Screenwriting Agents, where to start? You picture it in your mind. One day you’ll wake up and your struggles of making it in the film business will be behind you. You will have conquered every mountain, written your last spec, and laughed at the times when you waited tables to make ends meet. One day you’ll be able to wake up and say to yourself, “everything’s good now because I now have a screenwriting agent.”
Oye Vey – How Writers Reduce Success to One Stupid Thing
I had an agent at a major agency and worked with them for a couple years going on meeting after meeting after meeting and it didn’t lead to a whole heck of a lot. Now, in fairness that wasn’t really my agent’s fault. He was working his butt off trying to get me these meetings but both of us were still a little wet behind the ears. I didn’t know exactly how to make the most out of these meetings and cultivate relationships and he hadn’t been around enough to give me the guidance to do so.
I had an agent at a major agency and worked with them for a couple years going on meeting after meeting after meeting and it didn’t lead to a whole heck of a lot.
What I’m going to outline below is the step by step process I would take if I were trying to get a literary agent today and had zero, zip, zilch, none, nada – not one single connection in the business. It’s actually not a very difficult plan and it’s something I think you should follow to the letter but before I get into the details of all the steps you need to take I need to warn you about a couple things or at least set a few things straight.
It’s MUCH Harder to Get an Agent as a Director
While I think every writer needs to learn to direct – I should point out that as a director or a writer/director it is much much much harder to find representation than it is to find one as a just a writer. Why is it harder to find an agent or manager as a director? There are a few reasons:
1. More money is at risk with directors
The entire cost of production is essentially being put on the shoulders of the director. If the director screws up a day on set it costs an obscene amount of money whereas if a writer is late with a draft of their screenplay people get pissed but no real money is actually lost. In fact, most TV shows will use the same directors over and over again throughout a season because it’s just a safer bet.
2. More scripts are bought than made
There’s more opportunity to sell a script or get hired to staff on a show or rewrite a project than there is to work on as a director on an actual production. Since there’s more opportunity to make 10% of your income as a writer than there is as a director agents like repping writers more just because they stand to make more money.
3. Writers can work more
If you’re a writer you can write a few features a year or at least get hired to write/rewrite/polish a few features a year – as a director you’re realistically only making a movie every few years at best. Hollywood is full of writers who have NEVER had one of their movies made but are consistently bringing in annual revenue that would rival a plastic surgeons on their spec sales and rewrite work. Sometimes these jobs only take a few weeks and pay very very well. Agents love making a quick buck just as much as everyone else.
Are You Noticing a Pattern?
By now you should realize that almost everything I’ve talked about revolves around money. Let’s be absolutely clear on something since we’re talking about screenwriting agents. They are in it for the money. Yes most of them love film, yes some of them dreamed of becoming filmmakers themselves, yes they might really fight for you to get that indie script made – but their job is to make as much money as possible off of your work!
They don’t win the oscar or the golden globe or the emmy, you do. You know what their prize is? A piece of paper with a lot of big numbers on it when they make partner at CAA or WME. Money money money money money. They’re job is to nurture talent so that they can earn more so that their 10% equates to more cash.
I think I’ve made myself pretty clear on this so we can move on but you’ll see as we go through the steps below that the quality of your writing is a given. If you’re not a good writer there’s no conversation to be had. So everything else becomes about how marketable you and your material are – translation: how much money they think you can earn.
The 5 Steps to Getting One of the Best Screenwriting Agents
- Pick TV or Features not both
- Pick a marketable genre and stick to it like super glue
- Prepare samples that win awards or get recommend coverage
- Prepare a couple pitches on top of your samples
- Send your material to agents you’ve met or have an introduction to
Step 1. Pick TV or Features not Both When Approaching Screenwriting Agents
Agencies, at least most larger agencies, are actually split between the TV and the Features department. When you sign with an agent they will likely work mainly or even solely in one of the two worlds. While the cross-over is getting better these days because TV is just so damn good there still remains an invisible line between TV and Film. If I need to prove it to you, please give me 3 tv shows Jennifer Lawrence was on last year? Can’t do that how about Bruce Willis? No? Keanu Reaves? Still no? Sandra Bullock?
