 yard draws. I hit my nine iron like a champ. As I reached for my driver, a loud claxon sounded.
Steve said ” Okay Mr. Ross, we tee off on the 18th, it’s a shotgun round. Do you have a few sleeves of golfballs?”
“No, I assumed that the tournament provided balls”, I said.
“Well, no sir, they don’t. Why don’t you head over to the Pro Shop and buy a few sleeves, this course eats golfballs and with you as a 14… I’d buy at least two”, Steve answered. ”I’ll carry your sticks to the 18th tee… I’ll meet you up there”.
I headed to the Pro Shop. There was a line at the register. Earlier that day I was given a little gold lapel pin that indicated I was a “player”. Little did they know. After what seemed an eternity, I finally flashed my pin and moved to the front of the line. I paid for the balls and headed up the cart path of the 18th fairway. I heard the PA announce the first foursome.
“On the tee from Jupiter Florida, Ernie Els”, the PA blared.
I started to run. I zig zagged between the throngs, stumbling on occasion. I reached the 18th tee completely out of breath and tried to make my way to the tee box. A security guard stopped me, wondering who this madman was. I flashed my pin. He still didn’t believe me, but Steve spotted me and waved me in. The security dude relented.
“On the tee from Malibu California, Scott Ross”, the PA bellowed.
Steve handed me my driver. I stepped up to the tee box, which was surrounded by bleachers filled with about 100 spectators. I teed up my ball, driver in hand and looked down the 18th fairway, which was lined by even more spectators. I addressed the ball. I waggled my driver, slightly touching the ball. It fell off the tee. I teed up again. I waggled again. I touched the ball again, watching it fall off the tee. Again.
I could hear the gasps from the crowd. The laughter from some. I teed it up one more time. No waggle this time, I hit the ball and it took off. A duck hook directly into the crowd. Thank god I didn’t hurt anyone. People starting yelling… “Way to go Ross!”, “Be the man, Ross” ….
I watched the other three tee off. O’Meara hit it 325 yards in the center of the fairway. Clearly we weren’t going to play my ball. I left my ball where it landed and headed down the 18th fairway, head hanging. Steve caught up to me. I handed him my driver, he handed me a new ball.
“Mr. Ross, don’t worry, it happens to all of us, you’re a 14 handicap, you’ll do better as you calm…” Steve said.
“Steve, I’m a 14 handicap in LA, in Colorado, I’m a 29″, I said.
I’m not sure Steve understood, after all, he was from Ft. Collins.
And I guess, now…. I was from LA.
Realizing that US studio financing was not in CRANES immediate future, I started pursuing international financing and distribution. I assumed that Japanese studios and distribution entities would be the best place to start.
Over the last several years, I had come to know a few international film sales agents. Kathy Morgan had been in the foreign sales game for a number of years. I liked Kathy and more importantly she seemed to like the films that I and my team were developing at DD. Kathy put me in touch with Penny Karlin, another veteran foreign salesperson that was representing Shochiku Company Ltd. , a famous Japanese movie studio and production company. Penny and Kathy graciously ushered me thru the corporate hierarchy of Shochiku, finally putting me in touch with their most senior executive responsible for foreign acquisitions. Shochiku “seemed” to be interested in CRANES. I assumed they would be as Hollywood films based upon a Japanese theme always did well in Japan. THE LAST SAMURAI grossed $111 million in the US and $119 million in Japan.
On yet another trip to Japan, and yet another 9 course formal dinner, I sat with Shochiku’s top brass and tried to negotiate an agreement for financing and distribution of A THOUSAND CRANES. Negotiations with Japanese is an art unto itself. First there is the difficulty regarding language but real complications arise regarding culture. Japanese eschew legal agreements, take forever in their decision making process, need to get to truly “know” you and build meaningful relationships before a deal can be struck. Additionally, as I’ve stated before, the Japanese word for YES is “Hai” and the word for NO is “Hai” though said whilst sucking air between ones teeth.
A ‘deal’ was struck, and a press release was announced:
Visual effects production studio Digital Domain has entered an international co-production deal with Shochiku, one of Japan’s largest and oldest distribution, production and exhibition companies.
The companies are partnering on the epic love story “A Thousand Cranes,” with Shochiku making an equity investment of nearly $25 million in the film and picking up the rights for Japan.
The film tells the story of a taboo love affair between a young Japanese translator and an American spy amid the backdrop of the atomic blast in Hiroshima.
“Cranes,” developed by Digital Domain CEO Scott Ross has been Ross’ passion for several years…
Twenty five million dollars down and $125 million to go.
Unfortunately, a very short time after the above press went out, Shochiku announced serious financial woes and much of the senior management of Shochiku exited . As a result, the new management backed away from the deal.
Covering my bases while in Tokyo, I visited a very wealthy individual that was the owner of Japan’s biggest cable TV provider “WOWOW”. This gentlemen was in fact wowed by CRANES and pledged that he and his company would cover the entire budget of $150 million if we met one condition. I braced myself, and waited for the translator to interpret his only caveat. It seemed that if I was able to procure the directorial services of Steven Spielberg, then and only then, would he deposit $150MM into an escrow account for the production of the film. I tried, in vain, to explain that if Spielberg had signed on to CRANES, we wouldn’t need his money. We took the perfunctory photo, the one where I shake his hand and smile, and then I bowed deeply and said “Sayonara”.
I guess by now, you, the reader can tell that I am (was) unflappable in my pursuit of getting this project underway. CRANES had become my passion. I was doggedly determined to bring CRANES to the big screen. It had become my life’s work and in many ways defined the rest of my life.
