AGENTS’ HOT SHEET
reprinted courtesy of "Creative Screenwriting"
By Jim Cirile
“Writing about big money--it’s kind of like writing about diets in a health magazine. There is no easy way. Sure, I would love to take a pill and be thin. I would love to write one spec and be a millionaire. (But) the writers who are making the most money in the business have the goods. The people who are losing the weight are exercising and eating right.”—Nicole Clemens, ICM
Let’s face it—for every one of us who pursues screenwriting out of passion, there are 42 who are in it for the cashola. In this special 2-part column, our panelists give you the 411 on putting some cha-ching in ya--when to bluff, when to just shut up and take a lowball offer, and when to go for the BIG MONEY.
The Gersh Agency
United Talent Agency
International Creative Management
Creative Management Group
DOUGH. You want it. I want it. Enticed by countless spec sales of the ‘90s, every dope with a dot matrix printer cranked out a “It’s Die Hard—only in a building!” action spec and attempted to get a piece of the action. But suddenly, it’s 2004. Lots of crap is still being hurled against the wall, but less and less of it is sticking. Joe First-Time is finding himself increasingly S.O.L. The first and most important thing you need to know: Hollywood is no longer the ATM machine it used to be.
UTA’s Marty Bowen, recently profiled in Premiere magazine, has sold plenty of big-money scripts, yet even he acknowledges that things ain’t what they used to be: “There is definitely a contraction in the marketplace for spec scripts and for writing assignments. Back in ’96, everything would sell, and everybody was working. That’s just not the way business is done these days.” Gersh’s Abram Nalibotsky seconds that. “I feel like the studios are definitely buying less. They will buy. From known writers, they will throw out big numbers, but it feels like they want to buy ready-to-go films that have a major element.” CMG manager Graham Kaye won’t even go out with a spec anymore unless he’s attached a big-name actor or director. “The spec market is dry,” he notes dryly. “Studios are either making big tent-pole movies, or they’re doing remakes. There’s not a lot of originality out there. Studios naturally want to make their corporations happy, so they’ll go with much more steady writers, proven writers. I go back to when Rob Carlson and Alan Gasmer sold, I think, 56 specs in a year when I was at William Morris—the glory days. That’s something you will never see happen again, I don’t believe.”
I should probably end the column right here! But no, the news is only mostly bad. In fact, for the lucky few, the rewards can be bigger than ever. Even though the odds of your spec actually selling on the marketplace have dropped dramatically, those busted specs become writing samples off which a writer will get meetings and, if you’re very “good in a room,” you may be hired for a lucrative writing assignment. “The bread and butter of Hollywood is the assignment business,” says ICM’s Emile Gladstone. So let’s see how we can get our hands on one of those rare ATM cards.
First off: make sure your script rocks before you waste anybody’s time. “Writing about big money--it’s kind of like writing about diets in a health magazine,” laughs ICM’s Nicole Clemens. “There is no easy way. Sure, I would love to take a pill and be thin. I would love to write one spec and be a millionaire. (But) the writers who are making the most money in the business have the goods. The people who are losing the weight are exercising and eating right.” The Hollywood system is clogged with thousands of scripts, 99% of which were simply not ready to be submitted to potential agents, managers, or producers. Just because you’ve spent time on something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ready to go. You need to get notes from friends, teachers, script analysts or coverage services, take classes at UCLA Extension, get yourself into a writing group. When you find yourself getting raves and “considers,” you’ll know you’re really ready to go. Yes, that means you have to do some work. Sorry.
When you reach that point, you’ll find that oddly enough, representatives will actually want to meet with you and—horrors—even try to sell your script for you. It now becomes critical to remember to keep that slavering, insatiable money lust under control! “It’s a tremendous liability,” observes Bowen. “A couple of times in my career I’ve made the mistake of looking at a (purely money-driven) client as just a potential piece of business. Every time I’ve done that, my ability to represent them has been diminished by the fact that I’m not passionate about their work.” Kaye agrees, “When they discuss money in the very first conversation, and vehemently, that makes me nervous. I know that usually there’s no stability or loyalty.” He recalls a former client who had an offer on his script from Disney for half a million dollars. “An agency came in and told this writer in the middle of negotiations that I was doing a horrible job. He believed them, and he passed on the offer. This big agency went out and tried to renegotiate with all the other studios—a couple days later went back begging to Disney for the same deal. This was a person who was living in a 1-room apartment with bullet holes in the walls. They’d hung paintings over the bullet holes. He was driving a bus, and his wife was teaching blind children. And I thought, ‘How could people with that much humility all of a sudden start behaving that way?’”
So keep that greed in check and “think long-term always,” says Gladstone. “You cultivate relationships with the producers and studio executives and directors. These will hopefully pay off for years. When you’re thinking about it just in the money terms, man, you’re not thinking clearly.” To illustrate, Gladstone tells us about client Matt Lopez. “In the same week, he sold a pitch and got invited into the Disney Writer’s Program. The pitch would have probably paid more and have been a shorter period of time. The Disney Writer’s Program was a full year. But he made a decision to go with the Writer’s Program because of the relationships that he would foster and the education that he would garner. You hope you make friends and gain respect. You learn the game a little bit, too, from the inside out. Now you’ve got to pay the bills, too, and oftentimes, writers that have options, it’s not about work, it’s about the right work. Sometimes the money jobs aren’t the ones that are the most creatively fulfilling. So you sort of balance out the year so that there’s cash flow so that the writer can send their kids to school and pay for their mortgage, and also not feel creatively bankrupt at the end of the year by just writing sequels and remakes.”
Which brings us to an incredible irony of the business: sometimes the best way to make big money is to turn it down. “Like a starving man in front of his first big meal, it can be incredibly hard to walk away from the table,” says Bowen. “When you finally get into the game, you’re scared to say no, because you don’t know when the next time you’re going to be offered.” But doing just that can be both a viable strategy to drive up the price on a spec sale and a wise long-term career move for a working writer considering whether to accept a dubious assignment. “(Walking away from the table) is a very, very well thought-out decision,” says Clemens. “I never encourage my clients to bluff unless they’re absolutely willing to not have (the deal) happen. But I don’t think I’ve ever bluffed and not gotten what we wanted. You read the heat, and if you have something pretty amazing, it’s going to find a home.”
Gladstone adds, “I certainly have gambled with clients based on my feelings about the marketplace and the spec situation. But I would say that I’ve had more times when we’ve taken less money to work with the right company than just take the extra 50 or 100 grand to work with a company that we don’t feel is the best place for the movie or environment for the writers. It’s not about the payday, man. It’s about the long term. Where you make money off these guys is in year two, year three. If the writer’s not in the right environment creatively to deliver a good rewrite of their script, they’re no different than they were before they sold a million-dollar script. In fact, it’s worse, because they become known as people that don’t deliver.”
In Part 2 to follow, our panel details negotiation strategies and tells you how they increase their clients’ quotes and maximize every opportunity. Be there. Aloha.