Movie stars are still movie stars and there’s still somewhat of an heir of prestige to feature films that exists. And even if that wasn’t true there are just different production companies and executives in each world. While there are powerhouse producers who work in both worlds most people work on a TV show for years and years and when they’re done they jump on another show and not a feature.
For your best chance of success pick TV or Features and stick to it. Don’t write one pilot and then decide to venture off and do a feature when you’re done, it’s almost like telling your TV agent that you’re thinking of doing a one-act play or writing a novel – just stick to what that agent knows how to sell.
Step 2. Pick a Marketable Genre and Stick to it Like Super Glue
You belong in a box. People want to put you in a box. Tony Robbins is a motivational speaker. Obama is the president and you are a half-hour single-camera comedy writer. Or maybe you’re a horror feature writer. Perhaps you specialize exclusively in male-perspective R-rated comedies. It’s easier to think of people as being one thing. If you need proof just come over to my house at around six-thirty when my wife expects me to be part husband, part father, part house-keeper and see how I have a mini-stroke everyday – having four kids under 7 can be a real freaking nightmare sometimes!
You need to pick a genre that already has an existing market that they know they can sell. Screenwriting agents don’t want to hear that you write westerns or small dramedies that are really moving. As great as those may be nobody knows how to market those genres to today’s audiences. If you’re a TV writer focus on either multi-cam comedies, single-cam comedies, procedurals, or one-hour serial format. Those are the four main buckets.
Have specs for shows on the air that are popular and fit into your bucket. If you want to write on the Simpsons don’t write a spec for Game of Thrones. This sounds obvious but I swear to you it’s not to most people. You can have a pilot in there as well if you’d like. Those are usually good to have anyways cause they show your voice but stick to the damn bucket, okay?
Become an Expert at Something and Not an Idiot at Everything
That way if someone asks you what you write you don’t go “uh, um…I like to write like lots of different stuff…I wrote this one spec for Black-ish and I have this comedy feature I’m working on that’s nearly finished, oh and I have a pilot for a kids animated show.” You sound like a lunatic with multiple personality disorder. Pick a thing so that people know how the hell to label you.
Pick a genre of TV or Film where people know how market that material to make money. It’s about money it’s about money it’s about money.
If you’re writing features focus on a genre that has a proven marketing track record. The ones that come to mind are: Thriller, horror, comedy, action/adventure, Family. No dramas (too hard to sell), definitely no dramedies (impossible to sell), sci-fi is also too expensive in general. Pick one of the genres that people know how to sell because those are the specs they’re going to buy and those are the movies that they already have in development that they need rewrites on.
Step 3. Prepare Samples of Your Work
You need to write good. Like really good. Like no-excuses this is amazing writing. It takes me about half a page to tell if a writer knows their stuff. Ridley Scott has famously said he can tell if a writer is good or not by the names he gives their characters. (If everyone in your script is a Todd and Jake and Phil you have problems!)
But how do you know? Most of us have been writing long enough that we just “know” we’re good. That’s not good enough I’m afraid. Nobody wants to read your script. It’s a pain in the ass to read a script and if someone reads that first page and they can already tell you’re not good, reading the rest of it is EXCRUCIATING. Like watching a film where every actors just sucks big time. Screenwriting agents read scripts like that all the time. It’s probably why so many of them seem to hate writers – cause the read a lot of bad writing!
Here’s what you need to do. Write two specs in your genre and send those specs out to either a reputable coverage company or respected screenwriting competitions. You need to get “recommend” from the coverage or place in the finalist or win the competitions. That’s how good your stuff has to be. If I was doing this I would opt for the coverage because for a little extra cash a lot of these places will give you detailed notes and then give you another set of coverage when you do the rewrite and you can keep going back to them until your script is in good enough shape for them to give you a recommend rating.
Is it expensive? It’s not cheap, but even if you spend $2,000 on coverage and feedback it’s a bargain if you get two scripts that are in great shape with recommend ratings from coverage companies people in town know of and respect.
Also, when you reach out to screenwriting agents or meet them for the first time if you’ve followed the steps so far here’s what the conversation will go like:
-Oh, so you’re a writer? What do you write?
-I write Thrillers – specifically women in peril thrillers. R-rated. Super suspenseful.
