A Dream Client: She Yearned To Go Pro And She Did!

A Dream Client: She Yearned To Go Pro And She Did!

Hollywood code is universally understandable, but not everybody can adapt to it. Fluency is relative to aptitude. Cinderella could go to the ball because not only did she look the part, she played it, because that’s who she truly was – a heroine not a victim. In other words, Cinderella went “pro”.

Did she bring her childhood trauma with her to the ballroom? Did she mention all her prior hardships and lack of opportunities? Was she intimidated or distracted or critical when her stepfamily showed up at the ball? Think about the way she expresses herself – in a situation she’s never been in before, in a privileged world where she has no place. Yet, telepathically, she knows the appropriate, coded behavior.

Hollywood code is very often non-verbal on the one hand, then ultra verbal on the other. A typical discourse isn’t just about expressing literary knowledge that is skills and rules based, but laden with opportunity to openly validate any experience-driven understanding of the meaning inside that knowledge. In Hollywood, ‘meaning’ is a technical and industrial term that refers to the meaning of life…regardless of genre… even in silliest comedic terms. Subsequently, patterns of interactive role-playing are deeply institutionalized in those still standing corridors of Hollywood power master scribe William Goldman talked about. Those corridors may be more accessible than you might think…entre is all about your focused ability to adapt while staying authentically yourself…like Cinderella.

Ask A Literary Agent

If You Want Screenwriting Career Tips, Ask A Literary Agent

I ask every class I teach: “What does an agent do?” And wait. There’s silence until someone finally volunteers. Typically it goes like this:

“They make calls.”

“They make deals.”

“They’re gatekeepers.

Many people seem to think of agents and writers as being in some form of doctor/patient relationship — a dreaded necessity due to an illness or injury that requires professional intervention. It seems to be a lot easier to trust a clinician’s skills than your average literary agents. Not so with managers, who generally receive a hearty thumbs-up. “They really care about you” is the comfort meme, while the conventional sentiment “agents only care about the deal” won’t go away.  

All the managers I know personally or professionally care just as much as the agent and the client about the deal. Managers also care about the essential role agents play. Yet, unless that manager was once an agent, even the manager often considers (along with the client) the literary agent’s playbook to be as mysterious as a magician’s hat. Everybody knows for certain that lit agents zero in on high-profile media buyers in order to broker high-end intellectual properties. While they’re hanging out in the media-marketplace, they can also secure gainful literary employment for their clients. But no one is exactly sure how they do it. It would take several hundred pages to explain how and why literary agents do what they do. 

So, agents are clinicians to clients, and magicians to buyers. Nevertheless, their skills, though obviously invaluable, can also create doubt and instability inside an intimate alliance between writer and a agent. This alliance demands that literary agents be experts in negotiating changing realities in an evolving marketplace, while staying in touch with a writer’s expectations. The majority of literary agents, like their clients, work alone, organizing meaningful information from multiple sources in a committed effort to convert that information into calculated opportunities. Then something unexpected happens. It’s hard to evaluate, calculate or measure what an agent does. It’s too subjective, which makes the job hard to appreciate. There’s a general suspicion about what agents do, both inside and outside the industry. Everyone likes to size up and denigrate the agent’s profession.

Whether they’re understood or appreciated, lionized or devalued, literary agents, often in tandem with managers and entertainment attorneys, professionally orchestrate more than 99% of all screenwriting careers. Yet the web contains no end of screenwriting career recipes snapped from the lens of one person’s single literary or literary-related career (in declarative “listicles” of career must-haves and must-do’s). Doesn’t insight from the lens of only one career seem a little… narrow-minded? Those who know most about the professional screenwriting trade are literary agents, whose seasoned expertise encompasses thousands of careers.

I was often told I didn’t “seem like an agent,” as though this were a compliment. I was proud of the job, handed down to me by my mentors, Phil Gersh and Scott Harris, who created his own fiercely independent agency that consistently books high scores in the daily talent hunger games. Scott was trained at the William Morris Agency by  TV maven, Jerry Katzman. Also, Scott’s dad had been among the well-armed ranks of Lew Wasserman’s MCA, once upon a time the largest talent agency in the world. Wasserman invented the 16-hour workday and broke the long-term studio contract system. Jack Valenti likened Wasserman to a God, rather than a mere Hollywood “Godfather.”

