Screen’s New Light

Screen is finally under new management. Ruth Ratny started the local film-trade magazine as a newsletter in 1979, built it up, made it count, and ultimately kept it alive by force of will. Last month she got out from under it, selling Screen to a small group of investors led by Robert Leach Jr. He’s the former associate publisher of Contigo, a family-owned Spanish-language entertainment guide.

Apparently Ratny intends to play some sort of role at Screen, but what it will be isn’t clear. When the sale became public in early December, she issued a press release announcing that she “will continue to contribute her industry expertise to the publication.” In fact, Leach had expected her to stay on as editor in chief. But she promptly resigned, though she retained a small financial interest in the magazine and a seat on its board of directors.

Leach, Screen’s new president and publisher, respects Ratny’s decision to disappear. “It’s hard to move in when the previous owner stays in the house,” he told me. “There’s a different philosophy, and in order to bring Screen along there are changes that need to be made.”

Leach said he thought Ratny would continue to write the column “Up and Down the Avenue.” But Ratny dismisses it as a gossip column she doesn’t have time for. She adds that she’s working on a couple of stories for Screen that are “pretty darned good.”

Leach is proposing changes in Screen both big and small. The most dramatic is to build a chain of sister magazines in other major production centers: New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver, and Miami-Atlanta. All six magazines would share a cover story and about 30 percent of their editorial content each issue. He wants to expand into at least one of these new markets by the end of next year.

Some of them already have film-trade magazines, such as New York’s Shoot, which Leach covets. “If they don’t want to sell, I’d have to consider creating a Screen New York,” he says. “Our first approach is through acquisition. Obviously, building new magazines is a much more difficult task.”

Ratny applauds this strategy. “That was my idea,” she says. “That’s called the Adweek formula.” Why didn’t she try it? “I didn’t have the money,” she explains.

Says Leach, “Another thing I want to make clear is that I am a publisher who will not write a story. My job is not editorial. The previous publisher [Ratny] was the editor.” He’s promoted staff writer Claire Weingarden to managing editor, a position that didn’t exist before, and he’s looking for a new editor.

Leach is 35, roughly half Ratny’s age–“which I think will represent the biggest change at Screen,” he says. Seven years ago his family, which owns an independent newspaper distributorship, launched Contigo, and he’ll stay involved there as a consultant to his father. At Screen, he’s the one who needs advice, which is why he’s creating an advisory board. “I feel like a deer looking at a pair of headlights and wondering which way to go,” he says.

A Screen tradition Leach intends to tamper with is the magazine’s annual trade awards, which Ratny announced each December. “It’s been a jury of one,” says Leach. “I want to change that.” The big job of the Screen advisory board will be to chart the magazine’s direction; a smaller one will be to pick its award winners, who from now on, says Leach, will be announced in June.

Ratny’s last great triumph at Screen was to keep it going until somebody took it off her hands. The 2000 actors’ strike devastated the local film industry, and Ratny reacted to lost advertising by retreating from weekly to biweekly publication. (Leach hopes to be able to go back to weekly publication by the end of 2002.) Later in the year Ratny fell down an elevator shaft at home. “I was in bed immobile for 13 days,” she says. “I had to have care after that for months.” But she dragged herself out of bed each day to run the magazine. Early this year she started laying off staffers, and they assumed the end was near.

A free woman again, Ratny says she wouldn’t serve on the advisory board if asked because “my focus is changing.” She wants to concentrate on some film projects she’s been cooking up on the side. “I’ve written a movie, ‘The Other Side,’ and I’m looking for financing,” she says. “It’s about a Mexican woman who leaves Mexico to reunite with her husband in Chicago, who doesn’t want her. He’s a playboy. She hires a smuggler to bring her across the border into the States, and he tries to prevent her crossing. I spent a year researching this. I spent a whole summer on 26th Street in Little Village.”

