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Behind the Lines with DR: Bittersweet Career Choices

I’d just finished my first novel. I had over one hundred thousand words, typed, proofed, and printed on some five hundred pages of loose leaf paper. It would either prove to be a career changer. Or a doorstop.

The book was called Dark Horse. I had it messengered over to my movie agent for a weekend read, which he did… four weekends later. He appeared to enjoy it. Claimed he loved it. And then confessed that he didn’t have a clue what to do with it.

So you ask which agency was this? CAA. Aka the Creative Artists Agency. At the time it was a juggernaut of a rep-factory and demonstrably the most powerful agency in Hollywood. Captained by Hollywood Super Agent, Michael Ovitz, CAA was best known for combining their clients into irresistible bundles that movie and television executives couldn’t say no to. The practice was called “packaging” and generated massive, not to mention, well-deserved commissions.

Now, my CAA agent was not a book agent. None of his screenwriter clients had ever written a novel. So he wisely gave my tome to a colleague whose expertise was marketing already published books to Hollywood. He had the connections to the all-important New York fiction agents. Weekends turned into months. Then, every so often, I’d get a call from CAA, describing various rejection notes. It was the usual shine. Kind words about the writing, but in their humble literary opinions, not worthy to present to publishers.


It was damned deflating. Especially considering that, to finish the book, I’d turned down a number of lucrative job offers (see last week’s post, Behind the Lines with DR: Rewrite Hindsight).

Then came a Dodgers game I attended with my attorney and a couple of producer friends, one of whom I had worked closely with on my last movie. On the drive home from hallowed Chavez Ravine, he not so innocently asked me if I’d had any success with my novel. I lamented about the circumstances and my apparent failure. He then confided to me some whispers he’d heard when my novel was first discussed at an internal CAA meeting. The gist of the summit was as follows: In the unlikely event that I were to sell my first novel to a publisher, the odds were strong that I’d clear an advance of no more than twenty-five thousand dollars. Meanwhile I’d been turning down hundreds of thousands in assignment fees to work on my novel. To CAA, it didn’t make business sense for them to encourage my literary aspirations. They got ten percent of my writing fee. Do the math. In essence, a cabal of my own reps had secretly chosen to sabotage my five-hundred-page doorstop in order to get me back to writing FADE IN again and again.

But like I said. The intel was only whispers. The only proof I had were those rejections I’d been read over the phone. Eventually I would have to ask for copies of the letters. In the meantime, I needed a second opinion as to my prospects as a novelist. Unlike CAA, my former reps at the William Morris office had an actual publishing department representing actual authors and actual publishers. Inhabiting the New York City office was none other than super book agent Robert Gottlieb. So on a Friday I called a motion picture agent at the Beverly Hills bunker and offered him my film business in exchange for passing my manuscript to Robert Gottlieb. It was a done deal.

Robert Gottlieb read my book… over one weekend.

“I’d love to represent your book,” said Gottlieb via telephone on Monday afternoon. “But I don’t want you to leave CAA.”

“I already promised Mike Simpson I’d move back to William Morris,” I said. “Why in the world do you want me to stay at CAA?”

“Because I want you to know that I want to represent you — as an author — regardless,” he said.

“So you think my book will sell to publishers?”

“I know it will.”

Fast forward six weeks. The War Department and I were vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard. She was pregnant with our first child, and we were enjoying our last holiday as a free-wheeling married duo. It was September. The island was breathtaking. And while we were taking in the sites of Edgartown and walking hand-in-hand on the same beach Jackie O pondered her JFK past, my novel was up for auction. Then one afternoon, while reading from my perch overlooking Menemsha Pond, I received the call, informing me that my novel, Dark Horse, had sold to Avon/Morrow for just north of three hundred thousand dollars, plus a guarantee for a second book.

I fist-pumped for the crowd of me, myself, and I, then informed my wife. Redemption is sweet.

Weeks later, my new William Morris agents sold the movie rights to my novel along with my screenwriting services to Twentieth Century Fox. Imagine Entertainment was assigned as producer and hot-as-a-pistol John Travolta attached to star. The deal was rich and a bit of industry news. Screenwriter-turned-novelist sells his first novel for beaucoup bucks then is hired to adapt it for the screen. An uplifting tale.

Variety’s Michael Fleming phoned me for an interview. I gladly complied, proving to be a giddy subject, exuberant as hell, and probably a bit too unvarnished for showbiz politics.

“So,” said Fleming. “Travolta as star. Brian Grazer and Ron Howard as producers. How’s that feel?”

“Great,” I answered, then added something I thought was funny. “Who knew I’d have to leave CAA to get packaged.”

Fleming laughed. So did I. Then he printed it for all of the industry to read. Some laughed. Others didn’t. You see, scoring wasn’t enough. Some immature force inside me had to haul off and spike the football. Which might have been okay if it hadn’t bulls-eyed into a steaming pile of elephant shit that seemed to splatter over everything.

You see, only weeks earlier, the King Kong of CAA, Michael Ovitz, had unexpectedly left the agency biz. Days later, there were articles in both the New York and L.A. Times about Ovitz’s sudden departure. In order to gin-up the story into something more news-shattering, journalists on both coasts chose to list the clients who’d jumped ship following the Mike Ovitz exit. The first client listed was television show-runner David E. Kelly, creator of shows such as Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Chicago Hope, The Practice. Kelly was — and still is — a HUGE talent. Losing his business was significant and newsworthy.

The other client they reported leaving was was… er… me.

That was it. Two clients. One a TV cash cow. The other, a B-List screenwriter-wannabe-novelist whose importance didn’t warrant a first or second weekend read of his precious first novel.

Okay. So I was a little bitter. By the time I’d stumbled into the end zone, I couldn’t seem to help myself. So I up and spiked the damned football. I admit that part of me wanted Mike Fleming to print it.

While my William Morris agents were dancing on their desks, celebrating my public “packaging” quip, the old reps at CAA, according to my sources, fumed that a pissant such as me had dared publicly decry them.

“C’mon,” I defended to a screenwriter pal. “It’s just a joke. And it was funny. I had to leave CAA to get packaged? If that’s not irony…”

“Funny to everybody but the agency you fired,” said my pal. “You don’t need to dance a silly jig for all to see.”

He was right.

Eventually, once I’d gained some perspective, I picked up the phone to offer an apology to my former agent, a helluva good fellah who I considered a friend. While it could be argued that a true friend would never have participated in the shenanigans to sabotage my book, I can’t prove that those meetings ever occurred nor can I place him in them. It could also be pleaded that based on the disappointment he envisioned for his client, the perhaps delusional first-time novelist, he may have been doing me a favor.

Now, for those of you who think I’m being too kind — that the agent deserved both my wrath and a public smackdown — let me say this: Hollywood is a very small town. And there is rarely anything gained but bruised egos and unnecessary scar tissue when one chooses to publicly piss on somebody else’s pants leg. Paths will inevitably cross again. And burned bridges are hard to rebuild.

My former agent never returned my call. I did, though, thank him in the pages of both the hardcover and paperback. I thought it was the least I could do. I’m told that, for some time, he had it neatly placed on the shelf behind his desk and, every so often, would refer to the page where I thanked him.

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