Saturday, February 17, 1996

A Taxing Proposition

Forget the $20,000 toilet seats.  Forget the B2 Bombers. Forget the foreign aid to Bosnia.  The reason for the 3 gazillion dollar national debt is walking among you.  I have been discovered by the nameless, faceless inspectors.  The Federal Government has reached out and touched me with its long sword, and brought its full power to bear.  They have identified my crime, passed judgment, and demanded restitution.  And when they cash my check, democracy will once again be solvent.

A little background may be in order.  Both my wife and I are self employed.  This complicates our tax picture enough that we employ the services of an accountant to help us prepare our returns.  Referred to us through a friend, he's an older guy who teaches accounting at a local college.  While he's been doing our books for nearly 10 years, he still starts every message he leaves on my machine with, "Mahhhk, this is Gabe, you accountant."   While I used to prep everything and head to his office to review the material, I came to the conclusion that he doesn't really want me to talk to him.... the numbers talk to him.  With that in mind, I now get everything together, reduce it to 5 or 6 typed pages of figures and notes, and send it all to him to wrestle into shape.  Occasionally, either I make a mistake compiling the data, or he makes one transposing it onto the tax forms, and we have a error crop up.  And that is what kicked off this exercise in governmental might.

In the fall, the mail contained one of those dreaded envelopes stamped with "Internal Revenue Service."  Now, regardless of your innocence, you know you're guilty.  Because we all know that if they look hard enough, we've all changed lanes without signaling at one time or another.  I'm not talking big, Al Capone deception here... not even Leona Helmsley stuff.  But who hasn't bought gift wrap from the school PTA sale, and listed it as a charitable donation?  Who hasn't gone out with an associate for a social evening, and called it a business dinner?  Who hasn't won the office football pool and "forgotten" to declare the winnings? Enough said... you know who you are.

I rip open the envelope and scan through the user friendly prose (Thanks to George Bush, I guess, it's a kinder, gentler IRS), looking for the bottom line.  First, I realize that it's not last year that they're talking about, but the year before.  So in spite of the government shutdown, in spite of the budget battle, in spite of the marriage of Michael and Lisa Marie, some federal clerk has found the time to sharpen his pencils, put fresh batteries into his calculator, pull up a large pot of coffee, and review our 1993 returns.  (I guess that at least it's comforting to know that somebody is checking.)  A few more minutes of reading and I find of dense series of references, dollar amounts and footnotes.  As near as I can determine, a bunch of stuff didn't add up, and we owe another thousand dollars or so.

So now the big question:  how much is it worth to figure out if this is right or not?  I have to go and yank all of my 1993 files from the attic, and review and relearn them, trying to reconstruct my thought process as to why I put which deduction into which column.  Then, even if I can reconcile my notes and theirs, I have to take it to Gabe (you accountant), and have him fit it into the correct formulaic response.  Odds are, even if I'm right and they're wrong, it'll just open a can of worms that will only lead to more fun and games.

But, because I play by the rules, I tackle the problem, spending several evenings with a calculator and stacks of forms, trying to make ends meet.  Eventually, I find that it's a split decision.  Indeed, I mislabeled one number and put it into the wrong column.  At the same time, they overlooked a particular payment.  I dutifully trot it all off to Gabe, who fills out the proper paperwork, adds a letter in accountanteese, and returns it to us for our signature, with a note to attach a check for about half of the original amount. Like sheep being led to the slaughter, we do as we're told, and send it on to Washington.

Five months go by.  The government is running again, a budget deal is near, and Michael and Lisa Marie are no more.  But once again, the long arm of the law knows no rest, and comes a-callin'.

With a sense of deja-vu' , I rip open this new envelope, and extract the now six pages of explanations and citations.  I envision a team of crack investigators combing through my recycling, gluing together scraps of long ago discarded bank statements.  The FBI fans out across a 10 state region, interviewing ex-girlfriends, old teachers, and former neighbors.  All have a single goal:  GET 'EM!

I finally get to the bottom of the letter.  Yes, they received my check.  Yes, they accept the split decision.  Yes, section C cancels out paragraph 3.  The net is that I still am on the hook for unpaid funds.  And the price to square me with the American People?

One dollar and forty six cents.

