How many agents does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A1: Sorry, we're not screwing in any new light bulbs anymore. But have you considered turning your light bulb into maybe... a candle?
A2: Oh yes, I screwed in your light bulb, but I haven't had a chance to turn it on yet. I'll get to it as soon as possible. It's just that we're already sitting under too much light.
A3: Loved your light bulb. Great light. Lots of illumination. Unfortunately, the agency's decided to remain in the dark indefinitely.
THE WEASEL'S WHINY VOICE was made whinier by the speaker phone. He said, "I'm really sorry guys - I just got the word that Knight Rider is all booked up. But, if there's a pickup you'll be the first-"
Chris cut in. "What the fuck do you mean, you just got the Word?"
I jumped in before Chris reached through the phone and ripped the Weasel's head off. As I've said before: information first, then head-ripping, that's my motto.
I said, "We got the tip three weeks ago. Which means they've been taking meetings from writers all this time. Why the hell are they just calling you back now?"
"Yeah, fucking now?" Chris said, making a weird sort of sense.
Silence. A strange reaction from the Weasel, an agent who talked a-mile-a-minute, sounding a lot like Alvin The Chipmunk, and with so many superlatives and industry buzz words thrown in that it almost made you understand what it's like for enemy troopies when American Puffships open up with their chain-guns. INCOMING!
"Hello," I said. "You with us?"
Finally, the Weasel squeaked, "Well, it's like this, guys, I've been really busy with this big project at the agency and I was forced to spend more face time than phone time on things, and then there were all those meetings I had to take and after that-."
"Aw, Jesus!" Chris cut in. "That was a sure deal. Money on the fucking hoof. The producers there fucking love us."
"Well, you never know for sure... " the Weasel said, "and they promised that if they got a pickup that you would be the very-"
But now it was my turn to cut in. "We'll get back to you," I said. And we got the hell off the phone.
We sat there stewing for a few minutes. The Weasel, whose name I will not reveal to protect the guilty, had just made at minimum a ten thousand dollar screw-up. Chris had dubbed him The Weasel and The Weasel he shall remain forever in my mind.
If you read Sten #3 - The Court Of A Thousand Suns - you'll see his actual name there, although with a Sci-Fi spelling. (E-BOOK. AUDIOBOOK.) The Wease is the sneaky, double-dealing, "wee bomber't," that Sten and Alex Kilgour pursue for half the book. In the end we tormented him without mercy, then brain burned the son of a bitch. Fuck with Bunch & Cole, will you?
Neither of us believed for a minute that the Weasel had forgotten anything, or had been too busy to make the call. We'd had the feeling before that he was taking some of our tips for hot writing gigs and calling on behalf of his other clients, instead of us. Made him look good on our backs, and bank accounts. It wasn't anything we could prove, but several producers - particularly our buddy Al Godfrey - had said that this was more than likely going on.
I went out to the kitchen, made up a couple of Cups Of Kindness, then returned. Chris was staring off in the distance, thinking. He absently nodded thanks, took a drink and I sat behind my keyboard and lowered the level of my own Scotch.
Finally, Chris said, "You know, the swallows have returned to Capistrano."
I said, "Yeah, read it in the paper this morning. They were a little late this year. And there were fewer of them. Paper speculated that their nests are being disturbed by urban sprawl."
"And another thing," Chris said, "I read a couple of days ago that the buzzards have come back to Hinckley, Ohio."
I said, "No surprise there. They show up in Hinckley about the same time the swallows hit Capistrano."
"You're not getting my point," Chris said, the light suddenly switching on in his eyeballs, and swiveling in his chair to face me.
"Apparently not," I replied. "What is your point, other than ornithological migratory patterns?"
Chris said, "I've long noticed that every year the swallows come back to Capistrano, the buzzards return to Hinckley, Ohio, and Bunch & Cole fire their fucking agent."
I got it. "In other words, you think it's time to Rider-W The Weasel's ass."
