November 2007

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This meeting really happened.   The names and locations have been fictionalized.   And some of the dialog.   Some of the events too.   And the time of day.   The event has been, in Hollywood speak, "tweaked".   But it really happened.   Sort of.

The turn of the millennium was a tough time when hand drawn feature animation, once the industry's golden goose, was finally gorged to death by studios forcing out a picture a year.   Its liver finally popped, no more golden eggs, just fois-gras enjoyed exclusively by upper management as they systematically dismantled their animation divisions.   Very few animated features were being green-lit.   Major talent purges at the feature studios sent hundreds of bitter artists vying for the few crappy direct-to-video feature jobs available.   

The times were like a cartoonists' "Grapes of Wrath".   The career I had built bit-by-bit over eighteen years had been deleted a computer - the new goose in town.    At The Fat Mortgage Bank, life went on in automated fashion. If I sent them $3600 by the 16th of each month, they would allow me to call my house "my house".   During these times, no paying job was turned down.    

I was freelancing on Mexican cereal commercials when I got a call from Jennifer Totsworthy, animation producer at Usher House Pictures.   Jennifer, or "Totty" as she was called, told me about "exciting new developments" at Usher House Pictures. They were resurrecting their old stable of Cockamamie Cartoon characters, whose heyday was the 1930's, in a new feature film.    The characters would be "updated" to market to "the urban market" (Never mind that the "urban" people in their old cartoons were portrayed as lazy stooges).   They were looking for an animation director and would I be interested?  

Does it pay?

I had a drive-on pass for my four o'clock.   I met Totty at her office, a dim bungalow behind the parking garage. She wore the classic slacks-and-jacket middle management uniform accessorized with a laptop carried in her left hand.    She escorted me across the Usher House lot, past huge sound stages where countless classic movies had been filmed.   She used the walk for a chance to debrief me.   "You'll be meeting Jerry Wankler: Head of Production, Debra Scheisser-Hagen: Vice President in charge of Yes-ing, Barry Burgstein: Vice President of Redundancy, and Kim the Talking Seal: Vice President of Family Entertainment.   So you read the script?"

I confessed, "About twenty pages."

She stopped short.   "You didn't finish?"

"I'm sorry, I couldn't." I said, "Its just that awful.   I mean, I know these old characters very well, years of watching after-school UHF.    What this writer has done is just.......wrong."   The scriptwriter's claim to fame had been the UH Network sitcom "Mean and Gassy", season 9.   This film was his baby.     

Totty stared into the blazing California Sun, as if to fry her retinas. "Do me a favor." She said, "Don't tell them you didn't read the script."  

I was led to a large, impersonal conference room and left alone as Totty rounded up the mucky-mucks.   It was one of those fish-bowl rooms, with a glass wall.   I watched the movers and shakers scurry to and fro.   I could guess their importance by their gate.   The big shots held their heads back and walked like the world should wait for them.   They walked, in animator's terms, on a sixteen beat.   They never carried anything, and looked steam cleaned.   Conversely, the peons leaned forward onto their walks, on an eight beat, carrying papers and water bottles and coffee.   

The room exploded with noise as a couple of eight-beaters bounced around the conference room dispensing water bottles and scripts. Totty entered with the Mucky-Mucks, all belly laughing at something said in the hallway.   I was introduced and people took their seats around the conference table.   Kim the Seal went to an inflated kiddie-pool in the corner.   In unison the executives cracked open the safety caps of their water bottles.   The meeting had come to order.  

They took turns feeling me out with friendly chitchat.   A test. They wanted to see how fast I could think on my feet. I had already forgotten their names in the pre-meeting whirlwind.   I hoped I wouldn't be tested on the subject.    The short, mouthy one (Barry?) broke protocol with a challenge to my credentials.   "Your resume says you got an Oscar and an Emmy nomination.   So how come I never heard of you?" Asshole.

"I don't have a publicist."   I said. "But if you look at the films I've done you'll see that I bring a unique vision bla bla bla..."   I hate saying this shit.    I'd much rather they look at my reel, which they'd clearly not done. They put so much stock into how a guy sells himself, because they don't know how to judge a reel.   Here I was interviewing for a job, and the people in charge had no Earthly clue what kind of work I did.   To them I was the 4:00 guy on a list that started at 10:30.   If I said I was a super-genius, and said it with enough conviction, to them it must be true. They stared at me, trying to get me to ramble on, maybe hang myself on my own words.   It's a trick producers do, awkward silence, usually used it to get you to accept less pay.   I didn't take the bait, but smiled and waited them out, an awkward silence contest.    

Totty jumped in.   "Steve has a lot of interesting ideas, we were talking on the way in, and he was saying-"

"Fer chrissake, Twatty, let Steve talk!" Barry said. He thought it was cute calling her "Twatty."   Poor Jennifer, so desperately vying for the respect of a bunch of rotted dogs' anuses.   She dreamed of being a rotted dogs' anus herself one day.

Debra with the scary grin said,   "So what'd you think of our script?"

