Five Hollywood hopefuls lined up like American Idols on stage at American Jewish University as "Rush Hour 3" director Brett Ratner announced the winner of the Bruce Geller Screenwriting Competition on March 10. It was a proud moment for the five writers whose work represented the best of 150 submitted screenplays, but it wasn't long before the harsh realities of Hollywood tempered their enthusiasm.
In between cocktails and dessert, the top three scripts were honored and the $25,000 grand prize went to Robert Gibson and Joe Rassulo for their screenplay, "Lena on the Seventh Day." The two runners-up, Michael Bobroff ("Aleppo") and Joyce Gittlin and Janet Fattal("A Narrow Bridge") were awarded $5,000 per screenplay.
Permitted only a few minutes to introduce themselves and their scripts, the fresh-faced optimists endured a depressing entree into their dream business.
The evening's headliner, Universal Studios President and COO Ron Meyer had mixed advice for the aspiring scribes. Although he insisted he is "not a cynic about this business," his version of Hollywood is a heartbreaking, morale-bruising paragon of profit.
"There's a lot of heartbreak in this business," he said. "The only time your heart is not broken is when someone says yes, and there are so few yeses."
Brace yourself, he warned: You'll need an agent but it's nearly impossible to get one; you'll become irrelevant past the age of 40 but over-appreciated youth have no sense of film history; if you don't want your script doctored by studios, you'd better be rich; you never aim to make a bad movie but 75 percent of them flop anyway.
Not that quality is the most valued asset in a business that prizes profit above all else.
"When we have a turkey that works, I'm a very proud guy," Meyer said.
His chutzpah was a bittersweet introduction to the nature of powerful decisionmakers in one of the country's most powerful industries. Meyer's message stood in contrast to the spirit of artists in pursuit of dream, especially during a scarce opportunity for aspiring screenwriters to be feted like stars and gain financing for their projects.
Though he came off cool and confident, Meyer's conversation elicited grunts and moans from the audience. There was a depressing irony in coalescing new, hopeful talent with the unpredictable, cruel nature of Hollywood.
"You're looking to catch lightning in a bottle. You'll be treated like crap when you don't deserve it," Meyer said. "There's too much talent and not enough people to manage it."
"It's a suckers business for people who don't have financing," he said. But of course, Meyer doesn't have that problem, and suggested he should be curing cancer for what he gets paid.
"I'm the luckiest Jew around," he said.
But not the least bit cynical.
Ratner surprisingly offered more helpful (and hopeful) advice. He recounted his own dogged determination to succeed no matter how many nos were flung his way. When Steven Spielberg saw one of his student films, he sent the budding filmmaker a check.
"He didn't give me a break," Ratner said. "He gave me confidence."
The Pro-Israel Pastor
Aching from recent bad press, controversial pastor John Hagee, as notorious for his incendiary remarks as he is for his Israel support, was more reserved than usual, but he still managed to spark cheers from the crowd.
The founder and senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, a nondenominational evangelical church with more than 19,000 active members, appeared in dialogue at Stephen S. Wise Temple's Forum on Critical Values to dialogue with Rabbi David Woznica.
Hagee has traveled to Israel 23 times, has met with every prime minister since Menachem Begin and donated more than $10 million to bring Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel.
At the talk, little else surfaced.
Hagee softened some of his pithier statements, such as "I believe that Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans," by rationalizing and quoting from the Bible.
He reiterated his belief that Jerusalem should belong to Jews and only Jews, undivided -- but said he wouldn't cause a stir if, for their safety, Jews decided to divide Jerusalem anyway.
In fact, it was Benjamin Netanyahu who inspired Hagee to unify the many Christian groups loosely supporting Israel into the cohesive organization Christians United for Israel.
For anyone who wasn't already a Hagee fan, I guess the oft-repeated line about Jesus being a Reform rabbi won them over.