Rider-W is a clause in the Screen Writer Guild's Agent-Client agreement that allows a writer to tear up his contract for too many reasons to cite in this short space. Besides, unless you are a writer desperate to escape your own agent bondage, it'll bore you to tears.
We had even perfected a form letter to invoke this clause:
To The Attention Of (Insert asshole agent's name)
As of this date (insert date) we are invoking the Rider W clause in the WGA agent-writers agreement, to terminate your services.
Allan Cole & Chris Bunch
And that, was fucking it. No hint at what Rider-W even meant. But as Chris said, "Let 'em get off their dead asses and look up the clause for themselves." We both knew that agents thought the Guild was an unnecessary hindrance to their real goal, which was to please the Boss Class as much as possible, and screw the client who was, after all, just a weird writer guy, most likely with a drinking problem. (Or, as Poet Dylan Thomas so aptly put it, "I'm a drinker with a writing problem.")
Of course, the agents always kicked. Whining phone calls that would shame even The Weasel. (Okay, I'm going too far there. The Weasel had no shame.) The whining would be followed by angry threats - if we fired them they'd still get the commissions from any work produced by the following people... And then they'd list everybody we had known since Jack Klugman was kind enough to give us our first break. (See Jack Klugman - The K.O. Kid) Naturally, this was bullshit. Mainly, we brought the Showrunners and other contacts to the Agency, not the other way around. Considering that Chris and I sold like two Furies, it was a big loss to the agency. In short, for a change they were royally screwed, not the client.
But, as my old partner also used to say, "Fuck 'em, if they can't take a joke."
And so, on that particular day, we got out our Rolodexes and started making a list of agencies we thought might make us a buck or three, and of producers and fellow writers to call to see what they thought of their own personal Ten Percenters.
Now, don't get me wrong. I've been honorably represented in Tinsel Town for nearly twenty years by Lew Wieztman, bossman of Preferred Artists. (The only Hollywood agent I've ever met who actually Reads.) And I've had the same literary agents - Russ Galen (U.S.) and Danny Baror (Foreign) since Chris and I first broke into the book business. (Literary agents almost always Read. The reason for this discrepancy is that most Hollywood agents went to some Bean Counting School, with a minor in son-of-a-bitchedness; while Literary agents were usually Liberal Arts majors, with minors - like Russ - in things like Russian literature. Lew, by the way, has the fascinating avocation of being an Internationally renowned amateur Barbershop Quartette performer.)
Anyway, before our fortuitous introduction to Lew many years into the game, Agent Madness ruled the day.
I began these MisAdventures with The Blond All Over Lady And The Lion, the tale of one of our early attempts to land an agent. It's a pretty amusing story, but if you read between the lines you'll maybe see just how desperate Chris and I were to find representation.
Everybody will tell you that you can't work without an agent, and no agent will take you, unless you have work experience. Well, Everybody is right. What they don't tell you, is that there are worse things than the above-mentioned Literary Catch-22. Because, once you've landed an agent, ten will get you twenty that he'll turn out to be exactly the wrong guy. And if you're not careful he'll sink your career before you get started. (I say "He" because most of the breed are of that sex. And don't think the "She" agents are any better. They are not.)
Before we got our break, I used to swing by Chris' house after work, where'd we would put in another five or six hours writing scripts, book proposals, and dialing for agents. (On Monday, my day off, we'd put in a full eight hours or more.)
One day, when I rode up on my motorcycle, Chris was out by the garage tightening the chain of his beautifully chopped Kawasaki Z - which had been blown out from 900 cc's to something that would do an honest 150 miles an hour, with quite a bit of goose left in the throttle. (Don't sneer. This was 1976 and a 150-mph motorcycle was damned good. Didn't stop worth shit, but it sure could go.)
He rose from his task, wiping grease from his hands, a big grin pasted on his face. "Shit fire, Cole and the save the matches," he said. "Think I got us an actual agent."
This was, indeed, momentous news. While I helped him put stuff away, he explained.
