Monday, October 22, 2012

One of those Hollywood Agent stories

If you’ve been in the business more than eleven minutes you have at least three of them. I will not name names but I swear this story is absolutely true.

My writing partner, David Isaacs (okay, I did name a name) and I were doing a pilot. We were in the casting phase. This meant dealing with a lot of actors’ agents. Most are lovely people. They understand that we both want the same thing – seeing their client succeed in our show. But a few agents are just horrid sharks. They only want to strong arm everyone, make unreasonable demands, and get as much money as they can regardless of how unrealistic their demands are and how much ill will their bullying causes.

We dealt with one such agent on this pilot. We’ll call her Elizabitch. In fairness to Elizabitch, the entire agency she worked for was pond scum. Ethics were just little ladybugs you stepped on for fun. So she was merely following the agency’s mandate.

The way pilot casting works is this: all actors must be approved by the network. Usually they want to see two or three choices for each part. Before these candidates can be brought to the network their deals have to be closed. That way an actor can’t suddenly ask for a king’s ransom once they know the network wants them.

So we had a meeting set with the network to approve the cast for our pilot. We usually ask the actors to come to our office a half-hour or so beforehand so we can work with them. Again, we want them to succeed.

One of the young actresses arrived and we told her we couldn’t bring her to the network because her deal hadn't closed.  Elizabitch was holding out for way too much money.   The actress dissolved into tears. This was a part she really wanted (and by the way, she was our first choice). But our hands were tied. We told her it was her decision, but if she wanted the role she had to call Elizabitch and close it.

Five minutes later I got a call from Elizabitch. She was livid – “mother-fucking” me up and down both sides of Broadway. How dare I interfere with her negotiations? My actions were illegal! This was a travesty! I dutifully MF’d her right back (which is unusual for me), told her I did nothing inappropriate and she was welcome to sue me. A few more obscenities flew my way (and I think within the barrage I heard talentless nobody) and she slammed down the phone.

A few minutes later the deal was closed. We brought the actress to the network and she got the part.

However, one other part was still open. The next morning I get a call. It’s Elizabitch. I thought, “Jesus, in her rage yesterday, were there some swear words she neglected to call me?” Reluctantly, I picked up the receiver.

“Hi, Ken. How are you?” She couldn’t be cheerier. “I hear you’re still not fully cast.” Elizabitch then went on to recommend another actress-client. I just held the phone in utter amazement. It’s as if the hateful and toxic exchange from only 18 hours ago never happened. To this day I marvel at how she was able to do that. The truly remarkable thing is that this happens frequently enough in Hollywood that it’s almost not considered completely insane. Business is business and that sort of rubbish. I was supposed to just wipe the slate clean.

I agreed to read her client (it’s not fair to punish the actress) and hung up. But then I started thinking: what if this practice took place in the real world? After Lorena Bobbitt sliced off her husband John’s wang could she call him the next day and ask if he could pick up some Tastykakes on the way home? Why I chose that particular example?  I dunno.  Maybe in my wish-fulfillment fantasy I equated John Bobbitt with Elizabitch. 


Terrence Moss said...

I hate when people talk about how "business is business" in order to justify how they conduct it. Some business is just bullshit and has no place in business.

And just because it's become a somewhat acceptable part of business doesn't make it business.

I can't wait to be in a position to do business MY way. With mutual respect.

Dan H. said...

This does happen in real life (whatever that is), although rarely to such an extreme extent. I had one collegue who was horrible to deal with in a work context, but was all smiles and jokes in other settings.

Here's a Friday question that has been lingering in my mind: To what extent to writers have to guard against letting certain characters' quicks drift to the point of unbelievability.

A recent example might be Oliver Hudson's character (Adam) on the television show "Rules of Engagement." He started out as little slow to pick up on the inside jokes, but morphed into an idiot. So much so it became hard to imagine his girlfirend would put up with him.

It seemed for a while (in retrospect, at least) that Kramer was heading in this direction in Seinfeld but was pulled back.

Is this a real phenomenon -- the temptation to give the audiences too much of a good thing and in the process ruining it?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Screw business. My *mother* was like that (without the swear words).


Steve said...

I'm in radio ad sales and media buyers (aka 'media queens') have been known to demonstrate this kind of behavior for decades. I've never really minded, in fact that era of buyer is mostly gone and I miss the eccentric personalities that used to populate the media world. They are all so overworked now they barely have time to even speak to you, let alone scream at you. (and Philly thanks you for the Tastykake reference)

Rob From Amersfoort said...

So this Ari Gold character (from Entourage) is realistic?

Anonymous said...

This similar thing happened to me when I was a kid. During my Bar Mitzvah the Rabbi shamelessly flirted with my mother. We all knew it. Even the Cantor was embarrassed. Then, the next day, as if it hadn't happened at all, the Rabbi called my Dad and asked him if he wanted to play golf! My Dad said yes and lost to him by 23 strokes. Later we moved and converted to Catholicism.

RCP said...

