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WORKING WEEKEND: A Full-Staff Salute to USA

4 Apr, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

It wasn't the biggest party I've ever been to. The Hollywood extravaganzas he major studios threw at the VSDA Conventions of the ‘80s and ‘90s made it look downright inconsequential.

But in my 19 years of attending VSDA, few of its classic parties were more memorable and arguably none were more poignant than what I experienced Thursday night as a privileged invitee of USA Home Entertainment's last dance at Manhattan's Marriott East Side Hotel. This was a staff event – one filled with emotion and camaraderie. Yet, it's so typical of the character of my friends at USA that they made me feel welcome and at home.

It might sound corny to call it the end of an era, but the fact remains that come April 15 – when operations for the proud and feisty video label are transferred to USA Networks' new owner Universal Studios -- it's not the IRS that will be nagging at the thoughts of more than 20 employees of USA Home Entertainment. It's the thought one of the passionate players at president Joe Amodei's farewell party for his loyal crew put it, "We're kicking ass and losing our jobs."

Let's hang some numbers on the ass-kicking. How about 2-1/2 million DVDs of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. Or half a million copies of the most Patriot-ic Super Bowl ever played. USA is justifiably proud that it routinely pulled off such sales coups with marketing budgets small enough to have fallen out of the pockets of the major studios without notice.

At a label of limited resources like USA, it's not dollars that drive the marketing machine but ingenuity and sweat. With modest budgets behind product that didn't do boffo box office, you simply can't afford cookie cutters.

In his farewell remarks, USA Films chairman Scott Greenstein noted that "15 years ago, most studios would have laughed at the thought of an independent production company like this being attached to it." Conversely, he added, five years from now, studios like Universal – driven no doubt at the moment by economic uncertainty and other intangibles – may regret not having held on to an agile, fiery creative boutique like USA. After all, it did produce one of this year's Best Picture nominees, Gosford Park, which had been on USA's release schedule, but now will bear the Universal stamp.

Greenstein, formerly of Miramax, also gave Joe Amodei his props by saying "you did it the way I would have done it if I knew what you know about this business." He related how not long ago USA's slate was so rife with art house films, Joe would come into his boss' office and ask Scott, hopefully, "Please tell me that the next film we have is in English."

The incomparable Robert Altman, director of that film (and no fan of Hollywood's ruling class of corporate imperialists), sent USA Home Entertainment an extraordinary message Thursday that read, in part, "I love you guys without reservation. For you, it's about the film. In the world we work in these days, that is rare indeed. My deep, deep thanks to all of you."

In addition, USA staffers fielded calls from content partners, such as NFL Films, saddened by the label's demise, saying, "Please don't go away."

After reminiscing about "living a dream" attending the Oscars and getting to work directly with the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Bob Altman, Albert Brooks, Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") and the Coen Brothers, Joe Amodei -- whose love of movies is exceeded perhaps only by his peerless passion for Ol' Blue Eyes -- put it all into perspective.

He said in the end, it's not all about working with big name filmmakers or the sales numbers on Traffic or Michael Jordan's video or the Super Bowl. He said he was taught a long time ago it's about the three Fs – Family, Faith and Friends. All of those were in abundant evidence Thursday night along with three Ps – pride, passion and poise.

And with all the memorable moments he's had at USA, concluded Amodei, his voice breaking, what he'll remember more than anything is a day in November when the USA staff, along with solid industry citizens like Flash Distributors president Steve Scavelli, took the day off from their usual workload to, in Amodei's words, "do something for those guys who went into those buildings September 11."

What they did that day was visit more than 100 firehouses in Manhattan and Brooklyn, delivering to each a VCR and hundreds of videotapes, more than 25,000 movies in all. As if that weren't enough, Amodei resolved that this act of generosity would not be publicized in any way – and has not been, until now.

So it's fitting that the evening came to a close in the wee hours with the USA staff, Steve Scavelli and this reporter ringing the dance floor, swaying in a group embrace and serenading Joe with the national anthem of Hoboken, "My Way."

USA's way was way cool. It is exiting the industry with as much class as the people there brought to a marketplace that can always use more of it.

Just promise us one thing, Joe & Co. Don't be strangers.

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