Phil represented a dazzling array of talent — among them, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Wise and Don Siegel. He didn’t dwell on his own past, but preferred to tell me Golden Age nuggets about the career-steering feats of Charles Feldman and Ray Stark. Feldman invented packaging and profit participation. His clients included Cary Grant and John Wayne, while Stark started out as a literary agent representing Raymond Chandler, then branched out into talent and shepherded the careers of Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton and Ronald Reagan. Phil also enjoyed reminiscing about lesser-known participants, like the raspy, chain-smoking studio business affairs attorney, who invented rolling “breakeven” — which may have been inspired by his tobacco habit, since it was as inexhaustible as a studio’s overhead expenses.

Conversations with Phil made it clear to me that agents had the best access to information by virtue of their incentivized maneuverability, especially when it came to the guarded inner-workings of the entertainment machine. He taught me about very specific insider-business behaviors, gauging predictability and unpredictability as part of the art (and science) of the deal. I learned that in Hollywood, a negotiation could be as grubby as a wrestling match over the cash drawer, yet at the same time, as cerebral as chess.

He explained many other important concepts, while warning me about routinely camouflaged snares. He was also quick to give tough love. While I was still a baby agent, I made the mistake of insisting that a production start date for a script I’d sold was poured in stone, though no star was set. The director’s pay-or-play date passed, so to update the agency’s talent and below-the-line departments, I announced the film’s production start at the staff meeting, to which Phil retorted, “She’s right. They’re starting on that date… with or without actors!”

A key difference between a missile and a rocket is that one is guided while the other isn’t. Agents strategically calibrate career trajectory for maximum impact using their unique tactical training in service of creative storytellers. If you want to know all about what it takes to have a screenwriting career you want, ask a literary agent. 

Kathryn Bigelow directing 'Near Dark'

How Kathryn Bigelow & Eric Red Gamed the System to Launch Their Careers

Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red not only delivered an exceptional screenplay to their agents, but along with it, equipped us with a real world plan of attack. This made “Near Dark” an exceptional setup. I was head of Gersh’s Literary department, itching to sherpa my clients up Everest. Kathryn and Eric’s tactical scenario offered the kind of dynamic activism agents live for.

We didn’t have a big meeting or even work out details over a fancy meal. Kathryn and Eric’s determination to overcome conventional industry-wide resistance to anyone outside the insider directing pool was palpable. When I signed Kathryn, I could see she was someone who was determined to not only even the odds against her achieving her goal – but not by kneejerk jumping at a single opportunity. Instead she was prepared to exercise discerning conduct aimed to promote a long and productive career. She was very smart to understand the difference, which led to sometime in 1986, when Kathryn and her writer/director friend Eric Red, whom Melinda Jason represented, made a pact.

Melinda had her own literary agency, but in many ways, she was my mentor. She’d gotten her start in the industry in the legal department at Fox features doing personal service contracts right after getting her law degree from USC. After a few years, she segued into becoming a literary agent. Over the course of working at a few mid-sized companies, she made a lot of friends who were agents. When she was able to start up her own company, she kept those friendships even though her friends were also her competitors. She knew there was a bigger, badder enemy out there we needed to protect each other from, by sharing information and sometimes, clients.

She reasoned that as independents there was safety in numbers to neutralize the predatory practices of corporation-sized companies – both agencies and studios. She also knew there was enough to go around for everyone. Perhaps it was because she’d grown up in a family with deep roots in the golden age of the entertainment business — her uncle directed “Rebel Without A Cause” and before that, her great uncle was president of the Directors Guild, having directed “Top Hat” and many other Astaire films — that fueled her positive expectations.

I, on the other hand, am an east coast transplant, and the product of film schools, with a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School Of the Arts and an MFA from UCLA’s Master Screenwriting program. I was trained at the Gersh Agency, and then rapidly promoted from lowly assistant to literary agent, to head of my department. Melinda called to congratulate me, and offered to help support my business. I was amazed at her generosity. Industry wide competition among literary agents for clients and writing assignments was fierce. Most agents were radically different from Melinda’s confident commitment to solidarity and engaged in a lot of petty behavior. Melinda was a visible exception because she wasn’t just vocal about fairness, she insisted on it.

