Scott Budnick produced the Hangover movies. He’s also one of the most effective advocates for prison reform in California. It doesn’t make any sense until you see him at work.
Every Saturday morning Scott Budnick leaves his 1920s Mediterranean villa on a Hollywood Hills cul-de-sac, with its pool and waterfall and wooded trails, and drives his Tesla north, across the San Fernando Valley, to where the 5 and 210 freeways converge in Sylmar. The first time he made this trek, to a corner of Los Angeles synonymous with the fortress of a juvenile hall it encompasses, he was all jitters, wondering what he was getting himself into as he neared the brick walls and coiled razor wire.
Twelve years later, after some 300 to 400 Saturdays, Budnick pulls into the Compound like he owns the place, which is not far off; at least four superintendents in that time have come and gone. Strolling through the smoked-glass doors, he sips coffee, chews gum, and thumbs at his phone, pausing just long enough to navigate the metal detector and slip his driver’s license through a slot in the window.
“What’s up, bro,” he says to the guard.
After being buzzed in, Budnick walks down a caged corridor, through several more gated doors, across a field hemmed in by tall fences, and finally into a drab, chilled, cinder-block bunker. He has a dimpled chin, a few days’ stubble, and the hint of a Jewfro. At 38, he dresses like someone half his age: faded jeans, RVCA hoodie, blue Nikes with orange swooshes today. The clothes vary little, only the sneakers; he owns 80 pairs.
“Let’s see who we can pull,” Budnick says. In Unit W, where he volunteers as a writing teacher, a few teenage boys filter out of their cells. Most are tatted, from necks to knuckles to earlobes, with neighborhood insignia: a map of L.A. poverty. Each is an “unfit,” the juvenile system’s term for a minor so irredeemable, or accused of a crime so grievous, he must stand trial as an adult. Every one of them is black or brown.
Budnick spots Jorge. He is pallid and compact, swallowed by a gray sweatshirt and grayer Dickies. “You’re such a good kid,” says Budnick, wrapping him in a bear hug, then throwing him into a headlock. “I’d be lucky to have you as my own kid.”
“He doesn’t care what we did or why we’re here, and that’s what brought me to him, you know, like to be cool with him, ’cause he don’t judge, and I like that, ’cause I always feel judged,” says Jorge, who has been locked up since last summer, when he was 17. He is the youngest of five defendants facing charges that stem from a gang-related home invasion; if Jorge loses his case, he could be sentenced to life. “Some people don’t even have faith in me,” Jorge says. “And he does.”
“Who doesn’t?” asks Budnick. “I don’t believe that. Who cannot have faith in you?” He does not wait for an answer. “Maybe,” says Budnick, “the old version of you.”
If Budnick were a priest or a lawyer, even a counselor or a coach, these jailhouse pilgrimages would be easier to explain — his declarations not so incongruous. But until a bit more than a year ago, Budnick had a day job as a Hollywood producer, and not one devoted to bringing socially conscious, inspirational tales to the screen. As the number two at Green Hat Films, Budnick executive-produced the raunchy, uproarious Hangover movies, the top-grossing R-rated comedy franchise in history. For years it meant living a kind of double life, racing from the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, interrupting conference calls to accept collect calls, burning through girlfriends once they realized he would rather be, as his official bio says, “walking the tiers of California jails and prisons on his nights and weekends” than a red carpet.
“These kids,” Budnick says, “are what give me life.”
At once earnest and hyperbolic, loyal and schmoozy, Budnick can come across as a character in one of his own films. When people first meet him, whether it be an inmate or a warden, a politician or a philanthropist, the initial reaction is almost always the same: “Who the fuck are you and what are you about?” his longtime mentor, Javier Stauring, who oversees the L.A. Archdiocese’s youth-detention ministry, says with a laugh. Budnick is not the likeliest crusader, in other words, to be redefining how California punishes and redeems.
Midway through a Southwest flight from Los Angeles to Sacramento one Tuesday afternoon, Scott Budnick unwraps a lemon-zest Ricola. “Everything you need to know about me,” he says, “you can see in how I eat a cough drop.” He wedges the lozenge between his molars. It crackles. “I can’t suck on them — I just bite,” says Budnick, jaw grinding. “Who has time to suck?”
