getting an agent

September 20, 2016

September 20, 2016

I felt terrible about being tardy on the very first day of a nine-month class and the panicked rush to minimize the damage made me even more nervous than I would have been anyway (which is pretty darn anxious). A fight-or-flight surge of adrenalin takes over when I have to speak in front of a group of strangers and unless I’m very careful, I talk at supersonic speed. I felt like I was making a terrible impression on this new group of kids which flustered me even more. There’s an obvious solution – think less about how I’m coming across and more about the kids I’m here to teach. Gradually I leveled out. I took some admittedly poor photos of my class that first day.

They weren't being rude and texting. I asked them to take selfies and email them to me - to help me me learn their names.
They weren’t being rude and texting. I asked them to take selfies and email them to me – to help me me learn their names.

This was the first day of my second year teaching Screen Writing Symposium at Columbia and I couldn’t imagine ever liking a class as much as I liked my first class. I kept up with them (as much as you can with occasonal updates on Facebook) but I actively missed our Thursday afternoons in Room E.  I struggled to remember the names of my new students. I thought, it will never be the same.

Josh Andersen, Kevin Salcedo, Peter Zaragoza, Kaitlyn Hutchins, Justin Thompson, Alex Falcon, Charlotte Scrivener, Holden Weihs, Ryan Brennan. Not pictured: Tanner Novotny
Josh Andersen, Kevin Salcedo, Peter Zaragoza, Kaitlyn Hutchins, Justin Thompson, Alex Falcon, Charlotte Scrivener, Holden Weihs, Ryan Brennan. Not pictured: Tanner Novotny

I was right; it wasn’t, in the same way my second child isn’t the same as my first and my third is quite different from both siblings. Inevitably, every class – especially one that meets four hours a week for nine months – develops it’s own unique identity. Comparing them is futile, they’re both special – irreplaceable – in their own way. Just like I miss the kids in my first class on Thursdays, I miss the kids in my second class (except, I taught them on Tuesdays, Fridays, and finally Mondays, so I didn’t associate them with a day).

top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O'Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank
top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O’Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank

I hope to keep up with them as they traverse the real post-college world, probably via Facebook.  I’d like to see all of them again too.  I fantasize that if and when I retire, I’ll host a party at my house for all my former students and the ones that show up will regale me with the highs and lows of their careers. Hopefully, their wins will far outpace their losses.

top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O'Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank.
top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O’Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank.

September 17, 1979

September 17, 1979A

My career had yet to begin. I was closing in on a paying gig as a writer but it hadn’t happened yet. If you’re in my situation – no prior job, no WGA membership, no credits – you need to do what I did. Seek out fellow young, hungry producers or directors, work out stories with them as a team, pitch them to anyone who will listen.

Typing

I was fortunate to find a friend and champion in David Bombyk, a smart, ambitious, charming guy from Michigan. He was a year younger than me. We laughed a lot when we got together to gossip or break stories. I can’t remember who slipped my spec script to David – Martha Coolidge? Kip Ohman?  David and I partnered on several spec pitches and a couple of bona-fide (paying!) development deals but – alas – none of our joint efforts survived to see the light of day.

David made it big without me when he found, developed and co-produced “Witness” in 1985. The same year he produced “Explorers” and in 1986 he produced “The Hitcher” with his friend Kip Ohman.

David Bombyk, Producer

Kip succumbed to AIDS in 1987 at age 41. I met David for lunch a few months later. He looked haunted and thin; he talked about how hard it was sorting through and dispersing Kip’s belongings after he was gone.

David Bombyk 1952 - 1989

It was the last time I saw or spoke to David. He died on January 20, 1989, age 36.  His mother got in touch with me shortly after the funeral and sent me a beautiful ceramic vase David wanted me to have. He collected them.

Green Vase_edited-1

She was charged with the excruciating task of sorting through and dispersing her son’s possessions. I can’t imagine how painful that must have been.

LA Times - David Bombyk

AIDS took a lot of good people, especially in the 80s. For me, David Bombyk was one of the great ones. Unfailingly kind, loyal to his friends and brilliant when it came to developing scripts. Witness has long been a staple in screenwriting classes to illustrate a near-perfect script. I see David’s fingerprints on it. I don’t know if I’d have a writing career at all if David hadn’t believed in me before anyone else did. I’ll always be grateful; I’ll miss him and his laughter forever.

Of Mere Being

 

April 8, 1973

April 8, 1973

Image from "The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2014."
Image from “The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2014.”

The extreme competition for a toehold in the entertainment industry makes it a major challenge. That, plus the fact a lot of people assume there’s nothing to it. Most people would never attempt to perform brain surgery or extract wisdom teeth because they’re not trained professionals – but when it comes to acting, writing, directing, everybody’s an expert. Some people are right, they’ve got what it takes. Most are wrong; they fail to realize the craft and hard work involved in making it look easy.

