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My favorite Hollywood fail

by Chris Salvaterra

I sat there, looking around, wide-eyed. I don’t know what I expected when I got the call from a temp agency that a junior agent at ICM was looking to hire an assistant, but it certainly wasn’t this room, which looked like a hastily converted supply closet.

Then again, anything was preferable to my current situation. I was living in Torrance, which I think is Spanish for “Land of Fast Food and Car Dealers”; and I was working at a Marriott as a concierge, which is French for “you should’ve studied harder”.

She said, “I’m looking for someone with no experience, no preconceptions.” “I’m your man,” I screamed, knocking over a jug of Simple Green.

I got the job, and my ass handed to me. I was in over my head, but I put my head down and studied, and eventually I found a rhythm. However, the Vengeful God of Assistants had something in store for me.

Most reading this probably know that agencies “cover” the industry. Within any given agency, the town is divvied up, and agents – or teams of agents – are assigned certain territories.

One of my boss’ territories was Disney. She was highly motivated – if she could connect material rep’d by the agency to the right buyers, or fill a few open assignments with clients, people would take notice.

I remember the writer: Danny Rubin had co-written Groundhog Day (R.I.P. Harold Ramis). Danny lived in New Mexico; at the time, he was considered a tough get.

A couple of producers pitched an open writing assignment to my boss, who mentioned Rubin. They said it’d be fantastic if he were interested. We called Rubin. I don’t remember the project but the title is important; let’s call it 90’s Movie That Doesn’t Totally Suck. Rubin said he’d read it; we Fed Ex’d it, old school, to him in New Mexico.

About a week later, Rubin called. He said he wanted to rewrite it. My boss called the producers, who were elated. The tone in everyone’s voice was something I’d recognize only later (from personal experience) as visions of a hit movie and everyone getting a “Senior” or “E” added to their title. My boss told me to set up a call between Danny and the producers.

A few days later, the producers called, having spoken with Rubin. I listened on mute.

MY BOSS
How’d it go?

PRODUCER
Well, we exchanged pleasantries, and then he
started talking about the project, and how he’d
approach the rewrite.
(beat)
And as he talked, we realized that he was talking
about someone’s project, but not our project…

My heart began pounding. I could feel the blood rushing to my head. Sound kind of went dull and low.

MY BOSS
What?!!!

My boss was flipping thru her papers, trying to process what happened.

MY BOSS
90’s Movie That Doesn’t Totally Suck, right?

PRODUCER
Yes. He was talking about 90’s Movie That Doesn’t Totally Suck – but not our 90’s Movie That Doesn’t Totally Suck.

The call ended, and I could hear my boss say, “Oh God… ” Then, “Chris!!!”

I shuffled to the doorway of her office. I’d heard of assistants getting their scrotums stapled for lesser offenses, and I imagined that my next appointment was a meeting with HR or whatever kind of specialist removes staples from a scrotum. Her voice was quiet. “How did this happen?” “I have no idea,” I said. “I will look into it.”

I walked back to my cubicle, my Ross Dress-For-Less shoes squeaking in derisive laughter, and began the assistant version of a forensic analysis.

It turns out that there were two projects by that exact name. When I ordered the script, no one thought to ask me which project I wanted, and instead, the wrong project was distributed. A simple, avoidable error that created shockwave-like ripples of negative consequences – one of which would most likely be a college graduate moving back into his childhood bedroom in suburban New York.

I returned to the office and explained the situation to my boss. She looked at me and said, “This cannot happen. I don’t care what you have to do in the future.” “It won’t,” I said. And I meant it.

I took a few things out of what she said. First and most immediately, the fact that she was using “in the future” meant that I was not going to be fired. Secondly, she was telling me to take responsibility.

Looking back, there are elements of that awful situation that were the beginnings of a set of rules that I’ve carried with me throughout the years. Here they are:

Be decent. My boss could have tossed me out the window onto the hood of a Porsche parked below. I could have snuck into the script library and written false titles on the binding of a bunch of scripts (actually, dammit, that would have been fantastic). But it wouldn’t have done any good, because it wouldn’t have changed what happened.

Anticipate. Think about what could go wrong, and if possible, address it before it happens. Envision the process of each task in your head, and see if there are ways to mitigate the risk of something going awry. You might lose some sleep, but you’re less likely to lose jobs.

Know that you, and others, will make mistakes. You might do everything you possibly can, and still something will go wrong. A former boss of mine used to say about making movies: “Things will go wrong. The real test is how you handle it when that happens.” And the higher up the ladder you go, the more you’ll find others looking to you as to how to respond.

Don’t repeat mistakes. Figure out what could have been done differently. Then, you’re in an even better position to anticipate and avoid it in the future. With another former boss, I’d say, “This happened and it won’t happen again, and here’s why… ”

Best of luck with your failures. Trust me, you’ll grow more from those than your successes.

What is your favorite fail?

Chris Salvaterra

About Chris Salvaterra

Chris Salvaterra has been a production executive at Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures and Participant Productions. He’s worked on movies ranging from AMERICAN PIE to HIDALGO to GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK to SYRIANA to THE VISITOR. Now an independent producer, Chris spends his time developing and packaging projects for film and television, projecting his hopes and dreams on his two young children and cursing people out on the 101. Follow on Twitter: @ChrisSalvaterra

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