A face in the public domain
When the first billboard went up on Cahuenga, it took about three hours before the Internet exploded. Social media posts raged across the digital ether, and Twitter devolved into an insult-slinging contest over whether this was the work of someone outside the film business—a creative terrorist, a billboard Banksy, perhaps. The trades, smelling lawsuits in the water, called Ellie Barrows's office on the hour, every hour, demanding an interview. Her assistants informed the reporters that, as president of Unified Pictures, Ellie wasn't currently ready to comment.
The studio had moved forward on advertising Darren's film with the following slogan: Come see the movie that the critics don't want you to see—because it'll scar you for life! The strategy was to put up a second billboard across town highlighting all of the most salacious, incendiary quotes from the Venice reviews, creating an even bigger mystery as to what was going on—or who was controlling it.
Darren Halifax, however, was livid. He believed the release strategy was crass, disrespectful to the spirit of the film he'd made, and frankly insane. His agents reached out to Ellie on his behalf—he was too incensed to do so—and let her know Darren was finished working with her studio, and finished with her, specifically. He would never bring another project of his to Unified Pictures.
Ellie immediately emailed Darren's agents back: "Just wait and see what happens."
A bloodbath of solipsism. A train-wreck of sentiment. A suitable replacement for waterboarding at Guantanamo. And these were the kinder descriptions.
A week earlier, Ellie had inhaled the scathing reviews of Darren's film as they emerged, in real time, from the critics at the Venice Film Festival. Her assistant James had delivered them to her, neatly stapled to an early-morning briefing like a death note. She'd watched the film a few days prior, alone, in a private studio screening room in the middle of a sweltering, late-August day. In truth, she'd mostly agreed with the critics—although Ellie felt that they went overboard with the schadenfreude. Somewhere within Beyond Days Past was a half-decent film, she still believed. Currently, it was a hemorrhaging animal, screaming in all directions, and Unified Pictures would likely lose a ton of money on it.
She had been planning to market it as a heartwarming but "grounded" picture about love and relationships—which was true but not necessarily the most exciting prospect for audiences. In fact, the average viewer could go home and watch about 200 TV shows of superior quality dealing with the exact same thing. After a while, she started to question why she'd even greenlit the film.
Despite the project's mid-level production budget of 32 million dollars, Ellie glanced the latest audience tracking numbers and realized the studio was staring down a potential loss of 70 million—provided the film didn't perform at the box office. It wasn't a job-ending number for her, but it was damn close. One huge failure she could weather. Two, and she'd be finished as president of Unified Pictures. The Board of Directors would immediately have her head on a plate. Right now, the film was tracking at four million dollars upon its stateside release, an embarrassing number. It could pick up a few bucks on home video, certainly, but that market wasn't what it used to be, and that could easily take years, at best, to bring the studio out of the red on the project—if it even happened at all. It was starting to look like a long shot.
What most people didn't realize about box office was movie studios typically also spent the equivalent of a film's production budget on advertising—but still had to split ticket-sales earnings with theaters, generally fifty-fifty. The longer a film played in cinemas, those numbers skewed more in favor of theater chains. In other words, a movie needed to quadruple its production budget to even realize a profit. If Beyond Days Past tanked, the blame would land squarely on Ellie. This was her film, after all, her baby, which she'd shepherded into production, over the objections of her development executives, one month into her tenure at Unified.
The other problem was she liked the filmmaker. Everyone liked the filmmaker. Darren Halifax was the rare nice human swimming a sea of psychological horror. During Ellie's time at Unified, Darren had been extremely respectful and open-minded to all of her creative suggestions. It probably helped that he was British, because whenever he disagreed with her, he did so gently, and in such a charming, self-effacing way, Ellie often had to stop herself and replay in her mind what he actually said. He was slightly on the pudgy side and unkept, but he wore excellent shoes. It wasn't that she was ever sexually attracted to Darren, it's just that she found him severely charismatic, like the world's most enthusiastic tour guide. This is why he gets things made, she told herself. This is why he has a career.
