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PrimeTime: How to Get an Agent & More of Your Agent Questions ... Answered!

Be honest with yourself about your project's business model and commercial potential. Just as specific producers work on specific types of material, so do certain agents.

Hope you all are having a great holiday weekend! I wanted to kick things off this week with a quick announcement …

I'm teaching a two-day pilot-writing workshop this month for the Writing Pad, one of the most unique writing workshops in Los Angeles. "Let Your Pilot Take Off: Crafting a Compelling TV Show" takes place on Sunday, July 24, and Sunday, July 31, 2011 … and we'll be using in-class writing exercises to explore the vital elements of every successful TV show: what makes it tick, how to create compelling characters, where stories come from, etc. Best of all … mention my name and get a discount -- not only on this class but on other Writing Pad classes -- $10 off any one or two-day class, and $20 off a five-week class!

And now … onto this week's question(s).

Over the last two weeks, I discussed how to land a literary agent. (Click here for Part One and Part Two.) Many of you posted or e-mailed questions in responses, and I wanted to get to a couple today.

First, I received e-mails from multiple people -- Henry, Steve, Jessica, Toby -- asking nearly identical questions, so I'll attempt to address them all together. I'll use Lena's e-mail as an example; Lena has lived in another country for the last 20 years … she's written a "powerful screenplay" based on personal and political situations in this foreign country … and she's now in Los Angeles for two months. She writes …

I "am thinking maybe I need an agent to be able to take this to a few big names I think will be very interested in producing this film. Can I just write to maybe 20 agents at the same time? Are there risks? And, what if I know the type of producer that would be interested in my screenplay -- any way of knowing which agents are more au fait with different genres, or for example, an American-based story vis a vis an international one? There are a TON of agents listed on the WGA site -- and they have telephone numbers but not e-mails -- and it says not to send them unsolicited things ..."

Well, first of all -- no, there is nothing wrong with contacting multiple agents at the same time.

 It's nice to be wanted... but hopefully your agents dress better.

It's nice to be wanted... but hopefully your agents dress better.

This happens frequently; in fact, once you have an agent to represent your screenplay, he/she may go out with your script to multiple studios or producers all at the same time … in hopes of creating some competition and generating a bidding war. While you probably won't create a "bidding war" between agents, if you're a hot commodity, you can get multiple agents to want and woo you. (A friend of mine, a big reality TV producer, recently had several agencies vying for his hand; for about two weeks he was treated to great restaurants, fawning phone calls, Lakers tickets, etc.)

Secondly -- and here, Lena, is where I'm going to beat you up a bit (but Henry, Steve, Toby, and others -- this goes for you, too) …


Looking up random agents, total strangers, and cold-calling or e-mailing them is NOT (I repeat: NOT) how you get an agent!

To get an agent's attention, you need one of three things:

  1. A personal relationship with her (or relationships with people close to her)
  2. A writing job or offer of a job -- something that says to them: "This person is already an earner, someone I can profit from."
  3. A property that has already proven its value (and this does NOT mean a screenplay -- even a decent screenplay -- it means a produced movie that has won industry-respected awards ... or a play that has made a profit … or a humor column that's just been syndicated around the country … or a best-selling graphic novel … or SOMETHING that says, "This product has already proven its financial worth." A spec screenplay does not do that.

(Now, granted -- as I say every week, I work in television, and TV works differently than film -- as do TV/film agents. But as Nicholas, a manager, pointed out in the comments section of the June 20th post, how to get an agent's attention is pretty much the same in TV or film … so I'm betting these paths hold true in movies as well.)

So… can you "write to maybe 20 agents at the same time?" SURE.

"Are there risks?" NO.

Will this get you an agent? PROBABLY NOT.

(And by "probably not," I mean "NO.")

You certainly won't get the attention of anyone at one of the Big Four or mid-level agencies: CAA, WME, ICM, UTA, APA, or Paradigm. They won't even accept an unsolicited submission.

Now, if your screenplay is great -- and by "great," I don't mean "pretty good," I mean "THE GREATEST SCREENPLAY ANYONE HAS EVER READ" -- you might be able to get someone at a boutique to read it.

But it will take awhile, because even those agents are incredibly busy, and unless you have a strong personal/professional relationship with those agents … or are introduced to them via someone with a strong relationship … your screenplay is going straight to the bottom of their low-priority pile.

