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Building to Fever Pitches

You’ve got the perfect screenplay idea, sort of Doom Generation meets Runaway Bride, but gave up on taking Hollywood by storm—until the Internet gave you access to key Hollywood insiders. Well, that was the noble idea behind ShowBIZ Data’s online “Worldwide Pitch Festival,” which ran concurrently with Sundance. Through an online auction, creative amateurs were given the opportunity to pitch story ideas to Hollywood moneymen searching for the next Matrix. The site streamed a handful of videotaped pitches from points as distant as India and Mexico City to a would-be audience of bidders and other interested parties. But, in this instance, e-commerce didn’t seem to whet Hollywood’s perhaps mythical thirst for new ideas.

Launched in 1997, ShowBIZ Data (www.showbizdata.com) conceived of the pitch festival as a promotional lure for their feature-film database, which covers everything from detailed box-office stats to development slates. Pitches were placed on the auction block, while a jury consisting of “Hollywood professionals and venture capitalists” promised one lucky seller “a chance to participate in a million-dollar production deal.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned. As of press time, the online pitches hadn’t attracted a single bidder—which may speak to the daredevil futility of counterprogramming Sundance. With most of the Hollywood crowd busy attending screenings for finished films, nursing hangovers, and discussing Minnie Driver’s Golden Globes dress, few had time to log on, download the necessary plug-ins, and surf through video pitches from the heartland.

Add to this the fact that many sellers wanted tens of thousands of dollars for movie ideas that were, to put it mildly, opaque. The pitch videos featured static head shots of people sitting in darkened crevices of their apartments, sort of like the testimony of witness protection people on Unsolved Mysteries. One man, who proposed an occult thriller about Hitler and a psychic spy ring while swiveling around in his desk chair, wanted $500,000 from prospective bidders. There were pitches about an ancient Egyptian serial killer, a town plagued by a ’70s dance virus, and an Internet psychopath. Peter Ross, an aspiring screenwriter from Columbus, Ohio, wanted $20,000 for a story about a group of teens who bond with each other while trapped in a mall. “It’s like Breakfast Club meets Die Hard—but not with Bruce Willis,” Ross explained, adding, “I hate to reference other films like in The Player but it’s the only way to get through.”

ShowBIZ Data also gave Sundance attendees a chance to pitch away at the Interactive Lounge, located in the heart of Park City at the club Harry O’s. There, people pitched on camera, karaoke style, in front of hundreds of cold, drunk people who could presumably rip off their ideas at will. This live event was MC’d by none other than “pitch king” producer Robert Kosberg, who also held a seminar on the finer details of plugging one’s dream scenario.

Kosberg, who approaches pitching with the hyperkinetic zeal that the Tom Cruise character in Magnolia brings to cruising, has also staked out a presence online at moviepitch.com. There, he solicits e-mail pitches from anyone with a concept. “I’m very frustrated by the fact that our culture doesn’t value ideas,” says Kosberg. “You hear producers say that ideas come a dime a dozen. That’s certainly true for bad ideas, but good ideas are one in a million.” And they’re worth $15,000: That’s what a woman from Ozark, Arkansas, earned after Kosberg sold her pitch about a man who lives in the Statue of Liberty to Polygram/Working Title Productions. (If the film actually gets made, she stands to make another $100,000.)

ShowBIZ Data CEO Oliver Eberle never promised a fast track to the Hollywood elite. “The pitch festival won’t change the fact that, once someone decides he likes your idea and puts it in development, you’ll probably be involved in the same nightmare that everyone else is.”

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John Phillip Santos crosses the border

John Phillip Santos is the sort of new intellectual who feels equally at home with analytic philosophy and Aztec mysticism, has wandered the dusty plains of northern Mexico and trolled the elite reading rooms at Oxford, and is a sober investigative journalist and a “laughing vaquero poet.” In his memoir, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, the TV documentary producer and first-ever Mexican American Rhodes scholar uses all these talents to paint an incredibly rich portrait of his extended family. In this journey of remembrance, he connects the story to the birth of Mexico, the New World, the larger phenomenon of migration, and his brush with the apocalypse.


Mining the memories of his family, some given freely, some painfully extracted, Santos pieces together the “double betrayal of Mexico” that his relatives represent. His mother’s side of the family was abandoned by Mexico when Texas was left to the Anglos; his father’s side chose to abandon northern Mexico for San Antonio in the 1910s, when the Mexican Revolution turned their home region into a chaotic battleground. Both branches tightly held on to their traditions, but as Santos grew up, he felt the Mexican in them fade.