Believe it or not, Lorena Bobbitt's photograph hangs on the wall of a renowned Chinese restaurant in Falls Church, VA - along with presidents, sports luminaries, and other "celebrated" people who have dined at the establishment. I actually did notice her photo above our table just as the egg rolls were served.

I've worked with a few Elizabitches as well as Sons of Bitches - never a pleasant experience.

Derek (in Calgary) said...

Hi Ken. I have a Friday question, which is slightly related to dealing with agents.

My question relates to stunt-casting and the fee paid to the stunt-casted actors.

Suppose you are running Modern Family and for whatever reason you decide to offer a small one-episode cameo role to (say) a well-known baseball player. How is it determined how much the baseball player is paid? Is it the same rate as any other guest actor would get for comparable screen-time? Is this the "scale" rate we sometimes hear about?

Do things change for higher-profile stunt casting? Suppose you now learn than Mick Jagger will do a small role on your show, for two or three episodes. And suppose you are keen to have him. Is it a written or unwritten rule that he would have to be paid scale? Or, if he and his agent demand a high fee, could he potentially be paid whatever amount the network and his agent can agree upon?


Unknown said...

Ha! You wrote 'wang'.

Cap'n Bob said...

Lorena Bobbitt/wang/Chinese restaurant. I see a theme developing here.

Mike said...

>characters' quicks drift to the point of unbelievability.

That's just everyone Ken writes, particularly Bob.

There's a reason they win Emmies and Oscars after leaving Ken's employ.

MikeN said...

You are in the wrong here, interfering with an agent trying to get a good deal for her client. That same excuse can be used by a studio calling in someone without the agent present and saying this is your best deal, take it or leave it. The Red Sox tried the same thing a few years ago.

What if the cops behaved that way towards people they arrested?

D. McEwan said...

Great story. But it's hard to top my agent experience. The literary agent I had who sold My Lush Life for me 11 years ago was a wild case.

As I was preparing my next book, I got an email from her "assistant" whom I'd never heard of before informing me that she had been killed in a traffic accident in Germany. This struck me as a wild coincidence, since she had earlier told me that her own daughter, as a toddler. had been killed in a traffic accident in Germany. But I was grief stricken nonetheless.

So several months later I learn that she was alive and had faked her death, that the "assistant" was just her using a fake name, much like, as it turned out, the fake name she'd been using all the time I'd known her. She'd been arrested in Canada for pulling off a literary-weekend-seminar scam, identical to one she'd pulled off in South Carolina. The faked death was to skip out with the entrants registration fees for a fake conference she's set up there.

The mounties caught her and I found out for the first time what her REAL name was. Turned out she was on the lam, having skipped out on her own trial for Attempted Murder. She had crushed her mother's legs by pinning her against the garage wall with her car. And it was no accident. The identity I knew her by, and her literary agency was all just a cover.

She showed up in court in a paper outfit she had shredded and spent a year pretending to be insane to evade conviction in Canada for her scam there. Finally Canada shipped her back to Arkansas, where she had been standing trial for trying to kill her mother. She had been found guilty in ab sentia and was deported back to Canada! What Canada then did with her (She was from Germany originally) I do not know.

Two addendums to this amazing saga:

1. After all this had happened, my publishers got an email from a "lawyer for her daughter" (The one who was "killed in a traffic accident in Germany"?) asking for her share of the royalties. Apparently she did not realize that my editor and myself already knew her whole larcenous story by then. My publishers wrote back to the lawyer (Who was probably just her pretending to be a lawyer) that they'd been told she was dead. If the lawyer would produce the death certificate and proof of this "daughter" being her heir, they'd happily send her the royalities. They never heard back from the "lawyer."

2. Well of course, after learning what a crook she was, I had the publishing house do an audit of the finances on My Lush Life, since my royalties passed through her hands enroute to me. After all those multiple felonies, I was puzzled-though-pleased to learn that she had not cheated me out of a single penny. Functioning as my agent, she'd been honest with me about the money, if little else.

I sold my Q Guide to Classic Monster Movies and Tallyho, Tallulah! (and the forthcoming next year My GruesomeLife) by myself, sans any agent.

Weird, weird world.

Little Miss Nomad said...

I don't know if anyone else has noted this, but this year seems to be the year in which you can't sell a pilot unless you wrote it with an actor or ARE an actor. What gives? I understand being an actor doesn't preclude one from possessing writing talent, but all any of us need is one more obstacle to getting our unshaven feet in the door, am I right? And also, gah!

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nairam_tdlowneorg said...

Bebe Glazer at it's best! ;)

cadavra said...

I once wanted to hire an actor friend for a small role in a picture (replacing someone who was suddenly called back to his recurring role on a TV series). His agent started making all sorts of absurd demands, from top billing to prominent placement on the key art. Fortunately, my friend told her to stop fucking around and close the deal. They argued quite a bit, but eventually she gave in. I wish more actors had the cojones to do that.

Mark said...

Actually the real problem with bringing up the unfortunate Mr. Bobbitt is that in this scenario you were the knife-ee and not the knife-er, meaning you don't get much revenge that way...

XJill said...

@ Rob From Amersfoort - yes, Ari on Entorage is based on Ari Emanuel - a very real person.