Further along is a TV biography of Mahalia Jackson she’s developing with Epiphany Pictures in LA. “She had a huge life, bigger than any ten lives put together,” says Ratny. She’s focusing on a period in the early 50s when CBS Records was promoting Jackson as the world’s greatest gospel singer and the network offered her a TV show. Ratny says Studs Terkel had discovered Jackson singing in Chicago, and Jackson told CBS she’d do the show only if “Mr. Studs” could host it. The network’s problem with that was that Terkel first had to be vetted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Terkel refused to sign a loyalty oath.

Last August a group of former Screen employees who expected Ratny to fold infuriated her by launching a competitor, Chicago Imaging & Sound. Its editor, Jane Burek, seems to have a clearer idea than Leach about where the industry needs to go in Chicago. “It’s getting commercial agencies to tap into the existing talent pool in Chicago,” she says. “That would include directors, music houses, postproduction.” The same talent could also work on feature films, she continues, “but feature-film production that originates in Chicago is practically infinitesimal right now. Chicago’s little more than a backdrop.”

She thinks this could change. “There are murmurs about how to establish a film infrastructure here in Chicago,” she says. “We can be part of the dialogue, and we can get people to talk about this and think about it.”

Ratny isn’t alone in remarking that Chicago Imaging & Sound looks a lot like Screen, which is where Burek and other staffers cut their teeth. Ratny calls it “the clone.”

Sometimes It All Just Makes Sense

It was the night of our annual Santa Claus vigil, the night when A.E. Eyre and I head out to the backyard to scour the heavens for the jolly gift giver and kick around the meaning of life. That might be him now, I said, as a red light crossed the firmament far above. “Either Rudolph or a 757,” said Eyre. “Which is a thought that still gives me the willies.”

I told my friend I knew it was a funny thing, but with one of the worst years in memory winding down, what haunted me was the World Series. I said there’d been a profound theological dimension to this year’s fall classic, though no one had quite put a finger on it.

“Yourself excepted,” said Eyre, with the easy scorn he reserves for my pretensions.

But yes, I had looked harder and seen deeper. As I told Eyre, the fourth and fifth games I simply couldn’t get out of my mind. Maybe the Yankees could rise once from the dead on a two-out two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth and then win the game in the tenth to transform a stricken hometown crowd. It had never happened before in World Series history, but there’s always a first time.

But twice in two nights–I didn’t think so. That had to be a miracle, a gift to a city in desperate need of a miracle.

“Uh-huh,” said Eyre.

What we saw this year, I said, has been sought by the wisest of the wise for thousands of years: mathematical proof of the existence of God.

“I’m no baseball fan,” said Eyre. “But didn’t the Yankees lose the series?”

Blew a lead in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game, in fact. An outcome that had me scratching my head until I understood it. A God who wouldn’t raise a hand to halt one of the colossal acts of evil in human history but turns around and fixes baseball games is not a serious deity. That seventh game obviously was God’s way of saying, “Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t care less who wins the series.”

I’d given Eyre plenty to mull, and mull he did. “I’ve never had your head for metaphysics,” he finally allowed. “When it comes to math my idea of a good time is the occasional amusing paradox.”

Again he fell silent, but more was certain to come. I studied the stars and waited for it.

“Heard the other day from my cousin in Nebraska,” Eyre said abruptly, as if changing the subject. “P.O. Eyre. They must have named him after the henhouse, we used to say.”

As eccentric as you are? I asked.

“Salt of the earth,” said Eyre. “Old P.O. was going on about his neighbors down the road, the Postels. Three of the nicest boys you’d ever want to know. But their old man worked ’em like slaves and never gave ’em two nickels to rub together. These boys were all dying to move out and set up their own places, but it wasn’t going to happen while that son of a bitch was alive.”

So what happened?

“He died. Like the wretched of the earth have said throughout the ages, what nobody wills will be willed by God. Come to think of it, they probably poisoned him. Anyway, it looked for a time like he’d have the last laugh. It seemed he’d left his dairy herd to the boys. Half the cows to the oldest, John, a third to the middle son, Mark, and just a ninth of the herd to the youngest, Petey, who was kind of a dreamer but a sweet kid.

“Problem was,” said Eyre, “he had 17 cows.”

That is a wrinkle, I agreed.

