The story of how a fake movie executive helped kick-start my very real show-biz career
He was the most famous development exec that never was...or almost was. In fact, I owe all of my success to him. And yet, I created Jay Flannick—partly out of desperation and partly out of boredom. Okay, maybe I should start from the beginning...
In 1999, I was a comedy writer and new to Los Angeles—as in, a totally green outsider without a job. How the hell was I to know you needed a Harvard degree to write for a sitcom? Broke and desperate, yet still eager in an unjaded, wide-eyed type of way, I eventually found employment as the receptionist for Miramax Films. I couldn’t believe it—I would be answering the phone and transferring calls to the assistants of Industry movers and shakers.
The front desk of a motion-picture studio receives a high volume of inquiries, many from random bizarre people who want access to those movers and shakers. There were German fans of Uma Thurman asking questions about her shoes, aspiring directors wanting to get homemade videos to Quentin Tarantino and delusional people with complaints about various Miramax films—some of which we didn’t even make. And then there was the never-ending barrage of people with scripts. Yup, it was my job to field every single one of them:
Caller: Hi, how ya doin’ today?
Me: [Silence—real calls to a studio never start with polite greetings.]
Caller: Yeah, see, I have this script. Who should I talk to over there about that?
Me: Sorry, we don’t accept unsolicited scripts.
Caller: No, no, no...you don’t understand. This is a good one.
Me: Yeah, that’s the problem. We’re not accepting good scripts anymore. Have you seen Velvet Goldmine?
Caller: Robin Williams, please.
Me: Uh, he was in one of our movies, but it’s not like he works here.
Caller: Please, I know he’s there. Just get him for me. I’ll...
Me: I’m sorry, I really have to get off the phone now. [Sniff.] I just found out my hamster died.
And then there was this gem:
Caller: I’ve got an idea for Harvey Weinstein. It’ll make a great movie.
Me: You sure it’s not an unsolicited script?
Me: Never mind, what’s the idea?
Caller: A guy in a wheelchair takes on the mob. And wait, check this out, so here’s the twist—the head of the mob is also in a wheelchair.
Me: Oh my God!
Me: That sounds exactly like my idea. Yeah, sorry, I gotta go. I, uh, gotta tell Harvey something.
Caller: Hey, wait! You can’t do that!
Sometimes when I was bored, I’d pretend I was an automated answering service:
Me [in an announcer voice]: Thank you for calling Miramax. To reach the receptionist, press 1.
Inevitably, I’d hear the beep when they pressed 1, and then I’d answer again in my normal voice. This was a huge hit with the other low-level office workers.
But I knew I was too acerbic for my own good, and there were many times my “attitude” would nearly get me in trouble. It was an editor from a Hollywood trade publication who just about did me in. He needed to speak with someone in publicity, but when I transferred him, he kept getting voice-mail. Frustrated, he demanded I personally find the woman he wanted. That’s when I personally demanded he stop bothering me, and I hung up.
Not surprisingly, he called back to speak to my boss—something about making sure I was fired.
It was do-or-die time, and I had to think quickly. Grasping at straws, I told him my boss’ name was Jay Flannick—a complete fabrication—and then I put the fuming man on hold. A minute later, I picked up and, in a pathetic, Monty Python–like British accent, said, “Hello, you’ve reached Jay Flannick, Miramax Films. How can I help you?”
The man went off on me—and I mean Christian Bale–esque off. “Dreadfully sorry,” I said. “I will personally see to Mr. Pullano’s dismissal.” Believe it or not, the guy never caught on. Case closed. I was off the hook and had somehow saved my job.
It got me thinking...What if there was an exec who’d look at any script and take all calls? One who could also back me up when I got a little mouthy? Flannick! This might actually work.
The first step was assigning him his own voice-mailbox. I gave Flannick extension 4444. It was available and easy to remember. Later that day, I updated the inter- office extension list to include him. No one seemed to notice.
The crazy calls continued to come in, but now I’d just put them through to Flannick’s voice-mail. It was brilliant.
An upcoming premiere? Flannick should get an invite. Laker tickets? Flannick will go. Who broke the copy machine? Flannick! Within a month, he was receiving scripts for his review, tickets to events and tons of standard-issue free swag. I decided it was time for a rising star like Flannick to get an assistant. And that’s when Dale Flitner was born (complete with flat midwestern twang). I liked the alliteration...Flannick and Flitner, Flitner and Flannick. Flitner could also be a scapegoat for Flannick:
Caller: Mr. Flannick, why haven’t you returned my calls?!
Me: Right, so sorry...it’s my assistant, Dale. He’s been having a rough go of it lately. You see, his pet hamster died.
You get the picture. Eventually, the executives at Miramax caught wind of my little charade, but amazingly, instead of being angry, they thought it was funny. But more telling, they saw an opportunity to shake off their own calls from people who just wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Sometimes, the suits would actually come out front to watch me in action. I’d answer calls in my normal voice, transfer them to Flitner, and then he (or rather, I) would transfer them to Flannick.
All in all, I was doing pretty well, considering I’d only been in town for 10 months. Even though I was on the bottom rung of the company, I was on everyone’s radar...in a good way. While I delivered mail, ordered cell phones and fixed copy-machine jams, I was determined to make Flannick a major player. And it wouldn’t be hard, since Bob and Harvey spent most of their time in New York. As long as Flannick didn’t make some bad acquisition, they’d never know.
He could recommend me for a job: “Dave did an uncredited punch-up on Good Will Hunting.” Or stand up for my getting a raise: “I’d be nothing without Dave.”
And then, as is common in Hollywood, fate stepped in. A VP who liked my ruse approached me to ask about my career. I explained I was a comedy writer who’d been rejected by most major agencies in town. And she divulged the golden rule: Always get a referral.
So, she made a phone call on my behalf, and in no time, I had an agent. My first interview was for head writer on a new MTV show—which was odd because I had no television experience. At the meeting, the Flannick story killed, and I started the job a week later, trading a shared cubicle for my own office, complete with parking space.
The only sad part? It meant the end of Flannick.
Most everyone is gone from those peak Miramax years, even Bob and Harvey. It was a pretty amazing place. We put out Shakespeare in Love AND Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror in the same year, and they both made good money. Many of the interns and assistants of that time now have high-powered jobs in the Industry. Our core group still gets together.
As for me, I can’t complain. Thanks to my fake boss, I’ve worked steadily in television for the past 10 years. And along with my screenwriting partner— a former Miramax assistant— I finally sold my first feature script. Who bought it? The Weinstein Company—Bob and Harvey’s latest incarnation.
You know, they should really consider hiring Flannick. I hear he gives great notes.