Her working relationship with Darren ran smoothly, which is why it was all the more painful for his artistic vision to go haywire. What had gone wrong? Had she overestimated the script? It had made her cry, three times. She knew if the subject matter was handled delicately, it could also make an audience cry. Had they hired the wrong editor? Was the film miscast? When Ellie watched it, she thought the actors made a concerted effort to play to their dramatic and comedic strengths—her note to self: Hire them all again—but as they delivered their lines, it was as though they were on a different radio station than the one she wanted to listen to. Everything in the movie was a few degrees off, in a way she had difficulty, at first, articulating because it was so disorienting. The film's pacing was uneven, the cinematography brought attention to itself when it didn't need to—her other note to self: Never hire Roger Hattegard again—and the music was bombastic in places. At the end of the screening, when the lights came up, Ellie sank into her seat, obliterated. She couldn't move. It felt like a thousand-pound punching bag had been dropped from the ceiling and landed in her lap, suffocating her to death.
In the ladies' bathroom, she splashed some water on her face. This is what you signed up for, she said to herself. This is the job. So pull yourself together. She walked out to her Tesla, had a panic attack, and cried. Not exactly the emotional reaction she was hoping for in a general audience.
Stumbling back to her executive suite in the sobering, late-August heat, she could see how the very things that made her tear up while reading the script could come across as saccharine or overly-earnest on screen. In today's meme-heavy culture, she knew artists had to walk a very fine line; a message could be easily distorted if it wasn't expressed so as to transcend people's immediate defenses. She remembered the old saying: movies are emotion pictures. If the audience engages emotionally, no matter a film's flaws, you've at least done your number one job.
That's when the idea hit her.
"I like you, Ellie, but this is bonkers!" shouted Darren Halifax.
The filmmaker, in a rare state of frustration, had driven across town to meet with Ellie at her request.
"You've seen the reviews, Darren, yes?"
"Of course. They seem to have an ax to grind. Bitter hacks, the lot of 'em!"
"So hear me out on this idea, all right? Don't immediately dismiss it."
This was the first time Ellie had seen him on the defensive. Darren's producer, Bobby DiSicco, had tried to shield Darren from the reviews coming out of Venice, but Darren had read every single last one. And then he descended into a kind of attack-mode defense, as the film was still fresh to him—he'd only locked picture two weeks prior to the festival, convinced he'd made a masterpiece. Bobby wasn't exactly convinced, but he wanted to be, so he rode the Darren enthusiasm train for a few weeks—although he'd given Ellie a heads-up that the film was having problems in the edit.
In truth, Bobby DiSicco thought a year of editing had taken its toll on Darren's mental state. He felt the director needed to step away to get a fresh perspective on his work. When Bobby proposed doing so, Darren—in his own quiet, charming, severely-British way—would have none of it, pressing ahead to make the Venice deadline. He'd been promised a spot in the lineup if he could only manage to deliver a cut to the Lido.
"People don't understand, Bobby. When you make something from a deep, unexplainable place—it doesn't always go down easily on a first watch. But you're still thinking about it a week, or a month, later. It has a gravitational pull your mind can't explain, but your gut can. 2001 was panned when it first came out!"
Bobby sat quietly and allowed Darren to vent, uninterrupted.
"Plus," Darren concluded, "everybody's a fucking critic."
"Certainly, a film can take a minute to be embraced," said the producer. "But we may not have a minute, Darren. The film will have an eternity, but we don't have a fucking minute."
Through Ellie's tenth floor studio suite window—which was cleaned to perfection three times weekly—she stared at a water tower deeply ensconced in the mountainside at the far end of the studio lot. There was a man in white overalls climbing it, stopping to check something as he went. She wondered how much daily pressure that man felt to succeed at his job. Her attention then focused back to Darren, sitting across from her, pouting.
"Look, Darren, I think you made a film that may stand the test of time. There's layers in what you do. That's your genius." Darren didn't quite take the bait. She continued: "But here's the thing: These reviews are across-the-board some of the worst reviews I've ever seen in my life. What they reflect is how the culture sees your work today. And please keep in mind, not all of these critics are 70-year-old hacks who never got their chance. These are 24-year-olds from Vice and A/V Club and Buzzfeed, born with a passion for film, and they're taking you out behind the woodshed. And they're being fucking merciless."
"What did you think of the film, Ellie? Be honest with me."
