The Most Outrageous Experiment Ever Conducted in the Movie Industry. Do Those Working in the Movies Know the Difference Between John Ford and Henry Ford? Should They?
[Note: It was 30 years ago this month that Film Comment magazine published this article, after I had submitted it to the magazine, unsolicited. It had taken me more than six months to conduct this experiment, which I think remains the most outrageous "test" ever conducted with those who work in the movie industry. Film Comment published this article with the headline "The Great Script Tease." ]
When was it, last night or the night before? You stayed up and watched the late show, so engrossed that not even a dozen commercials discouraged you. And when the movie was over you thought to yourself, “Damn, they don’t make ’em like that any more.”
Well, why don’t they? Would the people in today’s Hollywood recognize a great film if it stared them in the face? Are superb screenplays rejected because agents do not know the difference between John and Henry Ford?
I wanted to find out, so I sent a screenplay around. Not just any screenplay, mind you, but the screenplay of a late-show classic, one that was mentioned in the top ten of all-time favorite American movies by a Los Angeles Times readers poll in 1967 and again in 1978. A film that the members of the American Film Institute, in 1977, voted among the top three American films ever made, one that TV Guide in 1977 polled as the most popular, frequently shown film on television. A movie which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943, as well as Oscars for its writers (Howard Koch, Julius J. Epstein and the late Philip G. Epstein), and its director (Michael Curtiz). Yes, movie buffs, let’s play it again—the one, the only, “Casablanca.”
I sent it to agents, rather than to studios, because none of the major studios will read unsolicited screenplays. To prevent accusations of plagiarism, they return them unopened. But studios and producers do read screenplays from agents. An unknown writer submits the screenplay to an agent, and if he or she decided to represent the writer, the agent submits the script to studios and producers on the writer’s behalf. But how to find an agent?
The Writers Guild of America represents writers in the motion picture, television, and radio industries. For one dollar they will send an aspiring screenwriter a list of agencies that have signed an agreement with the Guild, specifying certain terms between the writer and the agency. (For example, the agreement limits the agent’s commission to ten percent.) There were 217 different agencies on the list. Since the Guild will not recommend any of the agencies, I sent the screenplay, “Casablanca,” to all of them. The results offer a telling look at the movie biz.
NINETY of the agencies would not read the unsolicited script I sent them. Seven of the agencies never responded despite my repeated efforts to contact them. Eighteen of the scripts presumably got lost in the mail.
Eighty-five agencies did read the screenplay, submitted under my favorite pseudonym, Erik Demos. Instead of calling it “Casablanca,” I used the title of the original (unproduced) play it was based on: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” I made only one alteration (in the script): Instead of calling Rick’s sidekick Sam, in the script I named him Dooley, after the actor who played the part, Dooley Wilson.
Thirty-three of the agencies recognized the script, and most reacted playfully. From John Crosby and Associated came this note: “Have some excellent ideas on casting this wonderful script, but most of the actors are dead.” In the same vein, Alan Greene of the Gage Group wrote: “Unfortunately, I’ve seen this picture before: 147 times to be exact.” International Creative Management (ICM) also recognized the script and speculated on my motives: “If you are trying to make a point about how the unrepresented writer has no chance of having his material read by an agency or production company, you have made a mistake in selecting ICM.” The agent, Patrick Faulstich, went on to explain that script readers at ICM “make every effort possible to cover unsolicited scripts and respond to their authors with personal and professional suggestions and comments.”
Incredibly, three agencies, Seiden & Associates, the Larry Sugo Talent Agency, and Lil Cumber Attractions wanted to represent the work, and a fourth, the Irv Schecter Co., had a more involved plan in mind. Though tempted, I politely refused all offers. I phoned each of these agencies, however, as soon as I received a contract or a nibble.
When Seiden & Associates sent me a contract, I phoned the boss, Dave Seiden, who told me, “You’ve got just as good a chance with us representing you as anybody else.” I then spoke to the person who read the script:
ME: It’s called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
SHE: Want to hold on a minute…O.K., well if you’ve received a contract then it has merit.
