Have I Told You This One? Episode 2: My First Billionaire.

I went to Carleton College. It was (and still is) a pricey liberal arts college in the Midwest. It was (and probably still is) a place where the extremely smart and the extremely rich go to undergrad before continuing on to medical, law, or business school. Or if you’re the hopelessly goofy Andy Cheng – ¬†double major in math and physics Andy Cheng – you get head-hunted into a government think tank at 21 years old. And actually, I should say “the extremely smart OR the kinda smart with lots of money” because the super smart kids had no money and the super rich kids weren’t the smartest. I was neither extremely smart nor did I come from money, but the school wanted to keep its athletic programs going so I got in with help from the basketball coach.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where there were a few families I thought were rich. You know, pool in the back yard, all their kids drive new Grand Ams or Cameros, and the mom doesn’t work… that was my idea of “rich.” Cut to my first day at college. I met a guy who got $1000 every month from his parents. “Allowance.” We became friends and we had to invent ways to spend the money. He would ask, “What’s fun?” I would answer, “Ever shoot off model rockets?” And off we’d go to the hobby store and drop $400 on rockets and engines and igniters. Then we’d glue everything together, paint them, and go fire them off. Invariably, we lost them in the woods, but so what? He would get more money next month and we’d buy softball mitts or tennis rackets or comic books. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I stopped hanging out with that guy since he was also on the smarter end of the spectrum. (hint: it probably had to do with a girl.) Up to that point, I thought he was the richest person I had ever met. Then I became aware of the next level.

Sidebar 1: Right out of college, I was an IT guy at a small software company that was trying to revolutionize medical documentation. The owner/president was a distinguished surgeon who had major backing for the company. He told me a story where he was standing on a cliff in the French Riviera with his son while on a family vacation. They were looking at the ocean (Mediterranean, actually, but he said “ocean” when he told the story) and his son looked up at him and asked, “Daddy? Are we rich?” The doctor opened his mouth to answer when a helicopter zoomed overhead, descended, and landed on a yacht in the bay. “No,” he answered. “That’s rich.” Keep that in mind as we get back to the story.

Pick-up basketball allowed me to skip through several layers of the social strata and I met some people whose fathers worked in “investment banking.” I had no idea what that was. But these were kids who used laundry delivery services, had their hair stylist come to the dorm (boys, I’m talking), and who never wore the same shirt twice.

Sidebar 2: My roommate Tom dated this girl from Boston. One hot June night a bunch of us hopped the fence at the kiddie pool and cooled off. She looked perplexed and asked, “Where’s the sand?” She was used to her club where the kiddie pool had sand in the bottom. I had never even heard of a pool with sand. I also had never been to a club.

But the tops were the students who never carried any form of payment. Seriously, I knew more than one guy who would just walk out of a bar after running up a $300 tab and the staff knew to send the bill to a local accountant who relayed information to some international accounting firm. He even had an open account at Domino’s. “Just order whatever,” he’d say. The local Domino’s branch billed the accountant monthly. That was about as mind-blowing as the 19 year-old me could manage.

My first two years at Carleton, I was a terrible student. Then I changed majors from Computer Science to English and everything went much better. It was dicey for a while because the college had a strict four-year policy. If you didn’t have enough credits to graduate in four years, you got the boot. You could only qualify for a fifth year if you had traveled abroad or had a serious illness. I had neither excuse to use for my appeal so I took some Summer school to catch up on credits. Once I was cruising along in English, getting B’s instead of D’s, I had much more time for basketball and general screwing around. One guy I played hoops with was this Class A prick I’ll call Blamson. He was a year ahead of us and still remains as one of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met. I’ll qualify that a little later, but you need to understand that everyone hated him. The people who hung out with him only put up with him for the money. He was stinking rich. But man, what a dick. You couldn’t play hoops with Blamson in the game without him taking a swing at someone or getting in a shoving match. He was big, like 6’4″ and broad, so people didn’t like to mess with him. We couldn’t wait until he graduated.

So finally it’s our Senior year and who should come to our little six-plex dorm door but Blamson. We all thought he graduated the year before. Turns out he F’d a bunch of classes over the years. He should have flunked out, but there he stood. “Can I hang out with you guys?” My five roommates and I stared open-mouthed until one of us said, “Sure, man.” What followed was a year of fairly regular hanging-out, appearances at parties, and general social interaction with Blamson. Turned out he was smart, funny, and overall a pretty normal guy. He bought kegs for the parties and once he ripped a guy’s shirt by accident in a hoops game and bought him a couple new shirts. Not the Blamson we had known by a long shot.

One night we were all having beers and one of my roommates finally asked the question we all had in mind, “So Blamson. Fifth year?” Blamson nodded and kind of made a wince face. He looked up and said, “I’m legacy. Like four generations back.” So what? “So I kinda had to get a degree from here.” That doesn’t answer the question. “Yeah. So.” He took a deep breath and said, “You know that new math building?” Then he just nodded.

The new math building was a multi-million dollar construction project that came out of nowhere. All new computers, classrooms, servers… everything you can imagine. Blamson Sr. paid for a major chunk. Either that’s how much it meant to him for Junior to get a degree from Carleton, or a few million dollars didn’t mean that much.

Have I Told You This One? Episode 1: Who’s Your Daddy?

There are a lot of stories I tell people over and over. And like my dad, I tell them to the same people over and over. I’m going to start laying them down here and tell people who haven’t heard them to read them. Doubt that will work, but either way, at least I will have a place to keep them in case I forget them myself.

