Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Flashback: My First Agent

A rerun from the first year of the blog...

Another one of those flashbacks that screenwriting gurus hate...

After my first screenwriting career writing Drive In Movies (NINJA BUSTERS) ended, I got a job working for Safeway in their liquor warehouse. Driving a fork lift and Big Joe stacker. I did that full time for almost ten years, writing scripts in my spare time and on my days off. I wrote just under 30 scripts in that decade... and got an agent on one of them.

Now I had a Hollywood agent! Cool! I had sent out about a bunch of query letters - targeting agents in Los Angeles. My thinking was - because I lived out of town I wanted an agent who lived in the same city as the producers. Why should both of us be out of town? I kept hammering the same list of agents with query letters until I got somewhere around 3 positive responses, sent scripts and signed with the first agent to say "yes".

This was a mistake.... but what was tragic at the time I now find pretty funny. I had somehow signed with the worst agent in the world - and every time I thought it couldn't get worse, it always did!

My agent had an LA address - in the San Fernando Valley. The letter he sent me was on cheap letter-head stationary and filled with blotches of white out. I was working on a Commodore 128 computer and my query letters were mistake-free, but this was the mid-1980s and the world was still switching over from typewriters to computers. Many offices still had their big IBM Selectrics and bottles of correction fluid. I figured the agent's secretary wasn't as worried about impressing me as I had been about impressing them. And they were probably using the old stationary for me, and saving the expensive stuff for people who mattered.

My agent (it was cool to say that) asked for 10 copies of the script I'd sent him. I made them up and sent them in 2 shipping boxes. He said he would begin sending them out right away. I went to work every day hoping to come home to that phone call that would change my life. When it didn't come for a few months, I decided to call my agent for a progress report. He answered the phone himself, said the script had gone out and he was still waiting for responses from producers. I told him I had a NEW script, and he asked for 10 copies. I made them up and sent them on my next day off. For a while I was sending ten copies of every new script... and my agent would send them out and we'd wait for the producers to get back. The producers always seemed to be looking for rom-coms or comedies or some other genre than what I'd written. Was he sending them to the wrong producers? He wouldn't tell me who he'd been sending the scripts to... so I decided to help by sending a list of suggestions for each of the scripts I'd already sent him.

After that he began sending me the rejection letters or telling me what the producers had said over the phone. I was getting photocopies of letters from The Thom Mount Company and Silver Pictures and other big companies praising the scripts, usually saying that they were developing a similar project or were looking for a script that could star a particular actor, and make sure that they get a chance to read any new scripts from this writer. Mount and Silver wanted to meet with me, but my agent told them I lived out of town. He took care of sending follow up scripts, and I often disagreed with his choices but at least my agent was actually calling me on a regular basis - cool!

I continued to send 10 copies of every new script, and a list of potential buyers. I read an ad in the back pages of Variety looking for a jungle adventure script... and sent a copy of that ad with my new script TREASURE HUNTER (which originally took place in the Amazon). I pressed him to send them the script, he finally did, and the company wanted to option it! My first Hollywood deal!

It was a German production company, and they weren't going to pay for my airfare or hotel. My agent said he'd do the whole deal himself, but I wanted to BE THERE. So I took the time off from work, bought an airplane ticket and made a hotel reservation, and flew to Los Angeles. I was about to get my big break! Despite the cruddy letterhead, my agent had landed me a deal! I had the greatest agent in the world!

I would find out just how great my agent was when I flew to Hollywood to make the deal. I landed at LAX and waited for my agent to pick me up. Whenever a Mercedes or BMW circled near the arrivals area, I expected it to pull to the curb. They just zoomed past. In Hollywood, presentation is very important - so I knew that he drove a fancy car... even if it leased. I was driving a fairly new blue Ford Taurus at the time (thanks to Safeway Credit Union). Maybe my agent drove a Rolls? Or was sending a Town Car? I kept smiling at drivers whenever a luxury car passed by...