I continued pursuing financing alternatives in Japan. Fuji TV, Toho, SEGA, Ninetendo were all approached, and they all said “Hai” through clenched teeth. I finally started to realize, through insightful conversations with Japanese friends, that the Japanese had not come to terms with losing WWII, let alone with the Atomic Bomb and Hiroshima/Nagasaki. As opposed to Germany, WWII was, in Japan, rarely mentioned at all. Japan, in many ways, was terribly embarrassed by the only war they had ever lost. And in some ways, their world wide economic dominance became their revenge.
Back in New York City, Jeremy Leven and his two “assistants” were supposedly busy working on a rewrite. As I had mentioned, DD was funding an office and two employees under Leven’s direct supervision. I had chosen Leven not only because of his prior work but also because he, unlike some famous writers, actually wrote the scripts they were hired to write. Now, I know a few of you just said “WTF ?”… but there are writers that employ a staff of junior writers that write screenplays that have “oversight” by their famous screenwriter boss.
I was quite excited to be working with Leven and was so looking forward to his new “take” on a screenplay that, to date, had four other writers already ( not including me!). I had become close with one of Leven’s assistants as I had hired her directly. I would check in with her almost daily while she was in Leven’s NY office. After a few months had passed and I wasn’t receiving any pages from Leven, I started to get worried. Speaking to Leven’s assistants, I started to get disturbing reports that Leven had other projects that he was working on as well. This was not my understanding of how things were to work. Eventually, I let Leven go. It upset Jeremy and he threatened legal action. At this point, I had enough. I never used anything of Leven’s yet he said he was going to go to the Writers Guild and tie CRANES up with chain of title issues.
After all these years, and the incredible efforts by all involved, I had decided to shelve CRANES. It broke my heart to do so, but for the time being, I was done. Finding funding for a story where an American atomic bomb drops on a mostly civilian population whilst George W Bush was sitting in the White House and two of the largest film studios were controlled by ultra conservatives seemed impossible. On the other hand, maybe the script sucked, though I only got positive reactions from all those that had read it.
I had spent eight years of my life and almost $1.5 million of Tsuzuki’s cash on pursuing a dream, producing the definitive peace film. It had been over 60 years since August 6th,1945 and in today’s zeitgeist there are now nine countries (excluding Iran) that possess nuclear weapons. And the weapons of today are a thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.
And I still fold a crane every year.
When I sold DD back in 2006, the new owners, Wyndcrest Holdings headed up by DD’s new CEO John Textor was unwilling to let A THOUSAND CRANES revert to me. To this day, it sits in a file folder somewhere within the halls of Digital Domain, collecting dust. Maybe, one day, DD will either produce this important film or return it to me. I’d fold a thousand cranes if that dream became a reality.
The realization that the only way to get a $150,000,000 epic, historical love story movie made was to attach one of a handful of directors or actors that the studio, even though they would rather not make the film, had to carefully consider making, lest they piss off a serious revenue generator. I saw that first hand when Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe wanted to remake the 1997 Spanish film ABRE LOS OJOS (OPEN YOUR EYES)… or as we know it, VANILLA SKY.
Back then the directors that could get a movie made was comprised of James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, Roland Emmerich, David Fincher, Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson. At least, that was my take. I spoke to most of them, and a few more.
Several directors didn’t feel “right” for the film ( how pompous and arrogant can a VFX nerd get?), so I didn’t pursue them. George Lucas and I were not really on good terms, considering all that happened back at LucasFilm, so I didn’t approach him. I admired Fincher a great deal and since we had known each other for twenty years or so, I personally gave him the script to read. Not sure if he was being nice … ( he generally isn’t) but he said he liked it, yet as he said, it seemed “really really expensive”. And then there was Cameron. At the time, Jim and I were still partners, and while we had “disagreed” about many things, I talked to him about the project at lunch one day at Chaya Venice. He was talking about doing smaller art films in the wake of TITANIC’s incredible success. Something about a fellow with multiple personality disorders. I, of course, was really interested in Jim’s take on my Hiroshima bomb movie. I mean, it had all the elements for a Cameron film. A strong female lead, a repentent and reluctant male hero, a message film about world peace. A shitload of visual effects. Perfect. Right?
Cameron wasn’t biting… too bad, he would have made a great CRANES. Unfortunately Jim and I had a major public falling out. I had to stand up for what I believed was right and unfortunately Jim didn’t see it my way. If only one could turn back the hands of time, I would have handled it so very differently.
A few years after that lunch, I had noticed that Jim had hired some writers to do a “take” on something about Hiroshima and the bomb. Something about the grandkids of Japanese survivors wanting revenge on the USA and getting their hands on a Nuke. Then a little later there was the news that Cameron had optioned a book called “The Last Train From Hiroshima” written by Charles Pelligrino, a frequent collaborator of Jim’s. Recently the book has been pulled by the publishers as there where doubts about the authenticity of this “true” story.
I then had a crazy idea. Who was the director that I, given my druthers, would die to have direct CRANES?
Milos Foreman, while not a guaranteed green light director, would be able to attract world class talent that might get the film financed. Forman was old school. He had the same manager/agent for what seemed like an eternity. I must have spoken to this rather elderly New York gentlemen with a thick accent ( I can’t recall his name) for a year or more. And every time we spoke, he assured me that Milos was “very interested, but very busy”. This conversation became a monthly regimen. I would make the call, he would take the call, he would put me off. It took me awhile to understand that people in the movie business rarely say “No”. They usually say how much they like something, but, that it’s not right for them at this time. The Japanese have a very similar quality. They Japanese word for yes is “Hai”, the word for no is “Hai” (said while sucking air in between their teeth).
