It’s an odd state of affairs, the way Hollywood works. Agents and managers appear in control when they’re anything but. In truth, it’s the creators—the writers, actors, directors—who are the heart and soul of this town. They are the bosses, and I encourage those “bosses” to keep their reps in check, lest great projects never get to see the light of day.
I ask you: Who rules the safari, the lion or the hyena? Agents cannot live without their percentage of the artists’ earnings.
Now, hold on. Before you start thinking this is gonna be one of those bitter smash pieces by some dude who can’t get repped: I have been represented by WMA (WME?) on both coasts. I’ve hired and fired agents and managers. I can do so again. (Though I hope never to need to.) I have no significant enmity, no teeth-gnashing bile. In fact, I’m actually an admirer, an appreciator of the A/M… the good ones that is.
And perhaps most importantly, I get to be critical. I earned it. I am an attorney… a “recovering attorney,” but a lawyer all the same. A fellow bottom-feeder in societal ranking. In the last Gallup Poll of Honesty and Ethics (November 2008), here are the bottom nine professions (with #9 being the least respected):
1. Labor Union Leaders
3. Business Executives
4. Advertising Practitioners
7. Car Salesmen
Clearly the results of this poll vary somewhat from year to year. For example, this last year marked a dramatic fall in how Americans see business executives and stockbrokers. But the ever-consistently disrespected remain: Lawyers, politicians, telemarketers, used-car salesmen and lobbyists.
What is the one profession that seems to encapsulate most all of these? I give you the Hollywood agent/manager.
Though lawyers are most often given the “shark” moniker, I’d argue it belongs best with agents. (From here on I will use the term agents to mean both agents and managers.) Sharks are not only fierce carnivores, but they have a unique weakness: They must keep moving forward or they will drown. So too is the life of an agent. Without clients—without talent generating income—the agent dies. It is sink or swim. A precarious existence to be sure.
And there is the other major aspect of their “job” which, though is critical, is sometimes seen as equally distasteful: Gatekeeper to the talent they represent.
Nowhere is this more evident than the Hollywood shuffle, the L.A. two-step, the invariable moviemaker’s catch-22: You need financing to sign major talent to your film, yet you need the major talent to be signed on to get the financing. And the access control to breaking through that dilemma? Yep, the agent, of course.
From an attorney’s POV, I get it. They represent the talent. They run interference. They find and negotiate the best deals. They help structure and execute the deals. Bravo. Bully for them. But the perpetuation of the catch-22 should change. Sure agencies should screen out the thousands of crappy scripts. But when the agency gives the work great coverage, but then won’t let the actor read it until it is fully funded… boo hiss.
Such is the case with two large-talent actors regarding our script for Of Kings & Cowboys, a $25 million indie romance/action set in the world of professional polo. One of the top four agencies gave the script outstanding coverage, yet still the agency remains on the sidelines, waiting on me to find my own back doors to talent, including some of their very own clients. (Side note: I already raised $5 million, but still, nada.)
There must be a better way. Sure, the agent gets no money unless there is an offer on the table. But if he or she believes in the work, why not let the client get a chance to get behind it? The risk, of course, is that the talent is taken off the playing field while they perhaps chase your movie around as it seeks funding. And during that time they, the agent, aren’t making a percentage off some other project.
Re-adorning my bald head with my lawyer hat, I say this: Agents have the responsibility to show their clients good work, money or not. That seems the ethical thing.
I’ve worked as a mergers and acquisitions attorney for most of the years of my active practice. I didn’t make money unless my client was engaged in a transaction. And the bigger and more complex the deal, the more I made. But what if a great deal came to me for that client, for which there would be little work for me to do, thus a much lower legal bill? Everyone (including the Bar Association) would say I had an ethical obligation to show it to my client. So, it chaps my butt when agents sit on deals they already know are good, but for which their percentage might be awhile off and/or less than some already funded deal. Not cool. Not good. Here their negative moniker is justly earned.
But thankfully, god (the devil?) didn’t make all lawyers and agents the same. There are some good ones in the mix. But the behavior of screening out even the good scripts (scripts that the agent has already sent out for coverage that came back glowing) due to no immediate check for the agent? It should be different. It rams around the catch-22, and meanwhile helps no one other than the agent.
Okay, that’s it. That’s my little hissy for the week. I am old enough to know Hollywood won’t be changing anytime soon. But at the same time, I am wise enough to know there are some really good agents out there who “get” this. I hope to find you.
David Marlett is a writer and director currently producing and directing the feature film, Of Kings & Cowboys. Marlett’s desire to direct and control his own work led him to create BlueRun Productions in 2007. He’s been acting for most of his life, and is also a non-practicing (“recovering”) attorney and CPA, with 20-plus years experience consulting and managing a wide assortment of companies in industries spanning from healthcare to entertainment. The Spring 2009 issue features his latest installment of his print column, Marlett & Me, with this sister blog on MovieMaker.com.