Back in 1999, I was an assistant sound editor on a movie called Titan AE. It was an animated feature not done by Pixar in an era when ONLY Pixar was making solid animated movies CG or otherwise. I liked Titan AE while we were working on it, but sadly it hasn’t stood the test of time.

The sound supervisor on the movie was a guy named Matt Wood. He’s done tons of stuff since including being Bib Fortuna in Phantom Menace and the voice of General Grievous in everything that has General Grievous in it. Matt gave me my shot on sound assisting which I didn’t take full advantage of, but that’s a different story. (Maybe see this post for some related perspective on my frame of mind during that period.) Part of Matt’s job as the supervisor is to attend the temp mixes and the test screenings. The temp mixes are for executives to see what they’re paying for. The test screenings are to see how the various demographic slices respond to the movie. The executives send junior executives to the test screenings to assess and make recommendations.

Here’s a little background on the studio structure. If you’re a junior exec and you’re any good, you get upgraded pretty fast. If you stink, you get fired pretty fast. Most of your success is predicated on your ability to understand your demo(graphic) and market the movie properly. Or cover your ass if you didn’t market the movie properly. If you marketed the movie properly, it should kill the opening weekend. And if you designed it for the demo properly, word of mouth and repeat viewings will keep the movie from hitting the 60% attendance dropoff from the opening week to week 2. Now you know.

Matt Wood attended a series of temp mixes where the main executives at Fox Feature Animation (now defunct) didn’t bother to show up. Then he went to block of test screenings for 7 to 14 yr olds, 15 to 18, and 19 and up. The youngest group pretty much loved the movie. Of course they would pretty much love anything where they get free popcorn and soda on a school day. So my personal thought is the results were skewed. The oldest group was medium on the movie, but it was old school Don Bluth animation and it was rather dated compared next to Toy Story 2 or Bug’s Life. The sweet spot, the 15 to 18 group, the group that will see a movie 10 times if they love it, that’s where everyone had their eyes.

That group is tough to read, though. Painfully self-conscious and awkward, they won’t react in the open even if they like something. So when they really laugh, it means something. Near the end of the film, there’s a Han Solo moment where the heroes are under fire while planting charges to destroy the evil queen and Goon, a character you thought was dead, comes in and shoots the last two baddies so Matt Damon and Bill Pullman can blow it all to Hell. Upon his surprise re-entry into the story, Goon fires and shouts, “Who’s your daddy?! GOON’S your daddy!!” Well the theater just exploded. The high school kids laughed themselves crazy and were writhing in their seats. Good stuff.

Fifteen minutes later when the credits rolled, Matt was standing in the lobby when a 5’5″ shaved-bald white guy in his early 30’s approached him. Matt could tell from the $3000 suit that this person was a junior exec from Fox Feature Animation. A full studio exec would be wearing a $6000 suit and would let some hair grow even if he was balding. There’s a confidence that comes along with being a top movie studio exec that simply must be witnessed to be believed. But that’s another story. This junior guy was giddy beyond belief, probably because he figured his promotion was already on his desk after that screening, but he wanted the movie to have extra punch. He hustled up to Matt like he was going to pee his pants. He pointed to Matt. “Matt Wood! My man!” he said. “The Goon line killed in there! Great work!” (exclamation points necessary). Matt replied, “Um, thanks.” The guy gave Matt a double point in the face. “I heard it was your idea to add that line. Great line, man!” Matt kind of looked around because this guy was straight shouting and pointing in Matt’s face. “Well, it was John Leguizamo’s improv, but yeah, I cut it in there.” Another double stab, “Yes! YES! Are there any other references to his father we can use?!”

Now, I know you’re thinking this is a joke, but it’s true and I’m telling you exactly as Matt told ¬†it to me. It’s a second hand story, but one of my favorites. How could anyone think the reason that line scored because it was about Goon’s father? Also, had he never seen Star Wars? Also… there are too many “also’s” in this scenario. I don’t expect everyone to get the “who’s your daddy?” joke, but seriously? His suggestion is to add more father references. The real threat here is not this guy, there are lots like him out there in every corner of the industry. The thing that sticks in my head is what if it wasn’t Matt this guy was talking to?

Many people working in the film biz just follow orders to the letter regardless of how ridiculous they may be with no questions asked. If Matt was one of those people, he would have pored over the recordings for days looking for more daddy lines, and when there weren’t any, he would have booked Leguizamo at great expense to improv some more lines, all of which would have been forced because even someone as funny as Leguizamo couldn’t just fire off daddy jokes that would work in an animated sci fi movie for kids. Thankfully Matt wasn’t (and isn’t) that sort of person. He came back to work, told us the story every time we asked to hear it, and did absolutely nothing to add “daddy” lines.

I shudder to think how many movies went South because some out-of-touch junior exec made an off-hand comment to a hard-working studio staffer. Not that Matt is a slacker, but he started working at Skywalker when he was 17 and has seen the type come and go. He knew daddy jokes weren’t the problem with the movie and more likely than not, the very guy who asked for the changes would have the lines pulled a week later. Turns out the movie ended up missing the mark with their demographic. They slapped a bunch of weird songs by expensive artists like Seal, Luscious Jackson, and Jamiroquai. I don’t know about you, but none of the 15 year-old boys I have ever met liked Luscious Jackson in their action sci fi. And no amount of daddy lines can save a movie from a Seal track. Needless to say, the movie didn’t do that great and vanished onto the dusty shelves of the video store.