Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA." Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA."" Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA."
BOX OFFICE GROSS
It’s Christmas day and I’m directing bedlam. I’m completing my sound recording and mixing today because the studio was available all day due to the holiday. I won’t get another block of time given the number of students rushing to complete their films after Christmas break.
The only Foley actors available today are two homeless ladies living in the neighborhood of Soundstage 8 on campus. For $20 and a “Happy Meal”, they agreed to provide the sound effects necessary to complete my 16mm student film titled, “Take 13”. In one sound booth, we’re recording the repeated stabbing of a ham by an elderly woman. She didn’t require any direction because I’m convinced she is psychotic and homicidal. We use ham because pig flesh is similar to human flesh in texture so the stabbing sounds realistic. In a second sound booth, we’re recording a teenage junkie screaming at the top of her lungs. I directed her to scream like she’s going to be stabbed to death in the heart. After many failed takes, I directed her to scream as if desperate for a fix. It’s working.
Sound editing is an art form. I’m fortunate to have my friend George beside me in the mixing room above the sound booths and Foley stage. George loves sound editing and doesn’t care it’s Christmas day. George is a brilliant sound editor and an audiophile but can’t write creatively. In exchange for being my sound editor, I’m rewriting his script. The filmed scenes relating to the sound effects we’re recording are playing on the screen below so we can sync the sound to the film. He’s wearing headphones and in addition to recording and mixing the stabbing and screaming, I can hear the lyrics playing inside his head phones to “Under My Thumb” which he is recording for the murder scene.
“Take 13” is a movie about a nerdy student filmmaker who falls in love with his leading lady, a beautiful cheerleader at the university who flirted and duped him into giving her the lead role to advance her dream of becoming an actress. The leading man is a handsome athlete and drama student with whom she falls in love during the shoot. The filmmaker is consumed with jealously when he discovers a jock strap inside the cheerleaders make up room and learns the two stars of his film are having an affair. He plots to kill the actress and frame the actor for murder by scripting a violent argument involving the stabbing of the leading lady by the leading man. The filmmaker replaces a retractable prop knife used during rehearsals with a look alike authentic knife during the shoot and the leading lady is stabbed to death. The witnesses describe the argument preceding the murder to the homicide detectives and the leading man is arrested, tried, and sent to death row. The filmmaker delights in the opportunity to film the execution decades later as a sham documentary on the horrors of the death penalty.
George says, “Let’s use Take 4 of the scream. It’s got perfect pitch and bone chilling clarity. I’ll pick several stabbing effects as they all sound realistic”. I yell into the microphone, “That’s a wrap!” George places the Stone’s lyrics he recorded on the studio speakers for all to enjoy:
Under my thumb
The girl who once pushed me around…
Under my thumb
The squirmin' dog who's just had her day…
It's down to me, oh yeah…
I exit the mixing room and return to the Foley stage to pay my actors. The screaming heroin addict bolts from the sound booth crying, “Give me my money”, snatches the twenty dollar bill from my hand and runs out of the building to buy the fix she craved all day. The psycho stabber remains inside the booth stabbing the ham which is now cut to shreds. I gently open the door waving the twenty dollar bill in front of her to coax her out of the booth saying, “It’s ok to come out now. I have a present for you!” She begins to ease her way out of the booth like a scared animal in a cage. I place the twenty in her tattered sweater pocket and walk her to the exit. She smells of urine and must have pissed herself in her homicidal frenzy. She slowly walks out of the Soundstage cradling the ham and mumbling, “My pretty baby, pretty baby.”
I wanted to be in the movie business for as long as I remember. I was telling stories to my classmates in the sandbox and blowing off my friend’s invitations to swim or ride bikes on the weekends because I was ensconced in front of my TV watching old movies. I got my hands on my first super 8 camera in middle school and video tape camera and recorder in high school. I was damn good at writing and impressed my high school English instructors who wrote laudatory letters of recommendations which were instrumental in my admission to a highly competitive and prestigious film school in Los Angeles. I’m a senior and must complete “Take 13” as a prerequisite to obtaining my BFA and will also serve as my celluloid resume when I seek work in Hollywood. The best films are showcased at “Industry Night” which is attended by entertainment industry movers and shakers who can make a career. My film is good but the competition will be ferocious. I funded the film on credit cards which are maxed out and need a good paying job when I graduate to pay them off. I can’t imagine not working in the movies. I won’t accept failure. I will be a success!
I arrive at my evening gig on time. It’s 5:00 pm and the phones are already ringing at Box Office Operations or “BOO” for short. The company was founded by Margie who rose through the ranks of the studio film distribution departments which measure success or failure of movies by their box office grosses which are the ticket sales measured in dollars for movies playing in theatres throughout the country. Margie saw the need for an independent, objective company to collect the grosses from the theatres and report them coherently to the film industry executives who would subscribe to her service. It was a timely and brilliant idea making BOO an indispensible conduit between the studios and the movie theatres. It also made Margie a very influential and wealthy woman. I’ve never met or seen Margie. BOO is run by her brother-in-law, Peter who holds the title, General Manager.
BOO occupies an undistinguished office on the second floor of a Hollywood Boulevard building above a naughty lingerie shop. The “Hollywood Walk of Fame” which includes the gold stars bearing the names of famous motion picture folk fronts the building. I always avoid walking on the stars like superstitious people avoid stepping on a crack. I don’t need bad luck and revere the talent the stars honor who are permanently memorialized within the filthy sidewalk. The office is a call center with twenty booths and a telephone where the callers sit and phone movie theatres across the country to obtain the box office results of the day from the theatre manager. It’s necessary to call the manager because accurate box office numbers are best obtained in real time and must be downloaded into our software tabulation system that night for distribution to the subscribers the following morning. The caller handwrites the box office grosses on a call sheet next to each film the theatre is showing. BOO experimented with a log in reporting system accessed by the theatre managers but it wasn’t reliable, resulting in missed box office numbers or inaccurate numbers inputted by the managers eager to go home and inattentive employees.
I supervise the callers from a closet sized office. I report to Peter who works weekdays. Peter was a former stockbroker before marrying Margie’s sister. The two sisters are estranged and Peter didn’t reap any benefit by marrying Margie’s sister. We have a mutual respect for each other knowing we belong in more lucrative and prestigious entertainment industry positions. Despite running the entire business and being Margie’s brother-in-law, Peter is only an over worked and under paid employee. Peters’ teenage daughter is dying from heart failure and is on a long list for a transplant. Peter fears she’ll run out of time waiting for a donor heart.
The shift concludes by midnight as nearly all of the box office results have been obtained from theatres throughout the country. The handwritten reports from each caller are collected by me and delivered to the computer processing department which occupies a separate room. The computer processing office is manned by twin brothers who never speak. They are extremely quick and accurate data inputers who wear superhero costumes by day, parading up and down Hollywood Boulevard taking photos for a fee with the tourists. Often times, they show up to work in their superhero costumes. I think they’re both somewhere on the “Autism spectrum”. This department is headed by Oleg who wrote the computer program which sorts the data resulting in national gross numbers for each film and processed according to the subscriber’s preference. Oleg is a Russian Jew who immigrated to Israel and later to the United States where he set up a computer repair and installation business in Los Angeles. He was a superstar mathematician in Russia and I get a sense his mathematical and computer expertise was put to good use by the KGB. Oleg has a great sense of humor and has a burning desire to live the “American dream”. We have a “Yiddishkeit” bond, swapping jokes in Yiddish.
I supervise twenty callers on any given night. They are an assortment of students, struggling actors, writers, alcoholics, and drug addicts who can stay sober enough to complete their assignments. It’s not a difficult job but requires timeliness by calling the theatre manager at a scheduled time and tenacity to call back until the numbers are obtained and transcribed accurately and neatly on the call sheets. These two requirements of the job create a fair amount of turnover. I have a core group of long time callers who I have assigned to the major theatre markets where accurate and complete grosses are most important. My favorite callers are three gay men who sit together. “Texas” Tommy is a twenty something struggling actor. He’s tall, lean, handsome, and has a gentle, easy going personality. Texas Tommy took a bus from the badlands of rural Texas to the badlands of Hollywood seeking fame and fortune as a leading man only to find his adoring fans are “John’s”, cruising male prostitutes which I believe is Tommy’s day job. He looks handsome in his faded jeans, cowboy hat and boots. He still mourns the passing of his Palomino horse named “Pablo” which died many years ago. Coca is a flamboyant former “show boy”. Alcohol and a harsh life lived in macho South America as a transvestite ravished his androgynous beauty and he looks older than his actual age of fifty. Coca is energetic like a humming bird always brimming with happiness and the excitement of being around people. He’s a natural performer and glides across the room raising everybody’s spirits. On occasion, he’ll complete one of his former show numbers during a break or at the end of his shift. He fondly reminisces about the elaborate shows, “gorgeous” costumes and beautiful clubs he performed in throughout South America. He’s dropped names of famous former lovers of both genders! During the day, Coca is a muse, personal shopper, and pool boy to a wealthy Beverly Hills matron who permits him to live rent free in the pool house. William is a fifty something red head with freckles. He enjoyed early success as an author of murder mystery novels but hasn’t had a novel published in decades. His speech denotes a prep school and elite university education. His red hair and “van dyke” beard are exquisitely trimmed and he shows up to work wearing a smoking jacket with pocket square, neatly pressed trousers, stylish loafers, and an ascot. William is articulate, witty, and doesn’t suffer fools.
I have two additional long time callers. Alice is a retired bookkeeper and tax preparer who was with Margie when she established BOO. Alice served as BOO’s bookkeeper and tax preparer until BOO became successful enough to hire a “Big 8” accounting firm. Margie offered her a position as a caller, she accepted, and is BOO’s longest employee”. Alice is a widow and pushing ninety but works only to keep busy. She marched along side MLK and was active in the NOW movement in the seventies. Alice is devoted to her job and treats each shift like an auditing assignment. She has befriended each of the big city east coast theatre managers who she chats up briefly before and after obtaining the box office grosses. I believe they exchange holiday and birthday cards. Besides me and Peter, Alice is the only caller who takes an interest in the box office reports. Alice wears a traditional accountant’s green visor and pocket protector replete with pencil, eraser, black, blue, and red pens. She works every night and is always available to fill in for somebody unless it’s a Jewish holiday. Ray is an army veteran with PTSD. He’s pushing forty and receives an assortment of psychotropic drugs from the VA handed out like Halloween candy. Ray is bitter about the cards life has dealt him. He grew up in the “rust belt” in a blue collar “hand to mouth” home. He’s resentful about not having a college degree and speaks often about the college football scholarship denied him. After enlisting in the Army and service in the Middle East, he had a short lived career as a postman. He detests the “rich kids” who attend local colleges who work part time at BOO and are half his age. Ray frequently recounts his infantry raids on homes with flamethrowers he refers to as “pest control”. Ray is hard to take at times but has nothing else to live for except showing up to BOO every night. He lives in a skid row flop house and spends his days at the VA eating free meals with those who understand him and share his nightmares.
The office is running smoothly and I lean back in my chair and wonder what Jay is doing? I’ll bet he’s in his recliner sipping cognac and watching a classic movie from his sophisticated Century City condo. Jay and I met in film school. Jay is brilliant and driven. Jay was a law student who packed in as many film courses his schedule would allow knowing he wanted to run a studio one day. Jay is “Director of Business Affairs” at a prestigious venerable old studio which, in its glory years, created movie stars out of Vaudeville performers, turned best sellers into Best Pictures, and signed many of the biggest musical acts of the sixties to record deals in addition to producing popular television series. When the founder of the studio died, the studio lost its creative vision missing out on the science fiction and comic book hero tastes of the younger audiences. Jay reports to the “Vice President of Production”, Arnold. Arnold is a product of the Hollywood nepotism system and the nephew of a Board member or major stockholder. Without Jay’s meticulous attention to detail, brilliant legal skills, and deal making ability, Arnold would be helpless. Jay has named Arnold “The Screamer” The studio routinely turns out flops fueling Arnold’s anxiety which is directed towards Jay. Arnold knows that nepotism won’t save his job unless the studio begins producing hits. Jay realizes that under the current circumstances, his fate is tied to Arnold’s. Jay routinely rejects lucrative offers to join prestigious entertainment law firms because he wants to head the studio. He believes there is an opportunity to replace Arnold if he works “hard and long enough”. Jay won’t accept failure. He’s determined to run the studio one day.
“Shut up you faggots! I can’t hear the box office numbers over your giggles and gossip”, Ray shouts. The call room goes silent. Alice mutes her phone and tells Ray, “That’s a terrible thing to say. You should apologize for that homophobic remark!” Ray replies, “Shut up old woman or I’ll shove that green visor up your ass!” William finishes his call, calmly removes his head phones, turns to Ray and says, “I heard you were known as Private Porcelain in the service because you sought out every whore who would relieve herself on you.” The call room breaks out in laughter. Ray leaps from his desk to attack William. Texas Tommy stands to shield William but Ray is built like a pit-bull. I quickly approach and place Ray is a bear hug whispering, “Chill out, soldier. Come with me, I’ve got a surprise for you in my office.” Ray is red faced, humiliated, and breathing heavy but complies like a kid expecting a candy treat. He follows me into my office and I close the door. I reach into my desk and pull out a bottle of whiskey I keep for such “emergencies”. I fill a shot glass inscribed “US Army” and say, “Drink up soldier, you earned it. Tell me about one of your pest control raids.” Ray downs the first shot, calms and delves into an embellished tail of pillage and heroism. I pour him a second. I can hear the call room return to business outside my door. After downing two shots of whiskey in addition to his meds, Ray is passive and practically comatose. I walk him to the rideshare I called and will complete his calls for him.
It’s 11:00 pm and we’ll wrap up in an hour. I get melancholy after an outburst like tonight. I can’t believe I’m relegated to managing this “asylum”. I’m in my early twenties and don’t want to be the permanent warden of this “snake pit” although Phil has made overtures about a sales position I’ll never accept. I want a job on a studio lot because that’s where the “action is”. I know “Take 13” won’t be selected for “Industry Night” but if I can just get “my foot in the door” on a studio lot, I’ll work harder and longer than anybody which will put me on top. I’ve had my share of job interviews always receiving the standard brush off, “Call me when your film is in the can and I’ll screen it.” It’s time to ask Jay to get me an interview with screaming Arnold.
I text Jay not expecting a reply at this hour:
To my surprise, the text is returned:
My ass! Reading scripts all day.
I text back:
Off at Midnight.
Breakfast at “Cups and Saucers”?
Yeah. See you in 60 minutes.
“Cups and Saucers” is a twenty four hour kitsch coffee shop on Wilshire Boulevard just outside Beverly Hills. We hold court in our favorite spacious booth in the corner of the dining room which hasn’t been updated since it was built in the early sixties. We tip the old waitresses well and they know us by name and remember our late night breakfast preferences. There’s plenty of street parking at this hour and Jay parks his black Porsche 911 4S just outside. Jay and I have always been “night owls”. The difference between us is Jay can function on only several hours’ sleep. He’ll be at his studio desk by 7:00 am and it’s already 12:30 am. He heads straight towards our booth wearing his baseball cap, cargo shorts, sandals, and sweatshirt emblazoned with the studio logo. Jay greets me with “Paulie’s” favorite salutation from the “Soprano’s” series, “What do you say, what do you hear?” We’ve spent entire evenings reciting great movie and television dialogue but tonight we’re both at wits end.
An old waitress who likely has worked here since the joint opened fills our coffee cups and asks, “The usual, boys?” We nod in agreement. Jay gets right to the point, “Arnold is flipping out. He knows the axe is coming down soon. He’s high most of the time on anxiety meds and wouldn’t know a hit if it fell on him. I’ve read twelve scripts today and all of them suck.” I reply, “I don’t know how you take the abuse, Jay. You must be a masochist”. Jay fires back, “It’s the price I’ll pay for success. I’m a few steps from the top rung of the ladder and nothing is going to keep me from reaching the top.” I was happy to see the competitive fire was still in Jay’s belly but my belly was aching for an opportunity. I reached for my coffee cup and my hand was shaking. Jay noticed saying, “Hey, buddy, I didn’t mean to lay my burdens on you. Tell me how I can help?” “I got to get out of BOO and on a studio lot, Jay. My film won’t make me a star director and I’ve received nothing but brush offs from the interviews I’ve gotten on my own. Can you hook me up with an interview with Arnold? I’ll take anything. Once I’m on the lot I’ll become a successful indie producer or die trying!” Jay was a true friend saying, “You got it amigo. Arnold gets into the office at 10:00 am. He makes calls until noon and leaves for lunch meetings over double martinis and the rest of his day he’s asleep at his desk. Show up today at 11:50 sharp. I can get you ten minutes before he leaves for lunch, ok?” Our “comfort food” of eggs, bacon, and pancakes arrived and for the moment, all seemed right with the world.
My father taught me to “dress for success” and I arrived at the studio front gate in my business suit and tie. Jay had my studio pass arranged and I walked onto the lot. I purposely arrived early, wanting to stroll the venerable old studio lot and imagine the talent which once walked the hallowed grounds. I felt at home. I could peek into several studios and reveled in watching movies made. I passed a bungalow serving as an office for “Joey Films”. Joey began his entertainment career singing with a group of guys on street corners in Brooklyn in the fifties. They enjoyed some success in the music industry but Joey wanted to break into the movies. He landed a few character actor roles in pictures and television but developed a knack for “optioning” books which had the potential to be hit movies. He focused on up and coming authors where he could option the book for a pittance and tie up the rights for as long as possible. He’d schlep the book around the studios eventually landing a movie deal. One option led to another and he became a big shot known as the “Option King”. I served as Joey’s teaching assistant in a class he taught on producing movies. Joey knew everybody in town. We hit it off and Joey arranged several interviews for me which ended up being “brush off’s”. I decided to stop in and say hello. I walked into the bungalow and introduced myself to the beautiful secretary, “My name is Ethan Tsalach.” The door to Joey’s office was slightly ajar and I heard him yell, “You’re kidding me! I have three films scheduled for production. How can you cancel them? What are you doin’ selling the lot? I knew the founder of this studio who wouldn’t think of cancelling pictures already scheduled for production!” Joey was outraged. I caught a glimpse of him rise from his chair behind the desk and approach the door catching a glimpse of me. He waved me off indicating he’s too busy to talk, slamming the door. The secretary apologized, “I’m sorry. Please leave your name and perhaps I can schedule an appointment for a later time?” I reply, “Thanks anyways. I’ve got other business on the lot. Tell him, Ethan stopped by to say hello.”
I entered the headquarters building and took the stairs to the top floor where the President and Vice Presidents of the studio had lavish offices. It was a beautiful art deco building and I was in glamorous “Old Hollywood”. I was met by a security guard who politely asked to see my pass and matched it to the names of appointments on his clipboard. The guard walked me to the double walnut doors of the “Vice President of Production”. He opened the door for me, and announced to the secretary, “Mr. Tsalach has arrived for his appointment.” The secretary was on a phone call but was tipped off to my appointment by Jay. She pointed to an office and mouthed the words, “Jay’s waiting for you”. It was 11:45 am and the screaming began, “Jay, Jay! Where’s the damn deal memorandum on the shoot ‘em up? Did you tell that moocher agent he’s not getting a penny more for his talentless client?” The screaming was horrendous. I’m certain Jay had already developed an ulcer. I couldn’t take it but Jay was resilient and wanted to head the studio. I knocked softly and Jay said, “Come in Ethan. Right on time just as usual. He’s actually in a good mood today but all I can promise is ten minutes. Follow me.” Jay walked me into the lavish executive office of his boss, Arnold who was smoking a cigarette in between swigs of a smoothie. He was short and portly with a bad comb over. His wardrobe, however, was chic and bespoke. I suspected he was born to money. He was finishing up a call and motioned for me to sit. Jay sat next to me. Arnold hung up the phone and yelled to his secretary, “Call my uncle and make lunch reservations at a place of his choice.” Arnold leaned back in his lavish leather chair, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Jay says you’re looking for a job?” I felt like the eye contact was a good sign and replied, “Yes, Sir. I’m graduating in June but I’ll take anything you have immediately.” Arnold interrupted me by saying, “Jay says you work at BOO?” I’m feeling confident that Arnold checked me out and may be impressed with me. I reply, “Yes, Sir. I’m the Supervisor of the evening staff.” Arnold continued to look me straight in the eye and said, “You tell that bitch Margie to shove her lousy box office numbers up her ass!” Arnold rose, grabbed his pack of cigarettes and approached the door. His last comment before leaving was, “I don’t need another schlepper, kid. I need hits. Bring me a hit and you’ll have a job!” He left us sitting in his office. I was flabbergasted by the terse brush off he gave me with Jay sitting alongside me. For the first time since I was a kid, my eyes were teary. Jay reached for a box of tissue and handed it to me saying, “Dry your eyes, Ethan. Let me take you to lunch at the commissary”.
I was so dejected I couldn’t appreciate the beauty, grandeur, and history of the famous studio commissary. Because of Jay’s position, we were seated at a wonderful booth where we could see all of the stars come and go. Many familiar celebrities stopped by the table to say hello to Jay. The waitress approached and Jay ordered a Cobb salad and an ice tea. The waitress couldn’t get my attention so Jay said, “The same for my associate.” I could only think about all of the brush off interviews from big shots I was forced to endure. I resented that fat little prick Arnold who couldn’t get a job shining shoes on the lot but for his big shot uncle. What hurt the worst was Joey’s giving me the “bums rush”. I worked for him an entire semester and thought we were friends. Then it dawned on me. Arnold may have dismissed me because he resented BOO for reporting his lousy box office grosses. I was curious about Joey’s conversation and I asked Jack “Is the lot for sale?” Jack’s face became ashen and he shot back, “Keep your voice down! Where did you hear that?” I was surprised by the intensity of Jay’s reaction and answered, “I visited Joey and heard his films scheduled for production were canceled. He said, “What are you doin’ selling the lot? “ Jack looked scared. He put his arm around my shoulder and brought me close whispering, “Booby, besides me, Danny, the President of the Studio, and the Board of Directors, nobody, and I mean nobody knows the studio may be purchased by a foreign electronics conglomerate. The information you have is so privileged it’s covered by hundreds of SEC insider trading statutes which could land all of us in jail if word leaked out to Wall Street.” Our conversation was interrupted when the waitress brought the salads and drinks. Jay was hungry and dove into his salad. I picked at my salad because my mind was racing. For the first time in my entertainment industry career of sorts, I felt powerful because I had a precious asset which only a hand full of Hollywood big shots knew. Jay asked, “You’re not eating, Ethan. I know you very well. When you don’t eat, you’re calculating. What’s going through your mind?” I continued picking at my salad and said, “Your secret is safe with me but we have to talk. Meet me at Cups and Saucers tonight after work. I have an idea!”
It looked to be a slow night at BOO. Box office grosses were minimal across the nation because it was a weeknight following Christmas day. The callers appreciated a slow night. The theatre managers were timely in reporting their grosses and the callers enjoyed extended breaks throughout the night. Copa was in fine form breaking into one of his dance routines. He sauntered up and back, twirled, performed leg raises rivaling the “Rockettes”, and sat down exhausted. Copa was an out of shape, alcoholic fifty year old man dancing like a kid but I was impressed. Ray wasn’t and exclaimed, “Copa you’re one broken down ugly dude but you’re even uglier as a woman!” Copa was hurt by the remark and hurriedly left the room covering his face. The remark was cruel and left a chill in the room. Texas Tommy spoke up, “Back home we know how to handle sidewinders like you, Ray!” Ray replied, “Shut your glory hole Midnight Cowboy or I’ll introduce you to some Johns who’d love to run a train on you pretty boy!” Ray’s mood was growing darker and creating a toxic environment. Either he stopped taking his meds or the VA switched his mood numbing Rx but I’d have to intercede soon. I could afford to fire Ray but couldn’t afford to lose my gay callers who were outgoing, friendly, dependable, and livened up the work environment. I had my meeting with Jay on my mind and would handle Ray another day.
Jay was tense when he arrived at Cups and Saucers. He looked great in his “Kiton” made to measure navy blue suit. I longed to own such a wardrobe one day. The waitress approached and Jay replied, “Just coffee tonight”. I said, “Make it two. Jay you look stressed. The screamer in rare form today?” Jay moved in close to me and said, “I ran into the President of the Studio in the bathroom. He said the acquisition negotiations are heating up with the foreign electronics conglomerate. He gave me the impression the buyer would replace all of the senior management which includes Arnold and me. I’ll be looking for a job on a studio lot just like you. I refuse to work for a law firm!” Jay provided me the perfect segue to pose my proposition: “Won’t your bosses profit from the sale? I mean, they have stock options which will become more valuable after the sale, correct?” Jay replied, “Yeah. They’ll make out like bandits.” I whispered, “So why should you end up empty handed and on the street? Why not buy some stock quietly?” Jay had a worried look saying, “We talked about insider trading. I’m not going to jail and lose my law license. Besides, you’d have to invest a lot of money at the right time to score big if the studio sells. I’ve got a 401K and other liquid funds but not enough to make a killing. Besides, what do you have to invest?” I replied, “I have box office information which is the life blood of the studio to invest, Jay. I’m the first to see the box office results and with this information, we can time our trades based upon the lousy grosses at your studio. The GM at BOO is a former stockbroker and maybe he’ll help us. You have solid credit and I’m sure any stock brokerage firm would do business with you.” Jay replied, “I might as well hang a sign around my neck saying, “insider trading found here”. The big money will go to those who buy in at that the absolute bottom of the stock price, stay in, and reap the profit when the studio is sold. We’re too small, Ethan.” I replied, “Jay, your days are numbered and I’ve got no prospects. Without mentioning you or the studio, would you give me permission to discuss this stock trading idea with the GM at BOO and see if he has any better ideas?” Jay took a sip of coffee and said, “Let me think about it.” He got up from the booth saying, “It’s been a long day and I’m hitting the sack. Goodnight”. I heard Jay start the engine of his beautiful Porsche and I waved goodbye as he drove off down Wilshire Boulevard. I was determined to come up with a winning formula to profit from my inside information. I guess it was Jay’s beautiful suit and watching him drive away in his Porsche which made me hungry for a financial windfall and opportunity to screw the movie business which had denied me even the smallest opportunity. If Jay consents, I’ll talk to Paul just before work and pick his brain. I went home, lay in bed, and fantasized about having enough money to finance my own films. My phone rang and it was Jay saying, “Go for it booby. I’ll be damned if I’ll be a casualty while the fat cats prosper but leave my name and any mention of the studio out of it. Report back to me what Paul says, ok?” I replied, “Thank you, Jay. Your vote of confidence means a lot to me. By the way, “We’re in the money; we’re in the money” Jay yawned and said, “Goodnight schmuck”.
I arrived early at BOO to speak with Paul before he left for the night. I gently tapped on his door saying, “Excuse me, Paul. Have a few minutes?” Paul looked stressed and emotionally drained. He waived me in and said, “How you doin’ Ethan? Think some more about that sales job I discussed with you? It’s a great opportunity to meet all of the motion picture big shots concerned with box office performance.” I closed Paul’s door. I sat and said, “Thank you for the sales opportunity but I’m a creative guy. How’s your daughter doing?” Paul sighed, “She’s running out of time to get a heart. The doc’s are giving her no more than several months to live unless she gets a heart transplant.” I replied, “Can’t wealthy people find hearts more quickly?” Paul said, “Yes but Margie won’t lend her sister a dime and we simply don’t have the money to purchase a heart on our own.” I said, “I need to discuss a profitable idea with a guy who knows stocks. Can you sneak out of the house late tonight and meet me at the Cups and Saucers around midnight?’ Paul looked skeptical and I continued, “Paul, this opportunity could save your daughter’s life.” I saw the wheels turning in Paul’s head. He knew I was a sharp guy and not inclined to waste his time with a “get rich quick scheme”. Paul relented saying, “Sure, Ethan. See you at midnight.” I rose to leave the office and Paul’s phone rang. He answered it immediately recognizing Margie’s private number. As I slowly closed his door, I heard Paul repeating, “Yes, Margie. I have the accounts receivable reports prepared and your quarterly profit will be wired to your account in the morning.” I sympathized with poor beaten down Paul with a dying daughter and wealthy sister-in-law capable of saving her neices life but won’t. I reflected on Jay and Arnold’s imminent firing and my own predicament and thought, “misery loves company”.