(And I would be VERY wary of signing at some random boutique. There are some excellent boutiques out there … like Kaplan Stahler, or Rothman-Brecher, but there are also many shady, bogus shysters … ineffectual wannabes claiming to be agents, working out of their basement, connected to no one in the industry. You do NOT want one of these -- and, especially if you have no personal relationships, it's difficult to know the difference.)

So… what do you do?

 Where most agents file unsolicited submissions ... and query letters.

Where most agents file unsolicited submissions ... and query letters.

Well, no (real) agent will accept unsolicited submissions … so you first need to send a query letter. Personally, I think query letters are a waste of time; most strong, worthwhile agents never read or respond to them -- they're too busy finding new clients through their own connections and relationships.

But if you really want to invest your time, energy, and postage into contacting strangers ...

At least do yourself the favor of contacting the right strangers.

In other words, Lena …

Your screenplay is about very specific incidents in very specific places. And just as specific producers work on specific types of material, so do certain agents. So think about writers or producers who have made similar movies, and find out who represents them. Often, those agents are familiar with the worlds of foreign films, indie films, international co-pros, etc.

Now, when I say "similar movies," I do NOT mean big, famous blockbusters with similar themes or stories. I mean movies that are similar in their budget, production model, distribution, etc.

Is your film a broad commercial blockbuster, like Transformers or Twilight? Or is your movie a low-budget film, set in a foreign locale, like say, Maria Full of Grace or Amreeka? If so, find out what agent, or producer, put together the financing and creative team for those particular movies. That's whom you want to contact.

Be honest with yourself about the film's business model and commercial potential.

If you're not, you're handicapping your chances of finding partners and/or selling it. Lena has shared with me -- in general terms -- the area of her script (I promised not to reveal it here) … and I would say it's not a particularly commercial idea.

This is NOT a criticism of the idea; it's just looking at it objectively and realistically. It's not Iron Man or Pirates of the Caribbean, so selling this movie will require people who understand these specific types of films and filmmaking -- and these people are NOT the same people who make Iron Man and Pirates.

So, Lena -- you want to do some heavy-duty research and find out which agents do work with these kinds of films … not just story-wise, but business-wise. Which agents represent films and filmmakers working with low to mid-range budgets, foreign locales, possibly foreign financiers, etc.?

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Let's say your movie is a low-budget film about South Africa (I know it's not, but go with me). While it's not a science-fiction story, it might play with social commentary similar to Neill Blomkamp's District 9, which was another low-budget South African film. Does your screenplay deal with issues confronting Palestinian families and/or Middle Eastern immigrants? Perhaps you could reach out to Cherien Dabis, who clearly has experience making these types of film ... as do her agents, just like Neill Blomkamp's.

You can often track down these people, or their representation, through the Directors Guild, which has a database allowing you to find artists' representation. (You can also try or IMDBPro, which are subscription services.)

Cherien Dabis, for example, is represented at WME. So perhaps her agent is well-connected to circles who would be interested in your low-budget Palestinian family movie. Some agencies even have special departments, like WME's William Morris Independent and UTA's Independent Film Group, that deal specifically with these kinds of movies.

Looking at your film this way -- through a "business" lens -- is more important than looking at it through a "creative" lens.

... Because while you may think your movie has much in common creatively, spiritually, and narratively with high-profile films like North Country or Miracle at St. Anna, or even a TV movie like Their Eyes Were Watching God, these movies -- and their producers -- get made in totally different ways, with very different processes, than low or mid-budget indie films.

This doesn't mean your film isn't a great idea and won't be successful … you just have to understand what it is -- then contact the agents and producers who play in that world.

(Having said that, you're still going to find you have a tough/impossible time cold-contacting agents. I would first call everyone in your Rolodex, and see who they know … and who their friends know … and who their friends' friends know … that could make an introduction for you.)

(Also, Lena -- as I said to Mark in my April 4th post, when he asked a similar question, if your story concerns specific events in a specific country, and you live in or have a relationship with that country, you may want to try getting the film made there, where there's probably a more organic interest.)

As for the why the WGA has a massive list of agents, many not seeking unsolicited submissions … this isn't the first question/comment I've received about this. Marguerite Fair responded to my December 4th column, "Living in L.A., Submitting to Websites -- Rebuttals and Guest Thoughts," asking:

"Frankly, I would like to know why the WGA has a list of Agents who are not actually seeking new clients. Life is difficult enough for a writer without knowing we're swimming upstream right out of the canoe."

