Monday, February 22, 2010

Hustle in LaLaLand

Recently, I have had a couple dealings with the movie biz. Nothing I can talk about here yet, but such reminded me that a big part of how movies get made has to do with hustle. If you have a vision, energy, and a willingness to pull out all the stops and crank it up, you can sometimes bring off music that boggles a sane mind.

You need more than a little good luck and you have to watch out for lurking creatures with sharp teeth, but when it works, it sounds and looks like magic.

You have a be a little bit crazy to work in Hollywood, in my experience, and although I've never been more than a minor player in the world of visual media, I have had some interesting experiences Down There.

Um. Anyway, during the latest round of movie stuff, my head got jogged, and what floated up from the depths of the memoria pool was the story of the cabana boys.

I didn't have a ringside seat, but at the time, I wasn't too many rows back. Let me tell you about it.

First, the set-up: In the early 1980's, Bill Gibson wrote his seminal first novel, Neuromancer.

As it happened, he and I were exchanging letters back then, and I got to read the book in ms form and offer comments. (I take a tiny bit of credit for the subject of "meat" -- offering that the book needed some sex in it.)

So, Terry Carr bought, and Ace published the book in '84. It was one of the first cyberpunk novels, and it went on to win awards and acclaim, and to help establish Bill as a writer of note.



Here we see a couple of buffed young men working as cabana boys in a posh hotel. These are basically attractive fellows who cater to clients, fetching towels and drinks and whatnot.

In this instance, the young men had aspirations to be movie producers. As luck had it, they had occasion to speak to a client interested in the movie biz. who was the wife of a well-known and well-to-do plastic surgeon. While the Doc was off at a medical conference, his spouse was hanging around the pool. I believe her teenage daughter was also along, if memory serves.

During the -- ah -- whatnot, the boys floated some ideas. As I recall, the first notion involved Buckaroo Bonzai, but since those rights were tied up, the Gibson novel entered the discussion.

The client read the novel, liked it, and sought to interest her husband.

The surgeon had money, and was willing to fund his wife's notion about becoming an executive producer and screenwriter.

So the cabana boys, armed now with funds, became Cabana Boys, the production company. Gotta like their nerve for the name alone.

They approached Gibson's agent to secure movie rights to the novel.

Generally, how such things are done involves paying a few thousand dollars for a option against a larger amount once the movie commences production. At the end of a specified time, six months or a year, if nothing comes of it, the rights revert to the author and he gets to keep the money. If the movie gets a green light, he gets the big pay day.

So back in the eighties, when budgets were much smaller, an offer of, say, $100,000 for the rights to do a movie based on your midlist novel was a pretty good deal. These days, when budgets are much bigger, the deal is usually pegged to production costs rather than a flat number. The writer gets a small piece of what they spend to make the movie. Somebody wants to pony up fifty or a hundred million for a budget, this could be a nice piece of change for the book writer. Not to mention that a major movie sells books, too. Win-win situation -- in theory

But the Cabana Boys, not having any experience in the field, didn't seem to know about the few grand option against the hundred thou once-production-ensues deal. So when Bill's agent told them the price for the book was a hundred grand, they said, "Okay." and wrote a check.

Just like that.

As I recall, Bill's comment to me at the time, (after "Holy shit!") reflecting his agent's reaction was, "Hey, it's not our job to educate these guys."

With an option secured, the Cabana Boys had a hot property, and they went out to market it.

Now, as I understand it, this involved renting a house on the beach at Malibu, opening several offices hither and yon, and doing some serious entertaining. Actors, directors, agents, PR flacks, people like Timothy Leary, and even Gibson dropped by to party and listened to the buzz.

You can plow through a lot of money in a hurry this way, and in Hollywood, there are always people willing to help you spend money.

Things went downhill. Money evaporated in the warm SoCal sun, the movie wasn't getting made, and the Doc looked up and saw the vultures circling. He pulled the plug on the money tap.