It was obvious the studio system was still rife as ever with predicable favoritism, and not in favor of writers. Yet writers still expected their agents to buck the tide by lifting them over it. The problem was there was very little truly strategic action by the writers themselves. I don’t mean by their writing. They were pretty busy doing that. They exuded a culture of materializing all kinds of fantastic ideas that promised to complement the studio mandate to keep new material flowing. They acted as though they believed they had magical creative powers, and should be offered to direct as a possible entitlement. After all, they were used to being creators by simply putting hand to paper. Somehow, if they could be glued into the director’s chair, their scripts would have lift-off. As their agents, we made lots of deals, development deals — but most scripts ended up as baubles in the studio vault. It’s ironic to me looking back, with such a glut of script development money, and so many talented dealmakers on every side of the aisle, but no great leap forward. Directors were cast, just like actors, with a ton of politics in the rooms we got them into. So many potential innovators passed through, and didn’t make it. Eventually, they landed at Park City, but that’s another story.

Melinda signed Eric after he graduated from AFI as a directing fellow. Barely 22, he’d written a script called “The Hitcher,” inspired by an actual incident when Eric picked up a creepy hitchhiker while driving cross-country. Eric expected to direct “The Hitcher” but TriStar, where Melinda had sold the script, wasn’t ready to work with a first-timer, let alone a 22-year-old first-timer. TriStar was a brand new studio, in partnership with HBO with the mandate to boldly depart from the past and stay ahead of the curve, more in the tradition of the maverick filmmakers of the ‘70s. Lots of producers wanted to be in that game and developed great material, but ultimately clashed when it came to casting, budget, and location; then typically the studios wanted the script dialed back into more familiar territory. So, they churned out lots of forgettable films. “The Hitcher” was supposed to pave the way for a glut of hipness, but it turned out to be an exception.

That expectation of hipness was considered the best way to compete with big network television. Though TV enjoyed monopoly status, it was stifled by standards and practices that hadn’t changed since the 1950s. The MTV generation craved something new. Studios saw an opportunity, and as agents we heeded the call and signed stylish music video and commercial directors who’d landed in LA like they were taking a beachhead.

There was also an influx of film school grads, hopefuls like Kathryn and Eric. The problem was, no matter how hip or talented they were, most struck out. It wasn’t enough to be a cool visual storyteller when inexperienced with the often years long pressures of script development, on set star-driven dramas, commanding legions of studio film crew craftsmen, studio staff politics that included strategic marketing concessions and aggressive promotion. Still, a studio might, for a number of reasons, be inclined to go with the fresh perspective of a first-timer, but less so with the writer of the script, since it opened the door to disagreement about how to interpret and revise the many creative variables in the production process that might run contrary to the writer’s intentions. Nevertheless, sometimes they could see the advantage of having the director be the one to revise any story detail as needed, as someone already built into the process. A lot of writers believed this scenario was generally possible when in fact it wasn’t.

“The Hitcher” was daring for its time, especially gruesome in a pre-“Saw” universe. Dutch actor Rutger Hauer gave a frightening performance, flanked by a wide-eyed teenaged C. Thomas Howell. Jennifer Jason Leigh lent some edge of her own and pulled the viewer into an in-your-face punk vibe. Though Eric was getting a lot of positive attention, he soon learned only top-tier filmmakers who’d created smash critical successes, the likes of Walter Hill, William Friedkin, Francis Coppola, Robert Altman, or Marty Scorsese, were able to overcome studio gridlock and experiment with new ideas.

I’d spent two years sending out Kathryn’s Columbia graduate school student film, “The Set-Up,” to a slew of studio producers, independent producers and studio executives. As I’d intended, they were stunned by the film’s staged, but genuinely intense street fight. Kathryn also had the advantage of impressive social skills and focused intensity on her goal to become an important film director. Though she understood to get the opportunity to direct she’d have to write the script first, she was brilliant at delivering the respectfully polished assertion that she’d mastered genres until now exclusively monopolized by male directors.

To me, this was an exciting campaign. To get her into the game, I made two studio deals. These projects were both conceived by producers as cutting edge, tailored to cast popular brat pack actors, but were in fact tepid, bordering on silly. Kathryn went into each situation in good faith, but we both knew she was on a fool’s errand. Though they insisted they wanted smart, hip genre films with an edge rarely seen from a studio-generated project, they didn’t really mean it. So I got Kathryn an episode to write for a network show, “The Equalizer,” which at least was consistent with her creative abilities. But Warner Bros./CBS wouldn’t consider Kathryn as a director.

