x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

In Hollywood, cupcakes show where you stand

It was the thing that every single one of his writer friends had told him under no circumstances to agree to. He agreed to a meeting.

A few years ago, a friend of mine tried to fire his agent.

It didn't go well. After a long, wearying phone call, in which the agent tried everything in his bag of tricks - "You owe me! This is wrong! I messed up, I know! Gimme one more chance! This is a bad career move!" - my friend finally agreed to the thing he had been dreading.

It was the thing that every single one of his writer friends had told him under no circumstances to agree to. He agreed to a meeting.

So there he was, a few hours later, in a conference room of a sleek building in Beverly Hills, surrounded by agents - his agent, other agents at the agency, and a giant tray of cupcakes. It wasn't just a meeting. It was an event. His agent and his agent's colleagues turned it into a very big thing.

Agents do that when you threaten to fire them. They ring the alarm, gather the troops, arrange the sugary carbohydrates and do what it takes to keep the client in the fold.

And in the end - as usually happens after all of the we-love-you and you're-important-to-us and especially the cupcakes - my friend agreed to stay put.

My own theory is, he never wanted to fire his agent at all. What he really wanted was a love-fest meeting. And, of course, the cupcakes.

There's nothing quite like having a bunch of agents beg you not to fire them, all the while stuffing your face with sweets. It's as close to being an Ottoman sultan as most of us will ever come.

That was, as I said, a few years ago, back when the business was flush and fat. Back then clients like my friend - who I'm pretty sure was a real pain-in-the-backside high-maintenance client, a daily caller, a needy "what-offer-do-I-have-today?" kind of client - were worth keeping, worth fighting for, because business was booming, and you could park him in a rich multiyear studio deal and 10 per cent of that was worth suffering through the daily whinging phone call.

An agent friend of mine told me, in an unguarded moment, his philosophy about clients: you don't have to be friends with them. You just have to think that they'll be good earners. Like dairy cows.

Back then, if you wanted to leave your agent, you had to prepare yourself for the meeting, for the big sequestration in the conference room with the cupcakes and the PowerPoint deck. You had to stick to your guns. You had to be willing to endure the painful, awkward, bad feeling in the air as you left the conference room, waited for the parking validation stickers, headed down to parking, and finally drove out into the sunshine, finally free of your clingy, desperate agent.

And then, more cupcakes would appear, right on your doorstep! Every agency in town would start to court you - it'd be all smiles in conference rooms up and down Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, as other agents in different offices made the same calculation that your previous agent had made: he's a jerk, and he'll call me all the time, but he's an earner.

And they'd promise you a bigger career, more access, more opportunities. If you were in TV, they'd say: "Want to be in movies? We can make that happen." If you were in movies, they'd say: "Why aren't you a director? We can make that happen." To everything, it was: "We can make that happen."

Well, as I said, that was then. I know a writer - fairly well-known, a good little earner - who made the rounds of the agencies recently.

When he called his agent to give him the news that he was leaving, he girded himself for the conversation. Just get it out, he said to himself. Say it and move on. Don't let them get you into the conference room. Just keep it short and to the point.

So when his agent came on the line, he had his speech down. It was short, professional, generous and composed. Then he paused, waiting for the inevitable.

"Yeah," his agent said. "I kinda see your point." No demand for a meeting. No offer of a sweet treat. Just bye-bye.

And when he went on the rounds, meeting other agents who, a few years ago, would have staged elaborate conference room love-fests, would have produced seats-on-the-floor Lakers tickets, first edition books, spa packages and fancy pens, he found instead a couple of grim-faced guys in suits, telling him about the major contractions in the business, telling him it's tough out there, telling him, "Want to be in features? We probably can't make that happen." And: "Want to direct? We probably can't make that happen." And: "You've got some money in the bank, right? Because there's, like, no work out there right now."

The happiest agent he talked to all day was the one he fired.

And nobody gave him a cupcake. He had to buy his own, which he ate in his car. Times have changed. Cupcakes don't lie.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood