February 15, 2014 – The film and television business has radically changed over the course of my career. In the mid-1980s, the WGA published a “Market List” as part of their newsletter. In it, they listed every TV show in production (it only took two pages back then, can’t imagine what it would be today!) as well as whether or not they accepted blind spec script submissions or if scripts had to come in under the auspices of a WGA signatory agency. To say that I was ignorant of how “the biz” really worked would be a gross understatement, but I was savvy enough to subscribe to the Guild newsletter as a way of educating myself from afar. After all, having finished my first bona fide spec script for a mega-hit show which I felt was actually “ready for primetime,” I believed all I had to do was get it into the hands of that series’ Powers That Be and the rest would be history. Ahem. So, in 1985, armed with my first obsessively groomed, typed on an actual typewriter script, I set about figuring how I’d submit my masterpiece to the show for which I’d written it―Murder, She Wrote. Stop laughing. That series had premiered the year before and was a major hit for CBS on Sunday Nights. At the time, it seemed like a good fit for me because all through high school and college, I’d been a huge Agatha Christie fan, wrote and hosted my own murder mystery parties, made damn sure I got the role of Sir Lawrence Wargrave in my senior year production of Ten Little Indians, etc. My episode was entitled “Murder, First Class” and put Angela Lansbury’s novelist-sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the first class cabin of a flight from New York to London where she would be researching her next book. Naturally, once the plane had taken off, an elderly, near-sighted nun was found bludgeoned in the lavatory, a mere prelude to the featured cyanide-laced murder of a fabulously wealthy matriarch traveling with her family/entourage in the posh seats surrounding Ms. Fletcher. I won’t go into too much detail, but the nun just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and was the only person on the plane who could have connected the murderer with the victim, so naturally she had to be eliminated. But back to our story…
To further demonstrate my ignorance of all things Hollywood, I was living in San Francisco at the time, working for the Chronicle-Examiner in their marketing department, producing multi-projector (or “multi-image” as it was commonly called contemporaneously) slide shows to help sell newspaper advertising space―but that’s a story for another cocktail. I knew I had to eventually move to L.A. to pursue a career, but for now, this is where circumstance had landed me. Undaunted, I flipped through the handy WGA Market List, found the entry for M,SW, zipped my finger across the columns to the contact name: Robert Van Scoyk, a no-kidding for-real Story Editor on the show, and then with either brass balls or profound ignorance or a combination of both, I picked up the phone in my storage closet/office and dialed. Of course, I figured that someone as important and vital to a show as the Story Editor Himself would most likely have some coffee-fetching underling field my call, and was shocked when Mr. Van Scoyk answered his direct line himself: “Bob Van Scoyk.” “Oh, um, hi, Mr. Van Scoyk. My name is Mark Perry and I’ve written a spec script for your show―only I see in the WGA Market List that you only accept submissions through agents.” “That’s right,” he replied. And that’s when I launched my plan―which was, in hindsight, rather brilliant in its total naiveté. I said, “Well, I’m currently unrepresented, so I was wondering if I might submit my script through your agent.” There was an understandably awkward hesitation on the other end of the phone, then he finally said, “Huh. No one’s ever asked me that before.” Another pause, then he concluded, “I don’t see why not.” “So is that what you’d recommend I do?” “Sure, go for it.” “Great, thanks so much for your time.” I hung up the phone―in and out in under forty-five seconds. First impressions were key, and I certainly didn’t want to be wasting a Story Editor’s time.
With my trusted WGA newsletter to guide me, I then immediately called the Guild, asked for the agency department, and within a few more minutes, I was dialing the number of Mr. Robert Van Scoyk’s WGA signatory agent, a woman named Sylvia Hirsch who was, at the time, employed at the now long defunct Sy Fisher Agency. As it happens, Sylvia had just that morning returned from a luxurious two week vacation in Hawaii, and was in a very good mood. Again, I was surprised that she actually took my call herself. “Sylvia Hirsch.” “Yes, hello, Ms. Hirsch. My name is Mark Perry and your client Bob Van Scoyk said it would be okay if I gave you a call.” “Well sure. How can I help you?” “I’ve written a spec script for Murder, She Wrote only I don’t have an agent, so Bob recommended that I submit it through you.” Now granted, all of this was technically true, but sounded far more legitimate in the way I was presenting it. “That’s fine, kiddo,” she said, and yes, she actually called me kiddo, “get it to me and if I like it, I’ll send it over there.” I hung up―again, done and done in less than a minute.
What I had failed to mention to Bob Van Scoyk or Sylvia Hirsch was that the San Francisco newspapers were sending me to Los Angeles the very next day to run tech for a huge multi-image presentation at the Beverly Hills Hotel. With three days of sales pitches scheduled, I would be there for four nights, with mornings and late afternoons free. So I did something that in hindsight still puzzles and amuses me: rather than mail my M,SW spec complete with its neatly typed cover letter, I hand delivered it, pretending to be a messenger. Precious, I know. I was so star-struck, so intimidated with everything and anything that had to do with Hollywood, that I just had to see what the inside of a real agency looked like. As it turns out, it wasn’t much to get excited about. I had the receptionist sign my bogus list of deliveries, then scurried out of there, finally making my way back home to San Francisco. True story. Sadly enough.
A few weeks later, Sylvia called to tell me that the powers that be at M,SW had liked my writing, but ultimately passed. In fact―in another example of how profoundly the business has changed―they actually returned my script along with a real rejection letter that said, in part, “the writer plots well and some of his characters are well turned out, but we feel that his interpretation of Jessica Fletcher falls short of the mark.” So somehow, I got passed on because my take on the least interesting character on the show was flawed. But the end result was that Sylvia Hirsch, who I would later learn was in her 70s and had been the first female literary agent working on the west coast in the 1940s for the William Morris Agency, actually agreed to read whatever I wrote next and, if she liked it, she’d submit it for me. And that’s how I got an agent by being completely ignorant of how to get an agent.
Post script: years later when I was staffing my own, ill-fated, completely disastrous, and mercifully short-lived series, Sylvia, who I had fired years prior (which was just like telling your grandmother you don’t want to be related to her anymore), called to pitch a client for a staff position. That client was, naturally, Mr. Robert Van Scoyk, who sadly just wasn’t a good fit.
I wish he had been.
My take away from my first legit TV experience was one of encouragement. With no other TV spec ideas, I then turned to writing my first feature screenplay, a little ditty called Temporary Insanity about an office temp who gets embroiled with drug lords in Los Angeles. But it was the script I co-wrote with my friend Dudley Sanders, a theater professor at Agnes Scott College, that would get Sylvia so excited she called on a Sunday afternoon after reading it to announce that it was one of the best things she’d ever read, and promised to have a bidding war between every studio in town by the end of the following week. Stay tuned…