AN OUTSIDER COMES INSIDE
Continuing to play hooky from my blogging duties, I offer up an entry by Terrence Loose.
Terry is an MFA student in screenwriting at UCLA, who served as an intern in our Story Department doing clerical work and reading screenplays. Terry was recommended to me by my previous intern.
When I first met him, I was rather shocked. He looks more like a surfer dude than a pasty faced screenwriter who rarely ventures outdoors. He has a quiet demeanor - almost genteel (a rare trait in Hollywood) - and took his assignment seriously. He was a great help during the turbulent time of our move from Beverly Hills to Century City.
As part of the Film/TV 498 Professional Intern Class at UCLA, Terry was asked to write up an overview of his experience at the agency.
He has kindly allowed me to publish it here. I think it's interesting to see the learning curve of a writing student who takes that real life plunge from the staus quo of act one (school) into the dangerous and turbulent journey of act two (a talent agency).
This is his story.
I went to International Creative Management (ICM), one of the three biggest and busiest agencies for talent in Hollywood, to cover, or read and evaluate, scripts as an intern – a lower position than the guy who pushes the mop in the men’s room.
As such, I fully expected to be dropped into a scene from Swimming With Sharks. I pictured a Kevin Spacey-like character throwing volume 10 tirades – and coffee cups – at cowering, confused assistants. And me.
But that’s not what I encountered. In fact, while everyone at ICM is buzzing with energy, drinks much too much coffee, sees much too little sunlight and, except for the mail boy and janitor, wears a telephone headset, they are also very nice.
Now, you may be asking, “Why is this guy talking about manners in a graduate paper supposedly focused on his learning experience?” Here’s why. Because it represents the one thing that I learned week after week at the agency: Sure, some of the stereotypes about agents might be dead-on, but on a whole, they are pretty much just like the rest of us. They’re doing a stressful job, actually do care if people like and accept them, and generally want to help other people achieve their goals. And if there’s a buck in it for them, all the better.
My direct supervisor, Christopher Lockhart, Executive Story Editor, who oversees the Story Department, is a prime example. The Story Department at ICM is where all scripts and books go to be “covered.” Coverage is done by one of a dozen freelance readers, who read the submitted script or book, write a one-page synopsis of the plot, followed by a one-page commentary on its strengths and flaws. Their coverage also includes a brief logline – what the story’s about in two or three sentences (and as I would discover first-hand, on poorly written scripts this is often the hardest three sentences to write) – brief character breakdowns and the completion of the “idiot chart,” as it is known by people who will remain nameless. The idiot chart is another very difficult section to fill out, mostly because when covering an average or below average piece of work, the reader feels that he or she is putting an end to the script’s chances at development and/or the writer’s career, at least for the time being. At least, that’s how I felt: as though I was in an un-deserved God-like position of judgment.
As I mentioned, coverage is done on lots of literature that comes through the mailroom at ICM. It could be submitted by writers who are seeking representation (but have been recommended), by production companies hoping to interest talent and even by studios. The Story Department legitimately seeks a way to judge whether a project or its writer has potential to earn the agency 10% of significant dollars. And like throughout the entire industry, most of the time, the results are disappointing.
This is because of one of the few clichés that holds true: Everyone in Hollywood is predisposed to say no, even readers. As one writer quipped, “The job description for a studio development executive reads, ‘Just say no today.’” This is because saying yes is a risk and no one in Hollywood, no matter what they tell you over your double decaf soy latte, likes risk, because deep down they know that every aspect of their industry is based on risk. There are simply no certainties in a business that deals in subjective art.
In reader terms, a no is a “Pass” on the idiot grid, which sports a section where a project or writer can receive a “Recommend” (rarer than a flying pig), a “Consider” (think white rhino… in L.A.), or “Pass” (commonality equal to waiter/screenwriter).
As an illustration of just how genuinely frightened people in the industry are to say yes, and also why I expected to be profoundly condescended to, if not physically and psychologically abused, I relay a story from a fellow intern reader, also a UCLA MFA student in Screenwriting (we’ll call him Ross).
Ross went to one of the three top agencies, not ICM, for the same purposes as I: to read and cover scripts. In his initial interview, the interviewer (we’ll call him John) approached him with a deadly serious air. “Welcome to the kingdom, where all great things happen,” John said, gesturing to the Story Department. “But there are risks, always risks. This is why you are here. You are my official food taster. You are here so I don’t get poisoned and die.” He went on to explain that there are two kinds of scripts: steaming piles of feces that need to be shown the working end of a toilet, and cherry pies. They were looking for that one cherry pie in the mountains of feces that come through the agency every day.
