Current Occupation: Commercial real estate and insurance broker salesman.
Previous Occupation: Commercial real estate broker salesman.
Contact Information: Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA. Jonathan has been a self employed commercial real estate investor and consultant his entire career.. He is also a US Patent holder.
This submission is serialized, presented over three acts. This is act one. Acts two and three will follow over the next weeks.
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 videotape 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 overworked and underpaid 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 hummingbird 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 redhead 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 alongside 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 handful 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!”