Paul arrived in a “soccer mom’s” minivan and parked in Jay’s usual spot outside the coffee shop. To my surprise, he was accompanied by Oleg. They entered the near empty restaurant, spotted me in the large corner booth and sat down. Paul said, “I hope you don’t mind that I brought Oleg. I thought he and I would head over to BOO afterwards to discuss software issues.” Paul was a tactical thinker and likely wanted a “witness” present if the conversation got “sticky” for him. Oleg embraced me saying, “My friend. Ethan, how are you?” The waitress approached. I said, “Coffee for three.” Oleg interrupted, “Tea for me, please.” I suggested we hold our discussion until after the hot drinks arrived. It was an awkward silence but gave me the opportunity for contemplation. I thanked the waitress for the drinks and said, “Please give us some time. We’ll be back to you with an order when we’re ready.” Paul loaded his coffee with cream and sugar while Oleg squeezed lemon into his tea, the tea cup chiming with every turn of the spoon. Oleg listened intently. I began, “It’s come to my attention that a once in a lifetime investment opportunity may exist. I need stock brokerage experience and that’s why I invited Paul. A studio may be sold shortly and I’d like to invest in it before it’s sold. How do I profit from this information?” Paul replied, “Which studio?” I said, “I can’t say but if you can devise a trading platform, I’ll discuss it with my studio insider. If he agrees, I’ll disclose the name of the studio and we can proceed as a partnership.” Oleg remained silent and listened intently. Paul continued, “If somebody had the money to invest, they would place a buy order, sit and wait for the studio to sell.” I said, “I understand but how would somebody with little money make a killing on the sale?” Paul said, “Assuming they had good credit, collateral, and a relationship with a brokerage house, they would set up margin account borrowing money from the brokerage firm to buy additional stock. Some accounts require as little as $2,000. You can borrow up to 50% of the price of the stock and like any loan; you pay interest until the stock is sold. If you make a profit, the loan is paid from the proceeds of the stock sale. If you don’t make a profit, the margin is called and your collateral is at risk.” Oleg remained silent and fixated on the conversation as if playing poker and waiting for my move. I said to Paul, “The success of a margin account rides on a hunch the stock will rise in the near future to avoid interest piling up, correct?” Paul replied, “Yes. I presume you have a credible source of information within the studio that is aware of insider trading prosecutions?” I replied, “I have somebody at the very top, Paul.” Paul sat back in his booth dumbfounded. I could hear the wheels in his head turning. Oleg finally spoke, “My friends. I’m a simple mathematician and computer programmer. I don’t understand all these fancy stock terms but this is what I understand so far. Ethan knows when the studio will sell. I believe his source is credible because Ethan is a smart man and would vet his source carefully. BOO calculates the box office grosses for this studio, I am certain. In addition to profiting when the studio sells, the greater profit will be realized if we manipulate the value of the studio by underreporting or over reporting the grosses which will affect the share price. If we underreport, we buy shares lower and when we overvalue the grosses, our buy in share price increases. Our box office gross manipulations may also invite competitors to the bargaining table and a bidding war ensues and both the share price and sale price of the studio sky rockets. We profit!” Oleg was brilliant and I was impressed by his directness but thought I would test him saying, “We don’t have the money to buy enough stock, Oleg.” Paul said, “BOO has capital.” I replied, “Margie wouldn’t put her business at risk by investing in a risky and criminal stock trade.” Paul’s reply was quick, “She wouldn’t. Screw her! Tell him, Oleg”. Now it was becoming clear to me why Paul brought Oleg to the meeting. Paul developed a hunch about my proposition and briefed Oleg. Paul and Oleg also know which studios could be ripe for purchase based upon their underperforming box office grosses. It wouldn’t be difficult to conclude it was Jays’ studio but they couldn’t screw me by cutting me out of the deal because I held the “Ace of Spades” who was Jay. Oleg continued, “Paul has complete control of BOO’s bank accounts which he manages on his PC. I create and send from foreign email address sneaky email virus to Paul which he opens. My virus infects all of BOO’s bank accounts making systematic, small and virtually unnoticeable withdrawals which are wired to untraceable foreign cash cards which in turn wire laundered BOO funds to my trusted bank in Russia. The bank’s investment banking division handles all of the trades from Moscow” I ask, “Why would the bank in Russia want to receive small deposits coming from BOO and institute such a small stock purchase?” Oleg had anticipated my question saying, “Ethan my friend, Russian bank wants to know we have “skin in the game”. Once they know we’re putting our asses on the line with your inside source, and making small deposits from BOO who is also manipulating the box office data to banks advantage, bank and their clients invest hundreds of millions of dollars in studios stock.” I ask Oleg again, “Margie owns the BOO accounts. She will kill the deal if she discovers the unaccounted for withdrawals.” Paul replied, “He’s correct, Oleg. She only looks at the bottom line but the small withdrawals can add up and she has an instinct for what her quarterly profit wires should be.” Oleg replied, “My friend, Russian bank never takes money directly from BOO. BOO money untraceable after laundering through East Europe cash cards with credit balances deposited into multiple overseas bank accounts which wire Russian bank independently. It’s too many cash cards and too many individual bank wires for anybody to trace, even FBI. I simply tell her she was hacked.” Paul asked the question which was now on my mind. “Oleg, how do we trust the Russian bank not to cut us out and are you confidant in your ability to manipulate the BOO grosses on the studio’s films?” Oleg took a sip of tea, leaned back in the booth with a big smile saying, “Ah you skeptical Americans. Do you watch Russian election results? How does same man win despite protests against him in the streets? How do Russian hackers infiltrate worldwide web sites? I wrote the BOO software which will manipulate the numbers anyway I want! Bank won’t screw us because they need our inside studio source for timing of stock purchases and BOO manipulation of box office grosses” Oleg didn’t have to say anymore. I knew his connections in Russia likely reached the highest office in the Kremlin. Oleg spoke again, “So Ethan, you visit with your inside source and explain platform. If he comfortable, we partners and become very, very wealthy and I retire to penthouse apartment in Tel Aviv, Paul’s beautiful daughter gets her heart, and you become big shot Hollywood producer! So, we all say goodnight and talk again soon.” Oleg was festive but Paul was silent although his face was radiant knowing that his daughter might live. I told them I’d stay behind and have breakfast. I watched as they drove off and I was certain Paul and Oleg would be calculating their strategy tonight. I reached into my pocket and removed the small disposable flip phone which had been on speaker mode the entire time and raised it to my mouth saying, “Jay did you catch all of that? Are you comfortable?” Jay’s reply was resolute: I’m all in Ethan. Let’s do it!” I replied, “Can we trust Oleg and his cohorts?” Jay replied, “Our studio is hacked all the time and we’ve seen the good, bad, and average hackers. Oleg is on a genius level and probably wrote the book on the subject. I completed a discrete background investigation on Oleg, Phil, and Margie. Oleg is tight within the highest reaches of Russian government whose cronies own the Russian banks. If he says it can be done, believe him.” I asked, “If Oleg is such a genius, why is he running a small time computer repair business in LA?” Jay replied, “Just like you, me, and Phil, Oleg was just a foot soldier doing his job for the Russian government before immigrating. His Russian banking contacts are only talking to him because his information is valuable and will make the bank hundreds of millions of dollars. I’m not concerned about Paul because he needs the money. He’s six figures in debt to medical bills and months behind on his mortgage payment. Margie has a lot of respect within the industry but BOO is nothing more than a passive investment for her. She spends her days shopping on Rodeo Drive, travelling, and shtuping her personal trainer.” I ask, “What about us, Jay? What is our cut of the deal?” Jay replied, “Although we’re providing the inside information and manipulating the studio’s box office performance, the bank is putting up hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase the stock and will take most of the profits. They need my inside information on timing and progress of the sale and BOO’s box office gross manipulation. If we perform as expected, they will be fair making us all millionaires when the studio sells. The bank won’t be the owner of the stock but will anoint some “shills” as the named purchasers of the stock who will be the majority shareholders of the studio. At the appropriate time, I’ll demand the majority shareholders be placed on the Board of Directors, giving me and you want we want.” I ask, “Are you sure about all of this?” Jay responds, “Life’s a gamble. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Unless we take this chance, I’ll lose my studio job and spend the rest of my life in a law firm and you’ll be counting grosses until another gig comes along. If the gamble pays off, just think of all those movies you’ll be making, Ethan. Just remember, the purchase negotiations could fall apart and there could be no sale. Nothing is certain so every day is business as usual. Moving forward, we speak only on disposable flip phones discarded after every conversation. I speak only with you. We wait patiently for Oleg and the bank to do its thing. They’ll contact you through Oleg and you contact me.” I answered, “Agreed Jay. Goodnight schmuck.” Jay laughed and replied, “By the way, kiddo, work on getting that 500 FICO score up.” Jay was always one step ahead.