Over the next 24 hours Budnick will slip into a higher-ed cocktail party he forgot to rsvp for, glad-hand the governor, bro-hug the Black Caucus chair, pose for a selfie with the Assembly speaker, pretend to sip a glass of red wine before swapping it for a Diet Coke, buy dinner for a parolee fresh out of San Quentin, decline an offer to stay at the ranch of Maria Shriver’s former chief of staff, grab breakfast with the prison system’s head of rehabilitative programs, shout “I like your thinking!” when Justin Bieber’s social-impact coordinator phones, fortify himself with a regimen of sugarless gum, lip balm, and dissolvable breath strips, and speed across Gold Country in a rented suv to visit Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp.
“If you’re hanging out with him,” says Speaker Toni Atkins, “good luck keeping up.”
At the end of 2013, Budnick walked away from Hollywood, voluntarily ending his association with Green Hat and the writer-director at its helm, Todd Phillips. Under almost any other circumstances, someone with Budnick’s credentials would have cashed in his connections and launched his own production company, making the leap from salaried executive to points-on-the-back-end mogul. That he did not was headline-worthy in the industry trades, even more so because Budnick was chucking it all for a cause that was not a disease or disaster or far-off humanitarian crisis but a stigmatized population close to home: the half million Californians incarcerated or under control of the criminal justice system.
The break was unlikely, though, only if you did not know Budnick and his growing distaste for a business rife, he says, with “ego and selfishness and people that make every decision out of fear.” It was no coincidence, either, that he took his leave the same year that both The Hangover Part III and 12 Years a Slave hit theaters, the fierce moral compass of one making the other look even more aimless. After a day of guiding Dede Gardner, one of 12 Years’s Oscar-winning producers, around juvenile hall, Budnick credits her as the person “who changed my life, who made the movie that kicked me out of the business.”
Forgoing a paycheck at first and, he says, tapping much of his savings, Budnick began 2014 as a full-time activist, putting everything into the Anti-Recidivism Coalition — arc — a support and advocacy nonprofit he had begun in his garage. arc now has a $1.2 million budget, a paid staff of six, and an office in the downtown L.A. building that houses the rooftop lounge Perch. Instead of clients, arc has what Budnick calls “members” — 160 formerly incarcerated men and women, murderers and carjackers and tweakers — nearly all of whom he met and mentored while they were locked up.
“He is kind of an oddity,” says Robert Downey Jr., the onetime recidivist turned world’s highest-paid actor, who serves on arc’s board of directors. “In politics, usually, you try to align yourself with things that make you look as good as possible and disconnect with anything that’s the least bit tainted.”
Befitting a veteran of broad commercial entertainment, Budnick has chosen his moment shrewdly. After decades of throw-away-the-key policies, the nation is again considering the philosophy of second chances. With a growing number of conservatives daunted by the cost of mass incarceration, libertarians dismayed by the broad license to police that drug laws give the government, evangelicals committed to the promise of personal transformation, and the most crime-ravaged communities also the most crippled by tough-on-crime tactics, the movement defies easy labels.
California, a pioneer of three-strike sentencing laws, is now at a different forefront. In recent years, through ballot initiatives and legislative measures, the state has given breaks once unthinkable to thousands of felons: parole dates, sentence reductions, educational alternatives, employment opportunities. Budnick, campaigner and noodge, has had a hand in it all.
“When I first heard about him, I have to be honest with you: A white Hollywood guy? He can’t be real,” says Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, the state’s largest health foundation. Then Budnick invited him to visit Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A., where Ross was so moved by Budnick’s rapport with the inmates, he helped launch arc with a $400,000 grant. “Scott Budnick,” Ross says, “is the most extraordinary force in the state of California on badly needed incarceration and justice reform.”
arc has given Budnick a platform — plus a salary now ($165,000) and a title (president and founder) — to do what he was doing all along, just more of it. He not only keeps up his Sylmar visits, but after his students turn 18, he tracks them as they get shuttled through the correctional system, to camps and jails and prisons, from Chino to Delano, Lancaster to San Quentin. He carries an old-fashioned composition book with him, jotting down names and numbers, reminders and requests. He pushes for transfers and testifies at parole hearings and, for the ones who win their release, he is there for homecomings and graduations and baptisms. For many, Budnick’s sometimes bewildering devotion is the most consistent thing in their lives.
“I’d ask him, ‘Why? Why do you do this? What do you want from me?’” says Ramon Escobar, who was among Budnick’s first group of Sylmar writing students in 2003. “Where I come from, nobody’s just doing something for nothing. He couldn’t give me an answer.”