Me around 1973
Me around 1973

For years, industry experts have claimed that if you write a great script, it will be discovered but I disagree. I can’t prove it but I suspect a lot of great scripts die in the drawers of discouraged writers unable to get a read from somebody with enough power to help.

Link to a YouTube series by Michael Akkerman, one of my current students at Columbia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClffzUrRDXk
Link to a YouTube series by Michael Akkerman, one of my current students at Columbia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClffzUrRDXk

I got my big breaks from professors in college – notably Bill Froug and Shelly Lowenkopf – who liked my work and recommended me to agents. That’s my first advice to anyone who wants to break in. Take a class, impress the professor, make friends with him, her or anyone else with connections. The seminar’s bottom line advice was correct for its time –  networking (“hanging around”) and exuding confidence are your best bet.

Link to "Life as a Mermaid" a web series my current student Faith-Ann Bishop and former student Ryan Brennan have both contributed to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhhRQ8-sIZc&t=41s
Link to “Life as a Mermaid” a web series my current student Faith-Ann Bishop and former student Ryan Brennan have both contributed to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhhRQ8-sIZc&t=41s

To a certain extent, YouTube and other on-line venues level the playing field. If your short film goes viral, it doesn’t matter if you live in Kansas and don’t know a  soul in Hollywood. They’ll find you.

Marketing
Marketing & Branding are essential to success.

I hate the word platform but it can’t be ignored in today’s market. An ability to market and brand yourself is invaluable. These subjects weren’t taught when I was in film school and I’m not sure they’re taught today – but they should be.

November 5, 1973

november-5-1973

 

 It’s embarrassing to look back at the mistakes I made – to realize how much I didn’t know.  First – and possibly most important – I had no idea how lucky I was. Fresh out of school with one spec screenplay to my credit, thanks to a recommendation from my mentor Bill Froug, I signed with Bob Bookman, a hot up and coming agent at IFA.

I was more of a student than a professional writer.
I was more of a student than a professional writer.

I still pitched terrible ideas to Bill. Lucky for me, he didn’t sugar-coat the truth. He didn’t hesitate to tell me something I wrote was boring or hopeless. I hated to hear it at the time, but today I’m grateful. His blunt honesty spared me from wasting an incredible amount of time.

froug4a
Bill Froug didn’t love everything I wrote.

My most egregious error, though, was what I said to Bookman. “That’s your job, isn’t it?” As I came to discover, no, it isn’t. No agent wants to represent a writer who expects the agent to do all the work. As a novice, I should have been generating spec scripts when I wasn’t networking or forging connections. Bookman was more than capable of doing a great job representing me, but I needed to give him something to work with. I didn’t and within a year, he dropped me as a client.

Sometimes, it just doesn't work out and you have to walk away.
Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out and you have to walk away.

Signing legal papers officially releasing Bookman and IFA from representing me was one of the low points of my career. At the time, I was deluded enough to be angry with him but now I know better. I failed to honor my part of the unspoken contract and he was right to cut me loose. The fact that I didn’t fully understand that contract is no excuse. I should have.

If there’s one thing I did right, it was maintaining my friendship with Bill. Four years later, my relationship with him gave me a second chance.

October 6, 1978

 

october-5-1978-night-of october-6-1978-morning-of

 

My mentor, the late late great William Froug
My mentor, the late late great William Froug

It still astounds me that in 1978, five years after I graduated, my former UCLA professor Bill Froug did something so extraordinary. It’s not like I hadn’t let him down before. In 1973, he helped me sign with a hot agent and almost produced my spec script but it didn’t pan out. A year later, Hot Shot Agent dropped me because I “hadn’t been as productive as hoped.” There’s nothing like signing a contract releasing an agent from any further obligation to represent you to remind you that you’re a loser.

 

Save me! I'm sinking.
Save me! I’m sinking.

I felt depressed and defeated. I got married and had a baby. In October, 1978, I was a writer who washed up before I got my feet wet, the harried mother of a 2 year old and the most inept housewife in the greater Los Angeles area. My conversation with Bill that night reminded me that once upon a time I felt special.

I wasn’t sure how seriously to take his offer to get another agent to read my script. I didn’t deserve it, having burned through one agent and flamed out. My confidence – my motivation to even try – was so low I couldn’t imagine following through even if he placed the call.

Froug

I’d attempted to hide my depression (who wants to look pathetic?) but he saw through me. Even so, he could’ve left me to sink or swim on my own. Instead, he found the time – despite his hectic schedule – to call Susan Holoff and pitch a total unknown. He committed me to drop off a script that afternoon. Only after he’d done everything in his power to force me into action did he call and issue my marching orders. Get the script to Susan no later than 4 PM today.

Back in the game in 1978
Back in the game in 1978

Froug’s unprecedented and generous gesture changed my life. Nothing anyone has done for me before or since rivals the impact of his show of faith. He raised me from the dead and opened a door to the career of my dreams. Gratitude is insufficient; the only way to pay it forward is to do the same for another fledgling writer. I don’t have Froug’s connections or clout but I’m going to do my best.

 


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