After being purged from the ranks of Manson International (see earlier memoir) just in time for Christmas 1985 I spent most of 1986 watching the TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz in a bourboned haze while polishing feature scripts to a greasy sheen. In the fall the phone rang. A former co-worker at Manson, Warren Braverman, was now CFO at a company called Carolco. Warren asked if I wished to join Carolco as director of distribution services to help set up the Business Information Systems program we had developed at Manson International. The computer was virgin dirt in foreign film distrib. At Manson we created primal software with BIS; incorporating purchasing, shipping, and inventory for electro ease. Having grown weary of Fassbinder’s gargantuan parade I decided to plunge into the marvel which was Carolco (the name Carolco is meaningless, a prehistoric Panama City company at best).
At that time Carolco was situated in the City National Bank building sandwiched between Sunset and Doheny, near enough to Beverly Hills to have Paul Lynde in your CNB banking line every other Friday but still in West LA so Charles Nelson Reilly was in line alternate Fridays.
Carolco was in a state of joyous chaos. Carolco’s third (or fourth) production First Blood II had erupted a volcanic fortune, tripling the domestic 50 million of First Blood and exploding BO records on international frontlines. America embraced John Rambo as their lovable, guilt scrubbing sonny boy, the one they’d been seeking since the fall of Hanoi. The money was washing over Carolco in tidal wave proportions. The accounting department, formerly attended by Linda “Dallas” Evans’ sister Charlie, had desk drawers filled with greenbacks literally splashing out.
I shared one office and one desk with Ceci Vajna, the wife of Andrew G. Vajna. Andy with Mario Kassar owned and ran Carolco. Andy and Mario had their office a few doors from mine and they too shared one office and one desk with each other. This was not a space issue. It was how Andy and Mario preferred to work, facing one another across a table, producing mega munchers as a game of friendly checkers or frantic chess. Ceci believed the same split desk strategy would work for her and me as well. For the most part it did. But such proximity meant familiarity with Ceci’s world whirl outside foreign distrib.
Ceci had been Andy’s secretarial assistant at his old Hong Kong wig company. She told me she used to live in a tin hut with her mother and siblings. Now Ceci had her chauffeur on call by our office door reading his Variety. Instead of paltry Hong Kong getups Ceci never repeated an outfit during my employ. New wardrobe items arrived by UPS each day. She wore hot pants suits, trending Asian chic meringue. No Suzie Wong retro sexo 60s duds. Actually Ceci was pals with Nancy “Suzie Wong” Kwan who opened her restaurant Joss on the ground floor of our building facing Sunset. I went with Ceci and Andy for a pre-opening tasting there. Kwan helped serve the dim sum asking our opinion of each item. I commented quietly that we wouldn’t be eating this fab dim sum if Marlon Brando hadn’t derailed France Nuyen from playing Wong. Before I could ask Nancy if she ever thanked Brando Ceci poked me with a fork.
Ceci planned Beverly Hills homie dinner parties, checkered with A-listers and B-climbers. I counseled her on soiree dilemmas.
“I wish Mickey Rourke would take a bath. It’s hard to eat sitting near him.”
I suggested, “Seat him next to Nick Nolte. They may cancel each other out.”
When her son was sick and home from school (before personal game consoles were in every universal corner) she’d call an arcade rental company and have a coin op batch delivered by semi to their manse for his rehab. “One Asteroids, one Donkey Kong and Tapper.” I suggested my fave Centipede for the office but she countered with “You don’t need one. You aren’t sick or sad.”
Ceci oversaw “letter of credit” payments, the spark for overseas printing and element access. I maintained the rest of the distribution scene, receipt and delivery, anguish and anxiety. I worked with producers and post on the completion of Extreme Prejudice and Angel Heart pleading for them to finish before Carolco sales king Rocco called again about Japan changing release dates. At the behest of legal I created the domestic delivery schedule boiler plates for Tri-Star and began my demonic romance with attorneys and their reasoned obfuscation of everything.