"Guy's name is Harold Greene." (I'm pretty sure that was the agent's name... it has been so long I'm not sure. But whatever his name, in his day he was well known. For most writers, landing him would be a big catch.) "We sent him some of our stuff a couple of weeks ago, remember?"
I certainly did. In those days, we believed (wrongly) that our scripts had to be presented with a trick cover, purchased at great expense from a Hollywood script copying company, who also made duplicates of the scripts for us. We thought it made us look more "professional." In point of fact, it just showed what Rubes we were. If the agents sent out the script to potential buyers, they discarded the cover, made many, many ink-smeared copies on a lousy Xerox machine and Bob's Your Uncle. (The one you avoided at family gatherings when you were a kid.)
Also, just the trip to the post office for the mailing had been a big deal. We saw that simple act as a possible breakthrough. You see, no legitimate agent will even consider talking to a Writer Wannabe, unless they've seen some material that impresses them. Remembering, of course, that in the first place, almost nobody will deign to even glance at a hit letter offering to send samples of your work. The polite ones will have their "girls" reply with a boiler-plate letter (e-mail, these days) explaining that the agency is not taking on "new talent at this time." The rude ones won't bother replying. Most of the ones that do get back to you, have a sneaky hand out to stick in your pocket. (First rule of professional writing: If anybody asks you for money, run, don't walk, to the nearest exit. The whole idea is that People Pay You, not the other way around. If they want your money for any reason whatsoever, they are thieves. There are no exceptions to this rule.)
But back to Harold (I think) Greene. Chris said, "He sounded like an okay guy on the phone. Kind of brusque, but after dealing with all these mealy mouths, it was refreshing."
"So, he liked our stuff?" I said.
Chris chuckled, and said, "Here's how old Harold put it. He said - Read your shit and it's not as bad as some of the crap that's crossed my desk."
I got my back up. "Well, fuck him," I said. "We worked our asses off on that shit. How dare he..." I stopped, realized what I was saying, then laughed.
"Let's get a drink," I said. "Tell me all about it."
In the house, a pair of Scotches standing guard in front of us, Chris filled me in. "The script that really caught his eyes was Wolves That Remain." This was an SF piece we'd done - an after-the-fall sort of thing with a pretty cool hero, a damned good McGuffin, a worthy villain, and lots of bang-bangs, you're fucking dead!
Chris added, "Old Harold said he had a producer who does - and I quote - bullshit like that - and might be interested."
"Does that mean he wants to sign us?" I asked, torn between hopefulness - we'd maybe finally landed an Actual Agent - and did I really want a guy who called our Shit, shit?"
Chris shrugged. "Said he'd rep us on this deal and if it worked out, he'd see if he wanted to stick with us."
Still wary, I said, "Did you tell him that we might be newbies, but we were By God WGA Member-newbies. And will not only demand, but are required to demand, Guild minimum on any deal?"
We'd qualified for membership in the Screenwriter's Guild (WGAW) through the sale of a movie about the Lost Dutchman mine. The movie was never made - but it still got our WGA ticket punched and offset the staggering cost of joining the Guild. Oh, yeah. Another thing you need to know. If you want to work as a writer in La-La-Land you not only have to have an agent, but be a member of the WGA. As you may gather, the roadblocks to success as a screenwriter are rather formidable. Our wise old producer buddy Al Godfrey used to say, "Success in This Town is ten percent talent and 90 percent Tenacity."
"I told him all that," Chris said. "And he said if we checked our WGA deal book there's a newbie clause. Producers get to pay you fifty percent of the minimum on the first two deals."
"We got full boat for the Dutchman," I said.
"I told him that too," Chris said. "The clause still holds. And since the guy who will probably buy Wolves is a low bucks producer, part of Old Harold's selling point will be that he'll get fifty percent off the going price."
I thought a minute. But, not more. A hundred percent of Zero Equals Zero. 'Nough said - or, more accurately - Nought Said. And the big plus was that it just might lead us one step closer to Every Writer's Dream.