"I'm still processing it," she said. "And perhaps that's a compliment in itself. I think your work reveals itself. But I also want this movie to be seen by audiences."
Darren seemed satisfied enough with that answer.
"So that's why you're proposing what you're proposing?" he asked. "Look, the more salacious the headlines, the more clicks—I get it. But I'm not on board with this."
Ellie leaned back and crossed her arms. "For better or worse, our culture ghosts its own controversies like one-night stands."
"Pardon?" he said.
"Three days later, everyone's moved on to the next controversy."
"So you think my film will be panned horribly, talked about for a day or two, and then completely forgotten?"
"Unless we give people a reason to keep thinking about it," she said. "See—what your film does to a viewer, we need to do to an audience's expectation of a film release."
It certainly seemed to be a cultural truth that if you stuck to the far ends of the spectrum, you created more heat. Was it human nature to be driven toward the highs and lows of the human experience? Perhaps. Maybe the comfortable middle was just that—too comfortable, in a time where comfort wasn't what people wanted. They wanted to ride the roller coaster; they wanted to be dashed on the rocks.
"I'd like your blessing on my idea," said Ellie. "I don't need it, contractually-speaking. But I'd prefer it. And I think it might just be worth trying, at this juncture."
Darren peered out the window. "But... it's like trolling, on a massive scale."
"Yes. But it's also being honest."
"In a world of spin, people respect a truth-teller."
Darren ran a hand through his fantastically-well-kept hair.
"Let me sleep on it," he said.
Ellie got a call from Bobby DiSicco first thing the next morning.
"Where the hell did you come up with this idea?" the producer barked through the phone. She could tell he was driving somewhere near the coastline in his Miata roadster. Background seagulls squawked like angry children.
"In the shower," said Ellie.
In truth, it was in a dream.
"Well, I'll be goddamned," Bobby replied. "This plan of yours? It's out there. Way out there. And I don't think Darren's on board. Sounds like he isn't, frankly."
"I was hoping you might convince him."
"You're funny, Ellie."
"If you do this, I'll guarantee your next picture here."
He took a deep breath. "At what budget?"
"Get me an A-lister and bring it in under 25—provided it's not about Picasso or a guy fucking a cow—and I'll greenlight it, sight unseen."
She knew she was taking a big risk, but figured, what the fuck, why not? She might not even be employed in three months' time.
Suddenly, the absurdity of her business—people making multi-million-dollar bets on a piece of emotional machinery selling tickets—seemed like an incredibly stupid way to make a living. It helped, of course, to have a few ground-rule doubles or solid triples during the year, so the studio didn't have to rely on hitting a home-run every time at bat—but it was still a high-stakes game. What kind of person enjoyed this?
"What's if it's about a strong, proactive, semi-vulnerable character fucking a cow?" Bobby asked. "With franchise potential?"
Ellie scoffed. "Do you have a script?"
"Look: I'm telling you, Darren's set on his cut. Even with the terrible reviews. And I don't need to remind you, Ellie, you guys were crazy enough to give him final cut on this."
"Well, his lawyer's a pit-bull, so he got it. But I could go two ways here: I could dump the film on home video, or I could do something to bolster a theatrical audience in the age of theatrical audiences not showing up. I don't want to do the former, but unless you can get Darren to retool his vision, I'm aiming for the latter."
"So he has no say in the marketing?"
"He has say, I just don't need to listen to it. You can also thank his lawyer for that—a concession made for final cut. But Bobby: I like Darren. I respect him. I'd rather him be on board with this, instead of it being a massive clusterfuck."
Bobby inhaled sharply. "Twenty-five and an A-lister?"
"Twenty-five and an A-lister," she repeated. "And no cow fucking."
"What if there's just one scene of cow fucking, instead of two?"
"Save it for the sequel," she shot back.
Two hours later, Bobby called.
"I'm sorry, I tried. Darren says he's not changing a frame. And he's not happy about this release strategy of yours. Really not happy."
Darren had dug in his heels.
"Okay, Bobby," she said, a bit deflated. "Do you want me to talk to him?"
"I don't think that's a good idea right now."