The company populous was inflating. Production offices were required. Three or four floors of bank building were tight, elbows were getting bruised. Time to take over a whole building. So a structure was built at 8800 Sunset Boulevard across from Tower Records and Old World restaurant (way gone institutions.) We took a “hard hat tour” of the steel shell and I discovered I had my own office and Ceci had hers. Our “wedded bliss” would end while Andy and Mario would continue their one desk, one office practice in the new digs.
Amid the moving mania and the moolah flood, there was still a family feel to Carolco. Andy’s mom, Clara, served her fried chicken on birthdays. Employees’ offspring were often hanging out playing with the profusion of Rambo toys. Mario’s assistant Kim would bring in king cakes at Mardi Gras, supplied by Kim’s significant other Louisiana comic Ellen DeGeneres. There were comfy holiday parties at Le Dome with secret Santas and typical inebriated antics.
Much hubbub, personality and product flowed through our offices. Jerry Goldsmith came in wearing an immaculate white caftan dressed perhaps for a river baptism. He was very upset brandishing a Variety ad by the musicians’ union contending that Goldsmith’s score for Hoosiers was un-American and not worthy of Oscar consideration because it had been recorded at Carolco’s recording studio in Budapest with “Red instrumentalists.” Ceci soothed a sobbing Goldsmith reassuring him that he wasn’t a Communist. I half-expected her to call the arcade company and order Jerry a Space Invaders for home use. Jerry may have received some solace with Walter Hill being “persuaded” to dump his buddy Ry Cooder in favor of Goldsmith’s Extreme Prejudice score.
Alan Parker paced the office distressed over the MPAA (who except the MPAA isn’t distressed over those slicing screwheads?) demanding an edit of Lisa Bonet’s naked blood bath to get Angel Heart an ‘R’. Bill Cosby’s name came up as an arbiter and quickly dipped below the surface again.
A large carton of designer jeans arrived in my office. The legs on every pair had been brutally slashed and frayed by razor. I showed the abused denim to Ceci assuming they were hers clarifying I didn’t do the cutting.
“No, those are Sly’s. He has them cut like that.”
In due Sly showed up. Shaped like a muscled V with face like an Italian McCartney after a pummeling, Stallone squeezed into my office, stacks of check prints and MFX mags clogged the room.
“You got my jeans in here? You oughta clean this place up, Toddles.”
“You wanna help me clean it up?”
He tittered like a thug, “Just give me my jeans.” I did and he slipped off before I could ask him how Rambo III was evolving (not very well, I’d heard). Like many I was enamored with the concept of Rambo vs. Rocky, the ultimate matchup, in the ring, the Sahara or in Richard Crenna’s pants it didn’t matter where as long as they beat each other to a pulp and retreated into oblivion.
Once Red Heat started up Schwarzenegger made office visitations. It was “unwritten” company policy never to have Stallone and Schwarzenegger on the same floor at the same time. Warning signals were traded when they both had identical day meetings. Was it simple ego clash or the chance of two potent objects engorged with testosterone and steroidal jelly bumping in a hallway and exploding on contact? I tend to believe it was a safety concern.
Along with Sly’s tortured jeans, random multimillion dollar checks to no one, and the odd boxes of jet engine lubricant we also got Rambo fan letters, most followed this template:
“Dear Rambo, Please come to my house and (sic) to watch TV. There’s food to eat and if anybody bother (sic) you feel free to shoot them.”
Things got large. It was all about international sales becoming more than half of a film’s revenue. It was about presales with buyers salivating for the newest plum teats. With huge pre-sell cash gushing in for giant product it was natural (seemingly) to make interplanetary deals for even more gigantic productions. Carolco altered the dynamics across this town’s boards. The only way to get what you want was to pay more than anybody else. Scale film budgets became obese.