But there was a catch: The reader could not be trusted to detect a cherry pie from a steaming pile of feces. And worse, the ramifications of being wrong were worse than dire. “Let’s say you come to me and say, ‘I found a cherry pie!’” John explained. “I will then run down the hall to my boss with my hair on fire yelling that I have a cherry pie. He will then run down the hall with his hair on fire to his boss. Soon, everyone is running around with their hair on fire about this wonderful cherry pie that I discovered. Then, in a flash of putrid realization, we see that it is not a cherry pie, but in fact, a steaming pile of feces. And do you know what happens then?” Ross just shook his head, no. “I get fired, that’s what. So don’t find any cherry pies.” John then gave Ross a script to take home and cover, as a test. Ross agonized over the coverage. He really liked the script and the writing but was petrified to tell John that he had found a cherry pie, even though this was just a test. So he wrote bad coverage, giving the script and the writer a pass, and sent it to John.
A few days later John called. “That’s Will Ferrell’s next movie. You fail.” Click.
The script was Stranger Than Fiction by Zach Helm, one of the most respected spec scripts and new voices in the last few years.
Ross had relayed this story to me before my first day at ICM, so when Christopher gave me a script to cover as a sample before I even began my internship, I was understandably worried. The script was a comedy, and I didn’t think much of it or the writing. It was not terrible, but wasn’t anything I could honestly recommend. So I tried to offer balanced, constructive criticism, basically mirroring what we do in Screenwriting 434 classes for fellow students. I complimented the things that worked – building tension, simple structure, clarity of plot – and respectfully took issue with the things that didn’t – lack of humor, stilted dialog, confusing stakes. But, in all honesty, I did write one un-called for line, the final thought in my coverage, which was a stab at sarcastic humor using the script’s own concept to take a potshot at it.
I emailed my coverage to Christopher and went to ICM the next morning at 10:30 a.m. He was not there, but I was greeted by his second-in-command, Ana. She explained that Christopher wouldn’t be in till noon. Then she told me the news that had me quaking for the next hour. The script I had unfavorably reviewed and even poked fun at in my final line of coverage was actually Christopher’s pet project. Ironically, the script had placed very high in a screenwriting contest – a contest in which I had failed to get past the first round. Christopher had passed the script to Julie Richardson, the producer of Collateral, a movie I love – and she optioned it. They were actively developing the script.
When Christopher arrived at noon, he called me into his office. He held my coverage and asked me to sit down. I contemplated running instead. “So I read your coverage,” he said. I steeled myself for a stapler or paperweight assault. But none came. “It was well done,” he said. “I really appreciated how fair you were and how, while you obviously didn’t care for the script, your comments weren’t condescending or mean-spirited.” I almost asked if he had read the entire document, then figured it really wasn’t a great career move to point out that sarcastic final line.
For the next 30 minutes, Christopher went through my coverage line by line, pointing out things I had done well and respectfully criticizing areas in which I could have done better. He even commented on that final line. “I think it’s great to get a little creative, to put a little of your writing style in,” he said. Overall, he was more than generous and ultimately very helpful.
And it was Christopher’s generosity that led to my greatest learning experience during the ten-week internship. He invited me to sit in on the “Trainee Lunch,” a once-a-week luncheon in which the dozens of participants in ICM’s Agent Trainee Program – a three-year stint designed to find and groom aspiring agents – study various aspects of the business, listen to speakers or participate in all kinds of mock sessions from negotiating to development. As further evidence of his altruistic nature, Christopher oversees this program despite it not being part of his job description.
This week’s meeting was special however, as Ms. Richardson herself was coming, not as a speaker, but as a potential client. Weeks before, the agent trainees had divided into six groups of three to five, each group consisting of people from different aspects of the agency– literary, finance, talent, and so on. Their assignment was to read the very script I passed on and offer casting suggestions (using clients) and a plan for bringing the project to market, everything from acquiring production money to product tie-ins and target-audience suggestions.
This was a pretty big deal and on my first day Christopher invited me to the lunch and sat me up front next to himself and Ms. Richardson. “Don’t say anything and look important,” he said as we entered. “Everybody’ll think your some big producer.” Not exactly what I want everyone to think about me, but hey, it was a free lunch and a chance at some “reality theater.”
And at the start, that's what I thought about it. I had a front row seat at the theater. But the next hour would prove me wrong and naïve in so many ways about everything from the value of a commercial idea and its relationship – or lack there of – to a well-written script; the value of a well-written script and its relationship – or lack thereof – to its marketability; and to how an agent goes about attracting various elements to a project so that it has even the slightest chance of going forward.