Here's why:

 Not a resource of the WGA

Not a resource of the WGA

The WGA is NOT a writers support group. It is NOT designed to help people break into the industry. It is NOT meant to be a resource for aspirants or struggling writers.

The WGA is one simple thing: A LABOR UNION.

And like all labor unions, the WGA's purpose is to protect the interests of its members: dues-paying writers who have worked on WGA shows or for WGA companies (shows and companies that have negotiated and agreed to the union's terms).

That list of agents is simply a list of agents who have agreed to the WGA's terms. It is not necessarily intended as a tool to find an agent, especially one who accepts unsolicited material -- which is literally no one (as stated on the WGA's webpage).

(FYI: Two popular misconceptions about the Writers Guild: People often think being in the Guild is a magic stamp of literary approval … and a requirement to getting a Hollywood writing job. It's neither.

  1. Joining the Guild simply means you've worked on a show, or with a company, that's agreed to the labor union's terms. There are plenty of super-talented writers working on shows that are NOT Guild -- like The Soup and Chelsea Lately. In fact, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Comedy Central shows that are clearly highly scripted, only joined the WGA a few years ago.
  2. You also do NOT need to be a WGA member to get a job on a WGA show or sell a movie; if the showrunner likes your writing, or the company likes your script, they'll hire you … and you'll then need to join the Guild -- but not being a member won't keep you from getting a job.)

Today's final question ...

This question comes from John, an aspiring TV and film writer in Minnesota. For the last several years, John has been working with Lance, a "WGA-East signatory agent" in Mississippi. In that time, John has written multiple film scripts, spec pilots, a reality show, and many TV specs.

"Lance mirrors my background very closely," says John, "and I'm comfortable with him … but he's not sold anything for me. He has gotten close, though."

A few years ago, for instance, Lance submitted one of John's specs for a popular show (let's say, just as an example, Law & Order: SVU) to that show's production office; they passed and told him to resubmit in a year. For the last three years, they've told him to resubmit. John is now, obviously, frustrated.

John writes …

I got Lance from the website INK TIP. I like him a lot but I'm 56 and not getting any younger. I have read several articles that seem to indicate that we may be looking at another GOLDEN AGE OF THE SPEC SCRIPT shortly. I'd like to be optimally positioned to take advantage of that. So what is your advice?

Well, John -- I'm going to say this bluntly …

Lance is a fraud.

He may not be a criminal fraud ... and he may have sincere intentions ... but he is not a TV/film literary agent in any practical, effectual sense.

First of all, no show on television today buys or accepts spec scripts of its own show. Law & Order: SVU does NOT buy L&O: SVU spec scripts; they usually won't even accept them to read as writing samples.

A bona fide agent should know this … and tell you.

 Yeah, yeah -- I can sell your screenplay.

Yeah, yeah -- I can sell your screenplay.

Spec scripts are written for one purpose only: to use as writing samples on other shows.

So you could use your Law & Order: SVU spec to try and land a staff job at CSI, but it has NO CHANCE of ever being purchased or read at Law & Order: SVU.

This is one of the most well-known, cardinal rules of TV-writing … and I would seriously question any agent who didn't know this or tell his client.

It is also nearly impossible to be an effective agent, especially in television, if you're not living in Los Angeles. Most good agents' top priority is making and maintaining relationships with executives, producers, and showrunners. Only by using their relationships do agents land their clients jobs -- and, when selecting an agent, this is one of the most important criteria for most professional writers: who and where are my agent's strongest relationships?

(If Lance is simply submitting your scripts blindly to the production office at L&O: SVU ... what do you need him for? Aside from this being a dead-end, simply mailing in your scripts is something you could do yourself! The whole point of having an agent is that they know, and can introduce you to, powerful buyers you couldn't contact on your own.)

You can learn a bit more about this in my February 3rd post, "Does Having an Agent Allow You To Live Outside L.A.?"

So if you want to be "optimally positioned to" land a TV job or sell a pilot, what should you do? ...


I've written about this extensively in other posts, so I won't go into detail here about why this is the best (and maybe only) way to break into television, but here are some links I hope you find helpful …

Do All Screenwriters Have To Live in L.A.?

Am I Too Old To Become a Screenwriter?

Getting Your First Job in Hollywood

How To Break In If You're NOT in L.A.

Juggling Writing AND a Job? ... Figure It the %$&* Out

Anyway, thanks again for all the questions, folks! If you have further questions or comments, please do not hesitate to e-mail me at, Tweet me @chadgervich, or post in the comment section below. See you next week!