Sunday, March 9, 2008

Letter from Hollywood

Yesterday evening we had dinner with a celebrity handbag designer called Nancy. She does wonderful things with leather: Angelina Jolie has just bought seven bags and now Nancy’s making her one to hold nappies and baby bottles, which she’s calling The Nanny. When news gets out, Nancy’s company Jamah could become world famous.

In Hollywood fame and fortune can arrive overnight, but the real challenge is stopping them leaving again in the morning. It’s a city of promises, many of them broken. Last week I recounted how we finally got into production with Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct. What I didn’t add was how that series nearly ruined me.

It started so well. We found a film-loving American billionaire to back us with thirty million pounds. Or that’s what the contract said.

We hired two enormous stages at Pinewood and filled them with spaceships, aliens, actors and crew. After a few weeks of filming, the flow of cheques from America slowed down. So, courtesy of Lloyds Bank, Newcastle, I ran up a modest overdraft to cover what I assumed was a technical delay – after all, we had a firm contract. Within a month, I was one and a half million pounds in debt, and the funding dried up completely.

I don’t know who was more suicidal: me facing bankruptcy, Gerry losing his reputation, or the lovely bank manager in Grey Street who had allowed an unsecured overdraft to get out of control.

So I threatened to sue the billionaire. He responded by sending in the heavies: eleven black-suited lawyers flew into London. They claimed their client knew nothing about the series, that a rogue underling had signed our contract without authority and moreover that, as this underling had used a limited liability subsidiary to do the deal, there was nothing we could do about it. It was the end.

I was summoned to meet the executioners. I left Gerry sitting gloomily in the production office, surrounded by Thunderbird models, waiting for the axe to fall.

Suddenly I had an idea. I’d read somewhere that in the States you can “pierce the corporate veil of limited liability” by proving that a director of one company had control over its subsidiary.

I ran to my office and frantically searched through my files. Eventually, tucked away in a drawer, I found a solitary fax from the underling, complaining about the colour we’d painted the scenery. He said it looked too gloomy, and asked us to brighten it up.

I shoved the fax into my pocket along with a few personal letters, including a note from my girlfriend reminding me to pick up the dry cleaning.

The meeting was brief. There was no discussion: they were pulling the plug. The suits closed their briefcases and prepared to leave. It was time to play my only card.

“But Mr X was not only a director of your client’s corporation, he also had influence over our production,” I said.

“Nonsense”, they snapped, “he had nothing to do with the filming.”

“Right down to the minutest details”, I went on, “like the colour of the scenery”. I slowly pulled out the fax from the pile of personal correspondence and began to read.

Just then, a curious thing happened. The lawyers opened their briefcases again.

“Mr Gutteridge, we’d like to take a ten minute break.”

Three hours later, they came back into the room with a cheque for three million pounds and a commitment for the remaining twenty-seven.

So if I tell you that earlier today I had a meeting with a nice man called Mort who says he’s going to pay for our new television series and turn it into a worldwide hit, you’ll understand I’m taking it with a pinch of salt. But Joanna and I, and Nancy the celebrity bagmaker, did split a bottle of champagne over dinner. Just in case.

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