Saturday, June 29, 2013

Even I can't get an agent

The difficulty in securing an agent is not confined to those writers just starting out. I tried to get a theatrical agent when I wrote my play a few years ago and hit a brick wall, even with my resume. And I didn’t list AfterMASH so I know it’s not that.

The Hollywood literary agency that represented me did not have a theater department so when I wrote my play a few years ago I decided to get a second agent to handle that facet of my career. Unlike these major conglomerates with three letters that handle screenwriters, theatrical agencies are all boutique. Going down the list it seemed every Jewish girl who wouldn’t go out with me now has an agency.

I made a few calls and found no one was interested. The fact that (a) I wasn’t 25, and (b) they couldn’t cash in on movie rights made me persona non representita. And this was before anyone even bothered to read my play.

Through a playwright friend, I was referred to one agent – we’ll call her Beth B. I had a nice conversation with her, she said she really wasn’t looking to take on new clients but wanted to read my play. So I sent it along with a resume. Two weeks later I get a letter from her. The first sentence was “Ohmygod, I had no idea you co-created ALMOST PERFECT!” She went on to say it was her favorite show, the writing was brilliant, she wrote a letter to CBS complaining when they cancelled it, it was like we were in her bedroom, and she was often confused for our star, Nancy Travis. I thought – I am IN!

Next paragraph – pass.

Okay. Whatever.

A few months later I was in New York and decided to call her again. Sometimes when people meet they click and who knows? Maybe she’d have a change of heart. She agreed to meet with me.

It took three trains to get down to her agency. Every other agency was in mid-town, in the theatre district. This one was in the land of discount sneakers and checks cashed while you wait. Once there, after waiting a good half hour, Beth B. finally appeared and ushered me back to her office. My first thought upon seeing her was – Nancy Travis? The only thing she had in common with Nancy Travis was that they both breathed air. Beth B. was large, horn rimmed glasses, and had giant frizzy Carole King hair.

After the pleasantries, she explained that she liked to represent hot young playwrights who lived in New York. The key to her was they’d be able to go to openings and readings and be seen in all the right places.

I said, “what if I produced my play in LA and it got good reviews?” She said that would be disastrous for it ever getting mounted in New York. I suggested that maybe the New York theatre scene was a tad elitist, fully expecting her to back off and say “No, no, not at all.” Instead, she said proclaimed, “Yes, that’s right.” I was a little thrown and wondered if New York had the theatre to support it. “Suessical? Thousand Clowns with Tom Sellick? Annie Get Your Gun with Crystal Bernard? There weren’t exactly new Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams pieces starring Brando or Burton coming in this season.”

It was clear we were not “clicking”. So finally, I asked Beth B. what advice she could give me? She thought for a moment and finally said, “Write”. I said, “Excuse me?” She repeated it. “Write. I find that the first play is an introduction, the second gets a reading, the third gets a workshop, and the fourth maybe gets a production. So just keep writing.”

I nodded and finally said, “Beth, that’s great advice. In fact, it’s the same advice I’ve been giving young writers… for THIRTY YEARS. But since I’ve had more of my work produced on a national level than all your clients combined times ten I think I can SKIP A STEP.”

Beth B. was not on the invite list for my New York reading.

I know it’s discouraging when an agent doesn’t want you, but always remember, there are plenty of agents out there that YOU don’t want. If it takes more time to find a better match it’s worth it.


Jason Roberts said...

Don't feel bad Ken. Even Murray Schisgal can't get anyone to read his new plays anymore. And he's had more plays produced on and off broadway than any of her clients too. Ageism is alive and well...

Mr. Hollywood said...

Do you remember years back when the NEW YORKER took the original script for CASABLANCA, changed the title to RICK'S PLACE and sent it around to agents? They all passed with the full litany of excuses ... no one recognized that is was CASABLANCA. Enough said.

Tom Chandler said...

Nothing like being the intern after 30 years in the business (cream, no sugar).

Really, how much of this is simple ageism? I've always heard it runs rampant in Hollywood, but that it had achieved new highs (or lows, depending on your perspective) in the digital age.

I'm a 52 year-old copywriter (a marketing writer), and I'm suddenly hearing there's simply no way a writer my age can relate to millennials, urban digitals or [insert bizarre generational descriptor here].

I guess ageism cuts across a lot of boundaries. So in Hollywood (and perhaps New York), are older movie/TV writers considered out of touch, unable to generate cool ideas, unwilling to work stupid hours or simply washed up?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

But isn't part of the problem that TV writers' names are often not really known to the general public? Wouldn't the situation be different for, say, Joss Whedon or David E. Kelley, whose names are plastered all over the media coverage of their shows?

See, that's your problem, Ken. You're just *too modest*.


Dan Ball said...