Eventually this beat up old Datsun 4 door pulled to the curb, and my agent swiped all of the junk off the passenger seat so that I could sit down. I had to throw my single piece of luggage in the back seat - he told me his trunk was full (of what?). The passenger window was broken and a piece of plastic tarp had been duct taped over it - it was hot but you can't roll down a piece of plastic tarp. Okay... so my agent didn't drive a pretentious luxury car... or keep his old crappy car very clean.... he probably made up for it with his skills as a deal maker, right?

We went directly to the meeting in Beverly Hills. A small office that I think was on Beverly Blvd. The producer was there, as well as a director. These guys had made a couple of small films with casts from recently canceled TV shows and people like George Kennedy who usually played the sidekick. Their previous film starred George Lazenby - the only one film James Bond. This wasn't going to be a big blockbuster, but was going to be a big film for these guys. I was excited.

When they made their first (low) offer, my agent wanted to take it. I thought we should at least TRY to get more money. Because my agent was playing the good guy, I decided I'd better play the bad guy - I told them when they were ready to make a serious offer, they could contact my agent... and I left the office. My agent was shocked. I got about halfway down the block before the pudgy little producer caught up with me, explaining that was just a starting point in the negotiations.

We agreed on $40,000 with a $5,000 option for six months.

When we got back to my agent's pseudo-car, he chewed me out for making waves - I could have blown the deal! Why did I leave the office and make the producer chase me? Why did I ask for so much money? Why didn't I just let him handle the deal?

As we pulled away from the curb leaving a thick cloud of smoke that drifted over Beverly Blvd, I asked if we'd be going back to his office. "NO!" Instead he'd buy me a celebratory dinner. We'd closed a big deal ($40k is a big deal?) and now it was time to celebrate. Would he take me to Chasens (down the street) where Hitchcock dined? Or Spago? Or Mortons? Or one of those trendy LA places where the stars hung out? "Do you drink?" he asked me. A weird question - but maybe he was going to splurge on a bottle of champagne. Some restaurants had better wine cellars than others. If he was planning on order a bottle of Dom Perignon 1957 (like James Bond) you probably have to select a restaurant that has a bottle in their cellar. "Yeah. I've been known to have a beer or two." "A beer drinker! That's perfect!" Sure - a beer drinker would be more impressed with a bottle of 1957 Dom than a wine connoisseur would. We drove into the luxurious Hollywood Hills...

And over the hills into the Valley. We ended up at this crappy bar near the Van Nuys airport that had beer by the pitcher... and a free Happy Hour buffet. After buying the pitcher and handing me a glass, he pointed to the chicken wings and mini-tacos and said "Dinner!" Not exactly Chasens or Spago... or even Denny's. I ate as many chicken wings as I could, but still ended up hammered and hungry and half-deaf from the airplanes flying right over the bar's roof and landing a few feet away. After happy hour was over, he drove me back to my hotel. I ended up walking down the street to a Denny's and getting an actual meal as soon as he was gone.

The next morning I took a taxi to his office before my flight. It was an 8 by 8 room without any windows over a motorcycle repair shop in the slums of Reseda. No secretary - no room for a secretary. With the door closed, the place was like a cave... or maybe like a closet (except for the din of guys using power tools to repair motorcycles). His office might have been in Los Angeles, but it was about as far away from Hollywood as you can get. I found out that his other clients were mostly washed up rock bands from the 1960s - one hit wonders that you didn't know were still around. He was a nice guy, but not much of an agent. I flew back home that afternoon, got my $5,000 check a few weeks later, but the Germans never made the film and allowed the option to expire.

A couple of months later I went to the American Film Market in Los Angeles for the first time (and adventure I'll chronicle later) and I collected a stack of business cards from companies looking for scripts. One particular company had just co-produced their first feature with a Swedish company - a low budget horror movie - and planned on making a couple of films a year. They needed scripts! I'd pitched them one of the scripts that the Mount Company and Silver Pictures had liked, and it was EXACTLY what they were looking for. The VP of Production told me: "Have your agent messenger it to me on Monday." Cool! I had a potential deal with a brand new company with an upcoming theatrical release. I was in on the ground floor.