Peter Hoffman entered the scene as Carolco’s president. Peter was brought in to make things pop, to make magic happen. Hoffman managed an IPO which succeeded against a market usually not prone to loving film speculation. Among the other “magical things” Peter did was buy IVE (International Video Entertainment), a video producer and distributor in Woodland Hills and Canoga Park. One part of IVE was Cabellero Home Video, the old and distinguished porn purveyor, and the bedrock upon which IVE lived. I’d had “fun dealings” with Cabellero while at Manson. The other piece of IVE was Family Home Entertainment, the family friendly stuff. The pre-video boom was a solid mix of kid content and adult content, the public lures which never wane. The owner Noel C. Bloom was a video release pioneer, a prime “golden age of porn” producer and per the state attorney general’s office mob connected. Bloom also collected cars. Every Friday he had his automotive fleet taken by flatbed to a car wash. After they were cleaned he returned them to their stationary, driverless life.
Andy told me we needed to use the IVE telecine and duplication facilities from now on. I’d been using Modern Video and was not overjoyed to work elsewhere but… He said call Jose and set things up. Jose Menendez was running IVE which would become LIVE. Formerly he’d been a muckety-muck with Hertz and RCA. At RCA he supposedly signed Duran Duran and Menudo to the label.
Jose and I traded phone messages for days. When I finally got hold of him Jose seemed over his head in management woes, also unaware of what IVE’s facilities actually were. He said he had to run off to his son’s tennis match and he’d call me back. He never did. When I finally tracked him down Jose claimed they weren’t ready to receive work yet and that he’d call me when they did. Right now he had to run off to his other son’s tennis game. He sure loved watching his sons play tennis. I never heard back from Jose.
LIVE became a profitable entity. The company’s 1989 profit line received its largest bump from a life insurance policy LIVE had taken out on its chairman Menendez.
Peter Hoffman’s wife Susan took the office next to mine. Following executive spousal tradition I asked her if she wanted to share a desk and she told me she’d worked with another Todd, Todd Rundgren. She was there when he was robbed at gunpoint in his home around 1980. One of the culprits was whistling Rundgren’s song “I Saw the Light” during the theft. Susan’s Carolco task was putting together Canadian tax shelter projects. Her hubby Peter was a tax shelter freak.
Whereas Carolco sales were handled mainly by Rocco Viglietta, with his custom made fantastic pop shirts, Carolco’s legal end began to resemble an army metastasizing at night, each dawn another office was occupied by a new attorney handling some obscure biz tidbit.
Peter Hoffman kept company acquisitions and investments rolling. Productions were in fungi growth mode everywhere. With Hoffman and his staff came ripples of attack buzz and office gaming, regulation job paranoia hit. There was a scent of pandemonium in the corridors.
The Andy and Mario machine began to misfire. When two men who could buy Columbian coffee plantations for kicks engage in combat over the expresso machine you figure something’s more than amiss. The shared desk was history. Separate offices were the new flavor.
Maggie at Technicolor rang me to ask if I wanted to run distribution and post services at a small Hollywood company. They wanted to pay me more than Carolco so I jumped (everyone at Carolco wasn’t overpaid). I told Ceci I was leaving and without looking up she said “Okay” and continued eating her lunch.
I left Carolco before Terminator 2 and Basic Instinct. Before Wagons East! and Cutthroat Island. Before the IRS and the SEC came a’knockin’. Before Andy Vajna split. The last straw for Andy may have been when he asked, “What’s this shooting in British Columbia? Narrow Margin? How come I never heard of it?” In 1989 Mario bought out Andy’s percentage for 100 million clams. Pete Hoffman vamoosed when Oliver Stone pushed The Doors 20 mil over budget with no justification. Andy and Ceci divorced. Andy and Mario remarried and made Terminator 3. At the moment Peter and Susan Hoffman are awaiting trial in New Orleans for a tax shelter scheme.
Skouras Pictures was located at Hollywood Center Studios on Las Palmas. This stage rental studio reeked of lotusland history. In 1919 John Jasper left Chaplin Studios to build three stages and a squadron of bungalows now bordered by Santa Monica, Romaine, Seward and Las Palmas. Names and ownership changed through the decades from (Jasper) Hollywood Studios, Inc. to Hollywood/Metropolitan Studios to General Service(s) Studios to Hollywood General Studios to Zoetrope Studios and finally Hollywood Center Studios.
