Ultimate Film Fiasco
By Mike White
January 23, 2004
I forgot that I was supposed to go down and try out for the “Ultimate Film Fanatic” until I got into work and saw the note I left for myself. Luckily, the Independent Film Channel representatives had made camp just a few miles from my office, allowing me to make a quick jaunt over there during lunch hour.
I had no idea what to expect when I reached the Phoenix West River Center. I hadn’t been there since it had changed ownership from United Artists. Additionally, I was in the dark as to the overall purpose of my visit and the show for which I was “auditioning.” I’d never watched IFC and the email questionnaire I filled out a few weeks prior seemed to focus primarily on collecting movie memorabilia. Though my walls are lined with posters and video shelves, I don’t have much movie effluvia.
I was greeted by a group of folks who seemed to be my age or a little younger. They took my picture and handed me a stapled booklet to fill out consisting of questions I had answered before. I was ushered into a theater where two other gentlemen were filling out their own questionnaires.
Looking closer, I found that the typical “age/name/location” questions accompanied queries about my favorite films and directors. From there, I found two pages of trivia questions. Apparently, the two other guys in the theater were having a little more difficulty with these than I did as I managed to finish off my quiz and sign the attached affidavit before they finally gave up. In fact, I got so antsy just sitting there that I asked the woman in charge of our group, Christie Williams, if she had another batch of questions I could answer. I knew that I had gotten at least two questions wrong and wanted to make up for it with a better score.
I wasn’t pleased with my four wrong out of forty though Christie assured me that I had one of the best scores from the Detroit group. Though they were there from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., it didn’t look like they were going to have many other scores from which to choose. Before I left, I answered a few questions on camera. Again, I was asked about memorabilia and I came up with the MR. VAMPIRE-esque wind-up hopping Chinese vampires I had managed to snag after extensive searches on ebay. I felt much more at ease when Christie asked me to recommend a film that I considered underrated (DEATH GAME) or to confess one of my favorite guilty pleasure films (HACKERS). After I left I thought I’d never hear from anyone about this again.
January 27, 2004
I was wrong. Kelly at Mindless Entertainment called to give me the good news. I had been chosen to fly out to Los Angeles to be on the “Ultimate Film Fanatic.” Upon calling her back, it took a bit of clarification to fully understand that they were paying my way out to California. I only had to get my ass to the airport on February 11th. She told me that there were several tiers to the competition and that if I did well I’d be staying until the 15th. If I did a less stellar job I’d be home before then.
The idea of competition started getting me a bit nervous; especially since I have myriad weak areas when it comes to movie facts. Just as I was getting over it, I got an email from Rich Osmond asking the rhetorical question, “Doesn’t Chris Gore have something to do with that show?”
A quick check of Gore’s website verified what I had hoped to be a rare mistake on Rich’s part: “As an obsessed film fanatic myself, I can’t wait to meet my fellow maniacs and put them to the test to see if they measure up. With so many film lovers out there, you can be sure that our “Ultimate Film Fanatic” will be just that—a person obsessed with films and everything about them. Like a lot of people, I have a passion for useless movie trivia, so I feel I was born to host this show. If “Ultimate Film Fanatic” is “American Idol for movie geeks,” I guess that makes me Ryan Seacrest for movie maniacs,” host Chris Gore said.
With Gore as the host, I hoped that his hatred of me wouldn’t impact my chances on his show (see CdC 1-14). While it may be nice for an American Idol contestant to have a good rapport with Ryan Seacrest, is it really Simon Cowell that you need to impress? Per the press release on Gore’s site, a celebrity panel of three would judge two of the three rounds of competition. Again, more than the trivia or debate rounds promised, I was most anxious about the so-called “obsession war” wherein my personal collection of film memorabilia would be judged.
February 6, 2004
After obsessing nonstop for days on end, trying to sharpen my movie memories by playing some “You Don’t Know Jack – Movies,” I finally got a call from Christie. She told me what I expected: that I’ll have to break out my “obsession item” and cart it out to Los Angeles with me. Additionally, she asked me for a few back up items. After some head scratching I came up with a list of three other things I could bring with me that might show what a nut I am: some BLACK SHAMPOO stills, the script for THE BLOODSHOT RAINBOW, and a poster for the re-release of COCKFIGHTER when it was under the name BORN TO KILL. She also emailed me a list of debate questions that may or may not be used in part or in whole on the show.