That's right.  $1.46.  The paper and stamp costs more than that, never mind the time and computing power it took to arrive at this conclusion.  Without a second thought, without consulting Gabe, I scribble out a check, and throw it in the mail.  Once again, the universe is back in perfect balance, and Warren Christopher will get his paycheck.

At least until April 15th.

- END -

Marc Wollin of Bedford files a 1040, a Schedule C, a 5500 and  a 4562.  You'll have to ask Gabe (you accountant) what that all means.  Mahhhk's column appears weekly in the Record Review.

Friday, January 12, 1996

John's Next Move

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were bad times, to see you through

I been walking around all day singing this song to myself.  They're the opening lyrics to "More Bad Times",  a song in the new film from Bluehawk Films and director John Walsh.  The movie is called "Ed's Next Move."  Never heard of him or it?  There's a reason for that.... but I think it's going to change. 

I first met John a few years ago when he edited one of my projects.  He's the brother of a colleague, and the schoolmate of some other people with whom I work.  I knew he was working on a film, not an unusual "hobby" among the people I know.  But when I finally got around to asking more than "How's it going?", the story that emerged was far more just a guy filling his spare time. 

John's a scrappy guy.   After graduating film school from NYU (with the number one student film that year), he spent 11 years toiling in the trenches of the industry, working on features, industrial films, and tending bar to keep himself afloat.  He had an idea to do a "fish-out-of-water" story about a newcomer to the city, but it was hardly a groundbreaking thought.   After working for a number of months in Seattle and returning home, he was struck by the quirky things in New York: not in the bigger sense, but in the little, isolated contradictions.  With that focus, he sat down to write a script.  That was 5 years ago.   

He discovered, however, that there's a long distance from paper to screen.  He shopped his script around with minor interest, but no offers.  It was pigeon holed as a "romantic comedy", and all that people wanted to know was who would have the lead. He tried to interest a bankable star, with no success.   Some studios were interested, but nothing was offered.  A quiet, low key guy, John says he came to realize that the only way to succeed was to change his outward demeanor:  he had to present the mental focus and the emotional commitment that he could do it.  He changed his pitch from not "if I get it made" to "when I get it made."  When people spoke of other, similar projects, he invariably said, "Yeah, but this one's gonna be good."  The easy part was that the attitude wasn't a stretch:  he believed in himself.  The only difference was in putting it on display. 

With that new found commitment, he staked his own money, plus whatever he could beg, borrow or steal in cash and services, and put together a trailer. If "they" wouldn't look at a script, perhaps "they" would look at a tape.  The good news was that in producing nine minutes of finished film, he discovered that he could do it, that he had the passion... and that he loved it.

Still, while the trailer was well received, no one picked it up.  In the interim, John's father died.  His dad was a filmmaker for a lay religious organization, and had always encouraged him to try and stretch.  His death put a sense of urgency in John:  if he didn't try now, he might never get the chance.  Sitting in the backyard of his mom's house after the funeral, he and his producer blocked out a plan.  It was a route that many try, but in which few succeed.  He watched his mail, and accepted whatever credit cards were offered.  The twelve cards he got, plus some money from friends, friend's parents and family, gave him a beginning stake of about $80,000.  He stretched it as far as he could:   they shot on short ends, leftover pieces of film;  they borrowed a set from another film, and repainted and propped it;  they begged a camera for a week for what it normally costs for a day.  He kept hunting for money, for backing, for tradeoffs he could use to complete the film.  And the key was that, through it all, John kept focused, never believing he would fail, always believing he had something better than most. 

The movie?  I finally got a chance to see it.  It's the story of a kid from Wisconsin  who comes to New York, learns about the city and meets a girl who sings in a band. It's funny, wise, well acted and directed, and gives you a wonderful sense of what's it like to be a "normal" person confronting all that the city and its people take for granted.  It's gotten great reviews in a number of papers.  And... the good news..... its one of 35 accepted out of the thousands submitted in its division at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the most prestigious in the world.  His hopes are riding on it, along with his wallet:  he currently has $80 in the bank.

As for John,  in order to realize his dream of being a filmmaker, he had to become a caterer, a publicist,  a missionary, a banker, a beggar, a debtor, a pitchman, a negotiator.  By while his role has gotten very complex, mine has gotten a lot simpler.

I'm a fan.

- END -

Marc Wollin of Bedford rarely goes to the movies.  He does, however, have over 25 he hasn't watched on tape at home.  His column appears weekly in the Record Review.