by Larry Brody
In the course of my so-called career, I’ve found that new writers always lead off any conversation with the same two questions:
- How did you get started?
- How do I get an agent?
Even I get tired of talking about myself, so let’s move on to the agent thing for now, okay?
To unsold, unpublished writers agents are the Holy Grail. To old pros they’re a necessary evil. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Beginners need agents to get started. Most production companies, broadcast and cable networks, etc. won’t talk to or accept material from unagented writers. Those that do make the writers jump through hoops of paperwork – releases, disclaimers – first. You just plain aren’t considered a real writer unless you have representation.
Established writers need agents for different reasons. Writers are usually loners by nature. We need someone who can understand our problems and fight for us when we just plain can’t get up the oomph. Need info on what’s happening in the marketplace? Hate to make calls looking for assignments? Terrified to negotiate? Let your agent do it instead.
Besides, what better scapegoat is there than our agent? It’s his fault that we aren’t working. Or being paid top dollar. His fault that the network decided not to shoot our last pilot.
Don’t get me wrong. I love agents. Why else would I have had so many? (Thank you very much. I’m here all week.)
But although switching agents is relatively easy for writers who already have a reputation or are currently employed, getting that first one is a real bitch. The best way to go about it is by is personal recommendation. No, not by having an agented friend recommend his/her agent to you. (That would be way too easy.) By being recommended to the agent by your friend.
Your lucky buddy has to put in the good word about you and your talent. When an agent hears how good a writer you are, how close you are to the big breakthrough, s/he starts salivating. The slobber is everywhere. (In fact, here’s something important to remember: Agents work harder at signing new clients than they ever do at representing them. So if you don’t find the agent aggressive enough in the beginning, you’ll never be happy with the way the agent sells you if you sign on.)
What’s? You don’t know anyone who has an agent? In that case, it’s time to hit the books. Get hold of the WGA’s list of signatory agents. Look for the ones who say they’ll take on new writers. Odds are they don’t really mean it, but at least their assistants probably won’t scream at you when you call.
The reason most agents don’t want new writers, BTW, is as much an ethical one as a practical one. (What? Agents have ethics? The good ones, yeah.) The vast majority of agented television and screenwriters in L.A. are unemployed and/or haven’t sold anything in one hell of a long time. A responsible agent has an obligation to look out for them first, before taking on any new clients.
Plus (and maybe this should’ve come first), most agented writers already have a track record and therefore are easier to sell.
Ready to give up yet? If not, then start calling. Forget letters of inquiry. Showbiz is personal. Whenever possible, everyone likes to work with their friends. Letters from outsiders are much easier to ignore than phone calls. If you’re calling a big agency, ask the receptionist for the name of the head of the lit department. Then have her put your call through to that person. You’ll be greeted by an assistant, of course, and your job is to make nice to this all-important gatekeeper. If the assistant finds you charming, s/he probably won’t just blow you off. Stay on that phone until you get a hook to hang a submission on. A fragment of conversation that can be loosely interpreted as, “Yeah, yeah, send us your material,” usually followed by a sigh.
Once you get that hook it’s time to write an equally charming yet businesslike letter and send off your sample scripts.
That’s right. Scripts with an “s.” Plural. A spec screenplay alone isn’t going to do it. Agents know better than anyone how difficult it is to make a sale, and as a result most of them don’t really try. Their business isn’t selling your work, it’s selling you. Getting you the big pitch meeting, making the contact you need to become the friend of someone who can give you a writing assignment.
If you want to write television, a solid spec pilot script is imperative these days. Many TV producers only read pilots because they believe that’s the only way to know what a writer is all about. But you also need two or three spec teleplays. These should be for series that are currently on the air and are highly regarded within the biz. (To find out what those in the biz like, you’ll have to start visiting sites like Deadline.Com, The Wrap.Com, and their ilk, sites whose attitudes reflect those of the folks at the top.)
If you can demonstrate versatility you should – within certain boundaries. TV pretty much keeps its comedy writers separate from its dramatists, so if your prime interest is writing sitcoms, send the agent three of those – a sample of a sophisticated, adult show; a sample of a zany, wild show; and a sample of a middle-of-road, appreciated-by-anyone show. If drama is your bent, send a mature drama with lots of talk; an action show with hardly any talk; and a whimsical “dramady” for good measure. If I were looking for drama work, I’d use a spec pilot plus a spec episode for a current medical show, a police procedural, and a science fiction or fantasy episode to top it all off.
After you’ve sent in your package, call to make sure it got there. Then wait about a month – or as long as the assistant may have suggested (unless he said,”until hell freezes over”), and call again if you haven’t heard anything. Unlike book agents, film and TV agents for the most part don’t bother writing rejection letters and returning material. Silence almost always means no. They may, however, call…if their reaction is, “Whoa! This is great! I can sell you in a second.”
The good part about agent hunting is that you can do it from wherever you live. Agents understand that beginners don’t always live in L.A. Be prepared, though, to move to the Land of La as soon as an agent accepts you. Again, it’s a matter of proving that you’re serious. A writer who wants to work in the Industry shows it by living where the Industry is. Hey, even Steven Spielberg lives in the smog.
I know. I’m not exactly describing a high concept technique. It depends on execution, timing, talent, and lots of luck. But it’s what you have to do. And keep on doing. If the the first agent turns you down, go to another, another, on and on. Call me a romantic, but I believe that eventually, if your work displays genuine talent and potential (and/or you make the right friends), someone will take you on, and you’ll be in the game.
After you’re agented up, however, remember one more thing. Don’t expect miracles from these guys. After all, they’re only getting ten percent from you – less than you’d tip even a lousy waiter. Plus, they’re only human. No one believes in you like you do. In the long run, we’re our own best sales people.
Be prepared to shop, shop, shop yourself – even after you drop.