Script Gods Must Die: William Morris Memories

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Long elephant years ago, I was with the William Morris agency. Back then the air was clean, the economy robust, and the logo at William Morris looked like this:

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Then came the ’08 economic implosion and the ’09 merger of William Morris and Endeavor. Endeavor, of course, famous for the agent Ari Emanuel, portrayed on Entourage by an ex-Chicagoan and noted sushi-eater, Jeremy Piven.

The William Morris Endeavor merger added to agent unemployment lines and the list of “well-paying” gigs that never returned. The new company logo looked like this…

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This article isn’t a memory lane stroll so much as a discussion on certain questions and protocols you might need when you make your own way down those corridors of power.

  • SIGNING WITH WILLIAM MORRIS

My agent came from the publishing world, new at WM, looking to expanding his new writer client list and with a liking for casino screenplays. I was a casino dealer who happened to write a script about the inner workings of casinos and scamsters at that exact moment. He asked to see the script, then asked to see me. One meeting in New York later, I was signed. The script was strong, sure, but the signing was just as much about luck and timing. Fact is, in today’s environment, getting a WME agent through a query letter would be near impossible. They don’t accept queries from unsolicited sources. Look to the Guild Signatory list at www.wga.org for a list of agencies, then call to find out which agencies still accept queries.

  • CALLING FOR UPDATES

Hollywood speaks in silences. What I mean is: If there’s news, you’ll hear about it. Back in the Ice Age when I was at WM, there were no text messages. Communication was via telephone. Being new to agents, I had to learn the hard way how often to call for updates. Patience isn’t my strong-suit but patience is exactly what is required. Don’t be the stalker. Don’t call your guy every other day. Managers can be more hands-on, but constant calls can get wearying. You have to trust the agent is working on your behalf. You trusted the guy when you signed with him, so let him for work you. Give him space, especially if you’re…

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  • THE RUNT SAUSAGE

My agent had a client list that included a major A-list movie star, two stars from Seinfeld, three up-and-coming B-listers, and me. I was the runt sausage. Runt sausages don’t make demands. Runt sausages should just be happy they’re on the sausage chain.

Here’s a question I hope you get to ask yourself someday:

Do I go with a smaller “boutique” agency where I’ll get more pampering, or do I stay the runt sausage?

Such decisions might feel out of your realm but believe me, there may come a day you’ll have to answer that one.

  • NEVER TURN DOWN AN ASSIGNMENT?

As I mentioned in a previous post, there will be opportunities for assignment work coming your way. The question at agency level is: Do you ever turn down an opportunity to work–even if the assignment looks like absolute shit? An A-list writer getting his quote might have that aristocratic privilege of turning down work–I really wouldn’t know. But as a newbie (baby, in today’s lingo) it’s probably not wise.

I’d say that even if it’s shlock, write the story to the best of your ability, cash the check and take the Guild health insurance. If you want to indulge your closet Artist, write your Eugene O’Neill-inspired 3-act play or re-read Proust after taking the check, guaran-freakin’-teed you’ll feel better.

  • GETTING OPTIONED

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We got the casino script optioned. For the uninitiated, optioning is like renting an apartment instead of buying. Producers lock up the rights for an assigned dollar amount or an assigned period of time. It gives producers a chance to seek other people’s money without significant personal investment. Writer’s Guild guidelines are clear on option prices and at William Morris we did make money on my casino piece even though it was never made.

Keep in mind though, times have changed. For those without Guild protection, zero-dollar options are quite common these days. The thinking is that is preferable to give it to a producer for nothing up front than not at all. If they generate interest, you’ll get paid, but you won’t without getting it out there. Personally, I find that logic lacking. I’m not giving a producer a script I labored six months on for free—period. This is a personal decision hopefully you’ll have to make some day.

The option the production company offered on my script was $5000 for a year. They paid another $5000 for the second year. After two years, despite several close calls and much interest, they couldn’t find the $6 million they needed, leading to…

  • HOW YOU KNOW YOUR DEAL IS DEAD

“It speaks to your level of commitment on the project.” I always loved that. It came from my agent’s mouth when the production company offered us $1,000 for an option extension for a third year. They wanted to hold onto the property but it wasn’t a priority. It spoke to their level of commitment and pretty much signaled the end.

You have to decide if you want to lock your script up for that period of time, accept the diminished returns, or move on. We cut ties and moved on.

I cut ties, too, with my William Morris agent not long after that.

The Development person at the production company that WM introduced me to later moved on to found her own company. I called her and she gave me six names to look up for possible representation. These were heavy-duty power players she routinely lunched with over bourbon-glazed pork bellies at BoHo.

My next query letter had her name in the first sentence. Another door magically opened. R-e-l-a-t-i-o-n-s-h-i-p-s are where it’s at, you’ve had it drummed into your head a thousand times. And agents. Gotta gotta gotta have an agent! These are very foundations of the Old School Los Angeles business model. Who do you know. And if you don’t have these magical contacts? Sad tribes outside the country club gates. This is where the church of D.I.Y. Micro-Budget film-making comes in to save the day–but that is a conversation for another day.

Here’s the good news for you about my signing with William Morris is: If I can find my way inside that country club, so can you.

Nail your script down, get it out there. Write every query you can, take every meeting, and get the script to anyone who can help.

Don’t give up.

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