After “The Hitcher,” Eric had street cred as an architect for stylized violence, but his youthfulness probably got him into some terra incognita in a conference room situation. Kathryn, on the other hand, was skilled at interpreting the dynamic in a conference room and addressing directly with aplomb. She was able to surprise people with her poise and confidence by tempering her basic intensity. She had this knack of projecting she knew something you didn’t, but she was too polite to unsettle you and instead graciously invited you into her private perspective.

This was a terrific way to disarm skeptical sexists. The only women directing for the majors were Penny Marshall and Amy Heckerling, and a few others who squeaked in through network TV sitcoms. The idea of a woman directing anything but comedy just wasn’t on anyone’s mind. That included minorities and in most cases, the minority A-list too. A few did fight the tide. Martha Coolidge directed a drama about date rape in the mid ‘70’s, but ended up directing comedies, like “Valley Girl” and “Joy Of Sex.” Even Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” though a more risky story that introduced Madonna to mainstream audiences, was still comedy. Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” wasn’t an actual comedy, but delivered a strong romantic main plot with a topical cross-dressing component that went for the nervous kind of laughs. Even rock documentarian Penelope Spheeris, of “The Decline Of Western Civilization” fame, transitioned into comedy with “Wayne’s World.” Only Randa Haines directed a true drama, “Children Of A Lesser God.” The advent of Sundance was starting to open up wider opportunities for filmmakers of all kinds.

But it was a slow, pre-Tarantino dance. Kathryn and Eric didn’t fit in to any standard trending categories. They saw the system for what it was, and took matters into their own hands. They were going to be strategic; they would write two scripts together. The first, “Undertow,” Eric would direct. The second, “Near Dark,” Kathryn would direct. Since they were co-writers, they co-owned the rights to the screenplays they wrote together, no one could undermine their directing attachments. Though Melinda and I hadn’t yet gotten either script, we knew what our clients were capable of. We knew we were going to get material that was going to be highly original, and probably prone to deliver out of the park, genre-bending payoffs. True to our expectations, “Undertow” caused a sensation when we took it out because the script was written in a unique, terse style, reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe poem, dark and macabre. Predictably, the offers came in for “Undertow” without a directing commitment to Eric, so the four of us – Melinda and I, Eric and Kathryn, held fast to the plan until we got the deal we all wanted. If someone wanted to buy “Undertow,” Eric would have to be irrevocably attached to direct it. In Hollywood, there’s no such thing as ‘irrevocable’ but we came as close to it as anyone could.

Getting that deal on the table was like staying on a bucking bronco. There was serious resistance to Eric, who was perceived as just another writer who wanted to direct. It took all our collective grit to build the most solid clauses we could to discourage the buyer from exercising their pay or play option, if a bigger name director became available or could deliver a certain star, which meant Eric could be replaced by simply paying off his directing fee. Finally, Melinda and I were able to get the deal done. Then Kathryn’s directing project, “Near Dark,” came in. Not only did the script have the same spare and effortless dialogue, but Kathryn had interlaced into its pages, copies of photographs from a recent show at the Museum of Modern Art. These weren’t the usual portraits of the fashionable or famous, but ordinary rural Americans with haunting and beautiful faces that bored straight to the heart. Normally I wouldn’t ever recommend including illustrations at all, but these images, when coupled with a vampire narrative set in the Midwestern heartland, offered a canny glimpse of how Kathryn envisioned the film.

Many producers made offers, but none with Kathryn directing. They offered more money for the buy and promised a bigger budget to lure an important director and expensive stars. Then Ed Feldman, who produced “The Hitcher,” stepped up to the plate and guaranteed Kathryn the same directing deal we’d gotten Eric for “Undertow.” Ed managed to get the film financed with Kathryn, not only as a first time director, but also to his credit, he was supportive of letting her cast it the way she wanted. Ed continued to work with Kathryn, on “K-19.” Because of Ed, Kathryn is probably the only woman ever to have directed a $100 million budget.