When I showed up to the BOO offices the next day, I highlighted the name of the studio in green on one of the call sheets which was a signal “game on”. I personally handed it to Phil. He grinned as if knowing the name of the studio all the time. I returned to my desk and supervisory duties.
Ray showed up to work with his usual “far away” look on his face. I asked him to step into my office and close the door. He looked nervous. I said, “Ray, I have to let you go because you’re creating a hostile work environment and one of those gay guys can sue BOO.” Ray began to breath heavy and I braced myself for a physical altercation. Instead, Ray began to cry pleading, “Ethan BOO is all I have. Please don’t fire me, please. I don’t know what I’ll do with my nights. I’m frightened when I’m alone at night.” It was ironic how fragile the blowhard and bully actually was but I still felt empathy seeing a grown man cry. I didn’t have the heart to fire him and asked, “If I put you on two week probation, can you learn to control your temper and keep your big mouth shut?” Ray wiped the tears running down his face and said, “Whatever you say, Ethan!” I felt like I had to reinforce the message I was sending to Ray and said, “No more war stories, homophobic slurs, and don’t say anything other than hello and goodbye to the gays or Alice. Got it?” Ray put forward his hand to shake and said, “Agreed, boss, Thank you for the second chance. I won’t let you down, I promise!” The look on Ray’s face was ecstatic like the look of a man thrown a life preserver and I felt good about my decision. Although his cruel remarks and bullying were inexcusable, they were the product of a rough upbringing and unimaginable experiences as a soldier resulting in psychological trauma. I can’t fault anybody for being mentally ill. Ray got up to open the door and I said, “One more thing, Ray. The probation requires you to sit outside the call center and use the receptionist’s phone in the lobby. You won’t be disturbed by the other callers and you’ll have two weeks to think about your behavior.” The ecstatic look on Ray’s face was replaced by a silent hostile look I wish I could capture one day as a director. He was panting and his fists clenched but he remained silent simply nodding affirmatively. I opened the door and said, “Let’s get you set up at the receptionist’s desk.”
After moving Ray from the call center to the receptionist’s desk, the workplace was operating efficiently and smoothly. The callers had a “spring in their step”. The room was happy. I did receive comments from two callers about being “creped out” having to pass Ray on the way to and from the bathrooms. When I asked why, the answers included feeling a “heavy vibe” and “he feels like a smoldering volcano”.
It had been about ten days since Oleg, Paul, and I met. Jay was silent. It was a weeknight and I left the BOO offices at midnight. The callers had gone home and only the two “super heroes” were hard at work. I said goodnight but didn’t expect and didn’t receive any reply. I walked down the steps, opened the door, and stepped on to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I turned, proceeded to lock the door, and felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Oleg who had arrived to process the grosses which were being inputted upstairs. Oleg had a jovial look on his face and a unfiltered filter cigarette in his mouth but managed to say, “Ah my good friend. Ethan. Hello. We are ready. Goodnight.” Oleg entered the stairway and I stared at the faded stars embedded in the filthy sidewalk and said, “Thank you stars. I promise you’ll never be forgotten”.
It was almost one in the morning when I arrived home. I texted Jay on the disposable flip phone:
It didn’t surprise me that Jay was awake replying:
Cups & Saucers.
I arrived at BOO by 5:00 pm the next evening. I was eager to begin my evening knowing I would be meeting Jay later. I ran up the stairs and met Ray who was recording his figures on the call sheets. He was happy in his work and I didn’t sense any negative “vibe”. He greeted me saying, “Top of the evening, boss.” As I entered the call room, I felt somberness in the air and noticed Texas Tommy wasn’t at work.
There was a note on my desk from the receptionist who had transcribed a message from a hospital that he’d been hospitalized and was unable to report for work. Copa rose from his call booth to visit the bathroom and have a smoke. He wasn’t dancing or humming a show tune as usual. I motioned for him to enter my office. I showed Copa the note from the receptionist and asked, “What happened to Texas Tommy?” Copa sat, crossed his legs and arms and said softly, “Texas was severely beaten up by a John. They destroyed his beautiful face.” I rose and closed the door. I placed my arms around him as he wept. I asked, “Did they catch the John?” Copa replied, “Texas is afraid to talk to the cops. He’ll need expensive facial reconstruction which he can’t afford. He’ll never become a leading man and how can the beautiful boy look at himself in the mirror?” Copa referred to “they” and I was confused thinking he was beaten by a single John. I asked him, “You said the word “they”. Were there more than one John?” Copa rose and reached for the door saying, “I’ve already said too much. Thank you, Ethan, darling for caring. Please give Texas privacy. He doesn’t want any visitors. I know you understand.” The call room wasn’t the same without Texas Tommy. The levity of William, Texas, and Copa together was replaced with a sterile professionalism and efficiency. It was 11:30 pm and I closed the call center to see Jay. My excitement was dampened by the bad news about Texas Tommy.
I arrived at Cups & Saucers to find Jay’s Porsche already parked out front. I met Jay in our usual booth and he had already ordered coffee for two and a big breakfast for himself. I knew Jay was happy because he was eating. I slid into the booth and Jay said, “I already placed your usual order with the waitress.” Jay was chewing his food and slid a paper napkin across the table to me. He motioned me to flip it over. He had written:
Non binding proposal accepted. 3.0B. $20/share.
Buyer assumes lousy summer box office for studio
Close deal after Labor Day
Jay motioned for me to return the napkin. He tore it to shreds and placed the shreds into his full coffee cup. Jay swallowed his food, took a drink of the fresh squeezed orange juice, and said, “What do you hear, what do you say?” I replied, “All is well with the world, my friend. All is well!”
The next evening, I arrived early to see Paul before he left work for home. I poked my head into his office, smiled and said, “Box Office Gross complete.” I expected to hear from Oleg shortly. It was an ordinary night at work. After closing the call center just before midnight, I walked down the stairs and out on to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I felt a familiar tap on my shoulder, turned, and saw Oleg with his unfiltered cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He was holding a briefcase in one hand and a lap top in the other. He motioned for me to reach into his shirt pocket and retrieve his stainless steel lighter replete with a vintage Soviet Army red star emblazoned upon it. I held the lighter to his cigarette and in the palm of my hand, he could read:
Non binding proposal accepted. 3.0B. $20/share.
Buyer assumes lousy summer box office for studio
Close deal after Labor Day
He nodded approvingly and I held the door open for him. Not a word had been spoken between us. Over the weeks to come, it would be business as usual for me. I had no knowledge of and didn’t want to know what Jay, Oleg, and Paul were doing. If the studio’s box office grosses were being manipulated, I would never know. Jay would text me when he had news about the studio purchase. The studios stock price was steady at $20 through the month of April. I noticed it increase to $22 which led me to believe the Russian bank was purchasing shares. I’ll never forget that day because it was “May Day”, the first of May celebrating workers in Russia.
“Take 13” wasn’t selected for “Industry Night” and I completed my final exams. I graduated and received by BFA but didn’t attend the graduation ceremony. I was playing in “the big leagues” of Hollywood. It was the middle of June and kids across the country were on summer break. It was “prime time” for the movie industry and box office results were watched closely. Each studio’s fiscal performance for the entire year would be made or broken by their films performance over summer culminating Labor Day weekend.
Alice was a quiet determined caller who came and went without a word but tonight she visited me in my office after completing her shift and said, “Ethan, I’ve been reviewing the box office reports for this studio’s films and they aren’t jiving with the lower grosses I’m reporting from the theatres throughout the east coast region.” My heart skipped a beat. Alice was a box office “junkie” knowing each studio’s releases and respective grosses better than the President’s of the studios releasing the films! She had decades of box office reporting experience. Interfacing with Alice about box office grosses was like an IRS audit. The theatres reporting to her were located in large east coast metropolitan cities serving as traditional barometers for national results. I replied, “I don’t know what to say, Alice. Maybe the films are performing better in the east coast region than nationally?” Alice scratched her head and said, “We’ll you’re the supervisor and a film school graduate. I trust your insight. Goodnight.” She bought my explanation this time and I hoped she would back off. Oleg was manipulating the studio’s grosses upward with the goal of increasing the stock price of the studio. I trusted Jay, Oleg, and Phil were doing their respective “jobs” and remained patient.
