Posted by: zhiv | March 15, 2008

New job; Stories of Some Blockbusters

I have a new job.  It’s a little confusing, and I can’t think of how to get into it without really getting into it, which I don’t think I want to do.  But the upshot of it is that I’m wearing a shirt and tie every day (which I did for a year over a decade ago, starting my last new job, sort of) and reading a lot of children’s books.  And screenplays (tho I hate to mention that, but there it is).  Over time the mention of the movie world will fade into the archives and disappear.  But the fact is that I’m excited and enthusiastic and doing a lot of reading, but all of a sudden my little professional and mental (not to say intellectual) sailboat has tacked in a completely different direction and it’s picking up some wind.

I’ll put this post in the category of literary parenting (lp), even though it might have a little trouble getting past the non-existent judges.  And I might have to start a new category of kids books.  I talked a little bit in my original lp post about how I read a lot of kids books alongside my children.  At some point I might come fully out of the closet as a literary movie guy, someone who started out in the film business (in 1987) reading manuscripts, and doing “coverage” on screenplays and books.  Why not?  What is there to be afraid of?  So that’s how I read the manuscript of 1000 Acres (and Jurassic Park and dozens of others for that matter, but it was a long time ago). And while all of that was going on, we had children and I started reading kidlit.  I was also lucky enough to have a fantastic children’s book store a block and a half away from my house, the perfect spot to kill time on Saturdays with little kids.  I have haunted the place, and have happily spent thousands of dollars there.  I really should take the time to describe it in depth, and especially the group or type of women who work there (there has been an occasional young male employee appearance over the years, but they’ve been very rare), but I can’t bring myself to do it.  Let’s just say that a number of the women are extremely knowledgable and very enthusiastic, and they have read a lot of the children’s and young adult literature.  I have too, of course, but I feel like I get a free pass because I’m a dad and I’m kind of cool about it.  These wonderful young women are not very cool, but in their own way they’re all the more wonderful for it.

So I’ve been following a few obscure veins in my cinelit mines for the last few years (everybody who wants to see a film about Elizabeth Elstob and George Ballard, say aye!  and let’s have a show of hands of everybody who saw Richard Attenborough’s Grey Owl… no fans of the environmental literary hoax genre out there?), but as my kids have gotten older I’ve been more or less out of the kidlit game.  But in classic movie cliche fashion, whenever I think I’m out they just drag me back in…

And before I do my first post on the great new kidlit book the GD and I devoured last weekend, I do have to tell a little movie business story.  When I think about it, after mentioning Jurassic Park, I really do have my share of stories, I must say.  But here’s something that’s kind of interesting.  There’s an entire industry of publishing/movie people who track publishing and somebody should break it all down and I’m sure somebody already is.  It has evolved over the course of those aforementioned 20 years.  But it’s pretty sophisticated.  There’s a bit of Scott Rudin dominance, which is interesting, with its own share of stories and characters, and it provides the most recent, obvious example, how Rudin got Cormac McCarthy’s manuscript for No Country for Old Men and took it to the Cohn Bros and they all won Oscars on the lowest rated Oscar show ever, and the ratings were low because the nominated movies were films that people know are excellent, but they’re challenging and hard to watch.  There’s an active majority that really doesn’t want to see (hsi–haven’t seen it) No Country (and There Will Be Blood, for that matter, which I did see:  DD-L incredible), and they’re not going to watch the Oscars that honor them.  So that’s the cinelit business, or one aspect of it.  Rudin is a genius and he has real taste, but you end up with movies out of Angela’s Ashes and it’s possible to question the entire enterprise.  Which I shouldn’t do, since I work in the movie business.  You win some and you lose some.

But the point I’m trying to make and the story I’m trying to tell is that this system of manuscripts and, in my day, midnight xeroxes (now emails) and book scouts, often misses the books that become gigantic movies.  My first experience of this was with Silence of the Lambs, which is understandable because of the challenging subject matter.  But the book was there, at every bookstore and airport and it was flying off the shelves, and no one had optioned it to make a film out of it.  Any enterprising young person could have picked up the phone and called the agent and offered a substantial but reasonable sum, say 100k in 80s dollars, and controlled the rights for 18 months.  Same story with Cold Mountain (and it makes me laugh to think I have yet another odd personal story with that one too–I suppose I really have to go through all of this sometime), which was a very nice book but not much of a movie (hsi), and countless others. 

This isn’t even the story I wanted to tell, not yet, but the best of these examples by far, a complete classic, is John Calley and The DaVinci Code.  John Calley is a magnificent Hollywood character.  He was a hipster studio executive in the late 60s and 70s, worked with Mike Nichols and then bailed out and lived on a boat for a time, then came back to run UA and had a nice hit with Robin Williams in Birdcage.  The tone I find myself taking and my breezy acceptance of having just enough knowledge to say the wrong thing is exactly why I shouldn’t be writing about the film business.  At any rate, Calley parlayed a good run at UA into the Chairman’s job at Sony, where he inherited a string of hits including Men in Black, and hired dynamo Amy Pascal, and he became a sort of senior helmsman and ancient mariner, making only the slightest adjustments to the rudder.  He didn’t chase after or initiate any movies to speak of.  He seemed to be setting a course towards a restful and quiet old age.  One would hear about him trying to make a movie out of Instance of the Fingerpost, and his pals Nichols and Sydney Pollack cashed big checks for post-prime films.  Amy P. shepherded Spiderman into the studio under Calley’s tenure, but he was never the front man, never in the spotlight.    As Amy ascended and Calley retired, the fact he immediately went into production on zhiv (blocked for some reason on remembering the title, but there’s an example of how you can use the word “zhiv”) didn’t garner any real notice–it was just Calley and Nichols, par for the course.  But the story, as I imagine it, goes that Calley was travelling and in the airport and saw that The DaVinci Code was prominently displayed and selling all sorts of copies.  It had been out for months and was already a bestseller; if it wasn’t number one, it was in the top five.  So he must have bought a copy and read it and said, this would probably be a pretty good movie, wouldn’t it?  Nobody had done that.  Everybody had missed it.  A guy like John Calley, that’s just how he rolls.  Savoir faire; it can’t be taught.

