Saturday, December 22, 2007

as a matter of principle and pride

From my own experience, and from watching my parents struggle with money, it seems that most filmmakers and artists pay a hefty price in order to maintain their creative freedom. Trading financial security for total control of one's work sounds crazy to many people. But, the truth is...that selling out and/or handing over the rights to another person or entity in power doesn't necessarily mean the artist will become wealthy, by any means. Creative accounting will ensure that the artist never sees a fair share.

When I started this blog, I asked my dad to send me some funny thoughts, anecdotes or anything he wanted to write about. One of the first stories he emailed just happens to relate to this very subject:
When Christmas time rolls around, I think about 'Santa and the Doodle-li-Boop,' a children's novelty song I wrote during the fifties. Art Carney recorded it for Columbia Records. His popularity on 'The Honeymooners' helped sales. Then one day I received a phone call from Jackie Gleason's agent, Bullets Durgom. Gleason offered to highlight my song on one of 'The Honeymooners' shows, but with one condition: he wanted to be listed as a co-writer.

I asked my friend Len Levinson, a writer with Variety, and he said it was a common practice for this kind of deception involving a celebrity. Len urged me to go for it because I would earn thousands more in royalties. "Johnny Green is listed as co-author of 'Body and Soul' but he never wrote a note," he said. "His status as a well-known radio conductor helped earn millions for that song over the years and Green got half the money. You should swallow your pride and give in to Gleason," Len added.

I thought it over for a few days and declined Gleason's offer, as a matter of principle. My $30,000 in royalties for the year might have been $300,000 if Carney had performed it on television's top rated show. Several years later when I had to sell a pint of blood to pay for dinner, I thought wistfully of Jackie Gleason's ultimatum.

I must be a chip off the old block. I have been overly protective of our work, just as my parents have been overly protective of their projects over the years. They had the opportunity to sell out many times, but they couldn't bear the thought of someone else running with one of their ideas and taking the credit.

Although we were never officially offered a distribution deal, I will admit that there were some pretty big companies fishing around, wondering what our plans were for the movie. It was flattering and somewhat surreal, but mostly it was Hollywood B.S. I steered clear of the sharks because I didn't want anyone tampering with our work. Jeff and I wanted full control over what went on the cutting room floor and what stayed in the film. My gut feeling kept telling me that we needed to do our own thing. If we wanted the film to have a happy healthy life, WE must nurture it, not just hand it over to some studio and hope for the best.

It's such a gamble, though! You never know what's going to happen or what's on the other side of that decision. Are you going to regret it later? I guess that's part of the game. Maybe selling out would have been the best thing I could have done for the film! ABEL RAISES CAIN could have been in Blockbuster Video stores everywhere! But we probably would have been very unhappy, we wouldn't have seen a dime... and it would have meant giving up control over a personal film that I care deeply about.

My dad's story continued...
Another Christmas anecdote I'll never forget occurred during the eighties outside Grand Central Station in New York City. It was mid-December, snowing, icy, windy and 20 below zero. An elderly man with two loaded shopping bags was gingerly crossing the street heading into the station. His pace was too slow, the light turned green while he was half-way across and an impatient taxi driver blasted his horn, shouted obscenities out the window, then nudged the old man with his bumper.

The oldster could only tip toe a few inches at a time on the icy surface. The cabby kept pushing him until he slipped and fell. Both shopping bags split open, spilling Christmas-wrapped packages everywhere. Traffic backed up on 42nd Street for several blocks, horns blowing. Several good samaritons picked him up, along with his packages, while the irate cab driver jumped out of his taxi.

Talk about road rage! He stuck his finger in the shaken man's chest and shouted, "You dumb son-of-a-bitch! Why didn't you stay at the home and then die?'

The oldster suddenly came to life, pulled out a pistol and ordered the shocked cabby to spread eagle on the taxi hood and put his hands behind him. He then flashed his ID as a retired NYPD detective. A patrol car came down Vanderbilt Avenue, perpendicular to 42nd Street, the two officers ran over, and were appraised of the situation. One handcuffed the cabby and the other parked his cab on Vanderbilt to unravel the gridlock.

A large crowd of onlookers, including myself, broke into applause and cheers when the cops put a very dejected cabby in their patrol car for a trip to the station. His passengers had long since leaped out of the taxi and disappeared.

I always carry two extra plastic shopping bags folded up. I gave them to the detective for his Christmas gifts and he was grateful. I congratulated him on his action and offered to carry them to his train. He wished me a Merry Christmas and declined my help. Probably as a matter of pride.

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