It was nearing midnight and only William and I were left in the call room. William was handling Texas Tommy’s west coast calls. I approached saying, “William why don’t you call it a night? I’ll finish those grosses for you” and he replied, “Just one more call and I’ll be done, Ethan.” I sat down next to William and asked, “How is Texas doing, William?” William finished transcribing the grosses on to the call sheet and sighed, “He won’t allow visitors because he is proud and vain. I heard he was transferred from the hospital into a convalescent facility to continue healing but needs expensive, facial reconstruction surgery. His family is dirt poor and there is no insurance.” I asked, “Did they arrest anybody?” William’s reply was terse, “No. Texas refuses to cooperate with the detectives.” I wondered to myself why he wouldn’t want the thugs caught and asked, “Why?” William reached inside his coat pocket, pulled out a black and white photograph showing a young man standing next to a Palomino horse with a blue ribbon attached to the saddle. He handed it to me saying, “Tommy hails from a small rural town in Texas. He wants to be remembered for the native son who left home to become a leading man not a gay hustler in Hollywood.” William retrieved the photograph from my hand and placed it back in his coat pocket. He rose and began to collect his belongings before clocking out and said, “Life is problematic for gay men, Ethan.” I clumsily answered, “I know”. William cut me some slack knowing that a straight man could be empathetic but clueless, saying, “No you don’t. Imagine taking a beating and not seeking justice out of fear of losing your career and family?” I could only say, “Goodnight William” to which he replied, “Thank you for caring, Ethan. Goodnight.” William walked down the hall and towards the stairwell leading down and out of BOO. I shouted, “What do you think happened, William?” He turned and said, "I believe he was run over by a train”. I heard that expression recently. The connection was immediate and wasn’t lost on me. I thought how unfair it was that with all the wealth in Hollywood, Texas and Paul’s daughter were suffering under the famous Hollywood sign illuminated like a beacon signaling “glamour, fame, and fortune found here”. I vowed to myself to help Texas Tommy find justice and the money for the reconstructive surgery which would restore his handsome good looks and self respect. Paul would find a heart for his dying daughter.
On July first, I received my first text from Jay since April:
Update at Midnight
Cups & Saucers
I closed up the call center and drove to meet with Jay who had already arrived. I could see him from the sidewalk. He’s was only drinking coffee which was a sign he wasn’t hungry and would have important news. I slid in next to him and as before, he slid a paper napkin towards me and motioned for me to turn it over. It revealed the following:
May 1. Buy in @ $20. Close @ $22
June 1-15 grosses fixed. Close @ $23. Buy. Close @ $25
June 15-July 5 grosses fixed. Close @ $27. Buy. Close @ $29
3.0B @ $20 offer rejected by studio. Studio counter offer @ 3.5B @ $29
I gave the napkin back to Jay. He tore it in shreds and drowned it in the coffee cup. We didn’t speak a single word. Jay winked, got up from the booth, and left. I heard his Porsche speed off down Wilshire Boulevard. Jay’s wink told me a high stakes game of chess was being played behind the scenes. Jay was confidant and enjoying the game. The meeting made me hungry and I ordered a big breakfast.
It was last day of July when I reported to work. As I walked past the receptionist preparing to leave for the evening and proceeded to the call room, I passed Paul’s office and saw him sitting with Alice. Something was amiss but I entered my office and proceeded to begin my work. The intercom on my office phone buzzed and I could see it was Paul calling. I answered, “Hello Paul. How may I help you?” He asked me to join him and Alice is his office. I entered the office, Paul asked me to close the door, and invited me to sit. Phil asked Alice to continue. “As I was saying, Paul, my grosses aren’t matching up with what BOO is reporting for the studio’s slate of films. My raw grosses are consistently lower than what BOO is reporting for my region. I’ve already broached this subject with Ethan”. Paul asked me, “Is that correct, Ethan?” I replied, “Yes Paul, but I told Alice already that it’s likely due to regional movie goers preferences in her markets accounting for the higher grosses.” Paul looked to Alice saying, “It sounds logical to me Alice. Ethan sees the raw numbers on the call sheets for the entire nation not just the northeast cities you report. His explanation is logical.” Alice was frustrated like somebody trying to finish a crossword puzzle and exclaimed, “BOO’s northeast numbers can’t be correct! Do you have my call sheets for the past two months?” Paul calmly said, “No Alice. They’re shredded after being inputted as part of our security procedures”. Paul was cool, calm, and collected. I thought his answer was a smart one. Alice grew more frustrated and said, “Maybe something is amiss in the computer room? I’ve never trusted that new-fangled computer program Margie bought from the Russian. Perhaps those two data imputers are screwing up? If we were still tabulating the grosses the old fashioned way, column by column, region by region with pencil and eraser we wouldn’t have this discrepancy!” Paul replied, “I trust the computer software and our data processors, Alice. BOO values your employment and we’re honored to have you as the longest employee at BOO but there comes a time when you got to “hang up the spurs”, Alice.” Alice tensed, sat up, looked directly at Paul and said, “What the hell are you implying, Paul?” Paul calmly replied, “I think your age is interfering with your abilities to accurately perform your duties, Alice. Maybe it’s your eyesight or something else?” Alice was a tiny old woman but when she stood and leaned over Paul’s desk, she was imposing. Alice was insulted and responded, “There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight or cognitive abilities! You’re a salesman Margie hired to sell subscriptions to her service. I’m a bean counter who helped Margie build this company from the ground up! Margie started as a secretary in a movie distribution department and rose to become senior vice president of worldwide distribution at one of the largest movie studios in the world. You’re a man and wouldn’t understand the odds against her success but I know it very well. BOO is a respected and trusted box office gross reporting company and its integrity needs to be protected at all costs! I have an instinct for these grosses and know something is screwy. Find the problem and fix it because you’re the General Manager paid by Margie to run a tight ship. I’ll be monitoring my region’s performance through Labor Day to see if you succeeded, Paul. By the way, I’m not retiring. If you fire me, you’ll have one hell of an age discrimination suit on your hands! And trust me; I’ll pass with flying colors any cognitive tests your attorney throws at me! Excuse me, gentleman. I have to begin my shift.” Alice calmly opened the door and left the office gently closing the door behind her. Alice’s tantrum placed Paul and me on our heels. Paul reached for the framed photograph of his dying daughter, held it in front of his face, and said, “Alice will be keeping her own set of grosses from now on. If she approaches Margie, it’s game over. Find a fix to this dilemma, Ethan, please. This is above my pay grade.” Paul was frightened but to tell you the truth, I didn’t give a damn. If I ended up on the hot seat, I’d lay the rap at Margie’s feet. I’ve been telling stories my entire life and knew that I’d find an appropriate ending to this scene.
I was keeping my eye on the studio’s stock price through the end of July and into August. It remained steady at $29 per share suggesting the players in our game of chess were lying low. As I had promised Ray weeks ago, I permitted him to return to the call room. Ray had also kept his promise and was a professional seldom speaking except to say hello or goodbye to anybody. The Labor Day weekend was ahead of us and was the grand finale weekend opportunity for each studios slate of films. Each night after clocking out, Alice would spend a few minutes making entries into a ledger which I suspect were her own set of box office grosses. No employee was permitted to use the copy machines or remove the box office sheets from the office. She shook her head repeatedly indicating frustration about her numbers not jiving with the BOO numbers for her region. If I prohibited her from keeping her own set of books and removing them from the office, it may push her to confront Margie so I let her be.
It was the third weekend of August and the pressures of the important Labor Day weekend box office collecting were mounting. The callers were told to expect overtime and no requests for the Labor Day weekend off were granted resulting in several part-time callers quitting on the spot. Rather than hire new callers which would require training, Paul instructed me to spread the work load of the quitting employees amongst the full-time employees. As a result, each of the callers was working longer with fewer breaks. I could feel the pressure mount in the call room. William and Copa worked in tandem helping each other complete the many box office gross sheets assigned to them. Alice was a perfectionist and was comfortable working her customary east coast region but was having difficulty adjusting to the new regions assigned to her. Calling new theatre managers with whom she had no rapport and having to make several attempts at obtaining the box office grosses were proving too much for her. She was falling behind. William and Copa would generally jump in and help another caller but were too busy completing their own work. I was confronted by a conundrum. I could let her fail, fire her, and perhaps be rid of her meddling in our box office manipulation or be a responsible supervisor and take over some of her sheets. I did the latter. I got off my ass and approached Alice and said, “You’re falling behind Alice. Let me take some of those call sheets.” Alice was overwhelmed but said in a frenzy, “Yes but let me keep my region!” I pitied old Alice and relieved her of the twelve additional call sheets assigned to her permitting her to take a deep breath and focus on her familiar theatres. I divided her sheets in half, giving Ray six and keeping six for myself. I approached Ray and laid the six call sheets on his desk which provoked him into saying, “Why do I have to help her? Nobody is helping me!” Copa responded to Ray, “Give me three of your sheets and I’ll help you.” Copa rose from his chair and reached from behind inadvertently brushing Ray’s back to take three sheets. Ray exploded, “That cheap perfume stinks to high hell. You got it all over me, faggot! I’ll get a splitting headache from my allergy from your cheap perfume.” William was irate and grabbed the sheets from Copa’s hand and threw them on Ray’s desk saying, “You can shove these up your ass.” I expected bedlam to break out but Ray sat silently and began breathing heavily. I prepared to intercede if a physical altercation broke out. It wasn’t more than a few minutes before Ray responded to William saying, “The Taliban knows how to handle faggots.” The added pressure of the weekend stressed out normally even keeled William and he shot back, “Do they run a train over faggots?” The call room went silent as Ray’s possible connection to Texas Tommy’s beating was evident. Ray wasn’t fazed and said, “The Taliban burns them alive.” Alice who had regained her composure after being relieved of the extra calls couldn’t remain silent exclaiming, “Don’t bore us with anymore of your hateful war stories, Ray. Do less talking and more calling. You and the company will be better off!” Ray couldn’t resist the opportunity to respond, “I can tell Alzheimer’s is creeping up on you watching you struggle to complete the extra sheets, Alice. It couldn’t happen to a nicer Jewess!” Copa couldn’t take the arguing, rose from his chair, and ran to the exit exclaiming, “I need a break from this cruelty.” The Alzheimer’s remark hit Alice hard. She was an accomplished woman, good with figures, and a proud woman who braved decades of discrimination as both a woman and a Jew. She turned to Ray, removed her visor, and calmly said, “You’re a cruel little man who lives in a dark hole hiding from a beautiful world you feel insignificant within. I pity you Ray and hope you find a way to crawl out of the darkness and into the light.” I had to step in and restore order. I took the three extra sheets away from Ray and whispered, “I’ll handle your extra duty but get your ass over to the receptionist’s desk and finish your shift. Ray sarcastically replied, “Yes Sir!” As he left the call room, he muttered, “Glad to be away from faggots and old hags anyways!” I felt the disposable flip phone vibrate in my pocket. After setting Ray up in the receptionist’s table and admonishing him that it would be his permanent call station until further notice, I retreated to the bathroom stall to read Jay’s text message:
Busy at work. Make it 1:00 am.
