Sunday, January 25, 2009

Studio Crashing

[ This is the second installation in my series of reposted items from my now-defunct former website, This post was originally published on January 25, 2007. ]

Studio Crashing

My plane landed in LAX. I was tired and bewildered. I had no idea where I was in relation to anything else, save for being west of Pennsylvania. It takes me a long time to get familiar with the geography of a new place. There are still parts of my hometown -- a rather small city in the afore-mentioned PA -- that confuse me geographically. Leave it to me to move to one of the most sprawled out cities on the planet.

I was picked up by my friend and soon-to-be roommate, Rob, who immediately sprung a surprise on me: his passenger seat was already occupied by a complete stranger, Tom the Austrian. I was completely out of it, completely disoriented, and now I was meeting new people. New people from Austria. It was an overwhelming afternoon.

As we drove towards Rob's apartment, I became aware that we were driving alongside a tall, long, plain-looking wall. Soon, the monotony of the wall was broken up by the movie posters hung on it. I lifted my head from the car seat. "What is this?" I asked. It was Sony Pictures Entertainment.

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So, L.A. really IS like that, is it? Growing up on the east coast, you hear grand mythology about L.A. You know it's where movies and TV come from, but you wonder... is it really so littered with production that you're as likely to run into a studio as you are a McDonald's? Apparently so.

Then came a further surprise. Rob's apartment was right in the same neighborhood as Sony. So there it was: I had just arrived in L.A., and I already found my very own friendly neighborhood major multinational multibillion-dollar studio.

Without a job, things moved pretty slowly those first few weeks. I had moved to L.A. with nothing more than the assumption of opportunities, and the assurance from Rob that his couch was at my disposal. And there I was, on that couch. Morning, noon, and night. This was the perfect way to slowly but surely get used to my new surroundings. I'd venture out occasionally, going to Donut King in the mornings with Tom the Austrian, or the nearby Subway with one of Rob's roommates. And whenever I'd go outside, there it would be, looming just a bit taller than all the other buildings. Sony.

When you have a big huge studio in your backyard, you start to pay attention to what may or may not be going on in there. I'd never heard of Culver City before; but now I was noticing constant references to it. I soon realized that, if I wanted to, I could WALK to "Jeopardy!" "Oh, yeah, 'Jeopardy'? That's right up the street. Want to go?"

It was during this same period that the movie "Antwone Fisher" was gearing up for its big release, which everyone expected to be followed by awards dominance. Articles about the Real Antwone Fisher were everywhere. Local magazines and newspapers covered a part of Fisher's biography that didn't make it into the movie: at one point, he was a security guard at a movie studio. Which studio? None other than Sony, of course.

I was riding out the remaining months of 2002 on a strained bank account, some credit cards, and the generosity of Rob and his roommates. But I was starting to feel the pinch. If I was going to stay in L.A. into 2003, I was going to have to get a job. It was time to figure out how to make my Hollywood dream come true. And what better place to start nosing around than my very own neighborhood studio? Hey, it had worked for 'Twony. Not that I was trying to be a security guard or anything like that.

So, one spare afternoon -- and, really, all of them were spare -- I decided to see how far I could get at Sony. I showered, shaved. I don't recall putting any effort into dressing particularly nice, which probably means I ended up in jeans and a t-shirt. And then I took to the streets. This was the first time I went anywhere in L.A. unaccompanied. And it was the first time I would set foot in a movie studio.

While most of the goings-on at Sony take place on the other side of that big, off-white wall, there's an office building situated across the street from the main lot, slightly removed and easily accessible from the sidewalk. It's not open to the public by any means, but it's also not dammed up behind a great big protective wall. So I slipped myself into the stream of people flowing toward the entrance and washed right inside with them.

Which is the exact moment when the full realization of the situation bubbled up to the top of my brain. I had not the faintest clue of where to begin. What, exactly, did I think I was going to do? Ok, I was inside. Now what? I froze up immediately.

The lobby was huge and free of furnishings and decorations. Very unwelcoming. There were dozens of people moving briskly in all directions. The first option that came to mind was to keep walking with the group surrounding me as I entered. If I could pass myself off as just another member of a crowd -- a crowd that belonged where it was -- then perhaps I would find myself on an elevator or a staircase. Perhaps I'd end up at the doorway to some suite where, say, "Spider-Man 2" was being planned out.