You see how they've got you by the short and curlies before you even start, Gentle Reader? A writer (or artist of any kind) is looking to fulfill a dream. You want to make a living, to be sure. Pay the rent or mortgage. Put shoes on your kids' feet. Get your wife a second frock, and so on. The flip side of the coin is The Guys Who Do The Buying. They are only looking to fatten their bank accounts, never mind the Dreams Of Art, bee-ess. (In the old days, Buyers were called "Impresarios." They were still all money-grubbing bastards, but they were, at heart, Showmen.)
The guy we were to meet with was a low bucks producer/director by the name of Robert Hartford-Davis. He specialized in scary movies, Sci-Fi movies, car-chase movies, and Black Exploitation movies, which were all the rage then. (Guys, if you've never seen the Pam Grier in "Foxy Brown" and movies of that ilk, hit Amazon.com this minute. Then see why Tarantino loved Ms. Grier so much that he made her the star of his classic: Jackie Brown.)
Come the day of the meeting, we made our first trip to MGM. Okay, it was my second trip, Chris' first. I'd met with Logan's Run director Michael Anderson in a screening room at MGM when he was finalizing the scoring of the film. The meeting was due to chance, and Anderson's kindness. We'd been introduced at a party for the Surgical Tech Advisor for M.A.S.H. (the movie, not the TV series) and I'd convinced him to read one of our scripts. At the meeting he said he liked the script, and would see what he could do. In other words, don't hold your breath, kid. But he did it in a very nice way that was actually encouraging.
PAUSE FOR AN ASIDE
The surgical tech advisor I was speaking of, was one Dr. David Sachs, a famous heart transplant surgeon and professor at UCLA Medical School. (This was in the early transplant days, so the fame was even wider than today.) He had a brief appearance in the film as a surgical-masked face bent over a patient whose chest was being cracked by either Eliot Gould, or Donald Sutherland, I forget which.
Anyway, Dr. Sachs became so enamored with Hollywood he was convinced that he was only a few PR Shout Outs from becoming a leading-man-type Movie Star. (Eat your heart out, Clark Gable) He just about abandoned his practice, took leave from the university, and hired a PR man, a manager... the full boat. The party in Bel Air that I attended was as a newspaper man looking for material for my daily column.
Sachs' dream never got off the ground and he was later arrested on suspicion of supplying (for free) pharmaceutical-grade cocaine to Hollywood types he was trying to impress. Sort of the medical version of the casting couch, but with prison time attached.
Besides meeting the nice Mr. Anderson I got two gifts from that party. The initial column about the famous heart surgeon giving it all up for (self) promised Big Screen glory. And the follow-up column after the good doctor was made to do the Perp Walk. (That's how The Media works. We build you up, then take you down. We get the sales both ways.)
Hartford-Davis was a red-faced British rogue who looked more like a Fleet Street hack than a movie director. We quite liked him. He had a young man with male-model looks for a "personal assistant," and a younger, West Hollywood surfer dude type with blond streaks in his hair for a gofer. He also had a wealth of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward jokes, and delighted us with them over several meetings.
The main thing, though was that Hartford-Davis was a "Theaters-And-Drive-Ins Near-You" pro from way back and was hellishly good at scanning a script, running a budget calculator in his mind, and spotting those popcorn-sales-killing soft spots in a scene all at the same time.
He sat at his desk and we stood on either side of him while he flipped through the pages, scratching out entire scenes, scribbling a few words of transition, making this quick suggestion and that, and in less than an hour he was handing us back the script, and telling us to go thou and write. In other words, we were officially hired.
Chris and I were suitably impressed and edified. We went thou and wrote, got more notes, did another draft, then another, and another until Hartford-Davis said we'd finally gotten it - if not right, close enough for Horseshoes, Hand Grenades and the Drive-In circuit. Writing many drafts of a script or a book is a drag, but it is a necessary part of the process, and besides, we got a crash course in Film Writing for free. Never mind it was a cheapie shoot'em-up. The same basic rules apply for a classy drama, or flatulent-ridden teenage comedy.
