WME Story Chief’s New Novel Delivers Inside Scoop on Script Development

Take Fountain Adam Novak
Courtesy of Rare Bird Books

There are few words in the Hollywood lexicon more dreaded than “coverage.” To writers and filmmakers, “coverage” is what happens to their scripts when executives are too lazy, or stars too dyslexic, to read them.

Mindful that they are disdained, as well as distrusted, the readers responsible for coverage rarely appear in public to acknowledge their misdeeds. That’s why I was surprised last week to learn that Adam Novak, perhaps the dean of the coverage community, had the temerity to write a novel, thus opening himself to pans from fellow story analysts. It’s actually a funny novel about readers.

Novak is chief of the WME story mafia, and his novel is steeped in inside jokes about stars and the crazed agents who represent them. The protagonist, a story analyst, reads scripts while driving hookers around at night to supplement his pay. When scripts he recommends become star vehicles, he is never thanked by the actors themselves (but Mick Jagger once bought him dinner). He is not above recommending a werewolf comedy titled “Tastes Like Chicken” or trying to sell Woody Allen on a work called “Rest in Pieces.” While he dislikes most of the scripts he reads, talent agents press him for material they can package. “Sell it, don’t smell it,” his boss prods him.

The title of Novak’s novel is itself an inside joke — a reference to an apocryphal story of “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson asking Bette Davis to give starlets advice on the best way to get into Hollywood. “Take Fountain,” the acerbic star is said to have snapped, referring to the less-traveled avenue that parallels Sunset Boulevard.

Novak himself is a genial, rotund 45-year-old who has been reading scripts for 20 years at WME and its predecessor, the William Morris Agency. His office sits next to janitorial. The story departments at WME, as at most agencies, have been sharply depleted, leaving most scripts to be read by assistants, who are often more literacy-challenged than the stars. Novak reads only scripts that come in with firm offers from studios. In years past, he covered all submissions for the likes of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger

“I enjoy my job,” he insists. “I started this morning with a Tom Stoppard.” The main character in his novel is named Larry Meursault, after a figure in his favorite novel, Camus’ “The Stranger.” Meursault works for a talent agency called Omniscient, which fiercely competes with its rival, the Insanely Creative Agency.

The cover of Novak’s book heralds a quote from Michael Tolkin, who penned the novel and screenplay for “The Player,” declaring that “Novak has a merciless eye for a society in which striving replaces every consideration of morality.” Yet Novak knows that his “merciless eye” will inevitably be critiqued by writers whose works he himself has reviewed.

Reduced to the language of coverage, Novak’s narrative will be called insufficiently visceral, its protagonist’s catharsis unsatisfying, the relationships lacking in empathy. While the novel is basically dramatic, it needs more comedic moments (if it were a comedy, it would need more drama).

Novak would expect this response. While accustomed to the noise that defines a major agency, he points out cheerfully that “I just have a voice, not a vote.” And he likes it that way.

Will “Take Fountain” be adapted into a screenplay, like “The Player”? In the end, the final vote would be cast by a star and his agent. Neither of whom would have read the script.