ME: Do you remember the script?
SHE: Yeah. I’m the one who read it. Hold on a minute…I thought it was very good and, like I said, it has merit. We’ll see what we can do with it.
ME: You don’t have any criticisms of it?
SHE: No, no, no, just if it’s written well…
ME: Have you been reading scripts for a long time?
SHE: Yeah, quite a while. As far as I know, it has merit enough to market it.
ME: Think it would be good for a feature film?
SHE: It sounds like it would be good for TV.
ME: It had a lot of Bogart qualities, don’t you think?
SHE: Well, if you had that in mind, fine. It’s hard for me with that particular story to picture anyone in particular. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.
I told her I’d have to think about signing the contract.
After eight-and-a-half-weeks and one follow up letter, I heard from the second talent agency that wanted to represent the script. The outside of the envelope informed me that it was the Frank Vass Talent Agency doing business as the Larry Sugo Talent Agency. Inside I was shocked to read:
“Dear Mr. Demos, We tried to call you , but your phone is not listed. We like your script and submitted it to a studio.”
I immediately called the agent who signed the letter.
ME: Which studio did you submit it to?
SHE: I really don’t tell.
ME: Don’t you have to have my permission to do that?
SHE: Oh no. You don’t pay us—we are a special kind of agency. You don’t have to pay us anything until we sell something for you. Then there will be a contract with the studio, a lawyer, and you.
ME: You do this without contacting me first?
SHE: Yes. There is a 90-day period when we don’t make any contracts with any writers or talents while we see if the studio likes the material…You have a good story line. You have interesting characters. Rick is the most interesting character in it. And the couple—he is a Czechoslovakian? His name is Laszlo. Are you Hungarian?
SHE: Because Laszlo is a Hungarian name. I am Hungarian. And I know you made Laszlo Czechoslovakian, but there are a lot of Hungarians in Czechoslovakia.
Finally, the agency agreed to return the script to me with a list of the studios contacted, along with any comments the studios might have had. No such list was ever forwarded to me. Instead, a note to me stated simply, “You are not our client. Good luck.”
The third agent who wanted my signature on a contract was Lil Cumber. Her letter also wanted to know: “Who did you have in mind for the roles of Rick, Ilsa, etc.?” I thought that was worth a call.
ME: What exactly did you like about the script?
SHE: I liked the construction, the characterization, and the plot.
ME: You asked me who I had in mind for the roles….Well, Humphrey Bogart…
SHE: I meant somebody available now.
ME: Somebody like Bogart….
SHE: So all you have is a generalization…. I don’t know if your script is sellable, but I think that with the intrigue from the Mideast and the whole mystique of it has potential.
A writer learns to tolerate the interminable wait for a response. For example, over a six-month period I sent the Irv Schecter Co. three follow-up letters and made four follow-up phone calls before I could find out what happened to the script. In the end I was told that Schechter did not feel there was a market at the time for World War II stories. However, the man I spoke with did have some good news. He wanted my permission to send the script to a literary agent in New York to see about the possibilities of turning the script into a novel. Again, I respectfully declined the offer.
EIGHT agencies noticed the similarity of the script to “Casablanca,” but didn’t notice that it was, with the exception of changing Sam’s name to Dooley, exactly “Casablanca.”
For instance, said one: “I don’t know if it was my imagination or not, but I found it somewhat like ‘Casablanca.’ ” I thought the beginning was almost exactly like it.” What about the rest of it? “Well, no, then it departed more.”
Another agent suggested that I “take it a bit away from ‘Casablanca.’ The idea did intrigue me. I just think you need to rework it…you have excessive dialogue at times.”
Furthest out, perhaps, on the spectrum of responses were the shenanigans of Alex Jackinson, an agent located in New York City. Two months after I sent him the script, I received this response in the mail:
“If, by now you made a good agency connection—fine; if not, feel free to write me again. I read your script, and I may well have some suggestions to make.