While hands changed everything under the sun was getting made in the shade there. The highlights include Milestone’s Two Arabian Nights, Hell’s Angels, Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother, The Freshman and Speedy, Mae West’s Klondike Annie and Go West, Young Man, Renoir’s The Southerner and Diary Of A Chambermaid, Trail Of the Lonesome Pine, The Flying Deuces, The Thief Of Bagdad, The Jungle Book, A Night In Casablanca, Cagney’s Blood On The Sun, Crosby’s Pennies From Heaven, Love Happy, Destination Moon, Shampoo, One From The Heart, Body Heat, X Men, Zoolander and of course Freddie Got Fingered. From the fifties on television dominated shooting on the lot and it was a home to tube nuggets I Love Lucy, Ozzie And Harriet, Our Miss Brooks, Sky King and the Filmways Five: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mr. Ed, Green Acres, and The Addams Family then Perry Mason, The Rockford Files, Baretta, Jeopardy, True Blood and Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
The legend of Skouras Pictures (as school children tell it) began when far away in Greece Dimitri “Tom” Skouras having spent untold time sitting on a beach contemplating the Aegean Sea had the realization that there must be more to the big pic than racing cars for grins and grease. Tom had to step in the celluloid ooze of his ancestors, a Skouras brother trio that ran a theater chain out of Missouri, managed production for the Warner brothers and one brother, Tom’s Uncle Spyros, who would have the longest run as el presidente of 20th Century Fox telling the world “Movies are better than ever” until he got slugged by Cleopatra. So Tom headed back to the difficult pastures of Hollywood and started a film distribution company. The early cream came from a Peter Elson tip (the same Peter of Manson who sold softcore Sinderella and the Golden Bra to the Mideast, see earlier memoir.) Peter told Tom to check out a little flick by the Cohens (still more brothers) named Blood Simple. The rest was some kinda history.
Skouras Pictures had a foreign division headed by Pam Pickering (Sam Peckinpah’s former assistant also dumped by Manson with me in ’85) and a domestic division run by Jeff Lipsky. My job was to serve both divisions by wearing multi hats. I coordinated all titles’ delivery of preprint elements, answer and check prints, film to tape transfer, trailer creation, release printing, Latin Spanish version, publicity orders, shipping, purchasing, invoicing, letters of credit, distributor contracts, inventory input and tabulation, plumbing and pharmaceuticals. I comforted clueless lawyers, problem producers, distraught directors and screaming overseas buyers. My first week there Jeff Lipsky told Tom to fire me because he hadn’t been consulted regarding my hiring. Tom laughed and Pam laughed but Jeff did not. He wanted me gone, solid gone.
Sigrid, VP of sales, a cheerful adult Heidi with dark wit beneath candied enamel, told me Jeff didn’t want another male on the premises. The Skouras work force was comprised of 15 women and now 3 men (the mailroom staff was two males but not unlike H.G. Wells’s Morlocks they were mostly invisible toilers). Sigrid said Skouras was “Tom’s harem” with Jeff attempting to seize the sultan position from Tom.
Sigrid advised “Now you’re competing for the harem and Jeff wants you out.”
“Tell Jeff not to worry I’m a diehard eunuch.”
Eventually Jeff cornered me in my office. He was a strong presence described by Peter Biskind in “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film” thusly: “Bald as a cue ball – he suffers from alopecia, the Lex Luthor disease, not a hair on his body- Lipsky has an angular face and wore black-framed Mr. McGoo glasses. He was fussy and retentive, intense and intimidating.” Jeff wanted to know my motives, my intentions, and what’s up with women around here “liking you and going out to lunch with you.” He was also not amused that I had my own private WC (in this bungalow I was the sole male among seven femmes). On a biz level I respected Jeff, he was a positive force in getting indie films seen from My Dinner with Andre and Sid and Nancy to Mike Leigh’s masterworks but this confrontation was bizarrely personal. My initial response was a Ralph Kramden stammer then I uttered some Psych 101 speak, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Having said his piece Jeff returned to his office. After that things were copasetic even friendly between us but I remained wary around Lipsky.