Ken, you kinda left us hanging with the play thing. Did you ever get an agent? Were your plays produced or did you hang it up and stick to the "Theatre of Recorded Performance"?

In school, I kind of dabbled in both stage/screen writing and directing and I've always been kinda mystified by the divide that exists between the two. If/when you write more about your "Barton Fink-in-Reverse" experiences, I'll be eager to read about them.

Dan Ball said...

@Tom Chandler:

Interesting point you bring up. Unfortunately, I'm not really able to speak to it since I'm not in copywriting or Hollywood, but I've thought a lot about ageism.

I'm 29 and in a few years, I'll be leaving the target demo that a lot of studios shoot for in terms of movies and TV and I'm wondering just what's waiting for me in terms of art and entertainment on the other side of that. Do I have to suck it up and force myself to enjoy "Grown Ups 4" and other recycled comedies or arthouse flicks or can I still have fun watching action movies? Will the Coen Bros be my only source of hope for decent entertainment?

Of course, I realize that Hollywood's more about business than storytelling these days, but I hope that paradigm fails soon and artistic integrity prevails. Earlier today, I read an interview with Todd Sarandos from Netflix, and he's very much in favor of figuring out which stories to tell which demographics and adjust production budgets accordingly.

In 50 years, it's not going to matter which movies or shows brought in the most money. The money they earned will be long gone. What's going to matter is how good those movies and shows were. This is the last thing on Hollywood's mind right now and it's sad that so much talent, so many stories, and so many opportunities are going to waste. I think everyone knows people like good stories, but Hollywood's trying like crazy to find cheap shortcuts around that and it's not really working. Unfortunately, they're slow to catch onto that. With the Netflix model, however, maybe things will change.

Historically, age has NEVER stopped the great artists, composers, or writers from doing their thing. They keep going until they die or are no longer physically able to do it. Audience or not, many of them die and generations later find their last works and praise them. Whatever Hollywood decides to do, I think people have to persist and not let age (especially middle age) get them down.

mike bell said...

Time to get some young whippersnapper to front for you. I'd volunteer, but I haven't snapped a whip in about 30 years.

Anonymous said...

Why even bother soliciting an agent? Everyone I know in their 20's/30's could give a rats ass about representation. What they care about is getting the job done---they;re entrepreneurial. They call their friends who can get things done. Now is the best time to do such things. Waiting for a gatekeeper to give you permission to meet the next gatekeeper is stupid and a colossal waste of time.

LA Nuts book (Joe Dungan) said...

What I don't get is, young people aren't considered a particularly wealthy demographic. All the ones I know are deep in debt from student loans and are having trouble finding work. Why is everyone falling over themselves to cater to them?

And the irony of it is, even young people don't know how to engage young people. Everybody with something to sell hires young people to be their social media directors, as if they know the secret handshake that geezers over 30 could never figure out. But NOBODY really knows how to use social media effectively, reach the "hip" audiences, or guarantee box office success, no matter how youth-oriented or hip the subject matter, and no matter how much money they inject into it ("Vampire's Assistant," anyone?).

The more I hear stories like yours -- and the comments that follow them -- the more I think that there must be a huge entertainment market for the over-40 crowd, considering how little entertainment seems to cater to us.

So I say not only produce your play yourself locally, but produce other plays -- and movies and TV shows -- catered to those of us who have a little life experience. It might be the beginning of a media empire that would serve a largely untapped demographic.

Think of it: The Ken Levine Network. Need a logo designed? I know a few people just out of college who are broke and would work for cheap.

Edward Copeland said...

Almost all industries (even ones not in the creative field) drive themselves nuts chasing young people that don't exist. It's especially crazy for NY theater to be that way since Broadway before too long will have priced itself out of existence with its insane ticket prices so the only people who will be able to afford tickets are those in "nonsought demographics" because they have the money. The newspaper industry killed itself long before the Internet because it kept chasing young readers when, unless you are a news freak such as I am, young readers don't exist and never have. They should have been chasing older demographics -- the ones who own homes and have driveways where the papers could be delivered. No exaggeration: The paper I used to work for actually gave a bigger front page spread to the death of Anna Nicole Smith than Gerald Ford. We had an American Idol winner from our state and would use ANY excuse to put a story about her on the front page as if someone would buy the paper on the newsstand just to read about her and then come back the next day to see what the City Council did. The top execs at pretty much industry are idiots.

Kathleen said...

Joe Dungan wrote what I was thinking as I read your post and the comments. There is a market for the sensibilities of character driven classic comedy. And I think Anonymous had a good point in that it's probably more possible today to create something that doesn't require the existing "distribution channels" or "gatekeepers". Maybe you, David, Earl Pomeranz and some of your other fellow writers/directors could form your own company and approach Netflix and Amazon with proposed programming. Or start with a comedy podcast network. Just a thought.