She leaned back and glanced around her office, eyeing its wood-paneled bookshelves, the platinum-framed movie posters, the tray of 200-dollar cigarillos and the world's most expensive fake plant. Her eyes settled on the water tower out her window, backed up against the chaparral-covered hills. In that moment, she closed her eyes and made her decision.
"You can let Darren know I'm doing this for him. Mark my words: I won't let all the work, the money, and the time we've sunk into this project be in vain."
Bobby expelled a low, drawn-out chuckle.
"Christ, Ellie. I'm impressed. You swing a bigger dick than half the men in this town." He cleared his throat. "I sure hope you don't get shitcanned over this."
By the time the second billboard went up around town, most of Los Angeles was abuzz, clamoring to buy tickets to see Beyond Days Past. Facebook groups sprang up to organize viewing parties for the film. People were talking about it, posting about it, ranting about it.
A few hours after the second billboard went live, two senior members on the Board of Directors called Ellie's office, apoplectic, threatening to sue whoever pulled such a stunt.
"Who would dare to trash our film like that?" one of them screamed into the phone.
A very awkward pause ensued.
"I did," said Ellie. "I put them up."
The silence lasted a few seconds.
"What?" the voice choked. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"Not a joke," Ellie said, summoning her bravery. "A calculated strategy. Unified Pictures has a challenging film on its hands, and the only way to actually make money on it—in my humble opinion—is to be bluntly straightforward with our audience. To preempt their defenses and poke fun at ourselves. Just imagine if everyone had the confidence to do that."
"But..." stammered the Board member. "It makes us look like idiots!"
"I disagree. I think it makes us look smart. We steer the conversation, we control the narrative, we get out ahead of any damage from the bad reviews. No one has ever done this before—not on this scale. So you might even argue that it's hip. And we have bragging rights for it. In this case, we're not gonna pretend we have something we don't—and we're not going to promise an audience something they won't get. It's an entirely honest transaction, Charlie."
There was another pregnant pause on the line.
"Are you okay, Ellie?"
"I'm fine. By the way, I've heard the Arclight and Landmark are already sold out through the weekend."
A third pause played out.
"You're kidding," whispered Charlie.
Much to her relief, Ellie's strategy unfolded the way she surmised it would. After holding out for as long as possible, she granted one interview with The Hollywood Reporter, admitting that yes, this kind of marketing plan was unconventional. When asked about her true feelings on the project—whether she agreed with the critics or whether she stood behind the film—Ellie spun the question. Her official answer was she believed the film needed to be seen at least three times to grasp its deeper, more hidden meanings—and that it would reveal itself "in layers" by doing so.
Ultimately, Ellie felt people wanted an experience. They were so fucking bored, despite being bombarded with daily stimuli—and probably because of it—they needed to be grabbed, kicked in the teeth, nearly blindsided by a film's release. They wanted something to shake their senses, come screaming out of the gate at the top of its lungs, announce its arrival like an atom bomb. She hated that this was the way of the world, but it wasn't her job to change that; it was her job to sell a film. People would always desire a shared, human experience—and right now, everyone was cooped up, restless, and violently opinionated. People wanted to feel something again. They wanted to fucking emote. So she would give that to them, wrapped up in a nice, built-to-go-viral bow.
On the weekend of its stateside release, Beyond Days Past made 17 million dollars at the box office—which took the entire town by surprise. Even more unexpected, the film continued to build steam and earned 21 million the following weekend. On its third weekend, a major action franchise came to cinemas, but Beyond Days Past managed to hold steady, pulling in a respectable 15 million—before dropping down to nine million on its fourth weekend. When all was said and done, it took a mediocre comic book franchise to sucker punch Darren's indie fever dream from the cinematic throne.
Four weeks in, the film had made back both its production and advertising budgets, and it became a real possibility the film could become profitable on home video. As a strategy, Ellie's move had paid off. But the Unified Pictures Board was thrown by her actions, which she'd done without consulting them. They were certainly happy the film made money, sure, but people began to ask if this was something they should expect on all films coming out of Unified in the future—especially the studio's own bloated superhero epic, chugging down the tracks for a holiday release. That's when the Board got nervous and told Ellie to "cool her jets" on the bold strategizing.
