Geoffrey Sanford started as a baby agent in 1967 at Ziegler Ross, a small boutique firm that handled Robert Towne, The Ravetches (HUD), William Goldman, and Roman Polanski. From there he went on to head the Literary Department at CMA, one of the precursors of ICM. After a stint as VP at Warner Bros., he quit to try and write screenplays. He went back to agenting in 1976—has returned every phone call by the end of the day since then—and opened his own agency with a partner in 1982. Four years ago he became a part of what is now Wachter, Sanford, Rabineau and Harris. Some films written or written-directed by clients are: GHOST, BULL DURHAM, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, PHILADELPHIA, PHENOMONON, CLOCKERS, THE COLOR OF MONEY, RANSOM, ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT, LITTLE CHILDREN, THE KING OF SCOTLAND, AWAY FROM HER.
I know you have had a colorful life. How did you end up as a literary agent? Very mundane, actually.
My father was an agent. I resisted it in my twenties, worked at Warner Brothers, tried writing screenplays, but agenting was the only thing I felt I did well. Over the years I have come to believe that it is a mitzvah to be good at something, anything.
How is it different representing book authors and screenwriters?
Input. I am rarely called on to offer advice to a novelist about their work, but one usually has something to suggest about a screenplay.
You’re an agent at what might be referred to as a “boutique agency.” What does that mean for your clients?
Much more personal attention. At big agencies, the agenda gets confused between their very important director and actor clients and their screenwriters. At a small agency, there is no hidden agenda—we are in this thing together.
It is common thinking that agents will not represent someone with only one script. I encountered a number of those agents myself and, yet, you chose to represent me when I had only one ( that I would show you). How rare do you think it is to take on a client without a larger body of work?
I, personally, only need one script. I am just searching out talent. I can tell that from one screenplay. Hell, I am under the delusion I can tell it from the first five pages of one screenplay. I have no idea why other agents would need more than a single script that they believed in.
This may seem obvious, but what is the agent hoping to verify by this body of work? That the writer has range? Didn’t just get lucky? Her mother didn’t write it? Or are they hoping to have other scripts to sell?
I never look for “commercial”. Like real estate and “location”, it is Talent, Talent, Talent.
Since the spec process is so slow and uncertain, many writers make a living off of writing assignments. You once counseled me, when I was struggling with whether to throw my hat in the ring for a rewrite at a major studio, that passion should lead all, and, sensing my hesitance, told me something like “God help you if you are successful at anything else.” Can you elaborate a little on your philosophy?
Well, if you start to guess, and do work you are not totally committed to, and God forbid it is successful, you are rather lost. And, in a scary way, I would think. You can’t trust your instincts, you are subject to all the whims of the film community, and you have not found yourself as an artist. Yes, as I think about, VERY scary.
You seem to have a long-term view of the whole film business, and screenwriting in particular. Do you think there is a cutoff point, age-wise, for a “new” writer to break in?
None whatsoever. Again, talent is talent.
One thing you don’t hear much about is the tender side of agenting. When I worked at CAA, I often heard agents talking clients through tough times. And you always seem to say the right thing to me, whether it’s about the creative unconscious or business concerns. Have you seen results from nurturing your clients?
I learned this in therapy. There is a “healing” transaction. Calm a client down, you calm yourself down. Encourage them and you encourage yourself. Sorry for the cliché: “The love you get is equal to the love you give”–or, something sixties, Beatlesesque…
I have a number of clients who work on projects only to discover there is something similar in development somewhere. And yet, development often leads nowhere. At what point should a writer abandon a project for which they have passion?
Never. Look at the fact that two Capote films got made last year.
What is the longest period of time you have seen pass between finished project and sale?
FREEDOMLAND—maybe fifteen years. HARROW ALLEY, a spec screenplay I read in 1969 by a now dead once famous screenwriter, Walter Newman, about the plague in London, is still being developed and cast by my friend Lyndsay Doran, who produced PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and once ran Paramount, then UA.What is the shortest? (Maybe we don’t want to know).
Everything takes forever. Nothing comes to mind about “shortest”.
What do you think makes a writer stand out in today’s marketplace?
Personal style. The writing reflects a singular point of view.
You have mentioned to me that the studio system has changed dramatically in the last few years. Movie studios are now just small parts of larger conglomerates. How has that affected writers?
THE FIRST WEEKEND—Films cost over a hundred million dollars and have to open big or they get lost. It puts tremendous pressure on everyone, including the writer, to consider the “lowest common denominator.” HAROLD AND MAUDE, MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, SHAMPOO—would they get made today? I hope so, but fear not.
You are a lover of writing. How has that guided your career over the years?
Again, believing in, searching out, cleaving unto, good writing. That has been, really, my only goal.
Does good writing still matter?
It has to—or else I’m fucked.
Note: The Wachter, Sanford, Rabineau and Harris agency is not accepting unsolicited work.