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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Never the Twain

By Richard Curtis

Most authors have a simplistic notion about how books are marketed and sold to the movies. Their impression is that it their literary agent, operating alone or with a Hollywood co-agent, submits a book to producers until he finds one who likes it enough to make an offer, the same way that book agents submit manuscripts to publishers. In truth the process is maddeningly complicated and confused and can daunt many otherwise sophisticated New York literary agents. And while some agents have better movie and television track records than others, none has formulated a single and satisfying solution to the challenge of efficiently finding the right producer for movie or television adaptations of books.

The film business is by no means a monolithic industry where purchases are made by only a handful of companies. Completely to the contrary, the world we know under the umbrella term "Hollywood" is kaleidoscopically fragmented. Countless producers, bankrollers, screen-writers, actors and actresses, directors, agents, studio and network executives, and coattail riders scramble endlessly to assemble "packages" that will stay still long enough to get a property purchased, developed, produced, and released.

The New York literary agent, faced with this jumble of elements and claims, is all too often at a loss to know with any certainty what is genuine and what is dross, particularly because, as one learns after even brief exposure, the lingua franca of the movie business is insincerity. Unlike the publishing business, where if somebody says he owns the rights to a book you may be fairly certain he's telling the truth, Hollywood swarms with people selling things they do not own. I call it the Hollywood Hustle, and I can name on the knuckles of one finger the people out there who do not practice it in some form. Hey, it's not that hard. Suppose you want to make a movie, and the only things you need are a book, a screenwriter, a director, a cast, a distributor, and $20 million. You start the ball rolling by, let's say, asking the agent of a famous movie star if the star would be interested in a certain book if a deal could be put together for it. Of course, the agent is going to say maybe.

That's good enough for you. You now go to a screenwriter, show him the book, and ask him if he'd like to adapt it, and of course, the screenwriter is going to say, sure, why not, if the price is right, who have you got to star in the movie? And you say, you're negotiating with this star. And if you have just enough of a track record so that anyone bothering to check your background doesn't reveal a complete fraud, and if you talk fast and knowledgeably, you just may be able to line up enough interested parties so that one or two actually sign. You can then make the rounds clutching that contract and get the others to sign as well. Congratulations! You've just gotten full screen credit as a producer!

The reason it's hard for a New York agent, even one possessed of highly sensitive baloney detectors, to sort out the truth is that the movie and television businesses are characterized by an ever-shifting flow of power, capital, and influence, and it is labor enough to keep up with the scramble of musical chairs in the publishing field, let alone that of movies and television. New York agents respond in any of a number of ways: they employ a movie and television specialist to operate out of their New York City offices; they engage independent specialists based in New York City; or they engage West Coast movie agencies.

It would seem that the last choice is far and away the best solution. That may have been so ten or twenty years ago, but I do not believe it is necessarily so today.

When I first came into publishing, the movie industry was still something of a definable, organic entity. A handful of powerful studios controlled the assembly of movie packages, and three networks controlled television programming. And because the field was more orderly, the role of the West Coast agent was, too. West Coast agents did in fact do for movie rights what East Coast agents do for book rights: they offered novels or original screenplays to movie producers and studio story departments, negotiated deals, took a commission, and remitted payment to the author or the author's literary agent.

As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, however, and the unified studio system gave way to one based on independent producers, artists, and sources of finance, the West Coast agents' approach shifted. They began accepting "talent," such as producers, directors, and actors, for representation. These clients sought the agents' help in negotiating their fees and acquiring literary or screenplay properties that they could produce, direct, or star in. Quite clearly, these agents were sailing into uncharted and very dangerous waters, for they no longer represented sellers only; they now also represented buyers as well, and in a growing number of instances they represented both the buyer and the seller of the same property or service. This is clearly a conflict of interest, because representation of buyer and seller makes it impossible for an agency to handle a negotiation at arm's length, as the legal phrase is.

The creature emerging from this broth was the agent-packager, a breed that assembles movie and television deals out of client components within each agency's own client list. The dilemma of which client to take the commission from—the buyer or the seller—was resolved by creating a "packaging fee" that is negotiated off the top of the total money available to finance the package deal. The net money after deduction of the packaging fee is then distributed according to the formula negotiated by the agent-packager with each client.

Students of power dynamics will realize that the distribution of these net monies, including those paid to authors for the rights to their literary properties, may be manipulated if not arbitrarily assigned by a shrewd agent (and West Coast agents are nothing if not shrewd). Indeed, the function of the West Coast agent-packagers seems to be identical to that of the old-time movie studios, with the exception that the agent-packagers do not actually distribute movies or air the television programs they package. To put it succinctly, the West Coast agent no longer represents the seller vis-à-vis the buyer; he is the buyer!

The New York literary agent surveying the West Coast scene sees arrayed before him a growing number of agent-packager-producers, and in due time it may dawn on him that these outfits are in competition with each other. Each West Coast agency has its own client list out of which the components for a deal are selected, and although those agencies do work out deals with one another in order to obtain the services of each other's clients, it can safely be stated that the desirable route is to cull the package entirely out of the agency's own stable.

What this means for authors and their New York literary agents is that West Coast agents are no longer as capable of thoroughly covering the movie and television markets, as they used to be. If you or your agent engage a West Coast agent to sell movie or television rights to your book or story, you should be aware that that agent may not be accepting the mandate with clean hands, to use another legal phrase.

Another reason New York agents don't always like to turn their properties over to West Coast agencies is that it means splitting a commission with them. On the average, New York agents charge 15 percent commissions on movie and television deals. If they let a West Coast agency make a deal for them, they'll have to give that agency at least half of their commission, and maybe more than half: some West Coast agents feel that because they do most of the work on such deals, they should get a higher percentage of the commission.

While many New York agents reason that 5 percent or 7.5 percent of something is better than 15 percent of nothing, the big numbers paid for movie and television rights can make an agent excusably greedy, and many therefore try to handle those rights themselves. It is not an easy task, for they must keep up with ever-changing industry buying patterns, personnel changes, news, and gossip, and in the movie business even more than in books, timing is critically important: you have to be there with the right property at the right time, and know the right person to call. Frequent trips to California may be necessary to meet and deal with the movers and shakers out there.

The fact that the movie studios, networks, and many major producers have New York offices, story departments, and scouts makes it seem easier for a New York literary agent to conduct movie and television business in Manhattan. To a degree that is true, but not to a sufficient degree. The New York offices of West Coast firms are good for expediting the submission of literary properties (and they're great for extending screening invitations to literary agents), but almost none has the authority to purchase or negotiate. Furthermore, it is not always desirable to give early looks at upcoming hot properties to New York scouts and story departments. In fact, it is often important not to let them get their hands on those properties.

There is only a small number of studios and networks, and if they all "pass" on a property—turn it down—it will effectively be dead. A commonly held view of the people who read and screen properties for studios and networks is that they are not notable for their vision and imagination, and that they operate on the bureaucratic principle that it is safer to say no than yes.

Many New York agents therefore feel that it is much better to offer their properties to producers who can visualize a work's cinematic values and who have at their command the financing and industry connections to put together an impressive package that they can bring to studio and network brass. But which producers to offer those properties to? Aye, my friends, there's the rub, and it brings us right back to the desirability of going through West Coast agencies.

There simply doesn't seem to be a satisfactory answer, and perhaps the best that can be said for agents on the opposite coast is what is often said about people of the opposite sex: You can't live with 'em, and you can't live without 'em.

Richard Curtis

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment, LLC
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