DBenson said...

Reading a book by the New Yorker cartoon editor, in which he relates rejecting a batch of cartoons by David Mamet (doesn't comment on the cartoons themselves, aside from implying Mamet was better off playwriting). Just seemed appropriate to mention somehow.

Mike Botula said...

I guess that to understand the "agent's" mentality, you have to be one yourself. I was in radio and TV over 30 years in some big markets, at major radio and TV stations and even did a few network shows and a movie of the week and could never get an agent. So I understand your frustration. After all this time, I still don't get it.

The Mutt said...

I had a meeting recently with a local theater owner/producer about mounting a production of a play I wrote. The sum total of his experience with new plays was self-producing two of his own works.

He said, "You haven't written anything."

I explained that I had sold two plays to the Murder Mystery Dinner Theater circuit, I had written for Disneyworld and Busch Gardens and three different professional comedy troupes.

He said, "Well, that doesn't count."

On the way out the door, I told him he could go mount my production.

MJEH said...

An earlier commenter mentioned the "Netflix model"; I think this is the new wave of television, too.

Here's hoping that Netflix, Amazon, and now even YouTube will create shows and seek diversity to reach all audience demographics instead of limited or age-specific ones.

mdv1959 said...

Joe Dungan: "What I don't get is, young people aren't considered a particularly wealthy demographic."

I believe the standard explanation is that younger viewers haven't yet formed brand loyalties in the way older viewers have. So while the older viewers have more money the thinking is that the commercials aren't going to get them to change they're buying habits whereas as the young viewers are still subject to the mind bending persuasive powers of the commercials.

Paul Duca said...

That's just what I was going to tell Joe...

Another old writer said...

Beth B doesn't seem so bad. I think she gave you good honest advice Write some plays. your tv credits don't carry much weight in theater nor should they.. There's a big difference between tv writing and playwriting. Most sitcoms are room written, most plays are by a single playwright. Sure, you may have written original half hour scripts but then 10 other professional writers work on it, refine it, and change it. Your name may be on It, but it's really not all yours. In tv you most often write for characters you did not create, the storytelling is totally different (22 minutes vs 90 or more.) You also admit Beth B gave you the same advice you tell other writers, and for this she gets lambasted in your blog? Btw, you sought HER out the second time. You were taking HER time, and HER thanks is to be openly mocked by a tv writer who's probably 500 times richer than her. I've been reading your blog and oftentimes you to be bitter and petty. Why I think you knocked at least two other actors (Tom sellick,crystal Bernard, you know "tv hacks" trying to make it on broadway) on your way down to the "discount sneaker" part of town, where you would be rejected by some small time agent. But in my opinion, you're the one who's very small.

Johnny Walker said...

It's kind of crazy when you think about how the gates are being manned by random people. Maybe Beth was right and she knew exactly how the New York play scene worked (i.e. crazily), but it sounds like a lot of it is down to how the person feels. If they have no taste, you have no shot.

Robin the Boy Wonder said...

What a pissy post.

Maybe your play flat-out sucked?

Beth didn't do anything wrong. She wants to to rep NY writers. That's her prerogative.

Jesus, Levine, she even had the good honest grace to stroke your clearly monstrous ego with that goddawful sitcom of yours.

Pick up your toys and put them back in the cot.

Mike said...

My play is off-Broadway.
How far off-Broadway?
Grab a cab, head east and don't stop 'till you hear seagulls.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

William Goldman, besides all the other things he's so well-known for, did a book about the 1968 Broadway season called THE SEASON (which was how he met Carl Reiner and happened to give him a copy of his new book, The Princess Bride, thinking Reiner's young son might enjoy it...who grew up to be Rob Reiner and the eventual director of the movie, but I digress). It's even clearer with hindsight that around then Broadway began changing in response to the fact that it just wasn't the major force it had been any more.

It's a really interesting book about the realities of theater, though: Goldman spent a lot of time studying the shows and interviewing the people running them. Coincidentally, my parents took me to a lot of theater that year, and I actually saw many of the productions he talks about.


By Ken Levine said...

Wendy brings up a GREAT book. THE SEASON by William Goldman is a fascinating book. He's a great fiction writer but an even better non-fiction writer.

Thanks Wendy, for the recommendation.

ODJennings said...

Director Fred Zinnemann (he won 4 Oscars and people in his films won another 19), famous for High Noon, Day of the Jackal, From Here to Eternity, Julia, Oklahoma, The Sundowners, A Man for All Seasons, etc., etc., was asked to take a meeting with a young studio exec.

When the young executive callowly asked Zinnemann to list what he had done in his career, Zinnemann delivered an elegant comeback by reportedly answering, "Sure. You first."