Sunday, August 13, 2006

Inside UTA's Locker Room


A couple years back, Creative Screenwriting ran my interview with young UTA agents Tobin Babst, Julien Thuan and Jason Burns. Superagent Marty Bowen had dubbed them "The Locker Room Guys," because when they were first promoted, all three had to share a small office, which Bowen joked was rather like a locker room.

We had to cut the lengthy article significantly to fit in in the magazine. So for the sake of posterity, and because it's a cool, in-depth interview, I'm posting it here on the blog in its entirety. It's a rare glimpse behind the scenes at one of the top agencies in town, and all three are pretty cool guys, too. Enjoy!

--Jim Cirile

INSIDE UTA'S LOCKER ROOM
Jim Cirile interviews UTA feature lit agents Tobin Babst, Julien Thuan and Jason Burns

Jim: Great to meet you guys. Can you each tell me a bit about your background?

Toby: I grew up in Maryland. From University of Maryland, I transferred to NYU for screenwriting, playwriting. During my time there I learned more about the craft part of it. I started coming out here and interning and learning a bit about the business part. I thought, what if I don’t want to bank a career on whether or not I’ll be able to write a screenplay, and what kind of job could my degree apply towards? I ended up being excited by the other side of things—the development world and the agency world. I did a few internships in New York, and then I came out here and interned at Peter Guber’s company for a summer. Ultimately I just decided that I was going to come out here and figure out how I was gonna get into that world. Joining an agency mailroom, or agency training program, seemed like the way to go. I started at UTA a few months later and have been here 5 ½ years. That’s a month in the mailroom, two years as an assistant to John Lesher, a year as an assistant to Marty (Bowen,) and a little under 2½ years as an agent.

JC: You still doing any writing?

Toby: No. I don’t think there’s time for both. I just felt like if I tried to do both, I’d probably end up succeeding at neither.

Julian: I grew up in Nashville, Tenn. I went to Duke University. Junior year I came out here with a friend to do an internship with Chuck Rogan’s company. Mainly because they didn’t pay, I took a couple of meetings to see if I could get an internship that paid. I met with a Duke alum named Brad Joel, who was an agent here at the time, and he put me through the system. I was offered an internship, which was great, and spent the next two months doing that. An internship here is very much the same as being in the mailroom. You have the same sort of duties and responsibilities. I loved it, so by the end of the summer I was offered a job. I went back to school and spent my senior year knowing what I was gonna do. Two weeks after graduation I was back here pushing a mail cart.

I was in the mailroom for a month. I worked for David Kramer. Then I worked for Jeremy Zimmer—

JC: Both you guys were in the mailroom for a month?

Julian: It’s the minimum amount that you can be in the mailroom for.

Jason: It was a smaller company at the time, and there was a need.

Toby: It’s all timing. Almost all the assistants have to start in the mailroom as a trainee. There’s a minimum 4 weeks required, but beyond that it’s just when something comes available. If an assistant is leaving or going to another desk, there’s gonna be a spot opening up.

JC: So the mailroom is the talent pool.

Toby: Yeah. If there’s a lot of turnover, then you get out of the mailroom pretty quickly. If not, or if there’s a specific department you want to be in, then it can end up taking 6-9 months.

Jason: There’s plenty of stories here about people who are successful agents who were in the mailroom for over a year. Just because it’s a long stint doesn’t necessarily mean—

Toby: We were pretty lucky with the timing. But we also kind of knew what we wanted to do. We all wanted to be in a lit group.

JC: You guys were all in the mailroom at the same time?

Julien: there was overlap, yeah.

JC: Julien, where did you go after the mailroom?

Julien: I worked for David Kramer for about a year and a half. Then I worked for Jeremy Zimmer for close to the same amount of time. Then I went to work in the New Media group for about a year. I was there for the new media boom and the bust. I was there for both, which was interesting. Very quickly, when I was in that group, I realized I wanted to come back to the lit group. After about a year I came back and have been doing that ever since.

Jason: I grew up here, in Malibu. I was always around the business but never really saw my place in it. Unlike Toby, I didn’t have writing aspirations or… So I went to UC San Diego as an Econ major, graduated and started working for Smith Barney as a stockbroker. I did that for about 11 months and was miserable. I liked the sales aspect and the pacing of it, but there’s no creative outlet in the job whatsoever. You couldn’t even really form an opinion about what you’re selling. You can sell something if you can see what’s great about it. But if you can’t form an opinion, it’s really tough to be passionate about it.

JC: Same thing about being an agent.

Jason: Yeah. So I knew people who had done what Julien had done, straight from college started working in the business, and started reading books about it. I interviewed at William Morris, ICM and UTA, and it clicked here. It felt smaller, hungrier, and I felt I connected with the people. I ended up moving from San Diego and started in the mailroom. I worked for Jeremy Zimmer and Dan Aloni as a second assistant for about 3 months, and then worked for Jeremy Zimmer for about 2 years, and then Blair Belcher after that for a little less than a year.

JC: Exact titles:

(all) Just agent.