I drove by my agent's office on the way home and over the din of power tools told him to make sure he messengered a copy of that script to the company on Monday morning. I offered to stay over an extra night and take it myself, but my agent yelled that he'd take care of it. The entire 8 hour drive home I was excited - I probably wouldn't be working at the warehouse much longer! I worked all day Monday on adrenaline (no sleep) but still had trouble falling asleep that night. Every day when I came home from work I expected a message on my machine from my agent that they wanted to buy the script. By this point in time I knew the Southwest Airline schedules by heart and knew the best inexpensive motel in the Beverly Hills area to stay in (the Holloway). I was prepared to fly down as soon as I got the phone call from my agent. After a couple of weeks with no message, I called for a progress report. My agent didn't know anything. I kept calling every week - still no word from the production company. Did they hate the script? Nina Jacobson at Silver and Bess Semans at Mount had loved it. Maybe they were waiting for the release of their horror movie? I called my agent every week for a progress report... MONTHS later he admitted he still hadn't gotten around to sending my script! By that time the film had come out, become a huge hit, and the window of opportunity had closed. Every agent in Hollywood was sending them scripts. The horror film was NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the company was New Line Cinema. Since then they have TWICE paid $4 million for a screenplay... and recently produced the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.

I fired my agent soon afterwards. By then I had sold COURTING DEATH to a Paramount based company on my own and my second career in screenwriting was about to begin.

- Bill

13 comments:

Da Weave said...

Great slice of life story there. Did you ever hear about/from that agent after you let him go?

Enjoyed that post and look forward to reading parts 7 & 8 of the Aarhus epic.

Cheers,

OK HW

Laura Reyna said...

Love your stories. Keep em comin'!

odocoileus said...

Killer stuff!

It'd make a great indy film.

Brett said...

Do you still have ex-agent's number? He's probably hungry again and on the lookout for a sharp out of town writer to take your place in the herd. He sounds inept, cheap, lazy, and dim-- perfect for me.


B

Systemaddict said...

Ha- great story...well...now that it's a story...

wcdixon said...

yeeesh...and here I was considering posting my 'first agent' story just this weekend, but pales next to yours in the 'entertaining story' factor, so reconsidering...

...maybe I should just make one up?

Jeff O'Brien said...

Bill, stories like that are why you are one of the best around. I'd love to be making a living JUST writing but can't quite get there. The infernal side jobs, will they ever be over? Lets see:

Bottle depot,
Bars and restaurants-too many to name.
Construction
Warehouse - dog food factory actually.
Sales
odd bits of graphic design and copy work

What am I doing wrong...

A. M. said...

Scroll, scroll. Is it "soon" yet? Nope. No porn, no stairs.

The agony....

Did Bill Martell get hit by an old Datsun, you think? Could someone check the hit-and-run section of the LAT? While at it, check for Friedman, too, will ya?

Signed
Concerned Reader

wcmartell said...

Okay! The big problem right now is two-fold:

1) I've been writing new script tips for my websie because hits went way down after spending so much time in Denmark and Hong Kong.

2) I'm working on a script on deadline! Currently way behind, too.

Started working on my Hong Kong entry last night and will try to get caught up soon.

- Bill (keeping those plates spinning the best I can)

odocoileus said...

I been jonesing for more stories. I want my free content!

Anyway, I googled sex-in-a-sub, and accidentally hit the image button.

In the navy, you can sail the seven seas...

A. M. said...

Bill, in case you missed all the praise for your script tips: they're fantastic! I read them every morning and they often have triggered something. So thank you for being so generous.

Also, your blog post in which you mentioned writing 30 scripts within a dayjob-decade was very inspiring. That's part of why I'm participating in the 14-Day-Screenplay challenge.

Keeping my (mental) fingers crossed for your new script! Thanks for keeping us posted ;)

Carson Reeves said...

lol. that was hilarious.

Marty said...

My God, that sounds EXACTLY like my first (and only) agent, but without the sale or any degree of success. Hell, I didn't even get the chicken wings.

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