Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Hooray for Hollywood - Agents

An old story of which I was reminded when discussing Hollywood agents with another writer recently.

Back when I was writing a lot of kidvid, much of it with my collaborator Reaves, we wrote a spec theatrical script based on our novel Hellstar. Big SF story, takes place on a giant generation-ship traveling to another star. The Towering Inferno in space ...

So we did the script, and sent it to our mutual Hollywood agent.

Hollywood agents, I learned later, tend to specialize, like doctors. Ours was the go-to woman for TV animation, but not so much for live-action theatricals. What did we know? We were writers.

Our agent had heard a story about somebody who had, somehow, gotten onto the lot at a major studio, and who had basically gone around knocking on doors and pitching his movie idea to until he found a producer who was interested.

Our agent decided this was a good idea.

It didn't sound like a good idea to me, but she was the agent, and I only a writer.

So, she got us a morning meeting with a low-level guy at some indie prod company on the Universal lot. We'd have a pass to get into the lot; once we pitched him -- and it didn't matter whether he loved or hated it, he couldn't buy anything -- we were to walk around as if we belonged there and pitch anybody we could find who might be interested. Nobody would check on us -- if you were past the gate guard, you were golden.

We'd heard the story about Steven Spielberg, right?

Uh, yeah. We had. *

If you have every done any kind of sales, this is known as cold-calling, and is generally not nearly as successful as a prospect list of folks who have expressed an interest in your product.

There are sales people who thrive on this, they love picking up a phone in a boiler room operation or ringing a doorbell, thrill to the challenge of ensnaring an often-unwilling customer and selling them, overcoming their objections and turning them around. These are the people who can sell ice to Eskimos, pork to Hasidim, gasoline to people in Hell.

I am not one of them. Nor is my collaborator.

The kind of personality that makes you into a fiction writer tends not to be the kind that makes you a terrific salesperson. You have to have some of it to do pitches, but at least there you are selling something in which you believe, your idea for a movie. And most of the time, you are doing so to somebody who is a) looking for such, b) interested enough to listen, and c) whose attention has been gotten by your agent first.

So there were were, on the lot at Universal, dressed in California laid-back, carrying our briefcases full of copies of Hellstar: The Movie. (Mine was a Halliburton aluminum job, all Miami Vice dope-smuggler, a gift from my wife when I started going down to LaLaLand trying to get a toe-hold in the movie biz.)

We took our meeting with the flunky. He avowed that he would run it past Larry. Always a Larry down the hall in Hollywood who gets the final say. We smiled at each other, and Reaves and I took our leave.

There we were. A bright and sunny almost-noon morning in SoCal, walking around on the Universal lot, looking as if we belonged there. The tram doing the Universal tour went past. Tourists took pictures of us as if we were somebody. We walked past sets, actors dressed for roles, closed studio shoots, it was just like a movie about the movies ...

The idea of cold-calling producers filled us both with belly-fluttering dread. It took us a while to work up the courage. Finally, we wandered into an office building, found an open door and skulked inside.

An aside: My plan would have been to put on coveralls and to stick each script inside a big envelope. Soon as we found a potential reader, we'd write their company name on the outside, then walk in and say, "Delivery for ... um ... Miracle Productions?" whereupon we'd hand it off and then leave. Any questions we'd deflect with, "I dunno, I just take stuff where I'm told." That way, somebody would think that somebody else had an interest in the script and might read it.

But, no, we were supposed to engage possible buyers with our wit and pluck. Both of which had fallen low.

First person we came upon, sitting at a desk with a knife in his hand, was Anthony Perkins.

Those of you not old enough to remember him, Perkins was the actor who played Norman Bates in Hitchcock's original version of Psycho. Can I get a wheep-wheep-wheep musical sting of the Shower Scene in Psycho here?

Great story, and true, but ... the qualifications: Perkins was eating lunch, and the knife was plastic.

We introduced ourselves and our purpose.

Isn't your agent supposed to do this? he asked.

We nodded. That's what we thought, but we're writers, what do we know?

We managed to screw up our resolve three or four times more, as I recall. One of the contacts was Valerie Harper, who had starred in Rhoda, on TV.

Isn't your agent supposed to do this? she asked.

Yeah. We got which way that wind blew.

The others we spoke to were receptionists or secretaries.

Finally, we started looking for empty offices with open doors, where we'd drop a copy on the counter and then scram.

We ran out of copies and drag-assed back to our car, and I recall it as one of the most uncomfortable social experiences of my professional life. (I once gave selling encyclopedia door-to-door a shot, when I was in college, and why I hated it and didn't do well came back to me in spades while on the lot at Universal that day. Not my thing.)

In retrospect, I realized I should have taken a page from the old advice to stage magicians: Don't try to be a magician; be an actor playing a magician. I should have visualized myself as an actor playing the role of a writer/con man ...

Naturally, nothing came of this. Eventually, we did have a meeting with a producer for a TV star's production company, (Gregory Harrison's) and while they didn't want Hellstar, the enthusiasm there for our sci-fi chops led to a pitch for what became our novel The Omega Cage, which, alas, also never made it to the silver screen. Which is another whole horror tale and I'll spare you that one ...

* There's a story that Steven Spielberg's chutzpah as a young man was such that he was able to get onto the lot at Universal by conning the guard, and then to spend the next two years pretending to work there, arriving each day wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase and even taking over a vacant office where he set up shop.

Great story. Never happened.

Spielberg did work as an unpaid intern for Chuck Silvers, at Universal TV, and when his pass ran out, he did somehow manage to keep getting onto the lot, but the rest is fantasy -- he made it up to enhance his reputation as a wunderkind.

Never let the truth stand in the way of a great story. And never let a great story get away just because it makes you look like an idiot ...

1 comment:

Nancy Holder said...

Just took my daughter to Universal Studios. On the back lot tour, as you pass by Bates Motel, an actor who looks remarkably like Tony Perkins walks out of the motel with a dead blonde in his arms, starts carrying her to her car (and it looks like the real car!) and then notices you. He drops the blonde (couldn't see if he put her in the trunk or what) and starts following the tram. Psycho weep-weep-weep playing the whole time. It was great.

When I was doing the Buffy episode guidebooks, going through channels oocas. did not land us interviews with our target actors. As we had access to them in the VIP areas at the now-much-missed Posting Board Parties, we would approach them and give them all the pertinent info in a letter. "Aren't our people supposed to do this?" they would ask. It became very clear to us that their people weren't telling them about our requests for interviews. This was back in the early days of Buffy, and these guys weren't exactly household names....