“First thing,” Budnick says, “you gotta get the basics right.” He is in the Santa Monica loft of ManifestWorks, a program that trains ex-offenders for entertainment-industry jobs, and today’s lesson is what it takes to be a producer.
“Like, a few people walked in here late,” Budnick tells the dozen or so students, many of whom he knew from jail. “And I’ll just let you know, for me there’s no excuse. Ever. Just ever. Like, if it was my movie and you came here ten minutes late, you’d be sent home and you’d never be called again. If you can’t be on time, you’re disposable.”
Budnick got his first taste of Hollywood as a teenager in the Atlanta suburbs, not long after his father, an oral pathologist, and his mother, a master bridge instructor, divorced. A casting call for extras to appear in the 1996 made-for-TV Civil War movie Andersonville was the buzz of his prep school, and for $100 a day, Budnick played a prisoner of war. He was outfitted in a tattered uniform, with fake lice in his hair, and instructed to lie on the cold ground until his teeth chattered. Then they cued the rain machines. “There were all these kind of private-school rich kids, and they were like, ‘Fuck this, we’re outta here,’ ” Budnick says. “And I’m watching the director, John Frankenheimer, on a crane, swooping down and doing the shots, and I’m like, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ ”
Intending to follow his father’s footsteps, Budnick entered Emory University as a premed. But all he could think about was the movies. He started pestering one of the South’s legendary casting agents, Cynthia Stillwell, for a job. “I just kept calling her, like every week, ‘Do you need someone, do you need someone,’ ” he says. “Finally she was like, ‘You’re annoying me, I’ll give you one chance and one chance only. Show up tomorrow at the Georgia Dome at 5 a.m., and we’ll see what we can do.’”
Stillwell, who considers “Scotty” one of her “best projects ever,” tells it a little differently. Yes, he bugged her to death, and, yes, she relented and summoned him to a 5 a.m. call, but Budnick arrived hours late. “He had some story about how his car broke down and he was in the middle of nowhere and he had to flag down a taxi and on and on,” says Stillwell. “And I told him, ‘I’m not even listening to you. You totally blew it.’ ” Which meant Budnick had to embark on an even more exasperating round of pleas. Finally, “after I chewed him out up one side and down the other,” Stillwell caved again. “It says something,” she says, “about his character.”
During the school year, Budnick worked as her assistant. Summers he began visiting L.A., interning first on Baywatch, then at United Talent Agency. He gave up medicine. “I never would have lasted,” Budnick says. Instead he became social chair of Emory’s Chi Phi fraternity, which entailed throwing big-budget bashes with security and sound equipment — mtv’s DJ Skribble once headlined. “Producing a movie,” he told The Chi Phi Chakett magazine, “is very much like producing a college fraternity party.”
In 1999, after graduating with a business degree, he loaded a U-Haul and headed west for good, moving into the Oakwood Apartments on Barham Boulevard, a way station for decades of Hollywood dreamers. When he struggled to find work, subsisting on Top Ramen and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, it was Stillwell who intervened. A new director, fresh off a documentary about frat life, wanted to shoot his first feature in Atlanta. Stillwell told him: “I think you need an assistant, this young punk kid who will never let you down.”
Budnick became Todd Phillips’s P.A. on Road Trip. “If it was getting coffee, I would get coffee quicker than anyone else,” he tells the workshop. “I would make sure it was creamed and milked in the right way so it was the exact color he wanted, made sure if I’m getting him a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, I’m getting it with the crust cut off and that it’s cut diagonally. And I made sure to do it harder and faster and better than anyone else.”
Six months later, Phillips brought Budnick back as his associate on the Will Ferrell comedy Old School. Six months after that, Phillips scored a three-year studio deal and asked Budnick to run his production company. Budnick was 24. “I don’t know how to run a fucking company,” he says. “Like, what do you even do?” Budnick’s first task was to fill a pipeline of stories for Phillips, known in Hollywood for being prickly. One industry veteran, hesitant to compromise a business relationship with Phillips, called Budnick “a good face for a difficult person.” (Phillips ignored an interview request, even after Budnick texted him.)
Green Hat eventually had 16 projects in development, celebrating varying degrees of adolescent debauchery and yearning. Budnick supervised rewrites, scouted locations, built schedules, calculated budgets, hired crews, and generally tried to keep the whole operation from going off the rails. Away from the spotlight, Budnick tells the students, “there’s a producer stressing the fuck out.”
