Just over a quarter century ago, when I was a young scribbler traipsing around the metro desk of the Baltimore Sun, I had an early opportunity to learn a lesson about money, about ethics, about capitalism and, in particular, about the American entertainment industry. And Dorothy Simon, she raised no fools. I only needed to learn it once.
I learned about something called “packaging.”
And now, finally, my apostasy from newspapering having delivered me from Baltimore realities to film-set make-believe, I am suprised and delighted that many of the fellow scribblers with whom I share a labor union have at last acquired the same hard, ugly lesson:
Packaging is a lie. It is theft. It is fraud. In the hands of the right U.S. Attorney, it might even be prima facie evidence of decades of racketeering. It’s that fucking ugly.
For those of you not in the film and television world, there is no shame in tuning out right now because at its core, the argument over packaging now ongoing between film and television writers and their agents is effectively an argument over an embarrassment of riches. The American entertainment industry is seemingly recession-proof and television writing, specifically, is such a growth industry nowadays that even good and great novelists must be ordered back to their prose manuscripts by book editors for whom the term “showrunner” has become an affront. A lot of people are making good money writing television drama. And so, this fresh argument is about who is making more of that money, and above all, where the greatest benefits accrue.
. . . .
Here is the story of how as a novice to this industry, I was grifted by my agents and how I learned everything I ever needed to know about packaging. And here is why I am a solid yes-vote on anything my union puts before me that attacks the incredible ethical affront of this paradigm. Packaging is a racket. It’s corrupt. It is without any basis in either integrity or honor. This little narrative will make that clear.
. . . .
To begin, I wrote a book. It was a non-fiction account of a year I spent with a shift of homicide detectives in Baltimore, a city ripe with violence and miscalculation. Published in 1991, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” was repped by my literary agent at the time, an independent attorney who I found because his other clients included some other ink-stained newspaper reporters. Late in 1987, the Baltimore Police Department agreed to let me into its homicide unit for a year beginning that January, so I needed to quickly acquire an agent to sell the project to a publishing house and secure an advance on which to live while I took a leave-of-absence from my newspaper. This agent — and damn, I wish I could name the goniff, but I later signed a cash settlement that said I wouldn’t — was the first name that came to me. I did not shop around; I was in a hurry. My bad.
Three years later, with the book ready to publish, this shyster suggested to me that he was entirely capable of going to Hollywood with it for a sale of the dramatic rights. And knowing less than a bag of taters about Hollywood, I was ready to agree until my book editor, the worthy John Sterling, then helming the Houghton Mifflin publishing house, told me in no uncertain terms that this was a mistake.
It was customary, John explained, for even the best literary agents to pair with a colleague at one of the bigger entertainment agencies and split the commission. My literary agent would give up half of his 15 percent to the other agency, but he would gain the expertise of an organization with the connections to move the property around and find the right eyeballs in the film and television industry. So I called my agent back and insisted.
With some initial reluctance, he eventually chose to go with Creative Artists Agency — one of the Big Four, as they call the largest entertainment entities repping talent, and an agent in CAA’s literary division by the name of Matt Snyder. After making the deal with CAA, my literary agent called me back and said it was customary for me to give up a larger percentage commission as I now had two agents working on my behalf. How much more? He suggested that he should keep his 15 percent and I should pay CAA an additional 10 percent. So a quarter of the profits from the sale of book would now be siphoned to agency commissions.
I called back John Sterling and asked: Is this right?
John nearly dropped the phone. No, that is not how it works. Again, he explained that my literary agent was supposed to split the existing 15 percent commission on the book with CAA. The literary agent was supposed to keep 7.5 percent and give the other half to CAA, which in no way was entitled to any cash above and beyond that split.
I called my agent back. No, you split the existing 15 points, I told him. He threw a few chunks of pouty guilt at me, but I shrugged him off. This first attempt at a grift should have warned me, but hey, I was young.
. . . .
Then the contract comes back from Baltimore Pictures and while it’s all found money for a police reporter and rewrite man who’s working for union scale at The Sun, I check with some other authors who have sold stuff to Hollywood and they all acknowledge it’s on the low-end of where such offers usually reside. Fine for the option money, a little light on the contingent pilot, pick-up and episodic payments and, of course, farce on the definition of net profits. So I call Matt Snyder back and say so: This seems a little light and it’s a first offer. Let’s go back to Levinson with a counter.
And Matt Snyder of CAA acts as if his client, me, has just thrown a dead, rancid dog on the table. This is my first book sale to Hollywood and Barry Levinson is an A-lister; I should be grateful for this offer and worried that if I nickel-and-dime, Levinson may develop something else for his first television series. Reluctantly, as if he is being asked to traverse a vale of danger and uncertainty, Snyder eventually agrees to go back and see if he can’t get, maybe, a bump in the per-episode royalty, maybe $250 an hour. He’ll fight for me. He’ll see what gives. And sure enough, the per-episode fee goes up by 10 percent after Snyder, relentless carnivore that he is, returns to his client with pride and some pocket change.
. . . .
Then I asked another question: “Jake, do you have any written consent from me on file in which I authorize you to rep both sides of the sale of my book? I will answer that for you: You do not. I never authorized this. Not to CAA. Not to my book agent. I never gave informed consent. I couldn’t. Because I was never informed.”
Had CAA, in fact, returned the 7.5 percent of my commission?
They had — to my book agent, who pocketed it. Quietly.
. . . .
“Matt — absent any evidence of informed consent by me — that you and CAA proceeded to negotiate with Barry Levinson, whom you also represented, is a prima facie conflict-of-interest and a breach of fiduciary duty. If you were a realtor secretly representing both sides of a house sale, your license would be torn up. If you were a lawyer, you’d be disbarred.”
There was only a small pause before he explained himself:
“But I’m not a lawyer. I’m an agent.”