But I had hesitated, and it was too late to pretend otherwise. The security desk off to the right had already picked me out. Wow, that security desk was way the hell over there. There's a lot you could get away with before security would catch up with you. Of course, you'd have to have a plan. And I didn't. I was frozen. Good thing, too. While there's not much harm walking into an open lobby, I'd imagine only a few paces past the security desk would qualify as trespassing. "Catch Me If You Can" was soon to be released. But, no, I wasn't that guy.

This was all a big mistake. That was apparent, now. But I didn't regret it. Whether I belonged there or not, I could finally say I'd been on a major motion picture studio lot. And what I learned in that instant was, this was not a big deal at all. Hollywood is so mythologized in the world culture, but here I was in a completely down-to-Earth, brick and mortar place. I love movies as much as, or quite a bit more than, the next guy. But I knew right away that going to a studio was meaningless if you didn't have anything to do there. I wasn't "getting in touch with greatness," or anything like that. I was just inside some building that I now knew I had to get out of. Right away.

I walked toward the security desk, figuring this was the best way to stop them from walking over to me. There were three guards working there. I went for the one that looked most like a stereotypical movie guard. Appropriately chubby, middle-aged, squeezed into a cartoonishly authoritative uniform... the type of guy that always gets cast as a security guard.

"Don't know where you're going?" he asked.

"Umm..." was all I could muster. I was still formulating my plan.

"Who's that going to?" he continued.

I looked at my hands. I was holding something. A folder. Oh, thank God! I had brought a resume with me, on the off chance that I might find someone who would be willing to take it. And since you'd obviously never carry a resume around without putting it in something, I had stuck it into a generic manila file folder. This generously presumptive guard had just donated me some legitimacy. I understood right away. He thought I was a messenger, a runner. Unfortunately, I couldn't think quickly enough.

"I... don't know," I said. Damn it!

"Do you know the extension of the office you're trying to reach?" he said. This guy was affording me every possible benefit of the doubt. I don't know why he didn't just tackle me to the floor on the spot. He must really hate his job.

"Yes," I said. "I have that."

I pulled a pad of paper out of my pocket. Because, yes, I'm the type of guy who carries paper and a pen with him at all times. Because you never know when you'll need to jot something important down. Seriously. So anyway, I flipped open the pad, which was completely blank, and pretended I was staring at an extension.

"Phone," said the security guard, gesturing to a beige courtesy phone that had been drilled gracelessly into the redbrick wall. I walked over to it confidently. This would all be over soon. Just make a quick fake call, then turn around and leave.

I began punching digits, acting purposeful in the numbers I chose, lest I seem to be making it up. I expected to press four digits, but it started ringing on three. Just as well.


Slam! I hung up the phone. Hiding my panic, I turned to the security guard.

"You know what," I told him. "I better call my office and find out who I'm supposed to see."

I'm sure I didn't sound quite so eloquent in reality; but I had gotten the idea across. I took my cell phone out of the little hip holster I kept it in. Trusty cell phone. My OWN cell phone. What better way to fake a call?

I pressed a few buttons, pretending to pull up the number of my non-existent office. I fake-pressed the send button. I held the phone to my ear. Then, in a stroke of true genius, I devised a way to get myself out of that lobby even faster. Fake cellular static! I wouldn't even have to fake-talk to a fake-person. I pulled the phone away from my ear and held it in front of my fake-angry face. Fake-no bars. I hate it when I'm getting fake-no reception. Hate it! I scoffed with loud and exaggerated disgust in order to ensure that the security guard understood what was going on. Then, with the attitude of someone who simply didn't have time for such inconveniences, I stormed through the exit, where I would surely get better fake-reception.

I ran -- RAN! -- back to Rob's apartment.

As 2003 rolled in, I ended up with a part-time job at a Blockbuster in Santa Monica, where I would use my free employee rentals to see movies such as "Antwone Fisher" and "Catch Me If You Can." It wouldn't be long before I'd land jobs as a runner for various production companies and TV shows, giving me legitimate reasons to roam around major motion picture studios. But I'll always remember the first time I dared to set foot across that threshold, to make my dreams come true.