See you then.
I was proud of the crew tonight including Ray. Despite the increased work load, they managed to report ninety percent of the grosses. On a fully staffed night, ninety percent is considered satisfactory. I was beat and closed up shop. The Walk of Fame is still busy at midnight but at this hour, only the desperate, searching, or wandering mull about.
I arrived ahead of Jay and ordered coffee. Within a few minutes, I heard the familiar roar of his Porsche approach the coffee shop and park in front. He was greeted by our favorite waitresses as he entered and asked for “My usual breakfast, please”. I knew the news would be good. I was worried about the stall in negotiations and expected the deal to fall through just like all of my Hollywood experiences. Jay was wearing a beautiful gray pin striped double breasted “Brioni” suit tonight. I surmised he must have had high level meetings. He moved in close to speak to me instead of using the napkin approach of communicating. I commented, “You look dapper, Jay. Must have had a big day?” Jay’s food arrived and he organized the plate before speaking and taking his first bite. He swallowed, took a sip of coffee, and said, “The Russians are sharp negotiators. They created a stalking horse competitor to get the other buyer off his ass and it worked.” I didn’t know exactly what Jay meant and asked, “Stalking horse?” Jay swallowed his food, took a sip of coffee, and answered, “It’s a sham buyer the other buyer can validate.” Jack stopped speaking and reached for a napkin and wrote:
Offer: 3.6B @ $31
I tore it into pieces and placed it in my coffee cup and asked, “What did the original buyer say?” It’s not what they said, it’s what they’re doing, my man. They’ll increase their offer after reviewing Labor Day box office grosses. I expect the deal to be complete and announced by the second week of September. Arnold and I were in meetings all day with the President of the studio, Chairman of the Board, and a host of attorneys and accountants. I couldn’t stand to hear them praise Arnold for delivering hits and the fat little prick is taking credit. They promised him stock options at $29 if the Labor Day grosses are high and the sale goes through. I had to ask, “What did they offer you, Jack?” With a smirk he replied, “To keep my job which makes the risk of this whole endeavor worthwhile for me and you. We won’t be casualties this time, Nathan! It will be a wild Labor Day weekend for you. Sit back and watch the fireworks!” Truer words were never spoken.
Paul and I wanted to be prepared for the important Labor Day weekend grosses and coaxed former callers “out of retirement” with extra pay so we would be properly staffed and each caller not overwhelmed and able to achieve near one hundred percentage reporting. We offered $100 bonus to each caller if we achieved reporting success of at least ninety eight percent. I needed the operation to run smoothly and offered Ray an upfront $100 cash incentive bonus if he would remain in the reception lobby and not speak to anybody. It worked. The phones rang, callers made calls, and box office gross sheets were completed each night and delivered to the computing department with almost 99% completion. It was a long weekend and I eagerly awaited the events which would start to go down on Tuesday after the Labor Day national box office gross was released to the media. On Tuesday night following the Labor Day weekend, I received a text from Jay reading:
No time to meet.
Labor Day box office gross fix. Close @ $35. Buy. Close @ $37
Original offer raised to 3.75B @ $37
One more round, amigo.
Greedy on the gross fix! May catch heat here.
Oleg and Paul were greedy because they had to be. It was the last weekend for them to puff up the studio’s box office grosses resulting in a $4 per share increase of the studio’s stock. My instincts told me they would invite the “stalking horse” buyer back to the table for one more “performance”.
I couldn’t sleep Tuesday and reported to BOO on time Wednesday evening. I knew being greedy would back-fire and sure as hell as I walked past Paul’s office, I saw Alice and Oleg in a heated discussion and grimaced as I entered my office expecting to be summoned to their meeting. Within seconds, the buzzer on my office phone announced Paul wanted me. I didn’t bother to answer and just walked towards his office. I knocked and was invited inside interrupting Oleg in mid speech. I closed the door. There was no seat and I stood. The air was thick with confrontation. Oleg continued, “My data entry people are experts. I match them against any in the world. Perhaps you not so good numbers reporter, Alice”? Paul interrupted, “Thank you for joining us, Ethan. Alice prepared her own set of box office grosses for her region which don’t match the BOO report for the same region.” He handed me a copy of her detailed handwritten ledger showing each theatre’s box office grosses for each of the studios movies for the Labor Day weekend commencing Friday and ending Monday night. I had to think quickly because I anticipated the next question from Paul, “What is your opinion on the discrepancy, Ethan.” First, it’s against company policy to keep any independent box office gross reports and Alice should be disciplined. Second, Alice had difficulty keeping up with the increased work load two weekends ago when we were understaffed so I relieved her of the extra duty. It wasn’t fair to the other callers. Oleg followed, “Yes, I agree with Ethan. This job requires young agile minds. Alice is too old and no longer capable of performing job. Instead, she makes false accusations against my computer program and personnel to cover her own ineptitude!” Paul didn’t have the opportunity to ask Alice to comment because she blasted Oleg and me, saying, “Gentlemen, and I use the term sparingly, my decision to comment on the box office gross discrepancy isn’t not about my capabilities. I could care less whether you fire me. It’s about the reputation and credibility of this fine company. If the industry can’t rely on BOO’s reporting of accurate box office grosses, the company Margie worked so hard to build will be out of business and you boys will be out of a job. I’m an old lady living off my retirement plan. What are your fall back positions?” Paul, Oleg, and I were thinking the same thing simultaneously, “If you only knew Alice!” Alice continued, “I’ve provided you with my data and now it’s up to the three of you to explain the discrepancies or I’ll have no choice but to approach Margie next week. I’ll eagerly await your answer.” Alice rose, opened the door, and before leaving stated, “I’ll presume I still have a job unless I hear otherwise.” Paul, Oleg, and I remained silent but each of knew we were “so close but yet so far” from becoming millionaires.
It would be a long week and next week at this time, I may be out of a job and facing criminal conspiracy charges with the SEC. Oleg would probably skip the country with the help of his Russian contacts but Paul would be ruined and his poor family couldn’t suffer any more tragedy. Each night I passed Ron completing his work from the receptionist’s desk, his mood appeared darker. I couldn’t help but think of poor Texas Tommy whose life was destroyed forever. Over the course of the week, I retreated to writing during the day as a form of meditation. The more I wrote the better I felt. My writing emboldened me and took me back to a place of empowerment realizing I owned a writing talent nobody could take away from me. By Friday, my writing provided me with a plan.
I showed up early Friday afternoon to discuss an “Employee Appreciation Day” with Paul to reward the callers for achieving in excess of ninety eight percent reporting for the important Labor Day Weekend. Paul was sullen and simply nodded yes to every suggestion I offered. He wouldn’t take his eyes of the framed picture of his dying daughter the entire meeting. The callers had all arrived and were in their seats by six on Friday evening. I shouted, “Excuse me. May I have your attention, please?” The call room went silent. I saw Ray from the corner of my eye enter the call center. I began, “Monday evening, BOO will be hosting an Employee Appreciation Day to recognize your outstanding performance over Labor Day. The party will commence at ten and include pizza, soft drinks, booze, cake, and music. I hope you’ll all will attend.” The call room burst into applause. Ray pointed to himself and mouthed the words, “Me too?” I nodded in the affirmative and he lit up like a kid attending his own birthday party. Most of the callers would finish and leave by 10 pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Ray was generally one of the last to leave because he was working west coast theatre chains. I made it a point to stop by and spend a few minutes each night with him. My comments included, “I was wrong about Alice. I think she’s not a joiner. She’s a lone wolf and we both know lone wolfs don’t belong in the service, sorry, I meant company. You know what I mean? This office needs joiners like you, Ray.” On Saturday I asked, “How does sitting in the reception room alone make you feel? Do you feel like an outcast? Maybe I should reconsider punishing you?” With each comment, I was stoking anger and planting seeds of hope in Ray’s disturbed mind. I saved the most crucial comment for Sunday night saying, “I think Alice had it out for you and set you up, Ray. I’ll think about it and maybe we can get you back in the call room” With each suggestion, I continued to stoke Ray’s hatred and anger towards Alice and whipped up his hopes of joining the call center. It also made him trust me.
