When Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe began research for their new thriller The Beta Test, about a philandering Hollywood agent, they discovered something surprising: Many Hollywood agents’ lives kind of suck.
The film lampoons the practice of packaging, in which an agency collects a packaging fee for matchmaking several of its clients to create a film or TV “package.” Writers Guild of America members quit their agents not long ago to protest what they saw as excessive agency profiteering, and Cummings and McCabe play agents who are very worried about their futures.
They based the film — which is also about data-mining and secret blindfolded rendezvous — on their anonymous interviews with agents’ assistants, agents, and — most intriguingly — agents’ spouses. They discuss it on the latest MovieMaker podcast, available on Apple, Spotify or above.
“Some of the big agents that we know of that have made money off the backs of Adam Sandler and the like are selling their houses,” says Cummings. “It’s a very shitty system. The majority of the anonymous sources talked about that: People got into this industry because they saw Entourage as a commercial for their future. And it was this kind of gold rush.
“You can laugh at it now. I can laugh at it now. But if you’re a stoned fraternity brother, and you see these people in suits, that is a very appealing job opportunity,” he continues. “And so people, if they’re bad at math, can’t go to Wall Street. And so they tell their parents that they’re going to be working in film, and they go and join these agencies, where they work for minimum wage in the mailroom and still have to pay rent in Beverly Hills and pay for all this dry cleaning.”
Instead of thriving like Entourage‘s high-rolling Ari Gold, they have to try to look as successful as he is — without making anywhere near his millions.
“It’s such a ludicrous job to have. But they get into the system and then there’s all this sunken-cost fallacy of ‘Well, I’ve been doing it for so long, I can’t leave.’
“It’s very easy to feel stuck when you’re an agent, from all of this fucking testimony we got. But so many of them would say that they’re getting paid 45 grand a year. They share an office with someone and they share an apartment with someone, usually someone at the agency, because they can’t lose face with anybody else in the outside world.
He adds: “It’s a really strange culture of silence and that appeal that got them there in the late 90s and early 2000s — that glimmer — is is no longer there. And now it’s a bit like North Korea having to experience hyper normalization and pretending that everything is okay. When really you’d make more money doing anything on Wall Street.”
“And the buildings are all collapsing,” adds McCabe.
McCabe and Cummings formed their inside look at Hollywood agencies by first talking with friends in the industry.
“The first few were assistant friends of ours that we knew through like Facebook and film festivals, or whatever,” says Cummings, “And then I tweeted… ‘Does anybody know anybody that works in the talent agency world? I’m just interested in just doing some research.’ I think I said, ‘Asking for a friend.’ … And some people knew that we were planning on making a movie about this. We had like a bunch of people DM me being like, Hey, I don’t, I’m not but I know somebody that is, and like, we could connect.
He says he and McCabe interviewed about a dozen people — “most of them were ex-agents, or assistants, or still currently in the world.” But they also interviewed some spouses.
“That seemed to be just as interesting — to find out what it’s like to to watch your partner lie all day, and then come home and act as though they hadn’t, or they’re not going to do it when they’re at home. It’s a very strange psychology.”
The Beta Test involves an internet schemer who mines online information to gather a few victims’ very personal data. McCabe and Cummings did some data mining of their own to make the film.
“Instagram has all of these functionalities where you can tag yourself in a specific location,” Cummings explains. “So you can look up people that have tagged themselves in the CAA offices, so that the wardrobe department can see how they dressed in the last few weeks, or what is on the tables — like what magazines are on the tables. All of that stuff was based on this kind of digital sleuthing that we did. And it was very helpful.
“A few of the assistants at UTA reached out after watching the movie, they were like, Yeah, you nailed it.”
The Beta Test is now in theaters and available on demand.