The bungalow suite for the Skouras foreign division sat in the northwest corner of the lot where you could breathe a mix of Magee’s Donuts and petro fumes. This part of Hollywood Central is immortalized in the opening track shot of Altman’s The Player.
Skouras’s more expansive courtyard offices, formerly Zoetrope’s main workplace, were in the far southeast corner under a wafting chemical cloud from Consolidated Film Industries. Dozens of journeys were made daily from foreign to the main. These multiple treks across the cozy lot exposed troupes in play. Standard phenom included passing James Garner posed oddly across his car hood, Mike Tyson pontificating on rape, Bill Murray playing hoop with little people, Raul Julia having another incident of eye proptosis, an open door revealing Dan Ackroyd sifting through scripts echoing Drew Friedman’s Spy mag cartoon or one night rushing to Tom Skouras’s aid and nearly colliding in the dark with a “Rickenbacker” wielding George Harrison (or more appropriately Nelson Wilbury).
The office next to our suite had been occupied since 1950 by a 92 year old ex-vaudevillian named George Burns. Mr. Burns would arrive by Cadillac most mornings around 10 AM and spend time in his office before retreating to lunch at Hillcrest Country Club. If I happened to pass during his arrival I’d greet him with “Good morning, Mr. Burns” and he’d wave a stogie the size of Billy Barty’s shillelagh. Sometimes I’d channel Joe Franklin and ask a question.
“Mr. Burns, did you discover Ann-Margret or was it actually George Jessel?”
“No, I did. I discovered her. Or she discovered me. Jessel never discovered anybody. Some showgirls perhaps. What else?”
“Did you ever see W.C. Fields sober?”
“Once. Maybe twice. Don’t you think we better go to our offices and get to work?”
He started to his door then stopped and asked me, “Did they vacuum your office yesterday? I think they forgot to do mine.”
Skouras entered a lucrative domestic output agreement with Paramount Pictures for video exploitation of titles. The lead dog in the deal was Hallstrom’s My Life as a Dog (the third biggest foreign language BO up to that time after La Cage aux Folles and Das Boot and the source for any industry wallop Skouras had). Delivery was keyed on supplying NTSC analog 1” which was acceptable to Paramount’s QC standards. Creating video masters in those primeval days usually meant use of a low contrast print for telecine (interpositives would soon swap with the LC). The film to tape process had the telecine operator trying to recreate the look of the film on video. A true match was not technically possible so overseeing the transfer was often a labor of frustration for directors and cinematographers who didn’t identify two different mediums. One who understood the dif was Dante Spinotti, the DP for Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers. Working on the transfer with Spinotti was a pleasure as he’d lived in the film’s setting of Venice and he recounted grand memories of swimming in the canals dodging hepatitis A nodules.
Dyan Cannon wrote, directed and starred in The End of Innocence. Dyan supervised her video transfer while I simultaneously peered over her shoulder and at the clock. This was Dyan’s autobio baby and her desire for perfection was understandable. She bounced on a mini-trampoline drinking health elixirs easily manipulating our telecine operator Tim who was madly in love with Dyan. The hours at Sunset Post ticked up as Dyan would go over scenes ad infinitum. Tom Skouras advised me any excessive hours would come out of my pay so I tried gently coaxing Dyan, “Don’t pull a Kubrick or a Billy Friedkin on me, Dyan.” Or annoying her with amusing acid trip anecdotes which Dyan countered with “There’s nothing funny about LSD.” Finally I had a heart to heart with Dyan explaining I was about to get married on a northwest camping expedition and if this isn’t wrapped now… I broke down in mock tears and she said “We’ll finish it tomorrow.” And she did. To cover myself I bought camping gear, found someone to marry and left town for a while.
