You never forget your first love, and mine has never left me. Though they go by many names, the movies have carried me through good times and bad and remained by my side, or rather, in front of me, through childhood, puberty, marriage and the birth of a child.
My years, in fact, have been marked by movies. At age 3, there was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” My oldest brother, who was 10 at the time, convinced my parents it was a good idea to take his baby brother along. About 15 minutes after being dropped off, he made a call home: “Momma, come get Daniel. He’s running up and down the aisle screaming, and I can’t get him to stop.”
At age 5, there was the “Planet of the Apes“-themed birthday party. We didn’t have costumes, but I remember us running around like monkeys, and my big present that year was a Cornelius action figure.
“Jaws” hit me like a tidal wave at 9, and I swore never to go in the ocean again, a promise I kept for the next nine years. At 11, “ Star Wars” merged mythology and science fiction, creating a cult of light saber-wielding fans. We might have looked silly pantomiming the battle scenes, but it didn’t matter — the force was with us.
We’re always looking for heroes, and I found a new one in Indiana Jones. For my 15th birthday, I asked for a fedora and a bullwhip after watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I received a set of car keys instead and was disappointed. You see, my two best friends already had cars, but nobody I knew, in Mississippi, had a bullwhip and a fedora.
At 18, I was legal. I could vote, join the military and drink beer. It was also the year I stepped inside a time-traveling DeLorean and went “Back to the Future.”
After two years of college I’d had enough of simply watching movies, I wanted to be a part of them. My best buddy and I headed for the hills of Hollywood, that mythical place of milk and honey. Within a week, we had a job in the film industry, working at the Mann Theatre in Tarzana.
By the end of the summer, we’d served popcorn to two of the Jackson Five (but not Michael) and rocker Pat Benatar, and we’d memorized the best lines from “Full Metal Jacket,” “The Untouchables” and “ Robocop.” We were also broke and homesick.
The 90s were good to me, movie-wise. I started the decade working for one of the nation’s largest corporations, a telecommunications giant with nearly 100,000 employees. I spent my days as a data analyst, crunching numbers, but my heart was still with the movies.
These were the days before the Internet, and after work I would walk over to the Birmingham Public Library and devour encyclopedias and histories of film. I also read Daily Variety, memorizing the weekend’s box office results the way some people study baseball box scores.
I was fascinated with not only the storylines of movies, but also the dollars and cents. Using a Lotus spreadsheet (remember those?), I tracked the earnings of popular films. In 1990, when Westerns were supposedly dead, I was surprised to find that “Dances with Wolves,” with a $22 million production budget, brought in $184 million domestically and another $240 million in foreign theaters.
But Hollywood, as I would find out, has a funny habit of giving too much power to too few people. That happened to Kevin Costner after the Dances with Wolves success and would lead to abominations such as Waterworld and The Postman.
Numbers and movies continued to collide for me. I’m no numerologist, but I was intrigued, and somewhat puzzled, by the nomenclature movies used when referencing numbers. I stayed up late at night, trying to uncover why the sequel to “Weekend at Bernie’s” used the Roman numeral “II” in its title, while “ Speed 2: Cruise Control” simply chose the number “2.”
And these were not isolated incidences. There were other examples, such as “Catch-22″ and “Slaughterhouse-Five.” I began to feel like Billy Pilgrim, the time-trotting protagonist of the latter film — someone who had become unstuck in time.
By this restless stretch in my life, I’d entered graduate school and took this numbers conundrum to my statistics professor. He looked at me as if I had committed a crime and handed back my most recent test. I could see the red marks bleeding through the page. “Why don’t you just worry about learning standard deviations?” he told me.
That has been a recurring theme of my adult life: people of authority telling me to worry a little less about movies and a lot more about my career.
But what can a person do? After all, I was in love. And, as most often happened, I followed my heart, if not my head. I began to write about movies for a living. A career counselor had told me to “follow my heart and the money would follow.” Maybe I never left a good enough trail, but at least I was doing what I loved.
In 1998, I flew to Utah to cover the Sundance Film Festival. The Coen Brothers were there to premiere “The Big Lebowksi.” I found it as bloated and directionless as the film’s hero, The Dude. It bombed, initially, but would later find a cult audience among couch surfers who worshipped The Dude’s Zen ways. I knew I needed a purpose as well or, at least, a compass.
I found a sign in 2000. On the eve of the 72nd Annual Academy Awards, 52 of the golden statues went missing. I flew from Alabama to Hollywood to find them. A week after I’d arrived in town, a dumpster diver named Willie Fullgear found them still boxed in crates behind a laundromat in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. That was the last place I’d thought to look. I’d been in Chinatown the whole time, where I thought all the great crimes of L.A. could be solved.
Though Mr. Fullgear beat me to the punch, I would never live east of the Mississippi River again. And movies would continue to play an integral role in my life. On the eve of my marriage in 2003, I huddled in my small Santa Monica, Calif., apartment, all 300 square feet of it, watching a DVD of “The Godfather,” remembering that I’d given my fiancée an offer she easily could have refused, but hadn’t. Maybe the movies were playing a part in my success after all. Maybe I’d even had her at hello.
A year later, when my wife went into labor, we spent the night watching movies — “Mr. Bean,” “The Italian Job” and, finally, “Alien.” When the eponymous character burst from John Hurt’s torso, I think that sent my wife over the edge. She was ready to give birth.
The years passed by and so did the movies. They dwindled. Some years, I only saw animated films with my daughter, movies about talking fish or toys that come to life. I missed the grown-up movies of my past, but it was pretty cool, too. I was watching movies with my kid, the way I’d tagged along with my parents in the ’70s and ’80s.
This past month, I’ve been watching movies again. Next week, in honor of the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 24, we’ll be releasing my list of the 25 best business movies of all time on this site. I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts on where I got it right and where I got it wrong.
As for the Oscars themselves, I don’t know if I’ll watch the show. I rarely have this century. But I’ll be curious about the titles again, particularly “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Life of Pi,” wondering why they weren’t “Zero Dark 30″ and “The Life of 3.14159.”
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