The Michaels Agency is a full-service network that connects creative artists with writers, editors, agents, financiers, directors, producers, and strategic consultants.
Navigating The Hollywood Matrix
By Cliff Michaels
I grew up in Los Angeles with a passion for tv, film, music, and writing. It started in high school as a home-alone kid when money was tight and spare time was a friend. I charged classmates $20 for my services (tutoring English and ghostwriting essays). Parents of those kids were in the entertainment industry and paid me to edit screenplays. It was fun, very hush-hush, and put cash in my pocket.
I attended USC for three semesters in the ’80s. I took a cinema class where students slipped me $20 to do their homework — such as film reviews. The professor found out, but rather than kick me off campus, she suggested I attend Robert McKee’s Story Structure — a weekend workshop where screenwriters dissect every scene of the film Casablanca. I learned a lot, but nothing about the industry (agents, casting, finance, production, marketing, distribution).
Writing days took a detour when I dropped out of college to earn a living as a real estate broker. Initially, I only made a few hundred dollars per week working for residential investors. The bigger payoff was learning about networking, negotiating, and flipping homes. To that end, I bought my first condo at 19 with help from a mentor. I flipped a few more properties the next two years, then lost it all in the housing crash of 1989.
In spite of the setback, I sent daily thank-you notes to everyone and established a loyal client base. I then set up The Michaels Agency 1992, initially a real estate & mortgage firm. We expanded to venture capital and strategic consulting over the next 25 years, representing creative artists, entrepreneurs, and financial professionals.
It was the entertainment clients who schooled me on The Hollywood Matrix — a never-ending saga of players, pitfalls, and possibilities. They shared ideas ad experiences that inspired really great screenplays. “Truth is better than fiction,” they said. Find a universe you’re familiar with and jot down everything that comes to mind. Did I ever! Jokes, music lyrics, scenes at Starbucks — they all went into my spiral bound notebooks. These days, every creative artist has a similar process — be it vocally or visually on laptops, cell phones, or cocktail napkins.
Before I knew it, I was ghostwriting again. We’d stay up until 3:00 a.m. shaping plots, payoffs, and punchlines. It was reminiscent of my college days, but stakes were higher now. With runaway budgets, studios were producing fewer films, at greater risk the protecting investors, in an era of 24/7 competition from Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube. These juggernauts presented as much peril as opportunities. In the New Hollywood Matrix, millions of doors opened for creative artists, but self-publishing was too easy for writers, music mavens, filmmakers — a few jewels but tons of junk! Amidst all the noise, the bigger question was how new-media junkies would compete for attention?
I soon learned that story structure was never enough (albeit critical). The coveted green-light doesn’t even go to the best script attached to a proven A-list actor, producer, or director (although a leg up). Projects with the most potential for distribution start with talented (or experienced writers) who understand their core audience and marketing channels. As the mantra goes, “You better satisfy your audience in a unique way they didn’t expect.” That’s not to say art gets compromised. Like any entrepreneur, it means differentiate or die!
If you are an aspiring or established creative, consider my favorite writer-producers such as Shonda Rhimes (Grays Anatomy, Scandal), Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, A Few Good Men) or Steven Spielberg (ET, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan). We love these icons because they make us laugh, think, cry, escape, or scream. Moreover, we know the payoff is coming, but can’t always predict the outcome. In that regard, masters of the matrix prove time and again that smart dialogue, story structure, marketing, and industry wisdom go hand-in-hand.
Every creative artist needs keys to his or her matrix. As an agent-writer-investor, my keys are matching ideas, teams, and talent, with passion, finance, and distribution. Once you’re in the matrix, you’ll also need to avoid deal killers: egos, laziness, time-suckers. The journey may feel like Groundhog Day with a revolving cast, but it’s essential to build quality contacts over time. If you don’t, your competition will.
Keep in mind that most of Hollywood’s elite started in the mailroom, so be humble. Recognize your crew and reward teammates who did the hard work on your behalf. None of us are self made!
As for influences in my life, I wrote about famous and not-so-famous mentors in a mini memoir titled The 4 Essentials: A Misfit’s Journey (audio, e-book, paperback). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a mentor who gave me a few priceless nuggets after I wrote the book — special thanks go to legendary agent George Shapiro (producer of Seinfeld). Like many powerhouses in Hollywood, he started in the mailroom and ended up representing superstars from Jerry Seinfeld and Andy Kaufman to Jim Carrey. Since Shapiro has as much wisdom and positive energy to share as anyone I’v ever met, I pass along his pearls every chance I get.
Gems from George
- Genuinely care about people.
- Listen carefully or you’ll miss the story.
- It’s all about love, laughter, and relationships.
Spoiler Alert from Cliff
- Ideas are a dime-a-dozen – gems are rare.
- No one is on Plan A — they’re on Plan Q.
- It’s not enough to have talent — you need grit.
The Opportunity for You
- For those with a good idea and enough chutzpah, there’s nothing stopping you. If you’re ready to roll up sleeves and take the next step, we provide agency and resources to creative artists. It would be my honor to guide you through The Hollywood Matrix.
The Michaels Agency
Brokers • Funders • Consultants
Writing • Editing • Planning • Pitch Decks
Contact: T: 310-488-6422 • E: email@example.com
DISCLAIMER: We don’t accept unsolicited material or manuscripts.
Seeking life, career, or business coaching?
GO TO > Cliff Michaels Global Learning