In 2007, after a pair of disappointments — Starsky & Hutch and School for Scoundrels — Budnick received a visit from two writers with an idea for a bachelor-party movie. “I rolled my eyes,” says Budnick. “A hundred people have pitched me bachelor-party movies.” There was a twist, though: The party would never be shown, and the movie would play out as a day-after detective story. “And I’m like, ‘That’s brilliant!’ ” says Budnick. Warner Bros. bought the script for a reported $2 million.
As the head of a production company, Budnick drew a salary in the mid–six figures and collected bonuses tied to certain milestones — an arrangement typical of young worker-bee executives — but never qualified for a percentage of the box office. When to everyone’s surprise The Hangover became the summer hit of 2009, Budnick’s reward, he says, was an additional $100,000. The trilogy went on to gross nearly $1.5 billion; he made a lot of money for a lot of other people.
“I just want to make sure you understand the big picture,” says Budnick, adding that Hollywood, for this audience, poses an extra challenge. “When you first start, you’re like a little bitch. I mean, you’re just doing all the things you don’t want to do. You’re being spoken to how you never think anyone would speak to you. And if you have the prison reaction to that — I’m a knock your ass out! — um, you’re not going to last long in this business. You kind of have to deprogram yourself.”
Before the students have a chance for questions, Budnick, late for his next appointment, excuses himself and darts out.
The beginning of arc, the seed of Budnick’s fascination with crime and punishment, dates back to his internship on Baywatch in 1997. A gofer at the Marina del Rey office of Tower 18 Productions, he was handed a recent Rolling Stone article and asked to assess its cinematic possibilities. The piece was called “Lynching in Malibu,” an account of middle-class stoner kids in nearby Agoura Hills who end up on trial for murder.
The events centered on a backyard shed, infamous as the neighborhood spot to light up. The four teenage defendants dropped by one evening to score some weed, and when a fistfight broke out with two other boys, the oldest defendant pulled a pocketknife. In the chaos, one of those boys was fatally stabbed; he was 16 and the son of an lapd detective. It was a shocking crime for an uncommonly safe community to absorb, and the pressure to make an example of the assailants was immense, especially after the lapd chief urged the judge to show them “the same mercy” they showed the victim. When prosecutors alleged that the fight was a botched robbery, they invoked California’s felony-murder rule: Even if none of the defendants intended to kill anyone, even if all but one were unarmed, each was responsible for the result. Three received life without the possibility of parole.
After visiting the defendants in prison, Budnick was at a loss. “I hate to say, it’s not a movie — there’s no third act,” he reported. “What a depressing movie. Two acts and no conclusion.”
When an industry friend invited him several years later to observe a creative-writing class at Sylmar, Budnick carried with him the memory of those condemned boys. His Hollywood career was on the upswing by then, but he was already finding himself feeling, he says, “a little bit trapped in a bubble.” At juvenile hall, 20 miles and a universe away, Budnick was suddenly sitting side by side with boys from East L.A. and South Central, Long Beach and Pacoima, hearing tales of abuse and neglect, addicted mothers, missing fathers, a merry-go-round of foster homes. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” he says.
The class that drew him to Sylmar, that continues to be his pass into the Compound, is sponsored by InsideOUT Writers, a nonprofit that sends dozens of Angelenos into the county’s juvenile facilities every week. In the mid-2000s, I was an InsideOUT volunteer, too, and not the only one then who was unsure what to make of Budnick. We became friendly, but he was rapid-fire everything, a macher amid poets and journalists and dancers. I cared about the caliber of the writing; he cared about parlaying the writing into action. In time, I drifted away; Budnick joined the InsideOUT board.
Eventually, some of Budnick’s students began trickling back home, often to the same turbulence they had left. He thought InsideOUT should be there for them and began organizing a camping trip, the first of what he envisioned as an annual retreat. InsideOUT, concerned about liability, balked. So Budnick did it on his own.