Having run through a directors who’s who, I turned my attentions to actors that could get a movie made. CRANES is a film that is limited in attracting international stars as most of the film takes place in Japan. In fact, most of the actors are Japanese. If you hadn’t noticed, there aren’t many major Japanese movie stars that are big box office draws. Maybe that’s why MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA starred Chinese actresses! The only leading role that would attract a major movie star would be the role of Nic, our male protagonist. Nic, is Russian by birth, though he grew up in the U.S.. Nic is supposed to be around 33 years old. When I started on this journey, back in 1998, there were a handful of actors that could play the role. There were even fewer that could play the role and qualify as a movie star that would get the movie made. In fact, there was only one that really fit the bill.
Getting the attention of a movie star is a lot more difficult than getting the attention of a major Hollywood director, at least for me. Going the typical route of contacting their agent, is, for the most part, a non starter. Agents make their money by commission. Agents are mostly interested in the highest possible price they can negotiate for their client. Agents don’t want to spin their wheels, Agents want a sure thing, especially for their highest grossing client. Agents of big stars will only talk to Producers that are well financed and famous. Agents have assistants that guard them with a vengeance. ”… and he would know you because?” “And he is expecting your call?” “I’m sorry but, he can’t speak to you now… or ever!”
I had heard through some friends, supposedly in the know, that Brad Pitt had a psychic. And that he consulted with this Psychic on all decisions regarding projects that he might get involved with. I must say, that I’m a New Yorker and most definitely not of the “woo woo” variety, but I set up an appointment with said Psychic. A fifty something charming Persian woman, nicely coiffed and affable answered the door. She was located in the mid Wilshire district in a nondescript two bedroom with lots of tchotchkis sprinkled throughout her apartment. She asked me all kinds of questions. She pulled out a deck of Tarot Cards. She recorded the session on a cassette player. I told her all about CRANES, but I didn’t want her to know that I had come for the specific purpose of getting my script to her client. At the end of the session, I handed her $150 and as I was walking out the door, I made mention that I thought Brad Pitt would be perfect for the starring role.
She thanked me and said ” Visualize Brad calling you on the phone, and accepting your offer”.
I did… for several months, but I guess Brad never got the vibration of my visualization.
The other two movie stars that could get CRANES made, though not quite perfect for the role were Tom Cruise and George Clooney. George had already passed because, according to his “people”, he didn’t want to do another WWII movie after THE GOOD GERMAN. So that left Tom. I had, over the years spoken to Paula Weinstein, Cruise’s producing partner. I rang her, I sent the script over, I never got a return call. So, I called, a lot, and was finally told that they really liked it but they too had a Japanese film, THE LAST SAMURAI.
Visual Effects production was looking very appealing.
I started to retrench. Maybe the screenplay wasn’t as good as I thought. Maybe, creative people of the caliber I was shooting for, didn’t actually read screenplays. Maybe I needed visual aides and a polish on the script. I hired a bright young Lebanese artist that proceeded to create renderings and illustrations of key scenes within the screenplay. We worked together as a team for a few months, me as creative director and my new friend drawing magnificent illustrations. At the end of three months we had put together a beautiful presentation.
At about the same time, I was developing several other projects as well. One was a supernatural thriller called INDIGO. The lead character was a 20 something female and I had thought that a young Scarlett Johansson, on the heels of her debut film, LOST IN TRANSLATION, would be perfect. I wound up contacting her manager, who, interestingly enough not only grew up in my neighborhood in Queens and was my age, but was also Scarlett’s mother! We met at DD and immediately hit it off. We seemed to hang in the same places back in the mid to late 60′s. We liked the same music, had the same sensibilities and loved the same movies. I asked her to read A THOUSAND CRANES, and she loved it, albeit with notes and changes that she wanted to make.
BTW, every person that reads your script, whether they are a professor of literature or a garbage man, a psychologist or a dishwasher… they ALL have notes! It is one of the only businesses that I know where everyone, I mean everyone, is an expert. Imagine if this was allowed in medicine.
“Excuse me Doctor, but are you actually going to enter this patients skull with an incision?”, the dishwasher asked the surgeon.
‘I think you should use leeches to extract the infection”, the garbage man added.
Scarlett’s mom invited me to a private dinner honoring Scarlett for winning the BAFTA for LOST IN TRANSLATION. It was at the home of a famous actress. Though I was on the verge of a divorce, I attended with my then wife. About 30 people were in attendance that evening, all of them world class actors, actresses, producers and directors. Meg Ryan, Sir Ben Kingsley, Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Winona Ryder, etc…. you get the picture. In fact, everyone there was super famous, except my ex and yours truly. It was a heady evening for a VFX nerd like me.
The next day I got a call from Scarlett’s agent at William Morris. I was excited. This fellow begins to tell me that I need to move forward with Scarlett’s Mom as my producing partner on CRANES because after all, if I want to play in the major leagues, I’ll need the support of a major agency, like his. I’m stoked, “Damn, it looks like CRANES is back on track”, I say to myself.