Any suggestions you might pose about me; clients, experience, etc., etc., are all answered in my book.”
Jackinson enclosed a page of clippings from trade journals detailing the success of his clients, a page of blurbs extolling the virtues of his book on publishing, and an order form ($5.95 plus $.50 for sales tax and mailing charges).
I called Jackinson and told him I was more interested in his comments on the script. He refused to say anything about it on the phone, and instructed me to write him again. After I did he responded,
“Dear Erik Demos:
Yes, I may well have some suggestions to make (about the screenplay) but there are a few pre-conditions. One, you will have to read my book. The one thing for which an agent never has to apologize, is being a good salesman, so to say. So I am pushing my book. But there is a totally different reason why I want you to know me. You will not have to buy a copy—the L.A. Public Library had ordered five copies of my book, and they are still in circulation…Two, I will want to see copies of your correspondence with other agents.”
Another order form for his book was included. In a final correspondence Jackinson wrote, “My suggestion is that, to bridge the gap between ‘talented writer’, which you are now, and ‘professional writer’, which is yet to come, you need professional help. And that will have to be paid for. I could recommend a ‘literary surgeon’ who would help you, but are you ready to accept professional help????”
I decided the Oscar-winning screenplay did not need to go under the knife.
There was a grab bag of agencies that perceived either problems with the script or its suitability for the marketplace. The Memminger Agency told me, “What I didn’t like about the screenplay, as I recall, is that it started out with almost a documentary feel…. I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could’ve been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it. I think other than that it could’ve worked for you.” Lois Lane (honest) of the Sackheim Agency advised, “Put it away and when things like that come back out again—or after you’ve gotten something else sold then you can bring that out and sell it. The writing is excellent, so there’s no problem there. I’m not saying that you’re not a good writer-so-go-sell-shoes.”
The Larry Karlin Agency warned, “Never send a screenplay unsolicited!!!!! I gave you five pages to grab me—didn’t do it.” Said Alan Nicolette, assistant to Ansley Q. Hyman: “Too much dialogue, not enough exposition, the story line was weak, and in general didn’t hold my interest.” I try not to take criticism personally, and I hope Howard Koch and Julius Epstein don’t either.
Charlotte Trejos of the Trejos Literary Agency penned: “Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script. Try for a script that has audience identification and one that can be filmed in the U.S.” The Carol Ferrell Agency had the same misconception: “Interesting script, but because it is done on location we feel it would be a difficult sell.” Just because the script says, “Set in French Morocco,” one needn’t film there. “Casablanca,’’ after all was shot mostly on the Warners lot.
Paul Dekeyser at John La Rocca & Associates had a specific suggestion: “I regret to say that we will not be able to help you with your script. I strongly recommend that you leaf through a book called “Screenplay” by Syd Field, especially the section pertaining to dialogue. This book may be an aid to you in putting a professional polish on your script, which I feel is its strongest need.” I contacted Mr. Field and asked him what he thought about the screenplay of “Casablanca.” Although he never read the screenplay, Field said he’d seen the movie four times. It worked each time, he told me, and he loves the dialogue, too.
I called the Ray Rappa Agency after three unanswered follow-up letters over a period of five months. Observed Rappa, “It’s a good script, but in this business it’s more the deal and what you’ve got cooking for you packagewise. It’s not an easy row to hoe when you take a new script and a new writer.”
Though it was six months before I got any reaction form Barr/Wilder & Associates, David Wilder amplified on Rappa. “It’s just the type of thing you can’t sell. If you’re going to sell a show to the studios they are buying things $2 million and under. They’re buying your horror movies, your action-adventure movies, your “Conans,” your “Sinbad the Sailor”—that type of show. That’s what people are looking at. A new writer today, unless you can come up with an action-adventure type of thing, I mean T & A, I’m talking Tits and Ass type of show, or your horror thing—
“What you’re trying to do is get your foot in the door. And your script, in my opinion—and I’ve been in this business a long time—is not going to get your foot in the door. If I gave a hundred eighty-nine page script of a horror movie—not animal horror, but person horror—they’d read it right away because that’s what they’re looking for. A young writer brought in a script two weeks ago almost like “The Exorcist” and a company bought it and the kid’s directing it. That’s how fast it happened. So I think you want to do the greatest writing you can do, but you should write something you can sell—that people are looking for.”