From those occasional, unofficial gatherings, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition was born. It was to some degree an accidental organization, created to accommodate the ambitions — and the brain chemistry — of someone who was moving faster and thinking bigger than the organization he already belonged to. “I’m add to the fullest,” Budnick says. “I like going and going and going and getting shit done.”
arc has an unconventional relationship to its constituency, a population it both serves and leverages. Unlike, say, Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, which puts former gang members through an 18-month job-training course, arc’s assistance revolves around “support network meetings,” anything from a movie night to a meditation circle. arc also has a transportation team, which picks up new parolees from prison, and it hosts barbecues and ice-skating trips to steer them clear of less wholesome alternatives. For its signature event — the annual getaway — arc now has the run of the Canyon Creek Retreat Center, an elaborate sports complex in the Angeles National Forest, where Budnick keeps a couple of hundred members and guests moving with a whistle and megaphone. This year his live-in girlfriend, a policy advocate at the Children’s Defense Fund, and her 11-year-old son even attended.
When a probation officer drops by arc’s offices to ask about the length of the program, Budnick shakes his head. “It’s lifetime,” he says.
A better way to think of arc is as a collection of redemption tales, a vehicle for the “real experts,” as Budnick calls them, to articulate who they once were, and why, and how they came to no longer be that person. “When they tell their own stories,” Budnick says, “that’s where the magic happens.” In that sense, he is a casting agent again, combing through all his jailhouse visits, the decade of relationships he has cultivated with gangbangers and drug dealers, to identify the best and the brightest — the ones with the charisma, the self-awareness — to serve as arc’s public face. “His brain is like a Venn diagram,” says Ryan Lo, who was released last fall after doing 23 years for a murder he committed at 17 and now answers arc’s phones. “In his head he’s assessing you — your personality, your skills — and seeing which circles you fit into and where those circles overlap.”
Budnick is especially canny about seeking out juvenile offenders who appear to represent the system’s excesses: the accomplice serving a life sentence, the backseat passenger convicted as an adult. Eighteen years later, he still visits one of the Agoura Hills defendants, Brandon Hein, whose sentence was commuted to 29 years to life, meaning he will be eligible for parole as early as 2020. “I was just in the chapel at Lancaster State Prison sitting next to Brandon,” Budnick tells me one day, “as John Legend sang ‘Glory,’ the theme song from Selma.” (This really happened: Budnick spent a January afternoon leading the R&B star on a correctional tour, which culminated in a spontaneous performance.)
Budnick figures he has escorted 600 or 700 potential benefactors on jailhouse visits, maybe double that if you include special events, like the TEDx talk he hosted with Richard Branson at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe last year. When the actor Jake Gyllenhaal was preparing for Brothers, Budnick brought him to Sylmar; afterward Gyllenhaal joined arc’s board. Budnick recently hosted a meeting of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce at Men’s Central Jail; the chamber, which employs an intern from arc, is now calling on its members to hire ex-cons.
In the long run, Budnick dreams of removing every young person, 18 to 25, from the adult prison system and placing them on a campus with educational and therapeutic programs. He has been sketching plans for what he calls the California Leadership Academy for more than a decade — a Warner Bros. set designer helped with the earliest diagrams — and since his recent appointments to both the California Community Colleges Board of Governors and the Board of State and Community Corrections, he now has more platforms for making it happen. While still years away, the project just received an $865,000 endorsement in Governor Brown’s budget. This sweeping proposal, with all of its promise and uncertainty, is not rooted in an especially religious perspective, nor is it particularly ideological. If pressed, Budnick will repeat the axiom “hurt people hurt” — and its corollary, “healed people heal.”
Budnick’s vision can be so ambitious, his pace so accelerated, he sometimes starts building structures before he has finalized the blueprints. He has described plans to add hundreds of new arc members, for instance, and eventually open more offices, first in the Bay Area, later possibly in San Diego and the Central Valley. Even his board has cautioned him about stretching the organization too thin and increasing the risk — maybe the inevitability — of a former offender becoming very publicly current again.
To create a refuge for parolees, Budnick launched a housing program last fall, an endeavor he considers the organization’s most innovative. He rented nine units in a Sylmar apartment building, moving in two dozen arc members and enrolling them in nearby L.A. Mission College. He calls it the state’s first community college “dorm for the formerly incarcerated” and wants to “scale the shit out of it.” But because he was in such a hurry to get everyone settled before the start of school, arc partnered with an organization that has transitional housing experience — only to discover that the provider, judgmental where arc tends to be forgiving, was a bad fit. He calls it a learning process: “I just don’t like learning when there are real lives at stake,” he says.
I was with Budnick in December when he took an arc group to San Quentin, the first visit to a maximum-security facility for some of his newest board members and staffers. Budnick was eager to educate and inspire his team. But when they arrived at San Quentin’s gates, the guard took one look at Budnick’s faded Levi’s and shook his head: “You can’t wear those pants in here.”