Scarlett’s Mom sets up meetings with new writers, many of them quite famous, some of them with William Morris. Scarlett’s Mom brings another producer to the table, the wife of the William Morris agent and the daughter of one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. I’m liking all of this, finally, playing in Yankee Stadium with the crowd roaring. We collectively talk to a handful of writers and finally settle on Jeremy Leven ( THE LEGEND OF BAGGAR VANCE, THE NOTEBOOK, DON JUAN DEMARCO). Leven is a seasoned writer, a one time director and very expensive. A deal is cut, I whisk him and his wife off to Japan and he asks us to set up shop in NYC (where he lives). He needs an office (in his toney apartment building), a researcher and an assistant. All is put in place and we now have a new writer!
Scarlett’s Mom and I are really hitting it off. We start to develop other projects and wind up going to Cannes for the film festival. We take meetings with international distributors for CRANES. I stay at the Carlton Hotel in a very small windowless room on the first floor that is costing “un bras et une jambe” (an arm and a leg). Mom however, the manager of a star, is being put up by Sony Pictures on the 6th Floor in a suite. In addition, Sony has made a car and a driver available to Scarlett’s manager as well as tickets to every party and premiere that Cannes can throw at us. What a time! Scarlett’s mom and I walk arm in arm down the Croisette. How very French of us. We dine at fabulous restaurants, drink copious amounts of champagne and talk about Rimbaud.
One late evening, I got a call to come to Mom’s 6th Floor suite, to discuss our meetings for tomorrow. I rang the bell, and Mom opened the door with more than strategy on her mind! I made a hasty exit, explaining that I was just going through a messy divorce and that our business relationship was considerably more important than anything she had in mind.
A week later, now back in LA, I got a very nasty phone call from a certain Agent. It seems that there was a major misunderstanding about what was said about his wife. I explained that there is nothing as upset as a woman scorned. I sent a lovely basket of fruit. All was forgotten.
The $1.7 million had been received and about $1.2 million already spent. Two writers, a trip to Japan, dozens of meetings and two years had transpired and so far, several disappointing drafts and not even a traffic light insight, let alone a green light.
Interestingly enough, the money had been wired directly into Digital Domain’s bank account, but there had been no contract or agreement governing the use of funds nor any obligations that DD would have regarding the money. The bubble in Japan, at least in the educational sector, had not yet burst. Tsuzuki Gaukonen had dozens of educational and vocational enterprises. From Hotel Management, Economics, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Digital Content to Flower Arranging… Tsuzuki Schools had extraordinary tax advantages (they paid none), and thousands upon thousands of students. The schools were run with military professionalism but when it came to entertainment business affairs, they were sorely lacking.
Try as we may to put an agreement in place, we just couldn’t come to any terms agreeable to both parties. They wanted ultimate creative control… approval of actors and director and final script approval. They however had no concern about DD using the funds for script development and never once asked for their money back. In fact, at one point, Tsuzuki had indicated that he was prepared to fund the entire film, all $150 million. He sent his beautiful daughter Asuka to Venice to discuss the possibility, but several months into negotiations, funds were diverted elsewhere. Tsuzuki-san decided to purchase one of the largest buildings in Fukuoka and open up StarBucks throughout Japan.
I continued to travel to Japan, lecturing at various Scott Ross Digital Schools. I gave press conferences, met with Tsuzuki –san to discuss actresses that might play the lead role of Keiko (Tsuzuki-san was very interested in beautiful actresses) and continued my conversations with resources that would give me further insight into what led up to that day in August 1945. I met with dozens of Hibakusha (survivors), professors, news archivists, military, and government officials. I built a friendship with Hiroshima’s mayor and had full support of the Peace Memorial Museum as well as the Hiroshima Film Commission.
But, I still had over a million dollar script(s) that I was unhappy with. I realized that I would never really be happy with a personal story that was written by writers that wrote in seclusion without my direct involvement. I had also learned that writers, at least scriptwriters were a strange lot, and rightly so. Hollywood had mistreated writers forever. While everyone in Hollywood will tell you that a script is the most important part of a movie, writers were, for the most part, treated like second-class citizens by Hollywood powerbrokers. Those at the top were paid extremely well, deservingly so at times… but most writers were often mistreated, and not compensated fairly. And so, over the years, the WGA, writers agents and writers themselves had developed their rules and regulations, their tough outer skin, to protect themselves. Unfortunately, like all of business, and most acutely the business of Hollywood, had become absolutely dysfunctional. Everyone expecting to get screwed by the other guy, and there for, defensively, trying to make sure that they did the screwing first.
I figured that if I were to be involved with the writer, I needed to be part of the writing team. I had conversations and meetings with several good writers but all of them refused to have the Producer be a part of the writing team. It seemed obvious to me that I needed to find an already existing writing team that would be open to allowing a third member (moi) to join the team. After more meetings and reading even more bad scripts, I stumbled upon two young guys that had written a pretty good sci-fi script. While the script wasn’t appropriate for CRANES, I was intrigued by the last name of one of the writers, Kebo.
This team was comprised of two young guys, an Argentinian, Rudi Liden and a Japanese American, Dave Kebo.
They showed up at DD, and I took an immediate liking to them. They were cool, excitable, eager and loved the story. And then I lowered the boom… I would only hire them if they allowed me to be part of the writing team. They wanted to think it over. I think that they didn’t want to embark on what they thought would be a cluster fuck. They came back with a no… sorry, but this won’t work, they thought. I thanked them and told them that I would have to move on. After a few days, they got back to me and said, yes, they would like to see if they could work under this rather strange arrangement. Personally, I think they really needed the money.
