In the screen trade, Readers are the proverbial guardians at the gate, the first line of defense the industry has against the teeming horde of wannabes, sycophants and otherwise undiscovered geniuses prostrate before the gaping maw of the great bitch goddess of Hollywood.
These literate worker-bees are the oily cogs of the dream machine. They produce what is called Coverage, a document tantamount to an executive book report that represents the gist of a property being considered grist for the Hollywood mill. Readers read. They are the only studio staffers who do and perhaps can. An oft heard phrase in the executive corridors goes something like “I love it. I haven’t read it, but it got great coverage,” which is rather like saying, “She’s my girlfriend, because I saw her in a magazine.”
I recently received the coverage on my novel “The Late Projectionist,” a slim volume I penned back when I was snugly cocooned in the Lumaville Daily Echo as a small town newspaperman — years before stranding myself on the Backlot, now but a fetid moth aflutter amongst the searchlights.
Sometime prior to the great Readers Strike of ’04, I had tossed the paperback over the transom of a shingle known for its deft strip-mining of middle-earth and lo, it came back, covered and couriered to a mail drop seen to by my fellow Lumaville expat Ben Trovato.
Trovato had trailblazed into indie film long before I’d even finished my dirty little book (see The Late Projectionist, chapter 8 ) and had turned some heads by staking out his own aesthetic territory: when filmmakers were attempting through digital means to make video look like film, Trovato made film look like video.
“Gotta go against the grain, Howell. Like a bad shave. We only remember what hurts us,” Trovato once said, painlessly, as it turns out ? as he was anesthetized from memory of it by the river-water ale we drank by the gallon on Lumaville’s left bank.
I jerry-rigged a drive-on for him when word of the coverage reached me and we soon found ourselves trundling through the dusty Western sets in a hot-wired golf cart. I could not bare to read the coverage myself so I drove as Ben obliged:
Log line: A stuffy cadre of odd ball elitists pursue the last book in their collection of sources covering an obscure Swedish director. Brief: Comedic caper with a lot of smarts.
“See, see?” I interrupted with a chortle. “I knew it! I’m in! I’m totally in.”
Ben grimaced, then finished the line: “? that would be near impossible to translate to film.?
“That’s emphasis on ‘near,’ right, Ben?”
“All in all, the story, while slight, works, kinda, sorta” Ben read further, a boon until the reader’s words cautioned, “But just barely. And while the story works in novel form, it would be extremely difficult to translate it to film.”
Ben’s hawk-eye levitated over those words a moment. I searched vainly for a semantic rabbit hole in which to dive, but Ben’s politesse came first.
“‘Difficult to translate,’ for what, subtitles?” he spat with the kind of instant ire borne of empathy.
“He meant adaptation.”
“If he meant adaptation he should’ve said adaptation, I mean, really. Who is this guy?”
A bit of online detective work later yielded that the reader wrote for his school newspaper and occasionally pens fawning screeds about Brit pop on the Internet. As they say, a lot worse guys could date your sister. His coverage was fair, in fact, sometimes complimentary. And though lines like “Truly a one and only” can feed writer’s soul, selling one’s film rights to a studio and can feed the writer. I’d been fattening my soul for years, larding it with the sort of princely pursuits that find trust fund kids and would-be bohemians bumping heads in the twilight. Inasmuch as I had put it in that book, my soul was fat and ready to sell. That is until the reader began his laundry list of narrative pitfalls.
“The novel chiefly deals with flashbacks, random dialogues and esoterica. There’s not enough material to adapt into feature-length script. Needs additional material.”
I can only assume that “additional material” in Hollywood parlance means “car chase” which was the one cliche happened not to include in the book. And, as pertains to the book’s heft, or lack thereof, consider this eerie math — my wee novel was a cool 50,000 words. A script of Cary Carpe’s and mine that had garnered adoring coverage from the same studio was 25,000 words wrapped into a screenplay of a 120 pages. So apparently in prose it took me twice as many words to tell half as much story.
“The main characters all sound the same and are differentiated by only their haircuts. Moreover the pseudo-academic tone is a bit silly.”
Appalled, I turned to Ben:
“I say, my good man, what in Plutarch’s name does that mean?”
“Haven’t the slightest, old bean. What, what.”
He read onward to a summary of the book’s “commercial potential,” then stopped and let some air blow between his teeth like a broken whistle — the sound of a dollar sign without the lines, or at the risk of being prosaic, the hiss of an S.
In that moment, I had hope for a fateful twist from the reader, as if the whole exercise was some ghastly parlor trick, some literary sleight of hand that would end with the cheery recommendation “What the hell, worse films have been made.” The only twist, of course, was the turn of the blade.
“Commercial potential: None. A solid literary achievement but there’s no movie in it,” wrote the reader. “It’s too rich for the hoi polloi and just ain’t fat enough for a feature.”
Ben turned his eyes from the page: “Is he talking about your book or your love life?”
I parked the cart along some faux train tracks set into the arid clay of the wild west as Ben slowly rolled the coverage into a makeshift viewfinder, put his eye to it and peered at the leering Hollywood sign. Finally, with a note of resolve in his voice forged from years in the trenches, he said, bluntly “Well, the reader liked the book, but not the movie, which gives you a leg up seeing as there is no movie.”
Somehow, on the backlot, Ben’s words made a lot of sense.