First, every team commented on the need for major rewriting. A common remark was the script, in its current form, “would never attract an A-list director or A-list cast.” But rather than send it back to the original writer – whose name never even came up – each team had ideas of who could do the job. It was a true wake-up call for a student to hear what goes on behind closed doors. But I got the distinct impression that for these Agent Trainees, it was a sincere and serious process.
I saw that while most people feel comfortable talking about business and “high-concept” and star roles, writing is a mysterious subject, one that is so subjective it’s safe ground: There is no logical debate and therefore the critical party has no vulnerability to defeat (see “saying no” paragraph above).
Though the writing was not up to anyone’s standards, the idea appealed across the board – or at least they said it did. All agreed that this had the potential to reach a wide market. Groups from the tie-in angle had big plans for brands (although Ms. Richardson had her doubts since much of the script is subversive and unflattering to industry it portrays). One group mentioned the probable and very lucrative interest MTV would have for the project, and used it to form its presentation. Others commented on the various states’ tax breaks for shooting in their towns – the project was very attractive due to the fact it could be shot virtually anywhere and on a low budget. Still others posited the different foreign distribution deals that could garner money even before production began (though again Ms. Richardson was doubtful since she saw it as a very American movie).
By the end of the lunch, I saw why a movie is truly a collaborative effort – even before shooting begins. In the case of this script, the story and characters were but a fraction of the discussion. It was the concept everyone was forming, selling, marketing, and when the script was mentioned, re-writes and other writers were the suggestions. Suddenly, I felt very guilty about my sarcastic remark in the coverage.
This was a great day that summed up the rest of my time at ICM. My internship goals were to see first-hand what I was up against in the professional industry by reading scripts that were being considered by Hollywood’s professional community. I chose ICM specifically because I would never be able to get a script past the security guard without first gaining representation, which is why I wanted to get a script past the security guard.
After reading a number of scripts, I was both hopeful and defeated. I was hopeful because I found many of scripts that made it past the ICM threshold were really not very good. They were boring, convoluted, wooden and shallow. Average was truly the norm. I have read much better scripts written by fellow classmates.
I had, of course, heard the stories about how bad the majority of scripts out there were, but something in me – maybe a writer’s defense mechanism – wouldn’t allow me to believe it. Now I did. And that gave me hope. “I can compete with these guys,” I thought. But at the same time it was fairly defeating. Sure, I may be able to write as well as these guys, and their scripts and careers will likely go nowhere, but how does that help me? In other words, I still can’t get past security. And, judging from the material, it takes some mysterious combination of knowing people, luck, tequila… whatever... to merely get a pass from a reader blazing through your work to make $50.
And it wasn’t that I loathed the readers either. Their “lack of respect for the writer” was another Hollywood cliché that turned out true – at least partially. Many readers are writers, and they simply have no patience for other screenwriters who do not follow the “rules” of Hollywood scriptwriting.
And I found myself doing the same things when I did coverage. First, I would check the length and instantly become wary of anything longer than 110 pages. Next, I’d check the amount of white space. A lot of ink spelled trouble – statistics showed that it was probably overwritten. I also became accustomed to regularly skipping narrative. If the writer was good, I either wanted to or had to read all the stage direction, but poor writers or writers who overwrote lost my patience fast and I would merely read the dialogue. Finally, if the writer didn’t hook me by page 10, trouble was nigh. (This one, by the way, I have believed in for a long time. Consider a novel, which is normally 300 pages. Ten percent of 300 is 30 pages (equal to 10 pages of a 100 page script). When is the last time you read the first 30 pages of a novel, said to yourself, “I don’t know who the main character is or what the story’s about, but I’m going to give this guy 30 more pages”?)
I should mention that it did not take days and piles of bad scripts for this change to come about. I morphed into the classic Hollywood reader within hours. And to be fair, it was only logical. In addition to graduate school, I have a job as a magazine writer, a four-year-old daughter and wife, commute from Orange County, and my own bad scripts to overwrite.
So I just didn’t have time to indulge the whims of a writer who didn’t respect my time. Again, it was a true education on how to write scripts that have any chance of moving “upstairs.”
Overall, I really enjoyed my time at ICM, so much so that I am probably going to continue reading for them on a semi-regular basis. I found that it is a cutthroat industry and not always – or almost never – perfect or a refuge for higher art. But I also found the agency's people to be dedicated, passionate, and truly helpful to those they respect.
Yes, the Hollywood clichés are true, but there are enough exceptions to keep the dream alive.
Visit Terry's website at www.tloose.com