A purple vein rose on Totty's forehead as I launched into the script. I said it was wrong to try to make these old characters hip and edgy, that they should instead go for something more timeless.   I said that simply having characters from 1935 make current pop culture references would not make them contemporary.   I told them that having Huzzah Hare wearing a baseball cap backwards and saying, "Chill, homey!" was not going to endear him to anyone.    I told them that adding hip-hop music to the soundtrack was wrong.   I told them and told them and they nodded and nodded and nodded the nod that executives do when they're not listening, but thinking of what they're going to say next.  

"We're getting a rewrite next week.   It's going to be much better."   Debra said defensively.

The guy who looked like a dentist spoke, "Let's set aside the script and talk about the big picture."   All eyes turned to him.   Kim the seal stopped splashing.   He was clearly the big boss, Jerry Wankler.   "Usher House is getting into animation for the long haul.   We're starting with this picture, brushing off the old characters, but what we want is to create an on-running animation studio, one that will compete head-on with Pixar.  

"Pixar?"   I said.  

"Exactly!" The boss said.   I was completely thrown.   Where was this going?

Debra with the scary grin said, "Why not model our studio after the most successful studio in the world right now?    We asked ourselves, 'what makes Pixar work?'"

"They've got good artists who know their shit."   I said.

"John Lasseter!" Barry shouted over me.   Kim the seal honked and clapped.   Kim's assistant tossed her an anchovy.  

I looked to Totty, who translated,   "Usher House wants someone to act as creative head of the animation studio."

Barry interrupted, "Like Lasseter!   Of course, he'd completely answer to us.   Like we'd set some animator loose to make movies, ha ha."   All of the executive chuckled, except Totty, who could read the contempt on my face.

I leaned forward, as if to get better reception.   "So when you say you want someone to 'act as creative head', you mean 'act' as creative head."  

"Of course he'd be more of a figure head."   Said scary grin Debra, grinning.

I stood up.   "Gooood bye!"   I said.

Kim the seal waved back, barking.   Her assistant tossed her an anchovy, while another assistant poured more spring water into her kiddie pool.  

Barry stood up and shouted, "Hold on, Steve.   We're not just a bunch of idiots here.   I mean, yeah it was Kim's idea, but we've done our homework on this and the numbers add up."

I sat back down.   "Sorry, I just.....I wasn't expecting this."

Barry spun his chair toward Totty. "Twatty, didn't you tell Steve about this?"

"Ummm.....I thought it was a big secret."

"I never told you that."

"I've got your e-mail, Barry. You cc'ed the whole freaking studio." Totty said, gesturing to her laptop. "Project Pod John - TOP SECRET"

Barry spun his chair toward me, ignoring Totty. He took a dramatic swig of water and, taking his time to swallow, said, "No one here wants to make bad movies, Steve." I had offended the poor sensitive prick. 

Scary grin Debra said, "We've done extensive focus testing on this.    When shown photographs of John Lasseter, Jerry, Barry, me, and a sock monkey,   John Lasseter scored hands down the most popular image of a successful animation studio head.  

"The sock monkey was second."   Jerry added.

Scary grin Debra continued, "And while you clearly are very talented and creative, what we really need to know is, 'Will the public buy you?'"

"Totty's got a Power Point thing."   Jerry said,   "Why don't you show Steve the, uh, thing?"

Totty glanced to Jerry, "The SECRET thing?"

"For chrissake, Twatty."   Barry growled.

Totty rolled her chair close to me, opening her laptop.   I was shown a sequence of costume sketches, like they do for movies.   The theme was '"Pod John", a reference to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where people are replaced by a pod replica.   I saw various John-like sketches, with variations on Hawaiian shirts and haircuts.   Porkpie hats, bowling shirts, backward baseball caps, goatees, glasses - all kinds of get ups that could give a person a persona.   Numbness creeped up my skull.  

Jerry spoke. "The movie-going public loves the idea of a John Lasseter walking around making movie magic for their children; someone tangible, someone who represents the movie.   Now here's our problem: sure, there's Lasseter-level talent around, but frankly, if we hired one of them our own positions in the studio would become irrelevant." Kim the seal slapped her tail and barked.

A smartly dressed woman came in with some shirts and hats for me to try on.   She had me stand against the wall, taking Polaroids of me in different get-ups. Kim clapped for her favorites. Her assistants took notes.  The executives were all laughing it up, having me try different combinations of wardrobe.  I played along, thinking about the money.   Being their stooge could be quite lucrative, I thought. I wondered how long I could put up with it,  how long it would take to make some real F-U money.   As I posed in a serape and coonskin cap, I dared to ask, "Does the job come with John Lasseter pay?"



I escorted myself off the lot.  

I never heard back from Usher House.   They produced the Cockamamie Cartoons Feature with hip-hop music and pop culture references. Though it sucked, it was a moderate financial success, and Kim the Seal was promoted.  The animation unit was shut down, Totty let go, Project Pod John abandoned. Honestly, they should have hired the sock monkey.   

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