The next several months was to be one of the greatest creative experiences of my life. Everyday Kebo and Liden would show up to DD at about 10 AM. After sketching out characters and a rough outline, the three of us would talk through each scene. The guys would retire to their cubicle and get on with writing while I tended to being the CEO of a major visual effects facility. At about 6 PM we would reconvene and review the scene(s) that had been written that day. Comments, discussions, at times heated debate would ensue, yet at the end, we would craft a screenplay that we all would be proud of. This went on for several months. I believe both Dave and Rudi would say that the experiment was a great success and that the end product was everything that we had hoped for. At some point, Kebo got out of the business, but Rudi and I remain close friends to this day and have collaborated on several other projects.
With this new version of CRANES, it was time to attach the necessary “elements”, as those in the biz say. A project like A THOUSAND CRANES, a big budget film, chock full of visual effects, drama, romance, history, intrigue and character development (everything I like in a film) is a film that for the aforementioned reasons is neigh on impossible to get made. Again, I learned that a little too late. What I did learn was that to get a project like this off the ground, one needed “elements”. And in this case the elements needed to be as heavy as Uranium. Those heavyweights fell into two categories: directors and movie stars.
Over the years, while heading up VFX companies, I had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s biggest directors. I had also learned that most of those heavyweight directors had projects scheduled for years ahead and that unsolicited screenplays like CRANES were rarely, if ever accepted by their production companies. I was not your average solicitor, after all I had cut deals with most of these guys over the years, and many of them said “ Take care of me on this one Scott and I’ll take care of you guys in the future”. I also realized that CRANES would have to go through the necessary channels to ever make it to the desk of any of these directors.
The script would be submitted, wind up on the desk of some “20 something” reader, dressed in black, smoking Gauloise and still having nocturnal emissions over some darkly disturbed “Fincheresque” film noir piece. Assuming this reader even cared what happened fifty years ago in Hiroshima, I was pretty sure I would never get the coverage I needed to move to the next level, the director’s Producer.
Over the next few years or so, I submitted the screenplay to Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson. Interestingly enough I got responses from all of them. Oliver and I met a few times but he had a real problem that, even though there were many historically accurate elements, the main characters were fictional. I reminded him of JFK. Spielberg said that although he liked the script, he had a Japanese film already in production (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA). RSA ( Ridley’s production company) sent their Exec Producer to DD for a meeting but ultimately decided to pass. I called Peter Weir at home and explained the project. Peter had just finished MASTER AND COMMANDER and explained to me that after that experience he would never again direct a large visual effects laden movie. Clint’s producer Rob Lorenz and I discussed Cranes and while Rob thought the script good, said that Clint too had a Japanese film in the works (LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA). Rob recommended that I send the script on to Clooney’s production company which was located just next door to Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions on the Warners lot. Clooney’s people said that while the script was really great, that George was through making WWII movies after his experience on THE GOOD GERMAN.
The feedback I was getting on the script was very positive, particularly from women. With that info in hand, I started to look for a woman director. Unfortunately, the pickings were slim. At the time, there were very few female directors that a studio/financer would feel comfortable handing a $150 million epic war story to. I had fallen in love with Julie Taymor, the director of FRIEDA and felt that she would surely understand our heroine, Keiko. I spent a half an hour on the phone with Julie . She had read the script but felt that our heroine was not strong enough. I tried to explain that in 1945 Japan, Keiko was akin to Wonder Woman in today’s society. She wasn’t buying.
At some point, the writers and I through our research, became aware that the first Caucasian to witness the devastation of Hiroshima was an Australian reporter, who after seeing the remains of Hiroshima, telegraphed a story back to Sydney. He was immediately seized by the Japanese Authorities and detained. I thought maybe we could rewrite the intro, include the Australian as a bookend and now tell the story thru the eyes of this Australian reporter. I contacted Mel Gibson.
Bruce Davies, Mel’s partner wanted to pursue CRANES and it seemed that through Mel’s production company, their development execs prodding and this new twist, we had some serious interest. Bruce and Mel set up a meeting with Paramount’s then President of Production, Michelle Manning. Bruce and I met with Michelle armed with a tone poem DVD that Rob Legato had put together with images of Hiroshima cut to a track of Madame Butterfly. The meeting was relatively brief. Manning loved the script but felt that the ending was really sad. She wondered if it had to end with all those people dying, and our hero and heroine dying as well. I tried to explain that was the point of the screenplay.
“Couldn’t we have a happy ending?”, she asked.
“Well, over 90,000 people were killed as a result of the bomb”, I answered.
“Couldn’t Keiko and Nic live?”, she continued.
“Well, it seemed to work in TITANIC”, I responded.
“ Maybe at least one of them, like in TITANIC, should live on”, she said.
“How about ROMEO AND JULIET, that seemed to have worked…. for centuries…. internationally”, I said.
Paramount passed, and certain issues started to plague Mel. We moved on. I continued folding Cranes.
Visual Effects companies are not viable businesses.
They are extremely costly to run, need an ongoing influx of cash to continually upgrade their hardware and software, are in constant turnover of their staff, have non-existant margins, incredible overhead, demanding clients, compacted schedules, outrageous competition, offshore companies that enjoy government subsidies and tax rebate programs… yet, while many have gone out of business, more seem to be opening every year. Having run DD and ILM, it seems nonsensical to me to start a visual effects company, let alone to take one public. What is the upside? When do profits start rolling in?
It seems ironic that 19 of the top 20 box office hits of all time are chock full of VFX and that producers, directors and motion picture studios are making billions of dollars while the VFX companies that are responsible for the incredible imagery that attracts viewers are at best keeping their heads above water and at worst going out of business.
