When Chris saw me he pulled a manila envelope from his jacket and waved it. "Got the shit," he said. "Straight from the Guild."
Translation: The "shit" was a list of Guild-sanctioned agents. (Only later did I realize just how right-on that description was.)The Writers Guild Of America-west (WGAw) was a union of brother and sister scribes we had recently joined. You had to sell at least one movie, or two episodes of television to qualify. We'd managed that sale - a low budget flick about The Lost Dutchman Mine that would never be made. But it did pay well enough to cover the several thousand dollars it cost for WGA membership.
I made appropriate "hot damn" noises and we repaired to his home office, equipped with one state-of-the-art IBM Selectric for Chris, and an elderly electric typewriter whose particulars I can't recall, but I can tell you that when you hit a letter, a key rose up on a slender, curved metal type bar, which struck an ink-soaked ribbon, making an impression of the chosen letter on a piece of paper. In that pre-I-Pad age it wasn't quite a quill pen, but close.
Chris shook two copies of the list from the envelope so we could get to it. "It's divided up by state and city," Chris said, "but we can ignore most of them. Met another writer - a pro - coming out of the Guild office who was nice enough to give us some tips."
I fanned the pages. "Skip everything but Los Angeles, right?" I guessed. We were newbies, but not so new that we didn't know if you wanted a book agent you stuck with New York City and if you wanted a film agent, you stuck with Los Angeles.
"Narrowing it down to LA isn't enough," Chris said. "The guy told me that the only agents worth a fuck are In The Loop?"
"What's The Loop?" I asked, naturally enough.
"Basically, anything within a thirty-mile radius of SAG headquarters," he replied. (SAG is the Screen Actors Guild.) "He said by contract the actors get more bennies for any shoot outside that area, and the other unions basically follow suit. So that's where any agent worth a shit hangs his toupee." (Here's a modern list, boiled way down)
"Another thing," Chris said, "he warned us that just because an agent is what he called 'A Guild Signatory,' and is 'In The Loop,' doesn't mean he's worth a bucket of warm spit. First red alert, he said, is if they are ready to sign you at the drop of the fucking hat. They're just churning for scripts, hoping to come up with a winner. Second - and this was the biggest caution - is that if anybody asks you for money, tell them to fuck off. They are crooks. No fucking exceptions, he said."
I laughed. "An easy lay that asks for money is to be avoided," I said. "Sounds like somebody's uncle talking."
We got to work: dividing the list, then narrowing it down; first by zip code, then by the Agency's comments - if any. More than a few said they weren't taking on new clients. Much later, we learned that actually meant they would only consider writers recommended by somebody already in the business. All of them discouraged phone calls. They wanted a query letter, and if they liked the letter, they'd graciously permit us to send samples of our work. And we'd go from there.
(For my brother and sister scribes just getting started in the ink-stained wretch business, here's the format that Chris and I used.)
Chris said, "I think we oughta send a query letter to every single swinging dick and dickette."
I agreed."Writers' Market says you're supposed to approach them one at a time. That's bullshit. We'll be old and past it before we get to the end of the list."
And so that's what we did: A mass mailing of query letters, but with each letter tailored to what we could find out about the agency. In the following weeks, some positive replies trickled in.
Quite naturally, they wanted to see some script samples. Here's where the mass mailing idea turned up a flaw in our cunning plan. In those Neolithic times there was no such thing as a home printer or copy machine. Unless, of course, you had a spare 10 grand handy - which is what a printer cost back then. According to my handy-dandy inflation calculator, that'd be $38,909.73 in modern currency.
Bottom line: if you wanted copies you were at the mercy of print shops, which charged anywhere from 12 cents to 15 cents a page.
Your average movie script is a hundred pages plus. That was minimum fifteen bucks a copy, plus a suitably Fancy Cover (more on that boneheaded notion of ours down the road), which would run another five dollars, making it twenty dollars. Getting out my inflation calculator again, that'd be $72.80 in today's bucks. Now, each agent would need samples of three or four movies. So that means... Well, you get the idea. A whole mess of greenbacks for what would more than likely be a turndown.
Fortunately, right about then I got a gig on the side writing a car repair manual for the Chevy Nova for Peterson Publications and was able to hold up my end of the expenses. (I'd been recently divorced and after alimony and child support was clipped from my paycheck I was broker than a sailor after a two-week toot - but without the fun.)
So, you can understand that we greeted every positive response with mixed emotions.
"Fuck me, Cole," Chris said one particularly successful day."Any more agents say, 'Yes, please send samples of your work,' I'm gonna have to hock my bike."
His Z1 had been tricked out by the guys at Russ Collins' Speed Shop. Collins, for those who aren't students of motorcycle history, held the speed record in the quarter mile for eleven straight years - breaking his own record each of those years. He raced to promote his after-market shop.
Chris' ride was a project motorcycle for Big Bike Magazine. (He was the editor there for a couple of years) And in return for keeping it goosed up with the latest go-fast technology, Chris let Collins' lads bolt on new shit and run his bike through speed trials every month or so.