“What are you talking about?” Budnick said.
“Those jeans, they’re blue,” the guard said.
“I’ve worn these jeans to every prison in California.”
“Well, you can’t wear them in here.”
To avoid just this situation, Budnick’s assistant had emailed everyone the prison’s visitor guidelines, which ban blue and gray denim. To Budnick’s thinking, those rules were silly and inconsistently enforced. “If they fuck with us like this, think what they do to the families who come to visit,” he grumbled, stomping back to his car and rooting around for another pair of pants. I wanted to say that those families probably read the dress code, but Budnick was already kicking off his shoes, stripping down to his checked boxers. A different kind of person might have felt sheepish. Budnick snapped a picture of the offending jeans and emailed it to the warden.
Two weeks before the November 4 election, Budnick takes the microphone at the Bungalow, the Baja-inspired lounge at Santa Monica’s Fairmont Miramar Hotel, and shushes the crowd. Just about everyone in the room is there because of him: the agents and the politicians, the religious conservatives and the tattooed parolees. The nightlife impresario who runs the place, Brent Bolthouse, is himself a member of arc’s board.
They have gathered to raise money for Proposition 47, the most far-reaching in the slate of measures that have begun to shrink California’s prison population. By reclassifying most nonviolent property and drug crimes as misdemeanors, Prop 47 offers the promise of early release to thousands of felons currently in jail or prison. Tens of thousands more will avoid felony prosecutions in the first place; hundreds of thousands who have done their time will be eligible to cleanse their records retroactively.
That the initiative would pass with nearly 60 percent of the vote owes a lot to historically low crime rates and exorbitantly high incarceration costs. Although some would argue that the two are related — the violence having declined precisely because the prison population has surged — Prop 47 is “not some crazy liberal initiative,” Budnick tells the crowd. As proof, he introduces two unlikely backers — San Francisco district attorney George Gascón and evangelical Malibu philanthropist B. Wayne Hughes Jr. — as men “with cojones.”
Hughes responds in a soft, almost rapturous voice. “How many of you,” he asks, “have felt the omnipresence and invisible hand … of Scott Budnick?”
Budnick played an even more instrumental role in the creation and passage of S.B. 260, a 2013 Senate bill so closely associated with him that friends and family joked about those initials being his. Drawing on new science about the maturation of the adolescent brain, the bill created a parole process for 6,500 juvenile offenders convicted as adults, requiring them to do at least 15 years but no more than 25 before being evaluated for release. With some of Budnick’s favorite InsideOUT students serving life sentences, he threw himself into S.B. 260. “When I first started this work, it was a very small world that cared about these kids,” says longtime juvenile justice advocate Carol Biondi, a member of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families and of arc’s board. “People would ask me what I did, and I’d begin to tell them, and they would literally walk away from me. Scott’s taken us out of the darkness.”
He was already known at the Capitol as Mr. Hangover; the previous year, while lobbying for a related bill, he had autographed movie posters for star-struck legislators. This time he enlisted a Sacramento lobbying firm and solicited an op-ed from Newt Gingrich. “Turns out he’s a Hangover fan,” says Budnick. Even though arc barely existed at the time, Budnick also dressed a crew of ex-offenders in jackets and ties, trained them to deliver elevator pitches, and hustled them around the Capitol. “Data and statistics are important,” says then–California Senate president Darrell Steinberg, “but they are less important if they’re not matched with real stories.” With the state under a Supreme Court order to ease prison overcrowding, S.B. 260 sailed through with bipartisan support.
arc’s most polished, magnetic spokesman is a 26-year-old named Prophet Walker. A child of the Watts projects who lost his mother to heroin addiction, Walker was 16 when he was arrested for assault and robbery and landed in Budnick’s original class of Sylmar unfits. “I was crying, and he basically said, ‘Shut up and do something about it,’ ” recalls Walker, who was sentenced to six years in adult prison.
Budnick was present for the life cycle of Walker’s case, his move to prison, his transfer to a minimum-security facility, his parole, and his graduation from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in engineering. While he was locked up, Walker devised a new classification system for steering young inmates away from high-security environments and into college programs. With Budnick’s lobbying, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation approved a pilot program; the legislature then turned it into law.
