What if I woke up one morning to find that motorcycle journalists were treated like screenwriters?
The Writers Guild of America, which is basically the union for screenwriters who work on major films and TV shows, recently came to loggerheads with Hollywood talent agencies and film studios over an industry practice known as ‘packaging’.
Talent agencies have long sought to ‘package’ writers, directors, and stars from their own rosters, so that major movies and TV shows all rely on key talent represented by a single agency. On the face of it, this makes perfect sense. Of course agents want jobs to go to people they represent, because they reap a 10% commission for each deal they negotiate, but there’s more to it.
Packaging has even affected me, because Riding Man has been in Hollywood’s development hell for a decade. After I sold the rights to a big time production company, they contracted with a hot screenwriter to write a script inspired by my memoir.
One of the hurdles in getting our film made has been that talent agents are real power-brokers, and they actively push back on deals that would pair a star from one agency with a director from another.
In fact, the Riding Man project hit a few bumps right away, because industry etiquette meant the screenwriter had to clear the project with his talent agency. It turned out that company also repped another writer/director who had a TT movie in development. As I understand it, when the talent agency gave our project the thumbs-up, it effectively killed that other guy’s dream.
So, the challenges presented by that packaging practice may well have prevented at least one – if not two – TT features from being made.
That’s not the WGA’s beef. The screenwriters’ union takes issue with the fact that packaging deals have evolved to the point where major talent agencies have become producers in everything but name, with an equity stake in productions.
If agencies share in a show’s profits, they lose the incentive to get the best deals for the writers they represent. That may be why screenwriters haven’t seen a pay increase in decades.
Riding Man is not the only motorcycle story I’ve optioned to film producers, though nothing’s ever been made. Even if one of my stories eventually is produced as a feature film, I won’t necessarily be welcomed into the WGA. The Hollywood totem pole has studio heads and financiers on the top, with stars just beneath them, then directors, then screenwriters. People like me, who write underlying material, aren’t the low men on the pole, we’re on the part that’s buried in the ground.
I’ve written about motorcycles almost full time for most of the last 20 years. Over that period, the top pay for a feature story has dropped by about 65%. In 2019, motojournos often work for days on projects, some of which entail exhausting travel schedules and substantial physical risk, for a few hundred bucks.
The above paragraph may help explain why I’m not that sympathetic to WGA screenwriters, who are paid a minimum of about $73,000 for a 90-page screenplay. Call it three bucks a word, which is to say that the bare minimum for a WGA screenwriter is about ten times the going rate for my specialty.
The other night, I went to sleep just after reading that WGA call for screenwriters to fire their agents. As I dozed off I wondered if big shot Hollywood agents would pick up any replacement writers, because I could use some of that $3-a-word abuse...
Gene Farmer woke when he heard his assistant, Marcus, open the front door and punch in the security code. Farmer swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up, putting the ‘gin’ in gingerly.
Considering the way his head felt, waking up in his own bed was a pleasant surprise. He certainly had no idea how he’d gotten home – surely he hadn’t ridden that S1000RR loaner back, in the condition he’d been… Oh, wait, he’d Ubered home with that cute little editorial intern from Motorcycle World.
Where was she, anyway? Gone; just as well. He squinted at the clock – 11:30. Sighed, stood up, and found a robe.
Downstairs, Marcus could barely conceal a smile when his boss appeared.
“I was worried I’d be late,” said the assistant as he handed Farmer a large takeout cup from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.”
“Yeah,” Farmer grunted, with a nod towards a package wrapped in brown paper. “What’s that?”
“Your tux,” said Marcus. “You haven’t forgotten that tonight’s the ‘Golden Wheelie’ presentation?”
“Jesus.” Farmer sipped his coffee, then said, “Jesus!” again and glared at his assistant.
“What? I’ve reminded you about the awards ceremony every day this week. Remember the tailor who came to measure you?”
“No! It’s not the awards, it’s this shit. Is this even oat milk?”
“Yes,” Marcus stammered. “Look, it’s written right on the cup: ‘Oat’.”
“It might say ‘Oat’ but it’s almond milk. I’ve told you before, you have to watch them make it.”
“Do you want me to go back and get another?”
“No, just watch, next time,” growled Farmer.