It’s not difficult to imagine some of the questions. “Name five of your favorite films,” “What are some films/directors/actors/actresses that you can’t stand,” “What’s the most influential film ever made.” There were a few that I couldn’t really get into at all such as “Who’s overdue for an Oscar?” I really couldn’t give a rip about the Academy Awards, especially when the majority of the movies nominated for best picture don’t come out around here until a few weeks before the nominations are announced and only play at one or two inconveniently located theaters in the Metro Detroit Area, if at all.
It took me a few days to get to this but I managed to get down some good answers for most of the questions. Of course, I’m not shy about sharing my opinions so making lists of movies I love and can’t stand was pretty easy. When it came to discussing the merits of 3-D or the pros and cons of CGI, I kept coming down to the idea that the medium is not the message. I don’t care if a movie is shot in IMAX and stars a cast of monkeys as long as the story is in place. Actually, make the monkeys interstellar dentists and that wouldn’t be a bad pitch...
February 10, 2004
If I sounded a bit sedate about this exciting opportunity, it’s simply because of my state of denial. Even if I went out there only to crash and burn, the fact that I had been picked to be on a show and scored a free flight to Los Angeles just seemed too good to be true.
Rather than being calm, I lived in a constant state of anxiety. I wondered what the details of the show will be, hoped that I’d not leave in ignominy, and I had quite a bit of stuff going on in my life outside of work. My Grandfather took ill a few weeks back and during all of this rigmarole I tried to keep up with him and the various hospitals and nursing homes that he’d been in and out of. For the previous few weeks, Andrea and I spent a few hours going down and visiting him where ever he was at if possible. For some reason, I became convinced that he would pass away while I was out of town and I would feel awful for missing his funeral.
February 11, 2004
No need to worry about my Grandfather passing away while I’m gone. I got the call that he went in the night. My Mom assured me that there was not going to be a funeral or even a wake and that I was to go out to Los Angeles without guilt. Despite her words, I was feeling pretty awful for enjoying myself.
After one of the worst flights I ever had (I sat behind a couple who got themselves soused and enjoyed seeing how far back they could recline their seats), I met up with one of the representatives from the show. I was pretty sure that some of the folks on my flight were fellow contestants but I couldn’t pick them out. To say that we’re an eclectic group is an understatement.
All told, the Michigan group had three Michaels/Mikes. I met one of them but the other arrived earlier than we did. There’s also a Julian, Eve, and Kim. Their personalities ran the gamut from cynical to psycho to vivacious to vacuous to vapid. The overly long van ride from LAX to the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn was fun. Of course, movies were all the talk. I felt pretty darned good when Kim put two and two together and asked if I was the same Mike White that does Cashiers du Cinemart. She had even picked up an issue in the past and was hoping to get #13 if she could ever find it. Luckily, I brought along a few spares.
After some discussion, we theorized that six contestants came from each of the audition cities: New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Denver, Detroit and Atlanta. Michael and I met some of the Phoenix fellows down at the hotel’s restaurant once we checked in. We all had a $102 per diem burning a hole in our pockets and were ready to get some real food after a horrible airplane meal. After sitting and bullshitting for a while, Julian came in to tell us that our expected “interviews” with one of the show producers were pushed back a bit and that we shouldn’t be fraternizing. This came as news to all of us, especially after shooting the breeze in a van for an hour on the way over.
The message on my voicemail didn’t say anything about fraternization but I was told to think up something “catchy” to say as my introduction. “I’m Mike White from Detroit, Michigan and I’m going to win because...” I don’t know if I’m going to win. I seem fairly evenly matched – if not bettered – by the guys and gals that I’ve talked to thus far. I know I should work on my trash talking but I can only come up with stupid things like, “because I know what really went into that butter flavoring on your popcorn...” Or, how about, “because you don’t get a body like this from playing sports...”
