By Chere Di Boscio
Aside from lawyers, bankers and politicians, there are few professionals as loathed as agents. Perceived as rent-seeking ‘bloodsuckers’ feeding off the efforts of others, they are especially unloved by the artists they serve.
But certainly not so Paul Alan Smith.
The veteran TV literary agent, formerly with ICM Partners, began his own entertainment venture, Equitable Stewardship for Artists (ESA) with the goal of forming a more ethical, equitable agency that co-operates with clients rather than exploiting them.
Smith maintains an impressive client roster, including Allen Coulter, Michael Fresco, Gina Gershon, Molly Ringwald, William Sadler, and Heather Matarazzo amongst many more. In fact, his clients are probably responsible for some of your favourite shows and films, including Game of Thrones (Alik Sakharov) and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev).
Here, in this very honest interview, the Hollywood based agent talks about behavioural modification, weekly revolutions and reveals his plans to save the universe.
How would you define an ‘ethical’ talent agent, and what prompted you to launch you agency?
The word “transparency” comes to mind. Basically, it is just being very consistent with your code of conduct. I think it’s Chomsky you hear about being “Morally Consistent” or Vandana Shiva talking about “Radical Compassion”–their point is we must have the strength and character to truly apply our ethics, even when it’s risky financially, emotionally and professionally.
Why my own agency? Simple, I wanna save the universe.
Seriously, what I am hoping to do with ESA is create a model (significantly in “Hollywood,” an environment that is mistakenly assumed to be “liberal”) that exemplifies a sophisticated, progressive value system in the most incongruous of places: that’s right, where everyone spends the vast majority of their waking hours: the office! Virtually everything ESA does, institutionally, is designed to reflect a point of view that (hopefully) underscores businesses (economic entities) can make financial profit AND behoove their society concurrently. I believe I told you it is genius? (Surely, that doesn’t sound really conceited, right?)
And lastly, I had to wait until I could most definitely be awesome at the very job itself: getting directors, writers and actors gigs in the film and TV biz. But after almost 30 years of dabbling, I felt I was up to that particular task.
What are you proudest of so far in your career?
I started, what I think was, the first recycling system at a big talent agency (Triad Artists), and possibly even amongst the studios and networks, back in the mid 80’s. And the system was so raw back then that a company could get paid for the recycling they generated! Well, like a good, young agent, I negotiated to get the varied-sized containers up-front and pay them off with our (future) recycling, thereby allowing me to implement this program without any formal approval by my superiors. (I know; I was insane!) Anyhow, after I paid off our debt, I used future profits to buy taste-treats for all the participants, which was everyone, I might add.
And if you want a show-bizzy answer to that question, it would be the longevity many of my clients have been with me throughout their successful careers.
What’s the most positive thing you do for the environment in your daily life?
I often commute by bicycle.
What’s your greatest eco ‘sin’?
I take longer showers than I should (But the water pressure is weak!) I eat more meat than I should. I don’t boycott as diligently as I should. (Fine, my greatest sin is I believe “sinning” is way manly.)
Which high profile person trying to make a difference do you most admire, and why?
Folks I’ve not only respected from a distance, but have subsequently had the privilege to personally (indirectly or directly) confirm are/were truly righteous, in their own humanly-flawed ways of course, would be Harry Belafonte, Howard Zinn, Susan Faludi, Noam Chomsky, Nomi Prins, Edward Said, Jack Shaheen, Richard Wolff, Dave Zirin, Ben Bagdikian, Max Blumenthal, Daniel Ellsberg, Jodie Evans, Bill Moyers, Connie Rice, Miko Peled, Norman Solomon, David Barsamian, Jeff Cohen, Vandana Shiva, Chris Hedges, Richard Grossman, Jonathan Kozol, Sidney Portier, Matt Damon, Gregory Peck, Robbie Conal, Camryn Manheim, Alice Walker, Eddie Veder, Rabbi Beerman, Rabbi Schulweis, Rabbi Brant Rosen, Desmond Tutu, James Schamus, Laura Poitras and Alice Waters.
And some of the folks I don’t know, but seem solid: Ed Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ilan Pappe, Michael Eric Dyson, Angela Davis, Tariq Ali, Manning Marable, Sean Penn, Hillary Swank, Maya Angelou, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ellen DeGeneres, Jeremy Scahill, Molly Ivins, Bill McKibbin and Gar Alperovitz.
And the reason I think they are all pretty extraordinary, and therefore personally empowering, is due to their having the OPTION of totally selling out, but obviously not. All are clearly bright and capable of succeeding anywhere they choose, but they have instead been driven by their passion to fight the good fight on behalf of the mistreated, dispossessed, unsustainable, unrepresented.
Their fearlessness is something I just don’t have wired in me. I remain humbled by their devotion, dedication and sacrifice.
