ADVENTURES IN HOLLYWEIRD: Agents
March 14th, 2004
(From Swimming With Sharks. Written and Directed by George Huang, based on his experiences while working under Barry Sonnenberg at Colombia Pictures. The film opens with the following introduction):
"In Hollywood one of the fastest ways to the top is to work for someone who's already there. The system dictates that one must first be a slave before you can become a success. This can be a very demanding process. Only a few people have the drive to endure the thousands of indignities and hardships that make up the system. Now this drive is usually motivated by greed...sometimes ambition...sometimes even love. There are stories of love inspiring success over the most insurmountable of odds. This is not one of them."
I don't get much email from this group... Not complaining, but thus far about 50% of it is regarding agents. In most cases the tone of the letters seems to indicate that many aspiring writers feel that an agent is some sort of panacea for their efforts (I call it more of a "problem"). Actually, I think one of the reasons my articles have not received that much attention is because I am telling the truth. I have nothing to sell on this site, no books, courses or whatever. Also, my resume is true--all of it--no embellishments or false claims to credits. In my initial article I mentioned (warned) that there are very few truth-seekers and this is no less true with people like ourselves who have a "dream." So, can an agent help you with your "dream"? I doubt it. There are only about three or four agencies in the biz that have the power to package a deal with a producer. This is usually because they have clients (writers, directors and/or actors) whose fame and/or box-office scale is high. Or, as has been mentioned so many times in my articles, have the "power" (for any number of reasons) to get a deal done. Most of the agents make whatever money they do make by getting their actors into various small parts, or into commercials. Only a few make any money on writers--very few...
Do I have an agent? Yes. Has she ever gotten me any work? No. Have I sold? Yes (19 scripts and treatments). How? I did it myself. Were they big sales? No, just sales.
Over and over I have emphasized in my articles that there is a system that is designed to keep newbies "out" not open the doors for them. From the tone of some of the email I received there are some (perhaps most) of the newbies who simply do not want to believe it. Instead they run out and buy the latest book on how to write and sell a screenplay by the man or woman who never had a single screenplay produced or sold?! Or, in the desire to believe the latest hype story, will listen to the most unprofessional (often uninformed) advice imaginable!
My agent is a dear friend as well as a business associate. She has been that for nearly 20 years, and one of the best gals I know--hands down! But like hundreds of others like her, she has NOT been able to break into that inner circle where the real deals are made.
The other day I received email from a wannabee telling me about a agent who sent them back their screenplay along with a comment that the third act was "weak." This writer was asking me what he should do about it. Well, as I usually try to do, I told him the truth. The truth is that a nebulous statement like that strongly indicates that this agent probably didn't even read the screenplay. Most agents don't have the time or the inclination to do so. Some of them have readers, or will assign a reader to evaluate your script for them. But who is this reader? Right--somebody who not only has never sold a screenplay in their life, but also more than likely has aspirations of their own and is not interested in helping you get a break or even a good review.
An agent is good for getting your screenplay read in those places where the producer/production company simply will only except an agency submission. So then you have that one chance in a million of selling it to them. Sounds cynical--or does it ring of truth? Like I said, I'm not here to stroke you or sell you a thing, so you decide.
I have submitted, without an agent, to just about every major studio at one time or another. This includes Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal... And have also done so to many hundreds of independents over the years. It just depends on who you are talking to and (I guess) the timing. If I decide I want to make a submission and an agent is necessary, then I take that direction. I NEVER sign a release form. To me the release form is a license to steal. In those cases I have sometimes gone the agency route to avoid that requirement. If the production company still wants a release form in spite of an agency submission (very rare)--I tell them "bye bye!"
Intermittently, I had several other agents represent me at times. While working with them, I learned that for the most part they don't try very hard for you... Why? Because selling a screenplay is VERY difficult. For every script produced there are generally at least 100 or more jobs available, and those are the kind of odds agents like better. Wouldn't you?
So what is my advice? As always--be aware, be honest with yourself, and find a methodology that will "work" for you and forget the hype.
There is another story that needs telling here in a discussion of agents. It is a true one--an incident that happened about 10 years ago...
During a discussion with my agent (at that time she was with an agency on Lankershim Blvd. in the First Interstate Bank building) she told me she had received a script entitled "Everybody Goes To Rick's Place." She told me that the script was--word for word and character for character, right on down to the character's names--a duplicate of the classic film "Casablanca." She wrote back to the author, telling him of her observation and warning him that he was in danger of a certain plagiarism lawsuit. She never heard from him again. About 2 or 3 months later this aspiring writer was on an interview on television. It seems he had deliberately duplicated the film script and sent it out to exactly 100 agents in Hollywood to compile their comments. While I don't remember all the results, they were striking. For one thing ONLY THREE of the 100 recognized that it was "Casablanca." (Evidently my agent was one of the 3). The remaining agents declined to submit the script, better than half of them were critical of it, and he stated that some 4 or 5 of them said that nobody would ever make a film like that!
In case you don't know... about 10 or 15 years ago the AFI (American Film Institute) put on a TV show for the purpose of voting on the "Best American Film of all time." Guess who won the award?--Right, "Casablanca!"
Now the lesson to be learned here should be evident. A word to the wise should be sufficient. I do however want to also make a final observation about this: It is well-known in Hollywood that Casablanca is a film that was written (and shot) from day-to-day while on the set of a backlot in the Burbank studios. I can't help but wonder what those guys who are trying to sell you their books and courses have to say about this... perhaps each morning, before writing that days script pages, the writer/s quickly flipped through Frances Marion's book on screenwriting...? What do you think?
(Swimming With Sharks concludes with the following dialogue as the main character is giving genuine advice to a wannabee in show business):
"Let me tell you something, Jack. Everyone is gonna want to give you the same advice. Tell you that you have to pay your dues...ask you for a favor. They all want you to play by the rules--their rules. Well save that candy-striped shit for the Wall Street Wimps, because this town is a jungle. This is your inner city. These are the mean streets, and the only interests that you need to protect are yours. And the only needs that you have to serve are yours."