“The three kids were fit to be tied,” said Eyre, “but that’s where P.O. stepped in. He told Petey to drive the truck up the road and fetch himself one of P.O.’s cows.”

I’m no country boy, I told Eyre, but I can’t imagine anyone giving away a cow.

“That was the beauty of it,” my friend went on. “When Petey brought the cow back in the truck, that made it a herd of 18 cows. So John got nine of them, and Mark got six, and Petey two–and then Petey got in the truck and drove the last cow back to P.O.”

I presumed that this was A.E. Eyre’s paradox. What I honestly thought was that P.O. had a lot more practical intelligence than his city cousin. But as this was not something you’d want to say to A.E., I simply remarked that it was a lucky thing his cousin owned a cow.

“Actually,” said Eyre, “he didn’t own a cow. He owned a bull.”

Then the scheme falls apart! I protested.

“Worked like a charm!” said Eyre. “P.O. had Petey put the bull in the truck, and then he told his brothers he’d brought them a cow that looked like a bull. No one was particular about what the cow looked like since they didn’t mean to keep it anyway.”

At least P.O. had a bull, I said.

“Actually,” said Eyre, “the bull was up in the pasture servicing the ladies. So it wasn’t available.”

Oh, I said. That’s too bad.

“Well, so you’d have thought,” said Eyre. “What P.O. told Petey to do, though, was drive back to his place in the empty truck. So long as his brothers believed there was a cow parked outside they knew how to divvy up the herd.”

I saw, if just barely, how P.O.’s plan might have worked. The Postels’ lucky break was having a smart cookie like your cousin living up the road, I told A.E.

“Actually, he lives in town.”

With a bull?

“Of course not with a bull,” said Eyre. “He’s in a third-floor walk-up. But he and Petey got their heads together, and P.O. said to him, ‘Let’s you and me pretend whatever we need to pretend. Your old man’s will is too absurd to even think about unless you believe in that 18th cow.'”

It was now my turn to cogitate. The funny thing is, I told my friend, I’ve known you a long time, and you never mentioned having a cousin in Nebraska.

“Actually,” Eyre began.

And then I saw he’d been pulling my leg. I’m going in, I said.

“Do what you wish,” said Eyre. “But I’m going to keep looking for Santa Claus until I find him.”

News Bites

From the Sun-Times editorial page of December 17: “Today, we start a new feature, spotlighting what the self-appointed experts had to say about the war on terrorism to show how wrong they turned out to be.”

In America–though perhaps not in Britain, where the Sun-Times’s proprietor, Lord Black of Crossharbour, has finally been appointed to the upper house of parliament–most experts are self-appointed. Here people with something to say are not only permitted but encouraged to speak their mind without first obtaining a license or commission from higher authority.

From the same Sun-Times editorial page: “A foreign policy designed to placate the Chinese would quickly lead to a communist Taiwan, Thailand and, after a sufficient period of time, Tinley Park.” On the other hand, the views of a duly appointed expert can truly be a breath of fresh air.

Putting celebrity ahead of credibility, the Sun-Times kicked off its series “Stolen Dignity: Betrayal of the Elderly” last Sunday with a page-one yarn about how a business run by former mayor Eugene Sawyer got scammed out of $475,000. “In 1997, Sawyer was a tired man, past his prime, recovering from a minor stroke,” said the Sun-Times. He was also 63–“getting on in years,” as the paper put it. Most of the victims spotlighted in the series have been in their 80s and 90s.

Last week I juxtaposed two business stories dated December 7. The upbeat Sun-Times story from Bloomberg News reported a dwindling number of new unemployment-benefit claims. The downbeat Tribune story from the AP reported a big leap in unemployment. A Bloomberg reporter called and complained, with permissible overstatement, that the comparison was unfair and “makes us look like we’re a bunch of idiots.”

The Bloomberg story had been written December 6, and it ran in the next morning’s Sun-Times. The AP story was based on figures Washington didn’t announce until December 7. As soon as the AP wire carried the story the Tribune posted it on-line, which is where I found it. For the record, Bloomberg wrote its own unemployment story on December 7, and it was appropriately grim. The two apples I compared turned out to be an apple and an orange.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.