Told in a nonlinear narrative that recalls experimental cinema, Santos’s tale describes the slow erosion of his family’s Mexican memory, even as he longs to plunge deeper into it. He contemplates the Aztec concept of Inframundo, a place containing both heaven and hell, and when it invades his Manhattan apartment, he meets the ghost of his uncle Raul. Returning to San Antonio from New York, he elicits unlikely sagas from various relatives: one branch of his family claimed a distant relation to the King of Spain; his great-grandfather, Teofilo, was once kidnapped and raised by Kikapu Indians in northern Mexico.


There remains one gnawing recollection that his family represses: the death of Santos’s grandfather. “Once I became aware of the mystery of Juan José’s death,” writes Santos, “it felt as if all of the stories that had been told of the family’s past were only meant to distract us from this one memory.” The incident, never conclusively proven to be suicide, murder, or accident, becomes the book’s epiphany. But there are no strange fictional twists to this story. There is just the truth that, for the Santos clan, “there were no more places of origin, just the setting out, just the going forth into new territory, new time.”

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Continental Divide

Richard Ampudia
(managing partner, Café Habana)
Income: $52,000 (1998)
Health Insurance: $179/mo.
Rent: $950/mo. Utilities: $90/mo.
Phone: $120/mo. Food: $200/mo.
Transportation: $320/mo.

It’s all very chic in the silver and blue café and everybody is eating grilled corn with lime but then the water starts flooding out of the bathroom. “I tell people not to put paper towels in the toilet but they do it anyway. Then the whole restaurant floods. Everybody runs outside in a panic.” Café Habana co-owner Richard Ampudia, 32, was talking about costs. “It happens at least three times a week. The city wants you to use these toilets that use less water, which is fantastic from an environmental perspective, but the flushing power is not the same. I put up so many signs in so many different languages telling people not to throw the towels in the toilet. I don’t know what to do anymore. Then every time there’s a flood, I have to pick up the check for everybody.”

Small-restaurant owners have to be careful about every penny. “Especially since we don’t serve hard liquor. With a bottle of tequila you can make your money back in one drink.” So Ampudia spends a lot of time in the basement office working on his Quick Book computer accounting program and wondering about things like why did they spend $300 on paper napkins in one week in June. Then he had a revelation—corn is messy and they served more corn in June.

Ampudia and two partners opened Café Habana on Prince and Elizabeth in 1998. The restaurant is named after the Mexico City diner where Cuban musicians drank café con leche after playing in the nightclubs. Ampudia grew up in Mexico City, where his mother—”s from the Bronx, she’s Jewish”—went in the ’50s to take a course in Spanish and met his father, “an administrator at the university, and fell in love and didn’t come back.”

Ampudia decided to move to New York after he got out of the shower one day in 1986. “There was an earthquake—my mom was standing in the door frame moving side to side. She was okay but the buildings collapsed, people died. I realized you can make all the plans you want. In 40 seconds your life can change dramatically. So I decided I’d pursue my life dream—NYU film school!” But four years later he dropped out. Who could afford such a dream? “I owed them $30,000. I was putting it on credit cards.”

During that time, his life as a restaurateur began. “I started at Continental Divide, where they served Chinese, Mexican, Thai, ricotta dim sum with chili con carne. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I don’t think they cared because it was on St. Marks Place.” Next he bartended at Benny’s Burritos, then managed Lucky Strike until he saved enough to open Vera Cruz in Williamsburg. “Four years ago, Williamsburg wasn’t as gentrified. I wanted to make nice Mexican food, but people wanted burritos. We don’t have burritos in Mexico. Artists would eat chips for two hours and spend five dollars. Then I thought, I’ll go back to Mexico City, open a big space. When the whole process started, I realized the bribes, the slow pace, and just living in a city of 23 million people has problems. I didn’t feel at home anymore. Today the difference of income is incredible. All the money goes to pay for the national debt, no money for social programs. Mexico City is like a hyperrealist Blade Runner
polluted, dirty, a major city grown out of control.”

Just in time, he got the call. “It was like magic. Sammy, my former boss at Lucky Strike, said Bella’s Luncheonette was for sale. Five years ago I used to have breakfast there. So beautiful, on the corner. I came back. It took us six months to build Café Habana.”