-Oh yeah? That’s all you write?
-Yeah, that’s it. I specialize in that one genre. It’s what I’m good at.
-Do you have anything I can read?
-Yeah, I actually have two scripts that just got “recommend” coverage from wescreenplay.com
-No shit? I need to read those. Send them to me. You’re going to be my new client.
Even though that last line may sound like a bit of a joke, I know a handful of screenwriting agents who would actually say that to a writer they meet at a party if had a couple scripts with recommend ratings.
Step 4. Prepare a Couple Pitches on Top of Your Samples
Spec sales still happen but they’re not too common compared to what they were back when I was in film school and it seemed like anyone with a pulse and a big concept was setting up a bidding war with the studios. Chances are that a rep is going to read one of your scripts, maybe even both, but they’ll almost always ask you what else you’re working on. In the event that they can’t sell your script or don’t think it’s quite marketable enough they want to know if you’re working on something that might be an easier sale for them.
It’s your job to come up with 2 pitches on top of your 2 specs that you can talk about in meetings. Obviously keep them in the same genre/bucket.
Step 5. Send your material to screenwriting agents you’ve met or have an introduction to
You need to actually get your future agent and/or manager to actually read your material so they can see how brilliant you are and represent you. So how do you do it? How do you get them to read your stuff? If you’ve done everything outlined above you might actually have some success with a query letter but those generally are a one in a thousand shot. Most people toss them into the trash unread. They’re still worth sending out if you have no other option but in my mind they’re a last resort.
Queries and cold pitches do still work but they should be your last resort
Keep in mind though that if you’re sending out a pitch or a query letter that mentioning your recommend coverage or your screenplay competition award will definitely get their attention. As soon as someone reads that someone else liked your material then in their mind it’s already been somewhat vetted and has a better chance of not being one of those scripts where you just get angry at the end of the first page because the writer is just stinking up the page.
Of course, if you are going to send out a query you’ll have to compile a list of screenwriting agents to send it to. You could look at sending it to some of the top agencies first or you could go with more boutique agencies. I’ve heard success stories from both camps so really it’s anyone’s game.
So what’s the alternative? You have to network. It’s the “n” word of writing. Most writers are shy and hate the idea of networking but you have to get out of your comfort zone a little bit and think about it in a different way. Everyone who is trying to become a writer or an agent or a director or a producer is doing it because they love movies.
Networking is super easy when you realize that all you’re doing is talking about movies
If you love movies too then these are your people! It shouldn’t be hard to strike up a conversation with someone who loves films. After all, if someone came up to you and said, “have you seen the latest Marvel movie” wouldn’t you have an answer that was more than just a yes or no? Wouldn’t you talk about how much you love or hate the Marvel universe and who the best director or what the best film was or why they all suck? Couldn’t you go off for twenty minutes on superhero movies alone? I know I could.
The best thing you could do is get your butt to Los Angeles if you can. There are parties and meet-ups and film circles you can find via facebook groups or meetup.com. There are tons of film festivals where you can network and you can always audit an acting class to meet people. I’ve known some writers who would audition as actors on independent films without thinking they’d actually get cast just so they could meet the other people auditioning.
Keep in Touch with Everyone
Everywhere you go you should be writing down names, numbers following up with those people and having little coffee dates or lunch dates. And don’t be shy ask everyone if they know any agents or managers. Tell them you’re looking for representation and tell them about how you have two scripts that have recommend coverage or won awards – they’ll want to help you because recommending a good writer to someone is something everyone wants to do.
That’s it in a nutshell. If you follow the five steps diligently I have no doubt you’ll get representation. The hardest part of the process for most people is getting to the point where they get those recommend coverage ratings or win the competitions. But you’d be surprised that some people get stuck at the first step picking between TV and Features.
What About After You Get a Screenwriting Agent?
Now, once you have an agent you have to know how to best use that relationship so you can advance your career. But seeing as how I’m already rounding 3,000 words for this one blog post I’m going to save that for an entirely different conversation – and it sure does merit one from my own experience.
Remember, that you don’t have to have an agent to be successful though. I got my first feature made AFTER I left my agent and manager. I’m already directing my second feature as well so there are no hard and fast rules to any of this stuff – just keep that in mind.