One year and two months after I sent the script to the Walter P. Sage Talent Agency it was returned with apologies. I called Sage:
ME: You didn’t mention if you read it or not. Did you like it?
SAGE: I’d kind of have to reel back—I’ve read and read and read…
ME: World War Two—took place in French Morocco—
SAGE: What do you want from me?
ME: I was wondering if I could get your comments on it.
SAGE: If I really wanted to chase it, really wanted to do something, hell or high water wouldn’t keep me from it. But do me a favor, do yourself a favor—keep writing, for God’s sake, keep pursuing—don’t be put off. Keep me in mind. Send me something we can both get excited about. You took the trouble to sit down and pour your heart and your time and everything else into your work. Keep writing. Keep pursuing. Because there will come a day, believe me when I say this to you, there will come a day when quality things will be seen. It’s just not the material I care to pursue at this time.
ME: What kind of material excites you?
SAGE: Everybody is swimming north. You swim south…Something that has an escape in it. If someone is going to pay $5-$12 to see a film, they want escape. The biggest success today is “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It’s purely escape—like James Bond. It’s not gory, it’s not morose, it keeps you on the edge of your seat. You completely forget the outside world; you completely forget your troubles. You’re wrapped up in identifying with the people up there on the screen. You’re creating a state of mind in the audience’s mind. That’s what to do.”
ME: You don’t think I accomplished that?
SAGE: I think? You know. Stay away from the comedic. You’re asking me what sells. The day of the gore is over. Everybody thinks if you write something dirty, filthy, and a lot of blood in it, and violent, that you’re gonna make a million dollars. But that day’s over.
WHAT, as they say in Hollywood, was the bottom line of my foray into the world of agents? Seventeen agencies that said they read the script would not say why they rejected it. Many were just plain rude. Two said they read the script, but then decided they had not read it. In all, of the eighty-five agencies that claimed to have read it, forty-one rejected it outright, eight rejected it and thought the script resembled “Casablanca,” three wanted to represent it, and one wanted to turn it into a novel. Only thirty-three agents recognized a rose by another name.
The comments of the agents who did not recognize the script are fairly representative of all those who rejected it and serve as their own indictments. Yet one must remember those thirty-three who did know what they were reading. Since the Writers Guild won’t recommend agents or agencies, it would seem that just recognizing “Casablanca” is as good a recommendation as an aspiring screenwriter can get.
Finally, it is worth asking what does one have to do today to become an agent in Hollywood. In California, where most of the agencies are based, obtaining the necessary credentials is relatively simple. The state requires formal application, fingerprints, a $1,000 surety bond, a $150 office license fee, your intended schedule of fees, and two affidavits of character.
In addition, California’s 1959 law states, “No talent agency shall knowingly permit persons of bad character, prostitutes, gamblers, intoxicated persons, or procurers to frequent, or be employed in, the place of business of the talent agency.”
I presume this is a necessary safeguard, so I am sure our esteemed California legislators will have no objection to my proposed amendment. I would add one more category to the list of miscreants barred from employment in an agency: “those unable to recognize the screenplay of ‘Casablanca.’ ”
Copyright by Chuck Ross.
Postscript: What would happen if someone repeated this experiement today? While "Casablanca" is available on DVD and Blu-ray, it's not shown much on TV anymore, so fewer and fewer people are familiar with it. So my guess is that even fewer agents -- a lot fewer agents -- would recognize it today.
And of those agents who wouldn't recognize it, would they want to take it on to try and get it made? While I think the script of "Casablanca" remains one of the greatest of all time -- and still holds up tremendously (as does the movie made from it) -- I think there is little doubt that it would be tough to get it represented today, let alone made.