“I will.” Marcus looked down for moment, miming contrition. Then he looked up and said, “Remember you have lunch with Alan at Toscana at two o’clock.”
“Why does that bastard always pick such out-of-the-way spots? I’ll have to cross the 405, for fuck’s sake.”
“Just remember to order the grilled salmon,” Marcus said helpfully. “It’s the one thing you always like there.”
The assistant flipped through a pile of mail and stopped at one window envelope. “It looks as if MCN has finally sent in the residual payment they owe you for online views of the Speed Twin launch.”
“It’s about time. Anything else?”
“Not really,” said the assistant. “Have you written that synopsis of the S1000RR story that Alan asked for? You know he’s going to pester you for that, over lunch.”
“That douchebag’s always after something for nothing. He knows as well as I do that according to MJG rules, I’m supposed to get a 30% deposit to start writing a synopsis. I don’t know how Lemmeister gets $10,000 dollar option fees after showing a log line, but I still have to write three fucking pages to close a deal.
“I guess you’re a sport bike guy, he’s a dual-sport guy, he’s just in a hotter market,” said the assistant.
“Shut up,” Farmer said with a dismissive wave. “If the motorcycle media knew how to promote sport bikes, they’d be as big as ever.”
“Oh I know,” said the assistant, with enough emphasis to feign sincerity – even though Farmer knew full well his helper was a dirt bike guy at heart.
“I guess I’ll go up and take a shower,” said Farmer. “Do me a favor and find that BMW I was riding last night, would ya’?”
“Do you know where you left it?”
“I can’t remember. But I ended up coming home with that new editorial intern from Iron & Asshat, or Asphalt – whatsername? Katrina? Catriona? There’s a cat in there somewhere. Call the site and ask her where we were when we picked up that last Uber.”
With that, Farmer shuffled back upstairs.
“Aw-kward,” the assistant muttered under his breath.
“I heard that!” Farmer called down, adding, “Get a bike ready for me to take to lunch. Something electric; my head’s killing me.”
This time, Marcus just mouthed the words ‘No kidding’.
“And make sure to check the tire pressures!”
“Mr. Farmer! So nice to see you again.”
Farmer handed his helmet and gloves to the maître d’, who passed them off to the coat-check girl with a quiet word to clean the visor.
“I believe you’re meeting Mr. Lipshitz. He’s just finishing up with, ah…
Farmer looked across the dining room, to see Alan Lipshitz, his agent, bidding good-bye to one of his other clients, Hyman Lemmeister. The agent knew they’d been seen and was momentarily embarrassed. Lemmeister strode across the room, with the shit-eating grin of a man who ordered the most expensive steak on the menu just to watch his agent squirm.
“Gene,” he said extending a hand like a vice.
Farmer started to walk towards his agent, but Adam Dean waved him over. Dean, who loved to be called ‘the dean of motojournalists,’ was holding court over a few other motorcycle scribes.
“Did you hear about the vote?” he asked.
“No,” said Farmer.
“The Motorcycle Journalists Guild has officially voted to recommend that all members fire their agents forthwith,” said another lush, reading the email off his phone verbatim. He added, “It’s over packaging.”
The third writer at the table was a relative newcomer who’d moved to the dark side – motorcycle journalism – to make some real money after a few years at the sharp end in MotoGP. “So,” he asked, “are you going to fire your agent?”
“I don’t know,” said Farmer. “There’s a good reason they call him dipshit, but that dipshit’s sold nine of my feature stories in the last six years.”
Dean could be counted on for two things: He wasn’t going to pick up the tab, and he was going to be well informed. Sotto voce, he said, “I don’t know; I heard the reason All Bikes hasn’t committed to your BMW test is that they wanted Drew Southcott to shoot it, but your agent over there is only offering it to publications that will take a package deal of you as writer and Bruce Rimmer as photographer, in exchange for 20% of the ad revenues.”
The old creep, who always had a sixth sense for a new ass to kiss, looked over his shoulder and smiled obsequiously as Lipshitz walked up.
“Gene! You’re early for a change,” the agent nearly shouted. He grabbed Farmer’s hand and pumped it. He looked around the table. “Gentlemen, Mr. Farmer and I have some business to discuss, as I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course, Mr. Lipshitz,” said Deane. Then with a nod in Farmer’s direction “We’ll see you at the ‘Wheelies’ tonight, eh?