In the glory days of the mid 1980′s, VFX companies were barely profitable and over the years, margins continued to slip. So…. what are the business reasons for being in this so called “business”?
The only answer seems to be creating and owning content. All we need do is look at PIXAR… now, we’re talkin’!
I was aware of this conundrum years ago, which is why I left Lucasfilm and created Digital Domain. And why in the last 3 years of my tenure at DD, I focused solely on creating content. Unfortunately, for various reasons, I was unsuccessful.
Digital Domain, during my tenure was a company filled with some of the greatest compositors, modelers, animators, technical directors, software developers, matte artists, motion control camera operators and visual effects production people of its day. And years before, when I was running ILM, one could say the same of its talents and capabilities. In fact, today the very same could be said about WETA, R&H, ILM, DD, SPI ( why do they all have to have monikers made up of capital letters). I often compared world class VFX studios with PIXAR. I mean, what was Pixar before it was PIXAR? Or Blue Sky? Or Dreamworks Animation (Pacific Data Images)? Weren’t they all very similar to the large VFX companies of today? Wasn’t PIXAR’s DNA very similar to ILM? Didn’t PDI compete directly with ILM for commercial productions? Well, to me, at the time, the answer was simple. YES.
So, why was it that the VFX companies were barely staying alive but PIXAR was making millions? Content. PIXAR created a product whilst the VFX companies were service based businesses that helped create images that were used to market and promote films.
Recently there have been several VFX companies that seem to be desirous of creating content. Digital Domain is one of them. According to my sources, they are betting a great deal of money ( by way of deferring VFX costs) on ENDERS GAME. ENDERS GAME will be directed by Gavin Hood (X MEN WOLVERINE, TSOTSI) and distributed by Summit (the production company and distributor of the TWILIGHT films).
In addition, they have built an animation studio in Port St Lucie FLA and have launched preproduction on a G rated CG animated film, THE LEGEND OF TEMBO. THE LEGEND OF TEMBO, a family film about a baby elephant seems to have no stars attached, no production funding in place and no distribution. The directors are Aaron Blaise (BROTHER BEAR, Director) and Chuck Williams (BROTHER BEAR, Producer) now both employees of Tradition Studios, owned by DD and funded primarily by the state of Florida. Usually CGI animated films made in the USA cost between $125-200 million dollars to produce. That’s a lot of cash! This content business is difficult, expensive and risky..
However, back in 1999, I decided that Digital Domain finally needed to start to produce its own film content.
We had taken our shot in content ownership in videogames with the introduction of the first girls videogame “ Barbie Fashion Designer”. Mattel had decided that they wanted to get into the videogame market and Doug Glen, the VP of Digital Media for Mattel and a former LucasFilm Games VP who was an associate of mine whilst I was at LucasFilm, had approached me to develop a videogame based around the infamous Barbie character. With the help of Steve Schklair and DD’s New Media team, Barbie Fashion Designer hit the shelves of Toys “R” Us and created quite a stir. A major hit, yet DD was not seeing the kind of revenue we needed to lift the company out of the “work for hire” VFX doldrums.
So, it was with the incredible success of TITANIC and Pixar’s TOY STORY that I naively thought we could produce world class feature films. As I had done with so many things in my life, I just started doing it.
First things first… I needed a story… sorta like TITANIC… a historic disaster… laced with a fictional love story… and real life characters. It had worked for Doctorow and Cameron, why not me?
I started cataloging 20th century disasters. The Von Hindenberg Zeppelin, Mt. St.Helens , the San Francisco Earthquake and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Always the businessman, I also realized that I would need funds to be able to research, write and develop a script as Digital Domain, at the time, following TITANIC, had no money to invest in new ventures. In fact, we barely had money to make payroll.
During that time I had been involved in a business venture with an old friend of mine from Japan, Yoshinobu Higashihara. Higashihara-san and I met when I was at Lucas. Higashihara had been a Sr VP of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) one of the largest corporations on the planet. NTT had approached LucasFilm to help them understand creativity. Japan Inc. was quickly taking its revenge on the US and in fact the rest of the world by becoming the fastest growing economy of the 80’s. The Japanese were everywhere and they were buying everything. While the Japanese had become the most efficient manufacturing force in the world, they, for some reason, did not believe they, as a people, were creative. And so, they started approaching major creative companies within the US, and I guess, LucasFilm was on the top of NTT’s list.
With the help of Rose Duignan, we designed a creative curriculum for six NTT execs. These rather buttoned up, conservative Japanese salarymen , now under the tutelage of Ms. Duignan were taken to museums, Grateful Dead concerts and asked to go skinny dipping in the Pacific Ocean. For this, NTT paid LucasFilm $1,000,000. Their most senior exec, Higashihara must have thought they got a great deal because he and I bonded and became fast friends that would last for well over a decade.
Many years after leaving Lucas and starting DD, I got a call from Higashihara who was no longer at NTT. He had formed his own company, one that was involved in starting colleges teaching creativity and digital media. I guess those late night naked runs on Stinson Beach made an impression.
Higashihara, ever the entrepreneur had realized that Japan, still flush with cash, needed to educate the sons and daughters of the wealthy. And what might those nerdy kids be interested in? Computers, visual effects, comics, sci fi and movies. Higashihara went looking for capital to fund this new venture, and he thought that his old friend Scott might make for an interesting partner.