Monday’s are generally not the best day of the week for any employee but this Monday would end up becoming a bad night for all employees at BOO. The caller’s were in a festive mood because Monday’s are a slow night for box office grosses and they were all looking forward to the party. Ray’s bus arrived at 5:00 pm and I made it a point to greet him as he got off the bus in a mock surprise meeting. I’d be wearing my backpack to give him the impression I had just arrived at work. Right on time, the bus pulled up and stopped. Ray exited and I came up behind him and said, “It will be a great party tonight!” Ray was excited about the party and said, “Yeah boss, I’ve been looking forward to it all week. I love cake. I hope it has vanilla icing!” I’ll thank the baker for the vanilla icing wedding cake at a later date I thought to myself. I put my arm around him and said, “Ray, before we go up, I’ve done more research on Alice. I’ve asked around and she’s been saying some terrible things about you.” Ray’s festive mood turned sullen asking, “What has that old bitch been saying about me?” I replied, “Ah, forget it Ray. It really doesn’t matter. I’m going to immediately take you off probation and protect you from Alice.” I knew Ray wouldn’t let it go and he pleaded, “Tell me what she said Ethan?” I taunted him, “You must promise not to get mad and go upstairs to confront Alice.” Ray said, “I promise, please tell me what she’s saying.” I pulled a paper from my pocket and began to read:
Red neck anti-Semite
Private Porcelain is an insect who likes to live in excrement
Woman hater and closet homosexual
Ray’s face turned beet red and his breathing was heavy. His pit-bull physique expanded like a blow fish with every muscle readying for confrontation. I finished by saying, “It’s hard to hear but I know you’ll take it like a soldier but I have a fun way for you to get revenge for her putting you down. Want to know?” Ray’s face lit up saying, “Yeah, how can I get back at her?” I reached into my backpack and retrieved a knife. Ray loved weapons and I waved the knife in front of his face and asked, “You like this cool knife, Ray?” Ray nodded affirmatively and then I stabbed him in the chest with it. He turned white. I pulled the knife from his chest and the color returned to his face when he realized it was a retractable prop knife. I stabbed myself several times to convince him it was a movie prop and it humored him. He asked, “Hey, Let me try it.” I handed it to him and he stabbed himself a couple of times. I motioned for him to hand it back to me and said, “Here’s my idea for your revenge on Alice. I want you to go up and have a good time. There’s cake with vanilla icing, pizza, and plenty of booze. I’ll pay for your rideshare home so get drunk and have fun. Sometime after the party starts and everybody is having a good time, I’ll let you know when to stab Alice right in the heart with the prop knife. She’ll piss her pants and the whole party will laugh at her just like they laughed at the Private Porcelain joke. Are you in, Ray?” Ray said, ‘Yeah man, I’ll teach her! Can I have the knife?” I replied, “I’ll hand it to you when we’re ready.” Ray was eager saying, “I’ll show that old bag who the coward is!”
At about eight, I felt the flip phone vibrate with Jay’s text message. I didn’t bother to secrete myself to view it. It was too late for the discrete formalities. It would all work out tonight or it wouldn’t. I opened the flip phone and read the text in my office:
Weekend box office gross fix. Close @ $38.5
Stalking horse revised offer of 3.9B @ $39
I sensed Tuesday was the day all would be made clear and final. But tonight, I had a party to host. At 10:00 pm I shouted, “Attention everybody. Put your phones down. The party is starting!” BOO had a break room about the size of a conference room for the daytime staff but was locked at night. It included a refrigerator, microwave, table, and chairs. I had it decorated with streamers, balloons, and bought a large vanilla icing wedding cake at discount because the Beverly Hills bride cancelled at the eleventh hour. I also stocked the room with ice chests full of more beers than soft drinks and bottles of hard liquor. I wanted everybody drunk, mellow and enjoying themselves. The room filled and spilled out into the hallway with callers. I synced my Smartphone playlist with the speaker system so the lyrics to the Rolling Stones, “Under My Thumb” resounded and I hoped the lyrics would ignite Ray’s hostility towards Alice and motivate him to seek revenge. Throughout the night, I talked up Ray and made certain he was drinking liquor. The last person to arrive at the party was Alice who was drinking soda pop. The frail old lady with the green visor and pocket protector looked so out of place amongst the twenty and thirty something revelers. Alice loved the party. She was dancing with Coca and William. She had switched to a white wine and it was nice to see her let “her hair down” for once. I didn’t take my eyes off Ray who seemed motivated by the lyrics and mouthing them:
Under my thumb
The girl who once pushed me around …
I approached Ray and asked, “Ready for revenge?” Ray was drunk but not too drunk replying, “Yeah man, I’m ready. Tell me when.” I reminded Ray, “She called you an insect living in excrement. He continued to sing along with the lyrics:
Under my thumb
The squirmin' dog who's just had her day
Under my thumb
A girl who has just changed her ways
I caught Ray’s attention from across the break room and shouted, “Closet homosexual!” The music was too loud and everybody was too drunk to take notice of my shouting. Ray took notice and was eager to humiliate Alice but I motioned with my hands “time out” which he understood to wait for the right moment. He was so ready repeating the lyrics:
It's down to me, oh yeah…
I approached Ray offering him another Tequila shot which he downed and said, “Can I stab that old bitch now boss?” I patted Ray on the back like a coach about to send him in for the big play and said, “We’re almost ready, soldier. Keep your eyes peeled for my signal.” Ray replied, “Yes, sir!” He seemed transfixed by the lyrics:
It's down to me, oh that's what I said…
Down to me, the change has come,
She's under my thumb
Say, it's alright
I was ready to give Ray my command but couldn’t see Alice. I panicked. I left the break room, walked down the hall, and found her in the call room transcribing grosses into her ledger. It was time. I passed my office and retrieved the knife from my backpack, wiped the handle clean of my finger prints, tucked it inside the front of my jeans under my shirt and hurried to the break room. I spied Ray and yelled, “Red neckl!” He was eager and approached me, “Let’s get this over with boss. I want to see the look on her ugly face when I stab her!” I led him out of the break room saying, “I found her. She’s in the call room. Are you ready?” He eagerly replied, “Yeah, I’m ready to make her piss her pants!” As we approached Alice, I discretely reached into the front of my pants and removed the knife with a hanky handing it to Ray. Alice looked up and I said, “Ray has a surprise for you, Alice!” Ray yelled, “Take this you old whore” and stabbed Alice to death in the heart in a forceful, downward thrusting motion. Blood poured from Alice and covered the knife in Ray’s hand. The booze slowed Ray’s reaction but soon the horror and panic overtook him when he realized he was holding a real knife. A chorus of screaming callers filled the call room attracting everybody to the break room. Ray cried, “Alice, it’s supposed to be a joke. I didn’t mean to kill you!” Somebody yelled, “Ray killed Alice. Call the police!” Callers began a stampede to the exit. There were no heroes willing to take on crazy Ray. Ray just stood there crying covered in Alice’s blood. I heard the familiar screeching tires of stealth police cars arriving outside the building. I yelled, “Run Ray, run. The cops are coming. The knife has your finger prints on it so throw the knife across the street when you get outside.” Ray ran down the hall past screaming employees shouting, “Murderer”. I followed him down the hall and he raced down the stairs. I looked around and nobody would see me reach behind my back and remove the retractable prop knife tucked inside my pants with my hanky and place it in Ray’s backpack he left behind. I heard the familiar police admonition:
Drop the knife
Drop it now
The cops were kind to Ray. They weren’t trigger happy and gave him the opportunity to choose life or death. Ray chose “death by cop”. I heard four rounds fired. I walked down the hall past frightened callers. I yelled, “It’s all over. It’s safe to come out now”. I couldn’t bear to look at Alice’s lifeless body so I returned to the break room to have a drink before the cops came upstairs. The music was still playing:
Take it, take it easy babe
I felt my flip phone vibrate notifying me of a text message from Jay. I pulled it from my pocket, dropped it to the ground, and smashed it to pieces before placing the shards into the trash. I didn’t care what the message said. I did my part. It was over.
The next day the Hollywood industry trade magazines reported the sale of the venerable movie studio to a foreign electronics conglomerate. 51% of the studios stock was now owned by a consortium of investors whose names were obscure and were appointed to the Board of Directors. There was no mention of the double killing at BOO. The sale price was four billion dollars at $40 a share. What wasn’t reported was the fact the Russian bank bought in at 3 billion and sold at 4 billion. They should build a monument of Jay somewhere in Moscow for the money the Russian bank made. Everybody profited except the foreign electronics conglomerate and Margie. Jay, Oleg, Paul, and I split evenly one hundred million dollars. In every big deal, there is always a “schlepper” who does the dirty work to get the deal done. In this deal, it was me. In the coming days, the new Board of Directors elected Jay President of the Studio who immediately signed an exclusive multipicture production deal with “Lone Wolf Movies”, Ethan Tsalach, President. I got what I always wanted and prayed that one day I’d forget the price I paid for it.
Jay and I had the pleasure of watching Arnold and Joey drive off the studio lot for the last time. The bungalow offices occupied by my former producer-instructor were being readied for my company. Lone Wolf Movies signed an option agreement on William’s latest novel, “Railcar Revenge”. Copa thrived in his well paying gig with benefits within the studio wardrobe department. The studio paid for Texas Tommy’s reconstructive surgery and cast him in a reoccurring role in a television series after his recuperation. Paul’s daughter received her new heart. BOO was purchased by the studio and its business operations dismantled forever. They say Oleg’s Tel Aviv Penthouse parties are all the rage. Every Tuesday morning after midnight the Hollywood Walk of Fame received a steam cleaning paid by Ethan Tsalach insuring the “Stars” always shined brightly in Hollywood.