Today, Ampudia fills his restaurant in New York with Latin music like the kind in the ’40s and ’50s movies that he watched on TV growing up, the cabareteras with the singer in the polka-dot rhumba dress and a rich man pouring champagne. “It was when people had a lot of dreams of what Mexico was going to become, the Ricky Ricardo times when Latin was exotic and attractive. There was hope and there was money.”

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Upscale Mexican Takes a Road Trip

Streaked a single shade of peach, Cafe Frida parrots a too familiar design idea—a village with tiled roofs, arched walkways, and multilevel seating areas, one on a cramped rooftop. Though the effect is marred by an air conditioner descending from the ceiling like an alien spaceship, the fumbling but friendly service is just what you’d expect from a small town. But if you order judiciously, this new café serves up some great Mexican fare.


Frida repeats the popular shtick of preparing guacamole ($8) at your table in a molcajete, the traditional lava-stone mortar. Be assertive as you watch, demanding extra jalapeños, garlic powder, and, especially, lime juice, or the result is likely to be hopelessly bland. Less dependent on your input is queso fundido ($5.50), a pool of melted Monterey Jack miring caramelized onions and a choice of chile strips, crumbled sausage, or sautéed mushrooms. Pick the fungus. Also admirable is whole baby squid stuffed with minced shrimp and grilled, and miniature empanadas ($5.50) with a savory scallop filling napped with green tomatillo sauce. But the invariably fresh salsa cruda and basket of chips, served gratis, might be starter enough.


Like the handful of other upscale Mexicans in town, this café raids the cookbooks for regional recipes. From the seafood capital of Mexico comes pescado a la veracruzana ($16.50), a hefty sea bass fillet with a subtle tomato sauce highlighting cilantro and garlic, the garnish of capers and pimento-stuffed olives betraying its Iberian origins. The sauce enhances the delicate flavor of the fish rather than smothering it, and disks of sweet green plantain are a righteous accompaniment. The mole poblano is also right on the money, the inky sauce lighter and less complex than usual. There’s enough to moisten the bird, the oiled rice, and as many warm corn tortillas as you can snatch from the basket—it won’t be replenished unless you scour the village for your waiter. Another stunner from Veracruz is chilpachole ($6), a chile-laced soup usually made with crab, but here interpreted with shrimp, scallop, squid, and on some occasions a chunk of fish, making a mini bouillabaisse. The flavor is even more wonderful if you deploy all the cilantro, chopped purple onion, and lime wedges provided.


Frida’s does sometimes sell the Upper West Side short by confusing fancy with bland. The pollo guadalajara ($13), a skinless deboned breast wrapped around a dull-tasting mushroom filling, sprawls in a pool of one-dimensional tomatillo sauce—the only flavor on the plate. The portion of the menu listing chef’s inventions (‘‘Los Encantados’’) offers huachinango borracho, red snapper in a terrific tequila-and-chipotle sauce. At a recent meal, diners reached across the table to dip a tortilla in the piquant gravy, while the dry fillet, cooked long before the dish was assembled, remained untouched. Similarly, the intriguing-sounding appetizer torta de elote ($6), described as corn pudding, was a once moist soufflé that had shrunk to the consistency of corn bread.


But all will be forgiven when you taste the pièce de résistance, mixiote ($16). Frida’s replaces the usual chicken with a lamb shank, then coats it with chiles and avocado leaves, swaddles it in parchment, and steams it in beer. The leathery leaves are cousins of bay laurel, and yield a blunted licorice flavor. Oddly, the shank is unaccompanied, forcing you to side-order rice, or swipe a neighbor’s while she’s out searching for the waiter. But when you pull back the paper, all reservations will vanish as the pungent odor wafts upward.

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The Deportees

Last week’s annual Al Smith Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria–a white-tie dinner at-tended by the mayor, the governor, and the city’s power elite–is the kind of A-list event regularly hosted by the hotel. Whenever the president and other heads of state sit down to enjoy a sumptuous meal at the Waldorf, the banquet manager attends to all the details, including the placement of the silverware, tablecloths, and even how the napkins are folded. Yet a few miles and a world away from the pomp and glitter, men and women, many of whom are immigrants from places like Guadalajara and San Luis Potosí, are sorting, cleaning, and stacking the linens that will adorn those same tables. They work for $5.15 an hour in a Staten Island commercial laundromat, where some claim they put in 80 to 90 hours a week with no health benefits, vacation, or sick time. In some cases, they work outside, in snow and rain, unloading laundry trucks.