In short, it was his pride and joy and for him to talk about hocking it demonstrates just how desperate we were the day the my phone rang at the City Desk and the guy on the phone wasn't calling to threaten one of my reporters - or me - but to say that he was an agent and he'd liked our scripts so much he wanted an actual face-to-face meeting with the not yet legendary writing team of Bunch & Cole.
I had to stall him a tad. Chris was in Vegas on assignment for Rolling Stone covering the Bike Show.
PAUSE SCENE FOR INTERESTING ASIDES
Chris and I were both writing pros, but had taken divergent paths to get there. After the Army, Chris had been saddled with the sort of bullshit jobs soldiers home for the wars have been stuck with since - well, forever. A stint as an architectural reporter for McGraw Hill. A foray into the Underground Press - Open City and The Free Press, among others. Then into motorcycle magazines. And finally into magazine freelance. Popular Mechanics and Science. The various motorcycle magazines. Life Magazine. Rolling Stone. And even the magazine for the California Highway Patrol - I shit thee not.
Meanwhile, I'd gone a straighter route, working my way up the ladder at a series of Southern California dailies, until I was City Editor, then Wire Editor at a Santa Monica daily.
Another bit of Bunch trivia: While in Vegas for the bike show he ran into his old buddy - and Rolling Stone colleague - Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the legendary Gonzo Journalist. He was there living the events that would become Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Chris set Hunter up with a rare Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle to ride during his stay there. Hunter later acknowledged Chris' help in the dedication of that book.
RETURN TO SCENE
After some fairly insistent dialing - and making false use of my newspaper credentials - I finally caught up to Chris. I told him about the agent's call and the request for a meeting.
"Where's the guy's office?" was the first thing Chris asked.
Naturally, I'd double checked the address. "Beverly Hills," I said.
"So it's In The Loop," Chris said.
"Looks like it."
"I won't be back for at least a week," Chris said. "I'd hate to lose the deal making the guy wait."
"No problem," I said. "I'll give him a call, say you're on assignment for Rolling Stone. Which sure as hell won't hurt our Creds. Then, I'll set up a solo meeting."
Chris said go for it, and a couple of days later I climbed aboard my Suzuki and headed out.
Like I said, the agent's address was in Beverly Hills. That should have been gold, but when I got there, and made the turns as instructed, I suddenly found myself in some kind of factory district, with buildings pocked by busted out windows and guarded by razor wire and junk yard dogs.
Obviously, he was stretching the Beverly Hills connection a wee bit.
I finally found the address marking a little cottage on a huge gravel-covered lot. This couldn't be it - could it? Double-checked my Thomas Guide. (Expedia with a cover and pages) Yep. This was the place.
Went to the door, crossing a small porch with sagging floor boards.
A harried-looking guy answered, glanced furtively up and down the street, then hurried me inside.
It was the agent.
The office was set up in the cottage's living room and he hustled me over to his desk and asked me to relax for a minute while he finished what he was doing. To my amazement, he was addressing a big stack of Christmas cards. Mind you, this was in early February.
He grimaced when I looked at the stack. "Running a little late this year," he said.
I wanted to say, "No shit," but thought it unwise.
Then he called out over his shoulder, "Honey, can you get our guest some kind of refreshment."
I saw a door open and you might imagine my surprise, Gentle Reader, when a lady with long blonde hair, wearing nothing but a pair of sheer bikini panties, stepped out of the kitchen.
The first thing I noticed was her rather amazingly enhanced tits. The second thing was her bush, which was as blonde as the hair on her head.
And the third thing I noticed was this big damned lion standing next to her. I suppose it was actually a lioness, since it didn’t have a mane.
I suspect my reaction was typical guy: tits and bush, and then - oh, shit a lion. Not - oh, shit a lion, then the chick.
So now I was stuck there, wondering what to look at next - the lady, or the lion. For some reason I couldn’t turn my head away. And the guy was saying that this was his wife and "our pet pussy cat."
The might-as-well-be naked lady smiled and said, "Why don’t you come into the kitchen and pick out what you want."
In my confusion, I suppose I wondered if she was offering herself, or the lion, but I only gobbled, "Thanks."
What I really wanted to do was get the hell out of there, but I didn’t have the nerve to flee. What if they set the lion on me?
Anyway, I squeezed past the lion - the lady saying, just give her a shove. Which I sure as hell didn’t do and then I’m in the kitchen, and she’s got the fridge open, bending over and showing me everything all the way to China, and the lioness sidles up to me and starts sniffing me like a dog. I almost pissed my pants, Gentle Reader.
Soon as I could, I got some kind of a cold drink, retreated to the office and eagerly accepted the agent’s invitation to come along with him to the Post Office. He said we could talk while he drove.
The moment I got outside, I mumbled some kind of an excuse, jumped on my bike and peeled the fuck out of there just as fast as I damned could.
Obviously, Chris and I crossed the guy’s name off the list.
And no, we didn't get the script samples back.