Jason: There’s some people who get promoted to departmental assistant. Your main objective is to compile lists and help the department run smoothly. You’re eventually given duties of covering a studio. That’s when you really feel like you’re an agent who’s contributing to the group and selling the whole agency’s clients.

JC: That’s a great point. How does the covering of the individual studios work?

Jason: You’re assigned a specific studio or multiple studios. You need to be the in-house UTA expert (on) that studio. So let’s say it’s Universal and New Line. Along with the other group of agents, there’s usually about 3 or 4 including talent agents as well, who together cover the studio. They need to know everything going on at that studio. What’s the new script that’s come in? What’s the new open writing assignment? What project’s looking for a director? At UTA, you’re given the freedom but also the incentive to really cover the studio. Just because you’re in a lit group doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be reading a script and thinking, “This is a great Harrison Ford vehicle.” You’re supposed to think outside your group.

JC: I assume this also entails reading every single thing those studios buy.

Jason: Yes, reading everything they buy, everything they want to rewrite, even. Reading everything that needs a director, casting, all of it.

Julien: You also spend a lot of time developing relationships with all the producers at the studio, so there’s a real flow of information, hopefully commerce as well.

Jason: If I had a question about Sony, I would call Julian before I would call the executive on the project, because he’s gonna know the history and the pitfalls of that particular project. By calling Julien, I get the whole history—who’s gone in, what mistakes have been made in the past, what’s the executive thinking, what’s their expectation? That way, when you call, you already have a perspective of what’s going on.

Julien: Plus, when you don’t talk to those people every single day like a covering agent does, it’s hard to maintain those relationships.

Toby: You’re responsible for representing all the agency’s clients when there’s a job opportunity, but also when there’s not. A movie opens and does really well. So you’re expected to be talking with the executives, and of course you’re bringing up the good things that are happening with the company’s clients. Sometimes it’s specific to a job, sometimes it’s information-based, and other times it’s just general relationship-building.

Julien: As a newly-promoted agent, it’s the best way for you to develop relationships. It’s great because you don’t represent a ton of clients, you represent the entire agency.

JC: And you become important even if you’re not. Where does the Locker Room come from?

Toby: All 3 of us were promoted at the same time. When you’re first promoted you don’t have an assistant; you don’t even have an office. You just have a cubicle. As the company was expanding and we were getting a little more established, they started letting us share assistants and they wanted to give us office space. But the only office that was available was one large office for the three of us to share. After walking in a few times and seeing scripts everywhere, the trades everywhere...

JC: The three of you all talking on the phone at the same time...

Toby: Yeah, three people talking over each other, throwing things at each other, one day I think it just dawned on (Marty) that our office should be called the Locker Room.

JC: Obviously, at this point, you guys have separate offices and assistants. Do you miss the old days?

Toby: Which just happened about a month ago.

JC: Really? And all of you at the same time?

Jason: Yeah. There’s definitely camaraderie that was built working together so closely. You miss that. But when Toby and Julien call it’s like the first returned phone calls.

Toby: Or so he says now.

JC: You guys are all on the same floor…

Julien: Exactly.

Jason: Between the three of us, we pretty much cover the whole town. We all have different territories. We have a good sense of what’s going on.

JC: In terms of clients, do you share clients or have your own lists? How does that work?

Toby: The whole agency’s corporate philosophy is based on teamwork. You’re almost never representing somebody alone, it’s almost always a team of at least 2 agents. Because we work so closely together, physically, we ended up sharing a lot of new business.

JC: Are guys 100% lit, 50% lit 50% talent? How is it broken up.

Julien: A little bit of everything. It’s mostly lit. (We’re mostly dealing with) writers and directors. But in your day-to-day, you end up being on teams with actors. There’s an aspect of it that is talent-oriented. There’s a lit component of that, also, ‘cause a lot of actors now have companies which we service as well. Sometimes you’re reading scripts that is only (being read as a possible) open writing (assignment,) but you have a great idea for someone within the company that would be great to build the movie around.

JC: Obviously, everyone has different tastes. Do you have any specific genre specialties?

Toby: Defining taste by genre is a hard thing to do. We all represent a little bit of everything. The one thing that’s consistent is that we like original voices. We like people who have something new and interesting to say. A lot of times we share new people that we’re thinking of representing with each other to see what we think. The great thing about having a relationship with these guys is you have a sounding board.


Jason: It always comes back to original voices. It’s something the agency was built on. It’s championing people, maybe taking a bigger risk. When we look at material, we’re more excited by someone with a really original voice and point of view and great writing than we are by the next big spec idea. We’re building careers. It’s great to sell spec scripts, but for us what’s really important is longevity.

JC: (UTA client) Charlie Kaufman, case in point.

Jason: Yeah. Some of those scripts were just sitting around (at other agencies.)

Toby: You can’t really predict what the spec market is gonna do. You can get a sense of what you think people will get excited about or not, but getting them to actually buy a spec can be a tricky thing. If you’re excited about original voices and writing, it doesn’t quite matter as much whether the studios buy (the spec) or not. You hope that they do, but what you really want is a lot of people reading a writer who you think is talented—somebody that you can then get them to start working with.