Insulted, Ellie argued that only because of her unorthodox play was the film able to remain in the public consciousness for nearly a month—an eternity in her business. That, and top out at nearly ten times what it was initially tracking to earn. The Board couldn't argue with the mountain of lucre now jamming their coffers, but they ultimately saw Ellie as a wildcard. And their trust in her wavered.
Darren—stunned that Ellie actually followed through with her wild plan—refused to be interviewed during the film's release, and more or less went into hiding. He was able to get another movie quietly set up at a rival studio, based off the moderate box office success of Beyond Days Past, but still wouldn't take Ellie's calls. And wouldn't for years.
That winter, when Ellie met with Unified's Board of Directors to make her case for a contract renewal, the studio's nearly three-hour superhero epic was in the midst of tanking in the marketplace. Although that production was greenlit under a previous studio president, the Board felt Ellie hadn't guided its release properly. Unlike Darren's film, a movie of that size wasn't nimble; it had too many moving parts, too many egos involved, too many voices in the mix.
They finally had their ammo to let her go.
On her last day at Unified, Ellie put her feet up on her Cadillac-sized desk, stared out at the water tower, slung her studio ID card in the trash, and watched her parking space get painted over. As news of her firing hit the trades, she was able to quickly land a low-key producing gig at a rival studio—run by a woman she'd known since her days in the mailroom at William Morris.
It was almost a decade later when Ellie ran into Darren outside a coffee shop in Larchmont Village. In the time since they'd last crossed paths, Ellie had quit the film business entirely, and Darren—after two subsequent cinematic flops—had more or less done the same. He'd pivoted into directing episodic television, but once that work dried up, packed in his California lifestyle and retreated back to his native UK. He'd switched over to writing plays and novels, which were, to his surprise, extremely well-received in his home country.
Why Darren Halifax was suddenly back in LA, Ellie wasn't entirely sure. He'd lost about 50 pounds since their days working together—but he seemed more gaunt, more hollow-eyed, more careful to engage—as though his charisma was a remnant a past life.
"Darren?" she said, spotting him on the sidewalk. "Darren Halifax? Is that you?"
He removed his sunglasses. It took him a moment.
She was wearing her yoga outfit and sneakers.
"Listen..." she started. "I don't know if you're still upset with me, but I wanted to apologize for that stunt many years ago. Really."
Darren stared at her for a prolonged beat, then glanced down at his excellent shoes.
"I'm not mad anymore," he said, leaving it at that.
"You're not? It was nuts, what I did."
He considered that. "Maybe. Maybe it was a little nuts," he said, softening. "But it worked. And you actually ended up making me some money. Money that bought me a nice house in the English countryside."
"Well, you made yourself that money, Darren. I was just trying to get your work in front of as many eyeballs as I could."
His shoulders dropped slightly.
"To this day, it gets me meetings," he said.
One of Ellie's eyebrows shot up. She grinned. "By the way, I'd heard you moved across the pond. What are you doing back in town?"
"Paramount's interested in the rights to my novel."
"Really?" She nodded slowly. "Good for you."
"I'm not keen on the producer they want for it, though."
"Who do they want?"
"Oh, God," she said. "Run for the fucking hills."
"What about you, Ellie? Are you still producing?" he asked. "I'm so out of the loop."
After her three-year producing gig ran out at Paramount—resulting in one mediocre rom-com and a failed action franchise that hit the skids because A-listers kept dropping out—she came home one night from an industry screening to find her husband of 12 years, Bruce, fucking his 22-year-old assistant on their pool house couch, setting in motion a chain of events that eventually allowed her to clear all the heaviest anchors from her life. In a search for answers and relief, Ellie had gotten deeply into the work of Caroline Myss, a spiritual intuitive and healer.
"I left the business, actually," she admitted to Darren.
Ellie had walked away from her divorce at a financial loss—her ex-husband's acting career had amounted to one national dog food commercial, a failed sitcom, and a string of irritating one-man shows, despite all the favors she called in for him—but she was excited by the medical intuition she was learning. And she wanted to get her mind off the state of her imploding personal life.
"I decided it was my life that needed a reboot, not a fucking movie franchise," she said.
Weeks after signing her divorce papers, she opened up a small yoga studio in Larchmont Village with an attached medical intuitive practice. She saw patients four days a week—often mid-level entertainment executives who were dealing with stress and burnout, the very kind that plagued her near the end of her career.
