Nobody grows up wanting to be an agent
by Michael Peretzian
By some twist of fate, I landed in the William Morris mailroom. I had gone to UCLA for seven years getting a BA in Motion Picture Production, an MA in the History of the Theater, an MFA in Directing for the Theater, and a Secondary Teaching Credential – just in case my aspirations to, at first, be an actor, and later, a theater director, did not turn out. My first real job after leaving UCLA was teaching college level courses in acting and play analysis at the Pasadena Playhouse, a first step in a possible career of becoming a professor in a university one day, but that path came to a crashing end when the school went bankrupt (the first time!).
One of my fellow bankruptees suggested I meet with a small literary agent about a job in the entertainment industry. He had nothing for me but he recommended I meet Ron Mardigian at the William Morris Agency. I decided to place a cold call to Mr. Mardigian. I had nothing to lose, and I was getting desperate.
The day I called, Ron was in conference with his hot young screenwriter, David Giler. When Ron’s assistant announced my name, Giler was excited to hear it because we went to Hollywood High School together. Ron picked up the phone, and I think he thought if Giler knew me, then I might become his next hot screenwriter client. I could not believe that he actually took my call. (Actually, being Armenian, as Ron is, it was the first and only time that being Armenian got anywhere in the business!). When I told him I was calling for a job interview for the mailroom, you could hear the air of disappointment coming out of a balloon.
But I got the interview, and as I was walking down a long hall to Human Resources, Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon. Both of us on the start of a great adventure. I got the job. My pride had to deal with the fact that with all my degrees, I had to take night classes in learning speedwriting at Beverly Hills night school (where I had substitute taught just a few weeks prior to my William Morris interview) so I could take dictation and be satisfied with $85/week ($5 more than the going rate to take into account I had two masters degrees). “OK, OK,” I told myself. “It doesn’t matter.” I was in!
My stint in the mailroom was colorful and rather short. I got Ron’s desk. I had no competition getting it because all the other trainees were focused on getting a desk working for a talent agent working in television packaging for which William Morris was very successful, or with an agent who represented actors, hoping to eventually work with William Morris’ movie stars. While it was not a required qualification to become a literary agent, my liberal arts education came in handy dealing with the caliber of writers Ron represented, and when I got my confidence up enough to make submission suggestions in staff literary meetings, my film school and theatre degrees from UCLA were valuable in getting noticed, and I advanced to becoming an agent after a little over a year on Ron’s desk.
Moral: Nobody grows up wanting to be an agent one day. So my advice is learn all you can and get the best education you can afford because you never know where that background will take you.
I had many trainees under me in my career, and I tried to challenge them to reach for those qualities that advanced my career, telling them that they can be promoted when you can foresee a problem, analyze it, come up with possible solutions, then tell them to your boss, as well as what your best solution might be, so that your boss does not have to do your thinking for you. If the agent’s response to your idea can come down to a “yes” or a “no”, it will to make your boss’s job a bit easier, and he or she will know you are actually learning something.
Moral: Anticipate problems, find effective solutions and it will become apparent that your company is wasting their time and your time by you just answering phones and taking messages when you could be out in the market place finding clients or closing a deal.
Ron also taught me how important it was to have a private life. He had a house in Lake Arrowhead where he and his family would go every weekend. There was no phone there, and from Friday night to Monday morning, he had a life with family and close friends away from the business. I admired that. It gave me a perspective on the job as part of my life, and not my life. Ironically, that made me a better rounded person and consequently, a better agent. Probably this is harder to realize in these highly competitive days where instant gaining of information and rapid technology are paramount in conducting business, but the concept is still valid.
Moral: Have a life.
On a more personal level, working on Ron’s desk was more than a fantastic training ground. My father died when I was 15, and I had three sisters in my family, no brothers, so in addition to being my boss, Ron was as surrogate father at times, but mostly, he was, and is, the older brother I never had. He is my friend, and we still have lunch from time to time to this day.
After leaving William Morris for Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and wrapping up 38 years as an agent to go back to directing plays that I love as I had thought I would do one day when I was student at UCLA, I sent my last email in which I tried to convey the basic lessons I had learned in all that time. My words were not as insightful as the ones I found written by the educator, William Ward:
Before you speak, listen.
Before you write, think.
Before you spend, earn.
Before you invest, investigate.
Before you criticize, wait.
Before you pray, forgive.
Before you quit, try.
Before you retire, save.
Before you die, give.
Banner art: Michael Peretzian and Oscar nominated director (and client) John Madden (1998); Michael Peretzian/Herald Examiner cover story (July 1986); Michael Peretzian with WMA colleagues Ron Mardigian and Peter Turner (1987)Tags: #TBT, Anthony Minghella, Breaking into Hollywood, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), David Giler, First Hollywood job, Hollywood, John Madden, Literary agent, Michael Peretzian, Ron Mardigian, William Morris Agency (WMA)