SIDEBAR: The telecine operator Tim said working with Dyan was “the greatest moment of my life” adding “The only thing that would have made it better was if she was naked.” For Tim’s birthday certain parties at Sunset Post set up a wee gag. A porn actress came in with a work reel to transfer. As Tim labored the flesh thesp complained about feeling “hot and bothered” and began disrobing until… Tim forgot about what had been the earlier greatest moment of his life.
My finest Skouras achievements were re-titling Blood Oath to Prisoners of the Sun (apologies to Herge) and Picking Up the Pieces to Blood Sucking Pharaohs of Pittsburgh. For this I was promoted to the absurdisto title Vice President of Post Production. Sigrid called VPs “V-penises” since they were primarily males in the industrial churn.
Tom took over more bungalows in his neck of the woods so foreign united with domestic. I shared my “suite” with sales person Midge, a former Vegas songster from Tuxedo Junction. Our receptionist Peggy was a former Weeki Wachee mermaid. Domestic print juggler Ruth was a former Olympic kayaker. And my assistant Lisa was the former hot dog vendor on the lot who’d impressed with her ability to ward off a crazed Bill Murray.
A wandering maintenance drone, who wandered more than maintained, informed me that Bob Cummings used my office when he filmed his show here in the 50s. He added that when Coppola ruled the roost the office was assigned to Jean Luc Godard but Godard never showed up. Cummings to Godard, Hollywood talent shuffle.
Tom’s stepdaughter Margie, Skouras acquisitions head, saw sex, lies and videotape and embraced it shouting its brilliance to all and getting it in Sundance. Jeff loved it even more than Margie. It was tossed in Tom’s lap, a service deal, no upfront monies, but Tom forever cautious, often at the expense of success, said no thanks. In his consideration the film’s video rights were already with RCA/Columbia and it was perhaps a hard watch for a man whose favorite film was One-Eyed Jacks. Sex, lies and videotape would end up with Miramax. Miramax would take over earth as Skouras dove for footnote status (read Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures for the grotty niceties).
The company mood was evident at a gloomy American Film Market cocktail party for the opus Beverly Hills Brats, a Terry “Come Back Little Sheba” Moore and Martin “Badlands” Sheen vehicle without wheels. We also attempted to celebrate Shadow of Death but the star Anthony “Pretty Poison” Perkins was not feeling well and didn’t attend. Perkins co-star Lyle “Ernest Goes To Camp” Alzado did show up and confirmed somberly, “Tony’s not doing so well I guess.” Beverly Hills Brats co-star Natalie “The Snake Pit” Schafer began weeping when she confessed to me that she didn’t expect there to be another Gilligan’s Island reunion because her “millionaire husband” Jim “Here Come the Nelsons” Backus was wasting away with Parkinson’s. Beverly Hills Brat Peter “A Christmas Story” Billingsley looked at me and shrugged, “Everybody’s gotta go some time.” And go they did Backus in 1989, Schafer in 1991, Perkins and Alzado in 1992.
Pam Pickering was shoved out in a divisive manner and went to Samuel Goldwyn. Assistant Lisa departed months later following Pam to Goldwyn.
Jeff Lipsky quit Skouras in October 1990 when Tom wouldn’t share an interest in Mike Leigh’s great Life Is Sweet. He and Bingham Ray started October Films.
The picture fount was unexceptional. The financial portrait was dim. Not meeting payroll was a whisper topic. The state of things was plainly headed for desolation row only no one was “selling postcards of the hanging” or selling much of anything at Skouras.
As the knives sharpened my phone rang and it was Maggie at Technicolor asking if I wanted to be “V-penis” of distribution at Odyssey Distributors. Odyssey was a foreign distributor of A-product, mainly New Regency titles, started by comic Alan King and some “dubious” New York financiers. Rather than become a casualty in the fall of Skouras I fled the storied bungalows of Hollywood Center Studios and headed west… to San Vicente and Wilshire and a company where the chance of being vomited on by Gerard Depardieu was considerably high.