I ended up bringing some items that I wasn’t sure about, including a copy of The Total Filmmaker by Jerry Lewis and the rubber Jabba the Hutt that Leon sent me a few years back. I think that Jabba will be making an appearance tomorrow, as he’s pretty intimidating and, hell; my life has been pretty “influenced” by STAR WARS. I wonder how many articles I’ve written in CdC that either refer to or bitch about those films. Likewise, when the producer, Joe, saw the latest issue of the zine, he recommended that it be one of my “obsession items.” Well, duh, I guess I am a little obsessive about that.
February 12, 2004
With the time difference and the trepidation, it was tough getting any sleep last night. Luckily, I was very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I was up and breakfasting with some of my fellow contestants at 7:30 AM. It was good, too, that I wasn’t able to sleep in as I got a call at 8, informing me that we were expected to be in the lobby in fifteen minutes with our obsession items.
Waiting for folks turned our 8:15 departure into closer to the original 9:15, but it was time well spent as the Detroit and Atlanta teams were stuffed into a van. There’s nothing like some good cramped quarters with cranky people to bring folks together.
The studio wasn’t at all what I expected. It was a large warehouse with stacks of amps and other music equipment. The stage area was about as big as the backroom where we all gathered to have a lawyer go over all of the legal documents we signed. I found out that the celebrity judges included Richard Roundtree, Traci Lords, and Jason Mewes. When we were asked if we knew anyone involved with the show, Eve freaked out as she had Lords’ name tattooed on her shoulder, after the starlet signed it a few months back. I think Eve just needed something to freak out about. After she was assured that she was still eligible to play, she started going on about her need to put concealer on the dark marks under her eyes. The make-up girl wasn’t about to do it as she seemed proficient merely in just brushing some powder over each of our faces
After going over the rules and the general format of the show (“every question is sudden death”), I was called out to the hall with Julian for a coin toss. I was pretty excited to be pitted against him rather than either of the Michaels. At the same time, though, I was hoping that he might make it farther into the show, as I knew I could blow away his obsession items. I mean, the guy had a screener tape and a script for L.A. CONFINDENTIAL that he printed off the Internet!
We all went out to the stage and were run through our marks. The stage was tiny with a studio audience of maybe two-dozen people. With his back to us, Gore was amongst them trying to warm them up a bit. “Laugh at the jokes, even if they’re not that funny.” I was curious to see him in this element, as I had never bothered to watch his Starz or F/X show. I knew that he had to have some charisma for him to have scammed so many for so long.
After a bathroom break, we were set. Geared up and ready to go. And then the roof caved in.
One of the headphoned-folks pulled me aside and asked if I write a zine. He said it with a snarky tone so I was pretty sure that something bad was going to happen. From there, it was like watching a house of cards falling in slow motion. I just watched and listened as people were convened about me. Producers, lawyers, stagehands, et cetera. Everyone was there except my fellow contestants and the man that this was all about: Chris Gore.
Suddenly, the few phone calls and emails that Gore and I exchanged all those years ago took on a lot of weight. That I had communicated with Gore became the excuse used to give me the boot. All the various legal ramifications of possible impropriety were explained to me, calmly and efficiently, as I stood aghast. My mind was racing. Could this really be happening to me? Could I have made it all this way only to be yanked at the last minute? Where was my hole that I wanted to crawl up into? Could they just take me straight to the airport? Would they like to kick me in the balls after this is done? I felt like such a doofus going into the dressing room area to get my stuff and leave. I was washing out early and taking that long walk of shame out. In other words, “I’m going to take my Jabba and leave!”
Not only did they take me out of the competition, they took away this entire experience from me. I came here to compete. I was there, in my element, hanging out with my fellow film geeks. To be right on the cusp and yoinked off the stage, I could almost feel that big vaudeville hook wrapping itself around me before jerking me from a starry-eyed dreamworld back to a harsh reality.