And there are so many more, even here in Los Angeles, who are not celebrities per se, but risk pissing off their family, friends, neighbours, co-workers, bosses, and on and on, who I am daily influenced by. THESE folks are the ones who blow my mind. These are the folks that make me realise I have a long-ass way to go if I am ever to be truly true to myself.
When and where are you happiest?
No matter what, all my “chores” have to be done first. I can’t seem to relax until I have responsibly fulfilled all my obligations. And subsequent to that I tend to be the most invigorated either traveling to new places or hearing new ideas articulated in a mellifluous or humorous manner.
Which environmental and political issues are most important to you?
That is a loaded question, especially for someone who focuses on the subset of systemic issues; it’s hard to find just one thing. In the States, we have what can now best be described as a Plutocracy (of sorts), although we are still a democracy on paper. The ramifications of this are obvious. So what do you call an issue that rectifies this? Should we revoke “Personhood” status for corporations? Well, that is a start, but the US still had plutocratic tendencies before that Supreme Court ruling in the late 19thCentury. And then there are the Bankers, who have been manipulating American politics for just as long, if not longer, so reining them in is probably a good idea, too; but the fact is, they write the regulations. And don’t get me going on the American tax structure or our insurance industry. These are related, but how do you attack them successfully? Who is governing whom?
To make matters more complicated, there are few examples of Socialist or Communist powers being any more responsible to the Average Joe; most of their leaders are/were as power-hungry and greedy as ours.
So what do we call the exact issue that reflects upon what is really needed: a new step in our evolution perhaps? I mean, let’s not kid ourselves, if Homo Sapiens can’t get their shit together soon, they are toast.
My honest feeling is (and I realise I am gonna sound insane here, but . . . ) Mother Nature wants us to consciously manipulate our own evolution at this juncture. Obviously, animals are capable of doing it subconsciously. But we have this so-called “intelligence” that is paradoxically becoming our nemesis. Why we follow such morons is a mystery to me. Time and again folks vote against their own interests, as they are so vulnerable to fear. Clearly we are programmed this way, but damn, it is so embarrassing!
Upon reflection, it seems we have to really grow up, evolve and get over our constant fear, our constant vulnerability to going down ill-conceived paths. Is this even an “issue”? And if not, please make up a word to encapsulate that whack-of-a-rambling-answer!
What’s the main thing you think we all need to do to ensure a better future?
Interestingly, your question in and of itself is revealing, as it doesn’t clarify ‘whose’ future, which is kind of what it all comes down to. I mean if I were Dick Cheney, there would be roughly 8 of us to consider. But for freaks like me, “we” refers to humans, animals, rivers, clouds, sentient beings, and most certainly NOT in that order!
To respond, I’m going to review an experiment my previous “bosses” were kind enough to let me implement within our pretty large, corporate environment. I called this experiment “The Weekly Revolution.”
Basically, I paid anyone at our agency, from the president to the mailroom folks, $50 the first time they rode their bike, walked or took public transportation to work. I paid half if they car-pooled. I then paid $40 the next time. Then I paid $30 the next time. And finally I paid $20 from thereafter, but no more than once a week.
Obviously, my personal goal was to reduce fossil fuel use, but I wanted to play on other levels, concurrently. I wanted to use my money in a unique way, as I had become very cynical about non-profits ability to influence our legislators–for reasons that I mentioned previously.
In my mind, I wanted to prove, like civil disobedience proves, people acting in unison collectively and consistently can have a dramatic impact on influencing their friends, family, neighbors . . . and THIS can actually lead to breaking the evil symbiosis between our government and transcontinental corporations.
But to get there, I believed the participants must radically alter their behavior in a manner for ALL to see. I felt it was an imperative the average complacent person witness the participants physical SACRIFICE at least once a week. The socio-biologist trapped inside myself felt this was key. And I believed if this modification was never-ending (meaning folks made this a permanent action, it could coagulate those participants into a major political force, simply by doing the same thing over and over and over again.)
I also believed that this physical sacrifice each individual made would give them a personal sense of optimism and hope they had not otherwise been able to experience–at least in terms of dealing with massive problems the world faced.
At one time we had over 70 participants, roughly 25% of the firm. Ultimately, I learned money is absolutely a positive incentive for positive change. But what I also learned was the FEELING of doing something to rectify a major problem becomes a value tantamount to making the extra money. Yet this had to be learned, experienced.
Furthermore, as more folks participated, they organically developed a community of like-minded people who inadvertently became a force even the management grew to respect. On top of all this, the participants were literally feeling better both physically and mentally!
This is why I believe “behavioural modification” is the key to a better future, and not just for the environment. I think it is essential as it relates to conflicts from Israel to Kashmir to Kurdistan to Tibet. We must all have the ability to break out of our own narratives, our own indoctrination, should we truly want to see the light.