But on September 15, five days after workers at the laundromat had their attorney send a letter to their employer demanding $159,000 in back wages and overtime, agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the place and arrested 10 illegal workers, sending them to detention centers in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and York, Pennsylvania. Nine of those were quickly deported to Mexico, although none of the workers who filed the complaint were caught in the INS raid. At the laundromat, all of the workers arrested were replaced the next day.

The company, Launderall in Staten Island, is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for possible overtime abuses. The owner of the firm, “Buddy” Friscia, told the Voice that he “might” owe some back wages but “nowhere near the amount” claimed. In addition, he says he paid anything over 40 hours a week in cash, “off the books,” so there is “no way the workers can prove anything.”

The case of the Mexican workers has an all-too-familiar ring to Graham Boyd of the Yale Law School Workers Rights Project. Together with the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of 20 other groups, he filed a claim on September 17 under the NAFTA treaty trying to end the government’s policy of having the Labor
Department report undocumented workers to INS, making it dangerous for workers to file wage claims.

“The Clinton administration has maintained an illegal policy of protecting sweatshop operators in defiance
of its obligations under the NAFTA
labor side-agreement,” Boyd said.
The Clinton policy “reveals the hypocrisy of the administration’s
so-called ‘No Sweat’ campaign,” he added, “in requiring the Labor Department to notify INS about workers trying to better their conditions.” The result, according to Boyd, is “widespread underenforcement of minimum-wage and overtime laws.”

One worker who was arrested, Ezequiel Torres, was employed at the company for the past 12 years. Because he has two daughters born in the United States and has a lengthy work history, he was able to post a $2500 bond with the INS and will plead his case before an immigration judge in December.

Alexander Jardines, the lawyer for the Mexican workers, said he wants to sit down with Friscia and work out an agreement to pay the back wage claims. “I don’t want to close him down,” Jardines told the Voice. “But we have proof, including time cards, that my clients worked 80 to 90 hours a week.”

Friscia vehemently denies that employees worked anywhere near those hours, saying that one of the workers forged the time cards and was selling fraudulent green cards for $200 each, misleading him into thinking that all his employees were legal immigrants. Under federal law, the employer is responsible for keeping records, called I-9 forms, on file showing that workers have supplied documentation of their status. There is no obligation to make sure the papers are legitimate.

There is some dispute as to who called in the INS. Father William Harder, of St. Mary’s of the Assumption parish on Staten Island, finds it odd that the raid occurred five days after a letter of claim was sent to Friscia. He suspects that Friscia himself reported on the workers, as a way out of paying the money. However, none of the seven people who are being represented by Jardines were at work on the day of the raid, the timing of which Friscia calls “too coincidental.” Calls to the INS went unanswered.

The INS raid came as a shock to Marina Ortiz, one of the workers, who has been living in the Midland Beach section of Staten Island for the past seven years. The town sits on the Raritan Bay, three miles from the Verrazano Bridge. Ortiz is one of an estimated 5000 Mexicans who have found their way to the borough, working at sub­minimum-wage jobs in landscaping, at
car washes, cleaning dishes
in restaurants, and pulling apart cars in auto junkyards along the Kill Van Kull
waterfront. One of the reasons that Mexicans flocked to the city’s least-populated borough, she said, was becausethe enforcement of the immigration laws is perceived as not being as strict as
in California or Texas. “When you get stopped for a traffic violation in California, they ask for your green card,” she added. “Not here.”

Torres was the first to find his way to Staten Island and the laundromat, and sent word back home that there was plenty of work, albeit at low wages, and that “no one bothers you here.” His sentiment is echoed by five laundromat workers who said they are accepted by their neighbors in the beach community, a blue-collar town that was once a resort getaway for the Irish and Italians.

“You can walk down the street at two in the morning for miles and it’s safe,” said Eduardo Palafox Gonzalez. After the raid, however, there are mixed feelings about staying. The most difficult aspect of emigrating, said Roberto Guiterez, is that he misses his family and the quieter way of life. “Some day, I would like to make enough money to stay here and work for six months in the summer and then six months in Mexico. I don’t like the cold.”