“Only if I don’t see you first,” Farmer said over his shoulder, making it sound like a joke, but totally meaning it.
The agent and the writer sat down just as a busboy was resetting glasses and cutlery over fresh linen. Lipshitz made a long pretense of studying the menu before ordering a small green salad.
“You ate lunch with Lemmeister.”
“So what? I’m still paying for yours.”
“And no gear? You’re not even riding? Why even pretend that you actually care about motorcycle journalism?”
“I don’t,” Lipshitz said. “I care about motorcycle journalists. Like you. And getting you feature story assignments. Which brings me to an important question: Have you written a synopsis yet, for that BMW test? I’ve got editors all over town ready to read it.”
“Alan, you shithead,” started Farmer.
“Uncalled for,” Lipshitz interjected.
“You know full well,” the writer continued, “that the Motorcycle Journalists Guild schedule of minimums specifies that I should get a payment of about three grand, down, before delivery of a synopsis. Meanwhile, you’re getting ten grand option fees for Hymie back there, on the strength of a log line.”
“If you want to cite the rules, get them right. The deposit on a synopsis is $2,275, not three g’s,” the agent said drily. He paused as a waiter put down his salad and Farmer’s salmon. The writer picked up a fork and lifted a flake of fish with a single tine. It was cooked to perfection, as usual. Lipshitz had good taste in restaurants, if nothing else.
Once the waiter had moved away, the agent continued at a lower volume but with plenty of hiss. “Hymie’s funny. He knows what readers want these days, which is a few good brap stories and some wheelie pics. Meanwhile you’ve got a reputation for delivering 1,500-word disquisitions on flame spread, and can’t write a tire story without using words like ‘hysteresis’. Editors are afraid of you.”
“Is it that, or is it that you’re trying to package me with that hack snapper, Rimmer?”
“Where did you hear that?” asked the agent, feigning hurt to cover real embarrassment.
Farmer built up a head of steam. “I swear to God, if I ever hear that you’re working for a cut of ad revenue, or if I ever think you’ve queered a deal of mine because you insisted on photos by that charlatan, I will take the Guild’s advice and fire you. Packaging is bullshit, and you know it.”
“Oh, ‘queer the deal’? Are you trying to piss me off now, or are you just a crass pig? And besides, Rimmer’s an artiste; every bit as much as you are, or were.”
For a moment, Farmer wondered if he’d gone too far. Everybody knew Lipshitz was a ju-jitsu expert. “Just get me my quote,” the writer said. “You know damned well that I get double the Guild schedule, or at least you should because I’ve sure as hell been earning you double the commissions.”
“OK, OK,” said the agent, smoothing things over. “Let’s split the difference. I won’t ask you to write a synopsis on spec if you promise to be on your best behavior, and pitch your story to a few editors verbally tonight at the Golden Wheel Awards.”
Truthfully, Farmer hated the Wheelies. Only members of the Foreign Motojournalists Club voted on them. But Lipshitz insisted that all his clients showed up to schmooze there, because winning a Golden Wheel was often a first step towards winning at the Motorcycle Journalist Guild’s own annual blowout, which was coming up the next month.
Farmer’d won a Golden Con-Rod early in his career – For ‘Best First Person Account of a Ride’, which was not even one of the big categories – and for the next two years he sold feature stories on the strength of a title and log line alone.
“So, I’ll see you tonight, right?” Lipshitz said as they were leaving. “I’ll be in the Founders Room behind the stage. Just promise me you won’t make a scene on the red carpet.”
“Maybe,” Farmer grumbled.
“Maybe definitely,” said the agent. They shook hands. Farmer turned to coat-check girl, who held on to his helmet just a second too long, smiling.
“Here you go, Mr. Farmer.” She added, “Um, I’m sure you’re busy, but is there any chance I could talk to you?
“Let me guess,” Farmer said. “You’ve got a great idea for a motorcycle feature story, but you can’t get it to an editor.”
“Yeah, well, no, not exactly,” she said. “I mean, I’ve written a bunch of stuff on the forums, and I’ve published a few gear reviews, but I was hoping to get invited to comparo test – you know, provide a female perspective.”