JC: What do you like about UTA?

Julien: As a lit agent, I like that we’re very open to things that are out-of-the-box and different. There’s not that pressure to go in and sell the big spec. It’s much more “who are the writers that we’re excited about, and how do we embrace them as a group?” even though a new, young writer might have a spec script that goes out, even if it doesn’t sell, chances are the entire group has read that writer. We’ve all essentially signed off and believe in the person. That person still has a career, and there’s still business there. That’s exciting to me. It’s a different kind of business than a lot of other agencies have. Also I like that a lot of the business that we have has been here since the beginning. We grow a lot of talent. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing someone get their first big break.

Jason: I feel like the place takes more time in investing in its people and personnel. When you get promoted (they don’t just say) “Here’s your office. Good luck.” There’s not that feeling of sink or swim. They really want to see you succeed. There’s not that “You gotta go sign 30 people and good luck” (attitude.) Underlying it all is “Take your time with it. Sign the people you believe in.” It’s not a way of representing people where you sign 10 and if 2 take off, great—you can get rid of the other 8.

JC: Like some other agencies. What do each of you hope to bring to the table? How do you want the town to perceive you?

Toby: I feel like I’m just getting started. But what I’d like my reputation to be is (as) someone who is extremely hard-working, honest and straightforward, intelligent and passionate about the people that he represents. And is someone who will stand up for what he believes in, in terms of his artists.

Julien: I think integrity is one of the most important things in this job, which is ironic given the perception of agents, I think. I can say that’s the reason I do this, because I’ve seen people do it with integrity. You know they’re always working in the best interest of the client. There’s no greater compliment for someone who does what we do.

Jason: I would say…

Toby: Go for the zinger, Burns.

(Everyone laughs.)

Jason: Respect comes from being honest and direct, being passionate about the people you represent.

JC: What would your advice be to the CS reader who hopes to one day be represented by UTA?

Jason: People make the mistake of calling a production company or an agency, and it’s all about getting that (specific) person on the phone. If you get somebody (and it’s not) the producer you want to send the script to, but it’s their assistant, and they’re willing to take a look at your material—good reads, good notes can come from anyone. The people we listen to are executives or producers…

Julien: Managers…

Jason: Right, people around town, or even assistants here. Every once in a while an assistant will come up and go, “I love this script. Would you take a look at it”? And you listen to them. Any read is a good read. Just because you’re trying to get to that one person—you have to realize they probably don’t have the time to read unsolicited material, but there are people out there (who will read it.) You have to be your own agent first, and ingratiate yourself to the people you can get on the phone.

Julien: Assistants are a great way to go. We all have clients now whom we found as assistants that we sort of brought up with us.

JC: Were you guys taking home boatloads of scripts every weekend?

Toby: All the time, yeah. We still do. It doesn’t take that long, I think, to develop an awareness for how to get your script into somebody’s hands. I you have a Creative Directory and you get Creative Screenwriting, you can find out who reads and who doesn’t.

JC: You also have to be able to write a coherent query letter.

Toby: That’s true. But the most important thing is the script. Obviously there are certain things that are inherently commercial and certain things that are not, but at the end of the day, we respond to what’s personal and what’s real. The emphasis should be on the writing. Until you have that, don’t worry about the rest, because it doesn’t matter.

Jason: Don’t force your writing around. If you’re like, “I have the ultimate heist movie; I’m gonna set it on Mars.” Starting there is probably not the best place to start. Start from something you are really passionate about and think you can write well.

Toby: If you write a good script, someone will find it. Somebody will recognize it and give it to an agent or a manager. It will find it’s way into somebody’s hands, because everybody’s looking for a good script. But for your readership, I would say read a lot of scripts. Watch a lot of movies. Think about how they were written. And beyond that, most importantly, keep writing. Write a lot. And remember you’re writing for Hollywood, which is a business. And remember that there is an audience out there, and that determines whether Hollywood wants to invest in your screenplay. But at the same time, you have to write for yourself, because that’s the only way your voice will show through.

JC: Anything else you guys want to add?

Toby: Despite the “Locker Room” nickname, it wasn’t given to us for the smell.

6 comments:

aquasal said...

that was really cool!

Sandy K said...

Maybe agenst are human beings after all....


nah

Duke Nukem said...

They are human beings, many of them. It's just some may seem somewhat callous to outsiders because there are 100,000 of us trying to get their attention. These guys generally work 12-14 hours days. So how about a little love for the agents?

PONGI said...

HEY DUkE:

NAAAAAH.

Chris D said...

i've found that all these guys are friendly and normal when you see interviews with them but then try to get them on the phone and sorry, no soup for you

Anonymous said...

I think when you consider the sheer volume of talent (ie scripts) these guys have to delve through, they are pretty down-to-earth. It's not like they work a 9-to-5. Considering it's a cut-throat industry to begin with, they are pretty forthright and helpful. I've met a few of them and they came across that way in person as well.