I recently discovered my pioneer producer great-grandfather Sol M. Wurtzel’s obituary in the April 16, 1958 edition of Variety. In 1917, mogul William Fox sent Sol to oversee production at his Hollywood studio. During his lengthy career as a Fox Studio head, Sol produced over 700 films.
One short paragraph blew my mind. “In 1933, when his [Fox Studio] Western Avenue lot was threatened with a three-month shuttering, Wurtzel went to bat for his staff, refusing to take anyone off salary. The studio remained open, and costs were charged to his later productions.” Wow, exactly 90 years ago, a studio executive cared enough about his employees to keep them on payroll.
During the height of the Great Depression, my great-grandfather bet the house, so his employees had money to cover rent, put food on the table and pay their medical bills. A hardcore gambler, he risked his own career and financial future.
He bluffed his way through, hoping if he blew on the dice and tightfisted budgets hard enough, his future pictures would keep Fox Studio in business. His ballsy gamble paid off. In 1934, his team made Shirley Temple and Will Rogers into breakout stars. The studio pulled through and he earned his employees’ lifelong loyalty. Over 400 people showed up at his 1958 funeral.
What a contrast to today’s studio executives, who sit in their air-conditioned C-suites, checking the time on their pricey Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin watches while striking actors and writers bake in the August heat and face uncertain financial futures. No skin off their noses or multi-million-dollar salaries as the months tick by and the workers lose union health benefits and the ability to pay rent and grocery bills. The longer the strike drags on, the more likely Hollywood union members are to give up their “unrealistic” demands and settle for less.
Far be it from the execs to frankly give a damn about the creatives as they focus on keeping their corporate profits maximized and shareholders happy. They represent late-stage capitalism at its worst and threaten to drive another nail in the coffin of our democratic norms and free expression. How can we have fun questioning authority without our nightly dose of brilliantly written political satire delivered by comics like Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers, the “Saturday Night Live” crew and Bill Maher’s “Real Time”?
My great-grandfather Sol’s admirable, sacrificial gamble 90 years ago seems unrealistic to the point of childlike fantasy now. When former Paramount and 20th Century Fox studio head Barry Diller suggested on “Face the Nation” last month that the current 10 best-paid studio heads and actors take a 25% pay cut as a “good faith measure” to narrow the difference between Hollywood’s haves and have nots, no one seriously considered embracing such selflessness.
Another line of Sol’s obituary jumped out: “Providing entertainment for moviegoers was his prime concern.” That’s a concept that stretches realistic expectations of today’s studio executives to the breaking point. Any illusion that entertaining moviegoers ranks a close second to the executives’ concern with maximizing shareholder value and their own stock options appears quaintly naive.
So, let’s get real and consider the obituary as the ultimate public relations end point. How do reigning studio heads want to be remembered? As cold-blooded villains who drew astronomical salaries while struggling writers, actors and below-the-line employees watched their dreams of being able to survive, let alone raise a family, in the film industry dissipate into the coastal fog? Or as empathic heroes who made sacrifices and risked shareholder ire to compensate creatives fairly, nurture their careers and give them a fighting chance?
During this next round of labor negotiations, let’s hope they consider how their Hollywood careers will be summed up. In the book of life’s final accounting, compassion outweighs annual stock ledgers.
Don’t they want their great-grandchildren to be as proud of them as I am of my great-grandfather’s commitment to his workers? If so, they need to stop watching time tick by on their $30,000-plus wristwatches; gaze inward to find their hearts and souls; and act in good faith to settle the strike. The dreamers who create the content that fuels their enterprises deserve living wages and brighter futures.
Sharon Rosen Leib is a freelance journalist and contributing writer to The Forward, Times of Israel and the San Diego Jewish Journal. For The Forward, she wrote the influential article “Jews built Hollywood. So why is their history erased from the Academy’s new museum?” which was cited by outlets around the world.
(Pictured: The Fox Western Studios crew circa 1933, including future producer, then-screenwriter Dore Schary, top center, with Sol Wurtzel.)
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