Darren studied her. "You know, I was angry for years about what you did, but you helped me. And I wasn't easy to deal with at the time. I'd been easygoing before, but not during that period. I think it was because I cared so much about that film. I didn't want to listen to you."
"You had final cut. You didn't have to."
"But I should've."
Ellie shook her head. "I actually saw the movie recently. It was on Showtime and I hadn't seen it for years. Honestly, it's one of those films that needed time before it could be fully-appreciated. It needed to breathe, Darren. It's a great piece."
He cracked a smile. "Get outta here," he said. "It's a mess."
"Maybe. But it's a beautiful mess."
Darren looked over at her.
"Which is more than can be said for most things," she added.
Ellie noticed the grooves in his chin and cheeks; leaving LA had done him some good. No more massive gambles, no more jobs-always-on-the-line, no more potential heart attacks to navigate. He seemed so much freer these days, but tired, more weathered; life and its battles had collected payment. She suddenly felt like she could help lift his spirits in a new way.
"What are you doing right now?" she asked.
She had Darren lay face up on a back table, lit some lavender-scented candles, turned up the Gregorian chants on her iPod, and began to scan his body for any energetic disturbances.
Darren had had an hour to kill before a dinner meeting, so Ellie had offered to give him a complementary energy healing session. He balked at first, claiming he wasn't much of a believer, but she joked she'd never led him wrong before, which made him laugh.
Ellie quickly zoned in on his liver. It resonated as a ball of trapped energy, to which she focused all her capabilities. After a few moments, Darren involuntarily started to shake.
"Whoa—what was that?" he asked. "I felt something vibrate."
"Just undoing a knot of stuck energy."
"What is it?"
"The last of your anger toward me," she said, dryly.
"That can't be the last of it. Really?"
"You're right. I'll keep going."
He smiled, closing his eyes.
As she got back to attacking whatever clumps of darkness were gathering in the quiet corners of Darren's etheric body, Ellie recalled their time working together at Unified. They were both young, brazen, with the world at their beck and call—if only for a moment. The forces of commerce and second-guessing hadn't yet conspired to drop-kick their lives into chaos.
She remembered a sweltering, late-August day when she emerged from a private screening of Darren's film, stumbling back to her office in a daze. She recalled peering at all the happily-employed people working on the studio lot: The janitors sweeping faded-brick pathways, the gardeners planting yellow tulips and digging soil, the baristas pouring oat-milk Americanos. When they saw Ellie walk past, everyone smiled—everyone—scared shitless of her. But deep down, she was far more scared of them, knowing their livelihoods were on the line with every choice she made.
In Hollywood, even if you failed a hundred times, if you proved you could win once—and you did it with style and bravado—you never truly lost. At the time, if one of her gambles paid off at the box office, she suddenly had "magic" in her hands, and people believed she was, at least for a few weeks, a genius. Plus, a good stunt with a major payoff made for wildfire gossip, and those who had the scoop had the means to set that world afire. By evening, you could burn the town to the ground, and it would send you flowers and a bottle of champagne for it.
Still, it was difficult for Ellie to tell whether her life was truly better back then, or whether her existence now—sane, grounded, perhaps a little boring—was ultimately for the best. She certainly missed the gamble. Her ground-rule doubles and triples were now counted in client session packages, not box office receipts. But she worked a different kind of magic now.
Ellie shifted her attention up to Darren's solar plexus. There, she landed on a second clump of stuck energy—something that might get in the way of his novel being turned into a movie, or prevent the right producer from buying the rights to his play. This wasn't anger. It was something else entirely, tied into a deeper self-esteem and confidence, and it could manifest in destructive issues if left untreated. It was connected to an underlying feeling that if Darren didn't put his foot down and demand his way, he would never get what he truly wanted in life. But it was a fallacy. It didn't serve him anymore. And underneath that feeling was a fear of being unheard. She listened to that fear, acknowledged what it was saying—screaming, in fact—and spoke back with a reassurance about what it was asking to be done: it wanted out.
Ellie took a deep breath, leaned forward, harnessed the very power of the universe, and went to work releasing him from it.