But the story I wanted to tell is about David Heyman and Harry Potter.  It’s the same thing, although Heyman got in just a bit earlier.  After spending so much time setting everything up, I should work out this story in depth elsewhere–some of this blogging is perhaps just a meandering in search of essays I suppose.  Heyman had moved back to London, unsure about whether the film business was really going to work out for him.  He had just fallen out of an ill-matched partnership with Neal Moritz, and Moritz was in a steep ascent.  All of a sudden, this Harry Potter book appeared on the bestseller lists–it was a great read, and kids and adults loved it, and kids were really taken with it.  Because he was in London, Heyman had a step on everybody.  He knew it was good, and he went out and bought a box of books (first editions) and he sent it to Warner Bros., which has always been good about buying books (ever since Calley worked there in the late 60s) and started sending the books out to find a writer or filmmaker and to get people interested.    I saw him at dinner once, not too long after Warners had optioned it and after the book had become an extraordinary phenomenon.  Perhaps the second book had been published (and I had gone with the GD to an isolated Washington state bookstore at midnight to get our copy) but the movie hadn’t come out yet.  Heyman, a literal swashbuckling gent who was a British all-American fencer at Harvard, where he wasn’t afraid to wear a dress on occasion, had Calley cinematic savoir faire, and he was saying he would love to have Terry Gilliam direct Harry Potter, but he knew the studio probably wouldn’t go for it.  And he was angry that he had sent out all of those early copies without thinking about it; they were worth some money.  The most impressive thing was the savoir faire he showed in managing to hold his ground as the sole producer on the first film, and thus for the entire franchise. 

When I see him, and I probably will again along the way some time, the question I want to ask is if he just saw the book sitting there, in a little stack perhaps, a new book, fresh on the shelves at some bookstore in London.  As he was trying to figure out what to do, how to make the movie business and story telling and being a reader work somehow, given everything that he knew and hoped and dreamed.  So yeah, I guess those are a few thoughts that relate somehow to the new job.                            


  1. This was a fascinating post. I know so little about the ins and outs of film-making, script editing and all that.
    I will say, it would have been quite a ride to have Terry Gilliam direct a Harry Potter film. I would have loved to see that.

    Hope you are enjoying the new job!

  2. Thanks for the note, Verb–glad you enjoyed it. Reading it over this morning I’m thinking of taking it down, because I don’t want to get into movie business stuff in this blog–I don’t trust myself. Plus I admire the anonymity of so many litbloggers, where you only have a very vague notion of who they are and what they do. Many teach but we don’t know exactly where they do it. It would be too easy to figure out exactly who I am and what I do in the movie business, and then it would be truly public and that would affect what I write. But maybe it would be okay. I have to keep thinking about it.

    Right now, because I haven’t figured out blogrolls or taking any time, you’re one of two or three people who have seen this blog–thanks, by the way–so I’m not going to worry.

    Looking forward to your next Gordimer post. I want to do the “Africa Reading Challenge” and plan to put Gordimer on it. Getting all that going is on my to-do list for the weekend. But I have to go get some more shirts and ties too! The new job is great, and getting better every day/week, all very exciting. Thanks for asking. Have to get to yoga now, running a little late typing this…

  3. Congrats on the new job, and I hope you are enjoying it! I enjoyed reading this post too — it’s not easy, though, to figure out how to maintain anonymity and what kind matters to you. For me, I actually don’t mind if people figure out who I am, and I’ve sent my real name to people who have wanted to mail me books — I really could have begun the blog under my own name. But I’m still uncomfortable with the idea that if someone were to google my name, the blog would come up first. So I’m glad my name isn’t directly connected with it.

  4. Is Zhiv getting carried away a bit?

    “…this would probably be a pretty good movie, wouldn’t it? Nobody had done that. Everybody had missed it. A guy like John Calley, that’s just how he rolls. Savoir faire; it can’t be taught.”

    Really? No one? The DaVinci Code reads as if it were written for the screen. Hmm.. come to think of it Jurassic Park seemed to me very visual and cinematic when I read it, and I thought that it was written with an eye to an eventual movie.

    It seems that a lot of books you find at the airport are eyeing to become movies. I’m thinking Scott Turow, Arthur Hailey, Elmore Leonard… Does it really take a studio head with an advanced case of savoir faire to see their cinematic value?

  5. OI– What you’re saying is exactly true, and a number of these big bestsellers are definitely written with a cinematic eye.

    But what I’m talking about is the disconnect between those bestsellers, or other good movie books, and the world of movie producers and studio executives. Anybody who reads The Davinci Code, or Turow or Silence of the Lambs can definitely think and know that they would make good movies. The writer him/herself, like Crichton writing Jurassic Park, might have an idea that his book is going to make a great movie.

    But they’re not filmmakers or producers or studio executives. People who see the cinematic possibilities aren’t necessarily the same people ones who get movies made.

    Most of the big hit books that you see people reading at the beach or on airplanes were analyzed and discussed as potential movies when they were in manuscript, soon after they were sold to publishers or turned in to their editors. The whole business is very sophisticated. My post was a meandering contemplation of some of the ones that slip through the cracks.

    So no, it doesn’t take a former studio head to see their cinematic value, but somehow, with all of literally millions of people reading the books, that guy’s savoir faire makes it turn out that his name is on the franchise as the producer.

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