Was I a victim of my own poison pen? The more I thought about it, the more everything seemed blown out of proportion. A few email exchanges and phone calls don’t mean much. It wasn’t like Gore and I have ever been introduced. Perhaps contestants should have been told as early as possible who was going to be involved in this production in order to circumvent problems like mine. What if Eve had had more interaction with Traci Lords than getting her autograph? What if I had interviewed Richard Roundtree? What if Jason Mewes remembered talking to me for five seconds outside of a hotel in Toronto a few years ago? Nah, he was way too wasted.
Did Cashiers du Cinemart do me in? I hadn’t mentioned the name until the night before taping: I didn’t want this to be a time to shill. While CdC is the embodiment of my film fanaticism, I didn’t want to be a one-note Johnny. Did the appearance of CdC on my obsession item list suddenly trigger Gore’s wrath?
I said before that I was going to leave in victory or ignominy. My fate, however, appears to be anonymity. Even if I got my ugly mug on television, at least I had something somewhat “tangible” to bring away from this experience. As it was, I just had a foul taste in my mouth and a sense of malaise that plagued me. I’ll have to get a t-shirt printed: “I came all the way to Los Angeles and all I got was abject humiliation.” February 13, 2004 Fresh humiliation came early as I packed. I had brought enough clothes to last me through the weekend, trying to be confident about making it through to the final round. No final round. No first round. Ouch.
I finally got to play a little catch-up with some contestants at breakfast. Again, it was me and the Arizona group (and, later, some of the Atlanta boys). A few of the guys came up and told me that they couldn’t talk to me, what with me being the winner from Detroit and all. Huh? Apparently the plethora of Michaels threw people off. The Arizona people hadn’t met the “Mystery Michael” and had assumed that I took top honors in the competition. For the record, Michael F. is an Anchor Bay Entertainment employee – go figure. It must be nice to have cult movies be one’s job.
Once I this straightened out, I joined the group for some food and loud conversation. I met the Arizona winner. He seemed like a very nice guy and confirmed this by picking up the check for all of us with his winnings. Each regional winner collected $5,000 while the grand prize champion (decided later that day) netted either another $5,000 or $10,000 on top of that. It was never about the prizes for me. It was only about the competition.
I surveyed the group for some of their questions though most could only talk about what they missed. I’ll admit that I would have flubbed at least one of them as well. Even if I had been eliminated on my first question, like Detroit’s Eve, I would have been happy to have the opportunity.
If this whole experience taught me anything, it’s that you should run and hide if you see Ryan Seacrest and have any inclination of being on “American Idol.” And, certainly, don’t exchange heated emails with him. For, though you may think that Simon, Randy, and Paula call the shots, there may be a “conflict” if Seacrest thinks you’re uppity.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE SHOW?
I don’t have The Independent Film Channel. It took some very special people to provide me with copies of the show—I enlisted the help of several folks around the country to dub copies of the show for me just so I wouldn’t miss one due to any kind of freak accidents.
“Ultimate Film Fanatic” shouldn’t be watched the way I watched it; one episode after another. This exacerbated the show’s problems; the foremost being the pithy script that Gore followed without variation. By the end of the third episode I could say Gore’s lines well before he did leaving me with the distinct feeling that anyone could host “Ultimate Film Fanatic” (and with more charisma). It was hilarious to see Gore try to adlib. He became flustered quite easily when contestants broke from their roles.
The show also suffered from some poor pacing. During the head-to-head round, the contestants are given a set of three categories out of which they must eliminate two. This process of elimination is painfully slow and seems to contradict the fact that folks who tried out for the show should be experts on anything and everything about movies; able to take on any category thrown at them. It’s also obvious that category elimination help some of the contestants as nearly every show had at least one person eliminated on their first question. As Gore reminds us (verbatim) each episode, “Any basic screenwriting course will tell you that the least important characters die in the first reel” (though I don’t remember that from Comm 428).
The debate section of the show often calls into question the legitimacy of the show’s panel. Does it make a lot of sense to have Richard Roundtree or Traci Lords on a panel when contestants debate about stars being “washed up”? Could Jason Mewes stay impartial during the debate over the talent (or lack thereof) of Kevin Smith? If Gore’s qualification for hosting comes from his own film fanaticism, perhaps the jury should be made up of cinephiles as well.