And thank the gods for that lesson, because it's the only thing we got out of it. You see, there was a wee problem with the money. Which was not revealed until Mr. Hartford-Davis fell over with a heart attack.
He wasn't dead, just sidelined for a few years until The Ultimate Executive Producer eventually called him to that Great Movie Set In The Sky, where he is no doubt surrounded by handsome-young Angels and entertaining them with Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde jokes.
About the money problem: At the start, old Harold had told us that they'd come to an agreement about the price - half of whatever Guild minimum was in those days for a low bucks movie. Usually, you are paid a certain percentage down for the story, another percentage for the completed first draft screenplay, and a final percentage for the completion of a second draft and a polish.
For obvious reasons, in this case the story money was due the moment we gave Hartford-Davis our screenplay of Wolves That Remain. Then we'd written not just a first draft off that screenplay, but also a second draft and many, many drafts more and never mind the polish because we rewrote the sucker once or twice after that.
Meanwhile, we were on the phone a couple times a week with Old Harold asking about the payments. The calls usually went like this:
Chris: Did we ever get that check from Hartford-Davis?
Old Harold: Don't worry, boys. I got that shit covered.
Me: What about the contract? We haven't seen it yet.
Old Harold: Contract? Shit, that's no biggie. We settled on the price, that's the main thing. And, get this, I got you boys a nice fucking bonus when he shoots your piece of shit.
Chris: What do you mean, the contract's no biggie? We've been writing our asses off and haven't seen a dime. And no words on paper promising same.
Me: Did he even sign the contract yet?
Old Harold: Not his fault. I've gotta get my girl to whip up a Deal Letter.
Chris: Deal letter? What's that? Like a contract or something?
Old Harold: (sarcastic chuckle) Man, you guys are really fucking green. Don't worry about that shit. I've seen cases where whole movies were shot and delivered before a contract even showed up. We've got Bobby's (Hartford-Davis) fucking word. That's good enough for me.
Me: Yeah, but do you have his check? I'd feel a whole lot better if we were banking some of his Good Word.
Old Harold: (tired sigh) Okay, boys. I'll hustle things along. Now, you go make those fucking changes he asked for.
And, once again, Old Harold would brush us off.
Come the day when we see in Variety that Robert Hartford-Davis of "Black Gunn" and "Bloodsuckers" fame was recovering in Saint Joseph's Hospital (a Santa Monica hospital favored by Hollywood types) from a heart attack. And all of his projects had been put on "hiatus." A list of titles followed. And, guess what? Ours was not among them.
We sent flowers and a nice note to the hospital, (despite the problems we really did like the guy) then called Old Harold.
Old Harold: Ah, fucking fuck, boys. I heard about poor Bobby. A shame. A real fucking shame.
Me: We sent flowers.
Old Harold: Good idea. I'll get my girl to send around some posies too.
Chris: What about our fucking money, Harold?
Old Harold: (sighing) Yeah, yeah. I was gonna call you about that... Never did get that deal letter signed, you know?
Me: Did you even send it?
Old Harold: (sounding shocked - Shocked!) Jesus, Allan. What do you think I am? Been in this business for Twenty fucking years, for Christ's sake.
Me: Should I take that as a Yes?
Old Harold: Well, there were certain little contingencies that we hadn't gotten straight yet. And then we had to-
Chris: (Breaking in) Aw, fuck!
Me: Talk to you later, Harold.
Old Harold: Yeah, guys, let's do lunch soon and maybe we can talk about some of your other shit. Probably something in there - you never can tell.
We hung up. Never did lunch. Never spoke with Old Harold again.
And, once again, we were two writers Desperately Seeking An Agent.
NEXT: HOW ROCK HUDSON (SORT OF) HELPED US GET AN AGENT