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Financial Times: Hollywood or bust . . . or For a Few Barrels More

Financial Times: Hollywood or bust . . . or For a Few Barrels More

By John Gapper
Published: April 27 2004 5:00 | Last Updated: April 27 2004 5:00

Posted 29 April 04

In mid-2001, Walter van de Vijver succeeded Sir Philip Watts as chief executive of Shell’s exploration and production unit . . . Virtually from [that] time, the two engaged in a pointed dialogue …

In a December 2003 memo entitled Script for Walter . . . the assumption was made that 2.3bn barrels of proved reserves were non-compliant . . . Mrvan de Vijver immediately e-mailed one of its authors: ‘This is absolute dynamite, not at all what I was expecting and needs to be destroyed.’ – Report of Davis, Polk & Wardwell to Shell’s group audit committee.

SCRIPT FOR WALTER SCENE: An office at the Tulip Oil Company in The Hague, decorated with Dutch colonial knick-knacks. Walter strides into the room, clutching a sheaf of papers. He is a tall, imposing man, who has no time for the effete ways of his British colleagues. There is mystery there, the aura of many long nights spent on North Sea oil rigs and the dusty plains of Kazakhstan.

WALTER: Damn you, Sir Philip. I’ve got you now. This time, you won’t wriggle out so easily.

CUT TO: The library of a London club, filled with cigar smoke. Sir Philip, Tulip’s chief executive, is ill-at-ease here. He worked his way up from humble roots and only he knows the tactics he used. His brow glistens as he turns to his host, Lord Crumpet, Tulip’s oldest British director.

PHILIP: I don’t know what’s got into him. You know how Dutchmen can be – call a spade a bloody shovel, eh? The truth is, he hasn’t done the job I hoped. Now he’s trying to spread the blame around. Claims the oil isn’t there. Poppycock, of course.

CRUMPET: And you’re happy with the reserves, are you Philip? You’d stake your job on it?

For a second, Lord Crumpet’s blue eyes turn cold and distant. He blows a smoke ring past Sir Philip’s ear.

PHILIP (grimly): Don’t worry, your Lordship. Everything is in order.

CUT TO: A board meeting in London. The British directors sit on one side of a long table, with the Dutch directors opposite. There is tension as Sir Philip bangs the table with a gavel fashioned from an old drilling bit.

PHILIP: Item Five. Proved reserves. We were expecting a paper from Walter, but nothing came. The Dutch post can be tricky, I understand.

The British directors snigger. The Dutch directors glower.

WALTER (rising slowly to his feet): I have no statement to make.

PHILIP: Nothing to say, Walter? I thought you’d at least stand up for my old department. How many barrels have you found, again? Quite a few million, it says here. Oh, I’m sorry, there’s a minus sign. So you’ve been losing oil then, Walter?

There are guffaws of laughter from the British directors, while the Dutch directors shift uncomfortably in their seats. Walter makes the long, slow walk to the door. As he approaches the end of the room, he halts.

WALTER (quietly): But I have one question. Who wrote your script?

PHILIP: What the hell are you talking about, man?

WALTER: I think you know very well what I am saying.

He throws open the door, and a tanned man in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses walks into the room. Seeing him, Sir Philip’s face crumples, and he slumps in his chair.

WALTER: Perhaps you should introduce yourself.

BARRY: Hi guys. The name’s Barry. Used to be a Hollywood script-polisher. Million dollars a week putting in a three-act structure, and adding funnies. I heard Wall Street was crying out for story guys, so I started a little sideline in investor relations.

WALTER: And what brought you to Tulip Oil, Barry?

BARRY: They called and said they were having trouble with Phil. The camera didn’t love him. Sometimes he refused to turn up on set. Shareholders were getting restless. Tulip wanted me to work on the script.

WALTER: Maybe I’m just an homespun oil man from the Netherlands, Barry, but do other companies work this way?

BARRY: Better believe it, Walt. There’s so much noise these days, so many figures. You need a narrative, a storyline for the City. Got to give the analysts a yarn to tell.

WALTER: So what happened?

BARRY: Tried my damnedest to make it work. Boy from the wrong side of the tracks makes good – Working Girl with a twist. Or the uneasy leader of a divided European enterprise – Godfather II. But nothing gelled. Then I got your call, Walter.

WALTER: And what did you think about my predicament?

BARRY: Great story. Pure Robert McKee. The idealist working in the big corporation. Gets the job of his dreams, then finds there’s something dreadfully wrong. The big boss has fixed the figures. That’s your inciting incident. Wrestles with his conscience. Can he blow the whistle in time? The Insider, The Firm. Writes itself.

CRUMPET (sitting forward, suddenly interested): And it would go down well with the audience if, say, the whistleblower triumphed? If he was made chief executive?

BARRY: The perfect resolution. Hell of a lot of goodwill. New man can kitchen-sink the bogus oil. You’re off to the races, reputation-wise.

CRUMPET: Erm, Philip, I think it is time to make your excuses. (Turns to Walter.) My dear chap, we have a lot we need to talk about.

CUT TO: Lord Crumpet’s club. He and Walter are sitting in leather armchairs, Cuban cigars in hand.

CRUMPET: Walter, sparing your blushes, I like your style. Down-to-earth, plain-spoken. Those are the kind of values we need to have at the helm of Tulip Oil.

BUTLER: (approaching Lord Crumpet with an envelope): Excuse me, your Lordship. There’s a gentleman outside wants a word with your guest. He says he’s an internal auditor from Tulip Oil. He asked me to give you this.

CRUMPET (reading out loud from the letter): E-mail from Walter to the chief executive: ‘I am becoming sick and tired of lying about the extent of our reserves issues’ . . . Ohdear, oh dear, oh dear. Goodbye, Walter.”

WALTER (walking out): This is absolute dynamite, not at all what I was expecting.

CRUMPET (musing to himself): Venerable company, sound culture. Infighting between two bad apples at the top. Wily old bird who knows the ropes has to clean up the mess. There must be a script in that. [email protected]

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