In an unfortunately more typical scenario, the production for “Undertow” stalled. Eric directed, a decade later, for Showtime. Kathryn and Eric did collaborate again once more on the heels of “Near Dark” with “Blue Steel,” with Kathryn as the director. In a worlds apart departure from the campy ‘70’s ads of women way in the background with guns in tight dresses looking like models, “Blue Steel”’s one-sheet featured a close-up of Jamie Lee Curtis in uniform, on the job, with hands wrapped around her weapon in a tactical pose. It was pretty clear, at last, who was finally calling the shots.

Memo to Women Screenwriters: Man Up!

Memo to Women Screenwriters: Man Up!

Why do so few scripts written by women receive high ratings on The Black List? This is mainly a problem for feature scripts, but highlighted television pilots also project a dim ratio.


As a service, The Black List has consistently been ahead of the curve but presently, it’s right in sync with 2013’s bleaker-than-usual, dismal “celluloid ceiling” report. Is the shrinking percentage of women screenwriters now seen as just business as usual, a reflection of our societal malaise? Or are women screenwriters actually doing something to fuel the inequity?


I doubt an old school research tool like listing all writers by their first initial would change the numbers much. It’s the genre-skirting “logline” that gives the women away, demonstrating what separates the girls from the boys. These self-congratulatory summaries border on dimorphism which, in the animal kingdom, distinguishes between male and female appearance.


An illuminated “premise,” on the other hand, has to work to gain advocacy with lasered, clear-cut genre as its engine. Agents prefer the term “premise.” A solid premise indicates something durable that actually has a shot at getting across the Hollywood player minefield, while a weak one won’t make it through the many hoops it takes to get all the way to the bank.


The Bechdel Test launched 1,000 righteous infographics illustrating the tried-and-true — and sometimes false — business model of male-centric “programmers,” clearly labeling blame on male decision-makers. What if those charts and graphs were interpreted another way? What if they were seen simply as stats for a losing team? If that were so, why wouldn’t that team re-think its overall strategy? Instead of a self-pitying document, why not make the annual Celluloid Ceiling report an occasion for a call to arms?


Instead, women marginalize and dig themselves further into girly ghettos like the well-intentioned Athena Film Festival. Read their selected “winning” script loglines and weep.


However, maybe all isn’t lost. Some women have accumulated serious cred and it’ll be fun to see what they do with it. But what they need in order to push ahead are scripts.


In 2014, Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison became the first woman, and only the fourth person in history, to receive two Best Picture nominations in a single year, for “Her” and “American Hustle,” whose star Jennifer Lawrence has so far totally escaped the second sex box. “White House Down” writer Laeta Kalogridis enjoys a robust career flexing her ability to wield Ocham’s razor, as does Kathryn Bigelow. But this is not a long list of serious women players.


Women are finding easier footing in TV. “Orange Is the New Black” and “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan loves a good crime while “Grey’s Anatomy” exec Shonda Rhimes kicks silk-sheet-covered ass. In Ann Biderman’s neo-noir, LA-set “Ray Donovan,” women are just as strong and complexly weak as the men. There are also those who’re impressively talented enough to invest in, and redefine, the traditionally safe real estate of “womantic” comedy, from Tina Fey and Mindy Kalling to the baddest “it girl” of them all, Lena Dunham.


Are women writers afraid of being “typed”? The fear of being typed based on looks is a reasonable concern that women are all too familiar with, but fuzzy genre identification or outright genre-switching is a recipe for failure, since professional identity isn’t a shape-shifting guessing game. This is well-known in television, where writers and producers are deliberately in sync, while studios are unanimously clear about the primacy, and necessity, of genre, which their infrastructures need in order to thrive. Audiences show up for male and/or female superstars who earn accordingly. Ironically, screenwriter Paul Schrader’s observation that “a screenplay isn’t a work of art. It’s an invitation to other artists to collaborate” fits the television model better than it does for feature films, which have long been his wheelhouse.


Even the women on studio greenlight committees exploit the gender parity for their own gain, so the ball is ultimately in the writers’ court. If there were more plentiful scripts written by women with clearly identified genre skills, the gender factor could disappear, as it does with novels, journalism, music, photography or any other creative discipline. The formula for what works is really about the writer’s ability to compete. As in any thriller, when the protagonist’s existence is threatened, the only chance to survive is to use killer instinct. Rip a page from the “Veronica Mars” playbook, hold the door open for yourself and don’t let the ceiling hit you on the way in.