Summer 2006 • Issue 22, page 10

How I Got To Be A Movie Maven & Saved Christmas (Well, Maybe I Helped A Little)

By Bronston, Edythe*

[Editor’s note: As most of you parents know, “Eloise” is one of the most beloved and recognizable characters in children’s literature, charming decades of parents and daughters in a series of best-selling books by the late Kay Thompson. More than 3.5 million copies of the four books featuring the peripatetic six-year old, the most famous resident of the sumptuous Plaza Hotel, have been sold since Eloise’s debut in 1955. In early 2003 two films in production starring Sofia Vassilieva as Eloise and Julie Andrews as her nanny — ultimately titled “Eloise at the Plaza” and “Eloise at Christmastime” – ran into financial complications, and a receiver was sought in Los Angeles County Superior Court to take over finances and see that the films were completed in time for their scheduled air dates. This is the first in a series of anecdotal accounts of interesting cases to be written by former State Chairpersons of the California Receivers Forum.]

The call came on my cell phone at noon on February 4, 2003, as I was walking to the dais at the Carnelian Room in San Francisco, to give a speech to the Bay Area California Receivers Forum on the new statewide rules. Pam, my office administrator, told me that the law firm of Dewey Ballantine wanted me to complete two movies and they wanted me to do it NOW. I was sure that either she’d misunderstood the message or I had. What on earth did I know about starting, shooting or completing movies? Absolutely nothing.

A call to the lawyer with whom she’d spoken, placed in the taxi on my way to the airport, confirmed that she had in fact gotten the message straight: my services as receiver were required to finish the two “Eloise” movies which were scheduled to air on Wonderful World of Disney, the first only three months hence. I was told that there were 11 days left of shooting (in Toronto) but that there was “no need for any concern,” as the director, the line producer, the actors, and the crew were a wonderful team and all I needed to do was to take control of the finances so that ABC, which had a license agreement with the producer, would be comfortable in putting more money into the production. (ABC had already paid the full amount owed under the license agreement, but had no movies to show for its money, so was perhaps understandably reluctant to deal further with the producer.)

By the time I arrived back in my Sherman Oaks office and telephoned the lawyer who was petitioning the court for my appointment, the papers had been virtually completed. Two days later, at a 1:30 p.m. ex parte hearing in the North Central District of the L.A. County Superior Court in Burbank, I was appointed Receiver to take possession, custody and control of all property rights and all funds, records, contracts and personal property rights related to the production of the Eloise movies.

Then it began. The same afternoon, even before I had an opportunity to post my bond and file my oath, I received two frantic calls from the line producer in Toronto and additional calls from the stars’ agents and/or managers, all either advising of threats or threatening to close down the set and pull out the talent……unless payments in the neighborhood of $1.8 million were received…… Canada……..within 24 hours.

It seems there was no money left for payment of the Canadian crew…..or the actors. I quickly learned that ABC in New York was willing to advance the money, BUT any loans to the Receiver had to go through me, of course, and we were dealing not only with the three hour time difference between New York and Los Angeles, and then back to New York, whereupon the borrowed funds would be wired to Toronto, but the small detail that I didn’t even have a bank account opened yet!

I had NO time to petition the court for authorization to accept a loan……NO time to get the account opened and have the funds transferred to California and back to New York……..NO time to do anything except take a deep breath, draft a really quick “Pre-Documentation Advance” letter agreement (I certainly couldn’t give ABC a Receiver’s Certificate at that point), and allow the funds to be wired directly to Toronto to keep the set open and the actors and crew working. It is a substantial understatement to say that I lost a few nights’ sleep!

Well, despite constant arguments with the agents, writers, composer, et al, the movies got made and the Toronto set closed down on March 21, 2003. I naively thought that that all that remained to be done was to broadcast the films...but no…NOW came the post-production.

At the time I had no idea what that term meant or entailed, but I learned quickly. First, I learned (after a multitude of calls) that accountants who handle movie production are neither interested in nor competent to perform post-production accounting, which is an entirely different animal. I was fortunate to locate an extremely talented accounting firm, Audit Trail, which had extensive post-production experience and was not only able to perform all the necessary work, but its employees had the patience to educate me along the way. Audit Trail also had the space to accept the 60-plus boxes of production records that were shipped to me from Canada. I also needed to coordinate tax issues with a Canadian accounting and law firm, and work with a very talented post-production coordinator located in Los Angeles. Little did I know at the time that the ABC and Disney production people and my Receivership post-production people had “issues.” After MANY meetings, some of which took place around my dining room table, we finally got the movies finished and delivered.

That left the existing sets, costumes, props, etc. to be dealt with. I cleverly planned to obtain the best possible price, probably on EBay, to reduce the balance on the $ 6.9-plus million I had ultimately borrowed to complete the films. I soon discovered that this was complicated by the fact that the parties had contracted for an option to produce a third Eloise movie, for which all the sets and costumes would be needed. I learned to my amazement that to dismantle and reconstruct the sets would require approximately $150,000 and to scrap them would cost $20,000.

No decision was made for months, while the little girl who played “Eloise” was getting older and taller...and Julie Andrews’ next commitments were fast approaching. Ultimately, ABC did not “green light” the project and I wound up selling the personal property to the producer, who paid all past due storage fees and took over the sets.

The movies aired on April 27, 2003 and on November 22, 2003. My administrator, Pam Hinojosa, and I were invited to watch the sound “looping” at Warner Brothers and met the stars of the movies, Julie Andrews, Jeffrey Tambor and Sofia Vassilieva. We were introduced to them as “people who helped get the movies made.”

All of the money was ultimately repaid. No, I did not get a credit.

[Editor's note: the first of these films, "Eloise at the Plaza," aired on "The Wonderful World of Disney" in a two-hour time slot on April 27, 2003 on the ABC Television Network. Numerous glowing reviews were somewhat offset by a lukewarm TV Guide award of only two of five possible stars. The movie earned a respectable 5.5/10 national share, however, and the composer, Bruce Broughton, won an Emmy. Post-production on the second film, "Eloise at Christmastime," was finished in time for the film to kick off the holiday season on The Wonderful World of Disney. It aired on November 22, 2003. TV Guide termed the cast "sparkling" and gave it an additional half star rating compared with the earlier movie. It scored a respectable 5.2/10 national rating. Both films are available on DVD.]

*Edythe L. Bronston is an attorney and receiver in Sherman Oaks, California. She is a co-founder and past-president of both the Los Angeles / Orange County chapter of the California Receivers Forum and the statewide organization. She has served as receiver for many kinds of business entities and has now offers substantial expertise in the production and sale of motion pictures.