Farmer suddenly noticed how nicely she filled out her Alpinestars jeans.
“I should get going,” he said. “But give me your number. Maybe we can go riding some time. You can swing by my place after; I’ll read your stuff.”
Farmer’s phone chimed, and a text came in from his assistant. “Sorry I had to leave before you got back,” it read. “Remember the foreign motojourno’s ass’n asked you to show up for the red carpet ceremony at 5. Also, your nephew Mark called.”
A 5 p.m. red carpet call meant the organizers knew he wasn’t going to win in any major category, even though he had three nominations. He’d have to sit in the theater bar for two hours before the show even started.
He dreaded the thought of calling his nephew, who was a starving screenwriter. It wasn’t the kid’s fault that writing movies and TV shows paid shit. The kid was good; really good actually. And Farmer knew that he’d influenced his nephew’s career path years earlier by telling him that when he was in college, screenwriting had been his favorite class.
But Farmer had gone where the money was, motorcycle journalism, and his nephew had followed his passion. So Farmer had a condo in Brooklyn, a cabin in Montana, and a tastefully renovated mid-century modern in Silver Lake, while his nephew shared a crappy condo in the Valley, juggled Lyft and Uber side hustles, and was still trading scripts for free Blu Rays and meals at the craft service table.
“Alexa, get Mark on the phone,” he said, as he put on his tux trousers and looked for a formal shirt.
“Hey Uncle Gene!” Farmer heard his nephew’s voice coming through the speaker on his dresser.
“What’s up?” Farmer asked. He already knew what it would be; his nephew had an idea for a bike magazine feature story, based on some obscure movie.
The truth was that although a bunch of people had tried to take ideas from the screen and turn them into feature stories in moto-mags or on popular websites, few stories translated from the screen into words and pictures. There hadn’t been a really good one since ‘That Saturday Afternoon’ which had won the ‘Connie’ for Best Story way back in 1971, after it had run as a cover story in the much-missed ‘Cycle’ magazine.
But Farmer had to admit that this time the kid did have a legit feature story idea, based on some obscure movie about the Royal Army motorcycle racing team escaping from the Nazis, at the beginning of World War II.
“I have to admit,” Farmer told him, “that could easily get picked up in the U.K., by Motorcycle News or even Bike magazine.”
“Do you really think so?” asked his nephew, gushing.
“I do,” said Farmer. “Send me a draft and I’ll get my agent to read it. UMT has a London office. Maybe he can get someone there to read it.”
Farmer said goodbye, and looked at himself in the mirror, trying to remember how to tie a bow tie. He hated awards shows, or was it that he hated motorcycle journalism altogether? No, just the agents, the packaging, schmoozing and bullshit. It wasn’t as if he needed the money; he’d sold nine major features in the last six years alone. Even his lavish lifestyle couldn’t burn through the cash nearly as fast as it accumulated.
Not for the first time, he considered the fact that if he sold this place and moved to his property in Montana, he would never need to make another cent. The way the markets were going, he could probably even afford to keep his pied-a-terre in Brooklyn and his NetJets membership. If he did that, he could actually devote himself to screenwriting which had, it was true, been his first love.
Alexa’s disembodied voice broke into that reverie. “Message from Alan,” she said. “Where are you? You’re late. Should I send a car?”
Farmer didn’t reply. Instead, he poured himself a brandy, and padded downstairs into the office. He briefly checked his email on the big desktop computer, then dug the Macbook he used for private projects out from under a huge pile of new D-Air gear that Dainese had recently sent over, in hopes that he’d be seen wearing it.
He turned on a light over a vintage Breuer chair, opened his laptop, and clicked the ‘Final Draft’ icon. A window popped open labeled, ‘Untitled Screenplay’. Farmer started typing...
Author’s note – Years ago, I read a short story with this conceit as a premise: What if poets were treated like screenwriters. It stuck with me, and clearly inspired this essay. I recently tried to find it, in order to credit the original author, but I couldn’t track it down. I want to say I read it in the New Yorker (because that’s one of the few places where I’m exposed to short stories. And I want to say it was a piece by Martin Amis, because this is his kind of thing. But I can’t be sure. So to that author, whoever he or she was or is, Cheers, Mark