Though they tried to get something going, Cabana Boys couldn't. Neuromancer didn't get made, and the company went belly up. (A lot of what Bill put forward, groundbreaking at the time, became standard cyberpunk tropes. The Matrix owes him, big time, as do a slew of other movies featuring that gritty, human/computer interface. Somebody did get "Johnny Mnemonic" made in '95, from Gibson's short story, starring Keanu Reeves, but it tanked big-time. Too little, too late, and what they call in the biz, a POS ...)

But back to Cabana Boys:

In a legal filing with the IRS later, the Doc and his wife allowed as how they had ponied up two million and change, and how this money was not repaid, so they wanted to write it off as a bad debt. The boys didn't necessarily agree that this much came their way, but nobody seemed to have paperwork on what started out as a handshake deal before it got tangled up in corporations and lawyers.

But the boys were kaput. Neuromancer, which could have been The Matrix, didn't get made. Gibson got some money, but like Brando in The Waterfront, he coulda been a contender, and wasn't, leastways not for his first novel.

Attend the lesson, children: The warm waters are full of sharks and barracuda down there in LaLaLand, and if you swim, be careful what shiny things you have glittering upon your person.


Justin said...

If Los Angeles is a shark tank, then I'm living right on the shore. Rather exciting, as I leave the corporate kiddie pool for deeper (and more dangerous) prospects.
Enough aquatic metaphors, sorry...

Travis said...

Interesting story.

Sounds like there's another interesting story that sparked that remembrance. Hope the vault gets opened up someday...

Joe Schultz said...

Thanks for this story; interesting stuff indeed. Had wondered how that first deal went.

On an unrelated project, was in contact with Bill about 10 years ago just after the 2nd go at a Neuromancer movie fell apart; vfx & directing auteur Chris Cunningham at the helm with Aphex Twin on the score.

After the film collaboration fell apart, recall Bill mentioning the combination was the best possible chance a film version of Neuromancer could have had (agree), but the whole thing was out of his hands, having sold the rights years ago.

Today, we've some Britney Spears director struggling to make anything other than the expected pop fluff piece; sad times indeed :D

Steve Perry said...

If you are book writer, the proper attitude seems to be that, yeah, it's your book, but it's their movie, and however good or bad the picture turns out, the book is the same. Even a crappy movie or TV series can spike your book sales. Look at True Blood. After HBO started the series, all of Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse book came back out of nowhere to make the NY Times Bestseller List.

I haven't talked to Bill in a coon's age, dunno what he's up to, but Neuromancer was kind of like Apple Computers. Done right, it would have ruled. Had Apple played it well, there wouldn't have been any Windows. But while it was a superior product, they kept shooting themselves in the foot.

The EFX were up to it, but the deal with Cabana Boys took Bill's book out of circulation when it mattered the most.

Bill had already been working on the novel when Bladerunner came out, and so it wasn't an influence per se, but that's the kind of thing the book could have been. Had Bladerunner done big numbers in its theatrical release, that might have helped (or hurt) him. It didn't get to be a cult hit until later -- no DVD's back then, and not everybody had a VCR.

Heavy Metal (Metal Hurlant), now that was an influence.

Sean said...

killer story Steve... Neuromancer is one of my favorite all-time books, but I have always been glad it didnt get made into a movie... because you cant turn a couple hundred pages of awesome into a decent 120 minute movie, ever (which I think is why Stephen King would only allow The Stand to be done as a miniseries).

But I swear I remember the Cabana Boys getting credit on the Commodore 64 videogame for Neuromancer (see Wikipedia)

Steve Perry said...

Movies are seldom as good as the books upon which they are based, especially those where the writing style is paramount for the book to work.

I thought the Godfather was a better movie than a novel, so it is possible.

Bladerunner's gritty future showed it could be done well, and the Peoples/Fancher script, direction by Ridley Scott and Paulli/Synder production designs and sets could easily have been put into service for Neuromancer for the look.

I would have been fascinated to see what Jim Cameron could have done with it with today's CGI technology.

Even so, the book would have been tough to beat. Bill had a vision ...