His offer was one that I couldn’t refuse. Seven figures to attach my name to the venture. I would have to travel to Japan twice a year, lecture and do interviews throughout the country. At first, I signed a contract with one group, but for some reason they couldn’t come up with the cash. With traditional Japanese sensibilities they were terribly embarrassed by their inability to make good on their deal. So, they did what any self respecting businessman would do… they showed up at my office with $100k in a brown paper bag, slid it across my desk, bowed deeply and left. That day at the Bank of America was interesting. I stepped up to the tellers window in shorts and a tee shirt and handed over one thousand $100 bills.
With that deal underwater, Higashihara started looking for other investors. A few months later, I got the call. He had pitched his Scott Ross Digital Media School concept to an educational institution based in Fukuoka, Tsuzuki Gaukonen. They had ambitious plans of opening up a half dozen of these schools scattered around Japan.
Tsuzuki colleges and universities had been around for awhile, founded by the father of the present Chancellor. Their main campus was Daichi University in Fukuoka. Tsuzuki-san was generous beyond all imagination. First class airfare, world class interpreters, five star hotel suites filled with flowers, hundreds of students waving American flags whenever I landed at airports in Japan, black limos to whisk me and my interpreter to world class restaurants.
My first in person meeting with Tsuzuki-san was a bit strange however. An entourage of a dozen or so of his staff, Higashihara, my interpreter, the man himself and I were shown to a secret underground room under the University. This underground room was a room within a room, lined with lead, with submarine style hatches for doors and it’s own generators and air filtering system. Tea was served by two attractive young women in uniforms. Introductions were made. It seemed that most of the “staff” were ex military. Tsuzuki-san was rather rotund for a Japanese and he didn’t really speak, he grunted, loudly. A scene right out of a Fellini movie. We discussed poetry, Mt Fuji, the meaning of Wabi Sabi though the rest in the room were still and sat bolt upright. Tsuzuki-san was a fan of TITANIC and asked if Digital Domain had any interest in producing its own films. Thinking quickly, and running through the various disaster scenarios I had been researching, I mentioned that I was interested in creating a film surrounding the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Tsuzuki-san’s face changed from his animated boisterous self to one of tranquility and deep thought. A minute or so passed, everyone remained silent. He leaned forward and whispered to my interpreter. He wanted to know how much a film like this would cost?
“About $150 million”, I guessed.
“Well, I don’t have that kind of money”, Tsuzuki gruffly responded. “How much to get you started?”, he said.
“About $1.7 million”, I guessed again.
The next day, Higashihara, my interpreter and I flew to Hiroshima where Tsuzuki was planning on opening another Scott Ross Digital Media college. The throngs of students met us at the airport, the flags were waving, the Tsuzuki staff ushering us to the waiting limo. Another formal dinner that evening and the next day we were to meet the mayor of Hirsohima, Akiba-san, who would tour us through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There was, as usual, a press conference. One of the reporters, Akemi Satoda, approached me and told me that she had seen TITANIC forty six times. Forty six times! I was fascinated, we had coffee and talked. I made mention that I might be interested in producing a film about the Bomb. She asked if I had met any survivors. I hadn’t and so she took it upon herself to set up a meeting the next day with one of the most fascinating women I’ve ever met, Une-san.
Une-san, was at the time in her early 80’s, about 4’2” tall and looked remarkably like Yoda. She showed up to our meeting with a shopping cart full of plastic jugs of water, a few dozen small glass cups, and a shopping bag full of presents for me. Une-san was the embodiment of pure energy.
Akemi translated as Une-san’s story unfolded. During the closing months of WWII, Une-san was the nanny for dozens of orphaned infants housed in a make shift quanset type hut on the outskirts of Hiroshima. Supplies and food were hard to come by and so the children slept in hammocks hung from the rafters and fed on milk made from boiled sweet potatoes.
On the morning of August 6th, 1945, Une –san was tending to her brood of about 50 infants, when the sky lit up with the light of a thousand suns. Seconds later, she was blown over by the force of a hurricane wind. For hours she remained unconscious and when she awoke, she was buried under refuse. Digging her way out, lifting her head to a reddish brown sky, she looked around for the children, but the structure and all of its inhabitants were gone. Frantically searching her surroundings for the babies, she found nothing but smoldering bodies charred and blackened.
Dazed, she started to find her way back home, but nothing was familiar. Buildings that stood only hours before, were now gone, a destroyed trolley lay on it side blown yards from its rails. Everywhere Une-san went, those that did survive, were asking for water, the heat so unbearable. With burnt flesh hanging from bones, the zombies of Hiroshima tried making sense of what had happened. She meandered through the devastation for hours hearing the pleas for water, water, water. Mizu kudasai… Mizu kudasai.
Several years after the war had ended, Une-san had decided that she would make a twice daily journey to the dozens of memorial statues honoring those that had died that horrible day in 1945 and offer a single cup of water. She did that without missing a day for 67 years until she passed at the age of 93.
On the flight back to LA, I wrote a treatment called A THOUSAND CRANES. In Japanese culture, if one folds a thousand origami cranes, one can realize their greatest dream. When I landed in LA I wondered how this screenplay and research would be funded. It turned out that there was a reason for that bunker at Daichi University. Tsuzuki-san was a Hiroshima bomb survivor himself.
When I got to the office the next day, DD’s controller called my office to enquire about a $1.7 million wire that had been sent to DD’s accounts from a Tzusuki Gaukonen… and I hadn’t folded one paper crane.
