…And got rejected by about a zillion agents who didn’t recognize it as an Academy Award-winning screenplay?
His name was Chuck Ross, and 30 years ago Film Comment Magazine published his article on what Chuck calls “the most outrageous ‘test’ ever conducted with those who work in the movie industry.”
The other day, for our entertainment and edification, he republished his fascinating tale of film biz ignorance. which we love, love, love for many reasons, not the least of which is that he names names.
Take it away, Chuck Ross:
The Great Script Tease – by Chuck Ross
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.
In a post script at the end of the article, Chuck asks, “What would happen if someone repeated this experiment today?” Our opinion: Even fewer readers would recognize it…and even fewer agents would want to represent it or its writer.
Too cynical? Well, then, what do you think?