When Walker last year announced he was running for the state Assembly, he says, “this is where of all the moments throughout my life I saw Scott the clearest.” It seems safe to say that the politics of District 64, which covers Watts, Compton, and Carson, had not previously been a priority of the Westside’s fundraising elite. After Budnick hooked Walker up with a campaign consultant, though, the money poured in, more than $600,000 in all, from Warner Bros. executives and caa agents, Ben Affleck and Steven Spielberg, Richard Riordan and Eli Broad. (Budnick, his younger brother, and their dad made donations, too.) After Walker finished second in the June primary, knocking out a Long Beach city councilman and a Compton school-board member, Budnick was optimistic that an arc member might actually win the November runoff and infiltrate Sacramento.
Then, on Halloween, fliers began circulating that showed his opponent, a former police officer, in a badge and blue uniform; a heavily Photoshopped Walker, meanwhile, was depicted in a dark hoodie, pointing a large gun. It was an attack on not just Walker but the whole premise of arc. “There has to be a point where we get away from being seen as criminals and be respected just like any other taxpaying adult,” says Walker, who knew then that his campaign was over.
On election night, Budnick was in full kinesis, obsessively refreshing the results on his phone. “Oh, I’m dying,” he said. “I’m dying.” As the inevitable became clear, he ditched a celebratory Prop 47 gathering at the JW Marriott to race down the 110 freeway in a chauffeured Escalade to Compton. He made it to the Green Olive, a strip-mall Mediterranean grill, just in time for Walker’s concession speech.
The whole way back, Budnick sulked. He had wanted a victory so badly, not just for his protégé but for what it would mean for all the kids he knew behind bars. “I just wish,” he said, “they’d gotten that message.”
When The Hangover came out, Ramon Escobar was in the Security Housing Unit at Chino. A parole violation had returned him to prison; a riot had relegated him to lockdown. He read about the movie, though, heard the newcomers talking: the tiger, the missing tooth, Mike Tyson.
“I’m just sitting there shaking my head — the fact that I know the dude that had something to do with it,” says Escobar. “Scott’s rising, and I’m stuck.” Budnick had even found a job on the Hangover set for another member of that first Sylmar writing class.
If Budnick needed any justification to cut someone loose, to conclude that change was not so simple or direct, it would have been Escobar. When they first met nearly 12 years ago, Escobar was a 14-year-old hope-to-die gangster fighting an attempted-murder case. Budnick took the liberty of sharing Escobar’s writing with the judge. The evidence against him was already weak — Escobar had fired a gun at rivals, but only after they chased him with baseball bats — and the judge, after reading portions of that teenage memoir in the courtroom, agreed that the shooting had been self-defense.
Out of jail, Escobar kept slipping back, no matter how much faith Budnick put in him. During his interludes of freedom, he would indulge Budnick’s generosity, accept his meals, crash on his couch even, and then, Escobar says, “two hours later I’m doing this $100,000 transaction with an AK-47 in my hand.” Behind bars, he would read the books Budnick sent — The Alchemist, The Purpose Driven Life — then plunge back into the machinations of prison politics, sending out kites, smuggling in contraband, inking his body.
“The thing about Ramon, he was always honest with me,” says Budnick. “He’d be, ‘Scott, I’m using drugs. Scott, I’m hanging out with the gang. I’m not going to waste your time. I’ll call you when I’m ready.’ So when he said, ‘I’m done,’ I knew he was for real.”
When Escobar walked out of jail in 2012, he was certain he would never go back. Missing the birth of his daughter, knowing he was responsible for a life other than his own, was the turning point. Soon Escobar landed an internship with Budnick’s lawyer, a partner at Morris Yorn, which has offices in the caa building in Century City. To see Escobar there, at 25, in a suit, learning his way around contract law, is to experience Budnick’s missing third act. “To me there’s nothing more inspirational than when someone makes the decision to change,” Budnick says. “Like, I love that. Love that.” Although he says he does not miss Hollywood, it turns out that Budnick still wants to make movies, to develop scripts that “encourage us to find our better selves.” He has been working with a financial adviser and a social-impact manager to secure $200 million in commitments; he calls it the Fund for Good.
With Budnick’s help, Escobar has not just earned his way into a permanent job: He has received clearance to return to the Compound. On Saturdays he sometimes makes the drive to Sylmar, too, the felon now a volunteer. “I see these kids, with no direction, no guidance, no knowledge of where they are or how they got there,” says Escobar, “and I tell myself, ‘That’s what you saw in me.’ ”