The journey had begun. With close to $2million, I started searching for the perfect screenwriter. I knew that the film needed to be a love story and that the writing had to be delicate and inspiring. I called the various agencies, and some of them actually took my call. I guess it helped when I told the assistants that I was Cameron’s business partner. One side story though… I called all the major agencies but one still stands out some 15 years or so later.
I contacted Dan Ahlone’s office, at the time, the head of UTA (United Talent Agency). For a few days I would call and leave my name and phone number, but I never received a return call. Several weeks passed, though at about 8PM on my way home from work driving my car north on Pacific Coast Hiway, my cell rang.
“Hello, Scott here”, I said using my usual salutation.
“One minute for Dan Ahloni”, a female voice said.
I waited for a few minutes trying to juggle my Motorola Star Tac in one hand, the steering wheel in the other.
“Who are you?”, the voice on the other end shouted.
“Excuse me, this is Scott Ross, who is this”, I responded.
“No, WHO are you?”, the voice shot back.
“Well, I’m Scott Ross, the CEO of Digital Domain”, I answered.
“ Ok, why should I be talking to you?”, the voice yelled.
“ Is this Dan Ahloni”, I queried.
“This is fucking Dan Ahloni, and I want to know why I am wasting my time talking to you”, Ahloni continued yelling.
“Well, I’m looking for a writer that…” , I meekly said.
“ I don’t have time for this ..” Ahloni hung up.
Hmmmm, maybe this is more difficult than I thought. I mean I had close to $2million to spend on development of what I thought was a very important film and some agents didn’t have the time to talk to me. Wow, what a business.
After reading several dozen writing samples (almost all of them terrible) I was sent a script by a CAA agent that had promise. It was a love story based upon the life of a famous Impressionist painter. This writer had also been a writer on FRIEDA, the fantastic film about the life of the Mexican artist, Frieda Kahlo. I contacted her agent and a meeting was set. Diane Lake showed up at DD and we hit it off right away. She loved my story and I loved that she was a mature woman, steeped in romance and taken by history. I took her to Japan. We spent two weeks together. I introduced her to Une-san, we lived in an ancient Ryokan, met the mayor of Hiroshima, spoke to other survivors, visited Shinto temples and generally immersed her in all things Japanese. I negotiated a deal with her agent for the customary two passes and a polish, and paid her handsomely for her work.
Diane then set about writing. She did so in solitude. Having my treatment as the basic recipe and her experiences in Japan as spice, my hope was that she would cook up the greatest love story since Romeo and Juliet. Every now and then I would check in with Diane, and in my sophomoric producer way, asked to see pages. Or Scenes. Or Acts. I was told that writers don’t do that. You get the whole meal at the end of the process. Producers are not allowed to be in the kitchen.
Three months passed and Diane was ready to serve up A THOUSAND CRANES. I eagerly awaited, salivating at the prospect. She turned in her first draft and it was close to 200 pages. Now, most screenplays come in at under 120 pages, and every now and again, one sees a 130 page epic…. But almost 200 pages! This was no ordinary meal, this was a 12 course orgy of a meal.
I read it… all of it…. And in the end, I felt terribly bloated. It just didn’t work for me. So, I sat down, pencil and paper in hand and gave copious notes. I spoke to Diane (a really wonderful woman and writer) and explained that it wasn’t what I had in mind. She was devastated having poured about 6 months of her life into this. Being the professional that she was, she licked her wounds, and sat down and started again. Ultimately, I could see that this wasn’t going to work. I paid Diane and moved on.
By this point, I felt that the project needed a world class writer, an Academy Award winning writer, a famous writer. It was relatively easy for me to feel this way as I had a lot of OPM (other peoples money).
Over the years I had met several Oscar winning writers and two of them seemed to have the perfect sensibilities for a story like A THOUSAND CRANES. Jan Sardi (SHINE) and John Patrick Shanley (MOONSTRUCK) seemed perfect. After several phone conversations with both writers and their agents only Shanley was available given the time frame I needed to have the screenplay written.
Shanley and I had briefly known each other when he was directing JOE VS THE VOLCANO. He was doing his visual effects at ILM and we had several meetings back then. Shanley is a world class playwright having penned over 20 stage plays and having won the Pulitzer Prize for DOUBT: A PARABLE. More importantly, he seemed to be an avid Japanophile and again, seemed to be taken by my story. I sent Shanley the Diane Lake script, we had several conversations on the phone as well but the task at hand was negotiating his writing fee with CAA. Having negotiated a healthy deal with CAA for Diane Lake, I was truly unprepared for what an Academy Award winning screenplay writer gets paid. OMG! Yup, I know, it’s the majors, and major league players get big paychecks. I guess, I was still pretty green, and after Shanley’s deal, I had a lot less green than I had before.
Shanley on the other hand, was not allowing any grass to grow under his feet while his deal was being negotiated. I guess he had a limited window in which he was available to write CRANES, and he went to work immediately. He must have been confident that a deal would culminate. It did, and within what seemed like hours Shanley’s draft was on my desk.
I devoured it. And when the dust settled, I was, once again, disappointed. The writing was, of course, wonderful… but there was something missing. I got on the phone with John, explained my concerns and he understood. I was upset that he had written his first draft without much of my involvement. The story that I had in my head was not yet on the page. I gave John notes, and he graciously agreed to the changes. Within a very short time the second draft was completed. I read it. It still didn’t work…. At least not for me.
At this point I had burned through a large portion of the development money. The screenplay was not close to what I wanted and well over two years had passed. I started feverishly folding origami cranes.