Behind the Lines with DR: The Membership Trainwreck

Tis the Season in Tinselville. No. Not that season. I’m talking about Awards Season. Oscars. Globes. Spirits. You might think Hollywood is obsessed with such self-congratulatory prizes. Believe me, they’re not unless it translates to either the personal or corporate bottom line. But I’m off point. Awards Season is not about the actual trophies themselves or the actual box office. It’s about something even more prized. Coveted even.

Yes. I’m talking screeners.

A screener, you ask? What the hell’s a screener? For those of you who already know, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

Screeners are DVDs of movies “for consideration” of awards. They arrive in the mail, packaged in simple cardboard sleeves with warnings that any duplication or distribution of the DVD will result in severe penalties such as fines, jail, or more importantly, expulsion from the Free DVD Club.

Yes. I said it. Screeners are free.

And screeners are not just movies considered by critics or Hollywood insiders as award-worthy. They include big movies starring big movie stars or helmed by big movie writers and directors whom the studios are terrified of disrespecting by leaving off the award-worthy list. In other words, most major motion pictures eventually appear in mailboxes as free screeners.

So, you ask, how do I become a member of the Free DVD Club? Easy. Just join the Academy. You know those guys. They wholesale in those coveted golden statuettes given away every spring in a red-carpeted-made-for-television celebra-aganza.

But there’s a catch. Becoming a member of the Free DVD Club… er… the Academy… is easier said than done. At least, for this word jockey.

I know what you’re thinking. A quick review of my credits would leave the average intellect to infer that my motion picture portfolio wasn’t exactly laudable anywhere but at your neighborhood Blockbuster. Maybe. But on the day I was rejected, the Free DVD Club invited the writer of Police Academy 4 and Hot Shots: Part Deux to join their royal ranks. 

I know. The insult of it.

Here’s how it all went down. At the time of my application, the writers’ nomination committee consisted of seven members. Acceptance required a majority vote. The vote on my membership was set to take place at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on the Tuesday morning following the opening of, Money Train, a picture I not-so-lovingly refer to as White Men Can’t Ride the Subway. But that’s sordid tale for another blog.

I’d been nominated for Free DVD membership by committee members and fellow writers, Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) and Tom Schulman (Dead Poet’s Society). Both were good friends. They said I was a lock.

Money Train opened on a Friday. On Saturday, the hoped for news of box-office glory was supplanted by hourly CNN coverage of a random act of violence that was eerily similar to a scene in the first reel of Money Train. The very fine Chris Cooper played a character called Torch. Torch’s method of holding up token kiosks in New York’s subway system was to pour gasoline through the coin slot and threaten the clerk with sudden incineration. I invented this character after weeks of research hanging with New York Transit Authority police officers. They’d informed me that some years earlier, subway token clerks all over Brooklyn and the Bronx had been plagued by such a series of holdups. As a defense (and at great expense), the Transit Authority had installed halon fire extinguishers in most booths. At the flick of a Bic lighter, the safety system would instantly flood the kiosk with flame-snuffing retardent. Very efficient.

And there it was on CNN. Only hours after those initial Money Train matinees, a token clerk was attacked and burned within a millimeter of his life. Through weeks of investigation, it was uncovered that the clerk was a smoker. And like other nicotine-addicted token sellers throughout the system, he’d learned how to disable the fire suppression device.

Once apprehended, the attackers insisted to police and insurance investigators they hadn’t even seen Money Train. Coincidence? Nobody really knew. But that didn’t stop the press from piling up story upon story, pointing guilty fingers of blame at not just the filmmakers, but Hollywood in general, and pervasive violence in movies for the vicious assault.

My phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Attorneys for Columbia Pictures strongly encouraged everyone involved with the picture to not utter a damn word until the situation had been fully vetted by law enforcement.

Then came that Tuesday morn when my nomination was to be rubber stamped by the Academy committee. To be perfectly frank, I’d totally forgotten I was even in consideration. And when my office phone rang, I was still screening calls. Gary Ross’s voice came over the machine:

“The bastards,” Gary began. “They rejected you.”

I picked up the telephone. “Who rejected me?”

“The Academy committee. It was four to three against you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s the violence, man. All that Money Train shit in the news.”

It turns out that the long retired romantic comedy writer who chaired the nominating committee had begun the quarterly meeting with a political rant about Hollywood’s tarnished image and the deserved drubbing it had received over the weekend at the hands of the national media. According to both Gary and Tom, the committee chair had mentioned both Money Train and me by name. This when the chairman hadn’t a glimmer in Hades that I, the aforementioned Viceroy of Violence, was mere moments away from official nomination.

“It was a huge fight,” continued Gary. “The asshole insisted on making a statement by voting you down.”

“Wow,” was pretty much all I could think to say.

“Just so you know. Out of protest. I vowed to resign from the committee if you weren’t approved.”

“Don’t do that,” I urged him.

Moments later, Tom called from his car and, in softer Tennessean tones, confirmed most of what Gary had said. He was apologetic. Tom felt as if he’d let me down.

“It’s just free DVDs,” I said.

“It’s the Academy, Doug.”

“Nobody joins because of that. It’s all about getting free movies in the mail.”

“Yeah,” said Tom. “It still sucks what they did.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Really appreciate your efforts. But in the big scheme of things, it’s really not that important.”

“That committee chair’s really old. He isn’t gonna be around much longer. You can try again.”

Though I told Tom I would try again, I’ve yet to reapply. The rules for nomination have changed. And though I’m pretty friendly with former Academy President Robert Rehme, I haven’t broached the subject.

Maybe it’s because, as a WGA member, I get a lot of the free DVDs anyway.

Ah. The perks.

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