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No Kidding, This Agent Has Talent : Lisa Santos is only 22, but she represents more than 30 hot writing talents after less than seven months on the job.

FAST TRACK: Up and Comers in Arts and Entertainment * One in a Series

July 05, 1994|JAMES GRANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CENTURY CITY — Hollywood literary agent Lisa Santos, all of 22, is sitting in her office eating Girl Scout cookies. "I used to sell these, you know," she says, chomping on a peanut-butter cookie. Her tousled brown hair flips back as she emits a bawdy laugh. Of course, she knows that it wasn't that long ago that she was a Girl Scout, and she isn't about to apologize for it.

In fact, in a town obsessed with youth and youth culture, Santos throws her clout around at least partly because she herself is of that culture. Despite being no one's Hollywood progeny--and never even having gone to college--she now represents more than 30 hot writing talents, including "Saturday Night Live's" Rosie Shuster and "Quantum Leap's" Robert Duncan, after less than seven months on the job.

While enduring brief stints as a receptionist, makeup artist and perfume saleswoman, the California native fell in love with a struggling comedian, Jason Neswick, and began her circuitous route to the agency business.

The young couple moved to the Bay Area a few years ago and then, one fateful day when her boyfriend couldn't track down his manager, Santos was recruited to make a phone call to a comedy club and land him a gig.

"He told me: 'I don't care what you do or say--just get me that spot.' " She did. The next day, her beau fired his manager and Santos continued to manage Neswick's career, landing him appearances as well as a spot on an ABC pilot.

Four months later, the couple moved back to Hollywood, where Santos soon realized that Neswick's having a manager was not enough; an agent was also required.

"So I called myself an agent and created a fake agency and named it CTA, for Creative Talent Agency," she says. "I had just read Premiere's Top 100 powerful people list and seen CAA and thought that if you said the name quick enough. . . . "

Meanwhile, to pay the bills, Santos took a job as a receptionist at Spelling Entertainment. "I tried to get my boyfriend another agent at a real agency," she explains. "I had no ambitions of being anything."

She also became an informational sponge at Spelling. "I learned how to read a ratings sheet. I learned how to take a television show from the glimmer of an idea through production."

After a year, she was let go, and two weeks later, she waltzed into Innovative Artists Inc., an agency that handles actors, directors, producers and writers, and demanded to be interviewed that day for a temporary receptionist position. She got the job.

" Then I got ambitious," she says gleefully. Four months after joining the agency, she wrote a four-page outline to Scott Harris, the head of the company, on why the firm should have a comedy booking division. "It got me a lot of attention. He said: 'I don't want to do it (install the division), but you're smart. If a position opens up, I will support you to become an assistant.' "

After eight months on the reception desk, last year Santos became an assistant to top literary agent Paul Yamamoto, who was joining the agency. She was promoted 5 1/2 months later and now runs the television literary department. In fact, she is the television literary department, and also represents Bob Gunter ("The Sandlot"), Stuart Ross ("Forever Plaid") and Lynn Mamet ("Under Suspicion").

"What is impressive about Lisa is that she really knows television inside and out," observes Innovative Artists' Harris. "As a result, she is able to talk to producers about their shows practically like she's a staff writer."

Neither Harris nor Santos pretend that she has the experience of her predecessors, such as Phyllis Carlyle, Rosalie Swedlin or the legendary Sue Mengers. But she may just have the spark that propelled those dynamic women to success; she has already signed 14 writers and one director to the agency.

"When you promote someone who is young and up and coming, they learn as they go," says Harris. "I'm not saying that she is as sophisticated an agent as she will be three years from now, but she has the foundation, the passion, and she loves the writers and that's really what it's all about."

Her clients are the first to agree.

"I'm out all over town," says Duncan. "Lisa did more for me in the first three weeks than my previous agent did in two years."

Duncan admits that he was initially put off by her youth. "I walked in to meet with her and this 16-year-old walked up to me. I thought: 'OK. Let's get this one over with quick.' " But the meeting lasted several hours. "Out of all of the agents I met with, she was the only one who knew my material intimately.

"She talked about what writers love to talk about: writing. It wasn't like the other meetings where they would say things like, 'I am going to make you a star.' I signed with her that day."

Santos prides herself on knowing intimately the story lines and characters of prime-time shows, which, surprisingly, she claims is not the norm for many agents. "Not a lot of people in the industry, from those I've run into, watch TV," she says.

During meetings with fellow agents, Santos will frequently be singled out because, as a twenty-something professional, she represents a desirable demographic. "They jokingly call me 'The Voice of America,' " she says, rolling her eyes.

Her toughest challenge? "Changing someone's mind. I run into situations where someone has read a piece of material and the response is, 'I like it, but I have a few problems here and there.' And to convince someone otherwise is a challenge. But it's a game--a game against myself."

As she stands up to leave, she suddenly looks up in astonishment. "Oh, I just remembered something. This used to be the storage room and, on my first temp day, there was an assistant who was so mean to me that I ran in here and called the temp agency I was with, crying: 'You have to get me out of here. I can't stand it!' And it ended up being my office." She grins widely. "Oh, gosh. That's sooo weird."

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