Question: What's the difference between agents and managers for screenwriters and how the hell do I get one?
First things first: is there a difference?
In the current landscape, roles continue to evolve.
The classic dynamic was one where an agent sent material to contacts, worked to get clients assignments, and negotiated deals (with a lawyer, or as a lawyer since many agents are law school grads).
A manager nurtured the writer and forwarded scripts to contacts and worked to get clients assignments in the same vein as an agent. The adage was that an agent could negotiate a contract, but by law could not be a producer on a project, while a manager could be a producer on a film but could not negotiate contracts.
While agents still cannot take producer credits, managers have been known to negotiate a deal now and then by bypassing the agent and working with an entertainment attorney. This is in part due to changes in the industry over the past decade. There are now only a handful of major agencies, and as some have merged and consolidated staff, former agents have found themselves venturing out into the world and opening up their own management companies.
Before I knew better I used to dream about the idea of a manager or agent being someone like Woody Allen's character in Broadway Danny Rose, a lovable stuttering neurotic who believed in me with a fierce, unyielding passion. I thought they would cater to my every need and fear and even host Thanksgiving. Alas, this is not the case, unless you're one of the really big writers -- and then only while you remain one of the really big writers.
Wish I Knew Before
One common misconception is that once you have a manager or agent, they will send out any script you write. But that’s not actually the case.
Managers and agents have to be careful with what scripts they bring out because every time one doesn't sell, which is often the case, it weakens their value in terms of being able to sell projects for a small window of time. For this reason, they do not take out all of the scripts their clients deliver.
They need to be picky and sometimes they will hold back a project until they feel it will have the best chance to sell. Or, if it’s not something that he or she feels reflects the kind of projects they usually represent, or those they feel will create the right brand for the writer, they will shelve the script and advise the client to “move on” to the next project.
I know a writer who's had the same manager for several years: while this writer has had some success, the manager has actually done little for the writer’s career overall. This particular manager has provided feedback on scripts and general career advice, even once or twice played bad cop with companies, but he’s no Danny Rose. He’s never spec’d one of the writer’s scripts, even the ones that have gone on to be sold and produced.
This writer's manager has gone through the development process of scripts with the writer only to back out of sending out the script because he feared it wouldn't sell. In a few of these instances, the writer forwarded his script(s) to other contacts and those contacts have, fortunately, known a producer whose needs aligned with what the script(s) offered.
Even though this writer has had representation for years, it’s been through his own managing of contacts that he’s been able to move forward with his career.
In some cases, managers use their companies to help find and access scripts without an official deal in place beforehand. This means they “hip pocket” writers, allowing them to view the work before anyone else and without signing a representation agreement. In essence, this tactic provides the managers and their companies with free, unofficial, first-look deals with screenwriters. The drawback is that sometimes the writers aren’t aware this is the arrangement they have with a manager, especially since so many deals these days are verbal instead of on paper.
While some successful careers have begun with no formal agreement in place between writer and manager, having one shows the rep is serious enough about working with the writer that they will put their responsibilities on paper.
Sometimes a writer might be convinced to develop a project based on the manager/producer’s idea. I’ve known writers who’ve spent months working on a project that the manager aimed to set up as a producer. For all those months, the writer didn’t have any time to work on original projects and eventually had no ownership (or not enough) of the work they’d done with the producer.
A variation on this is when managers attach themselves to a script: the writer thinks the manager is representing them in the sale, but actually the manager is coming on as a producer. These are referred to as “stealth producers.” There are pros and cons. Their passion an interest in a project may push them to work harder. However, if they are not established as a producer, their attachment can scare away more accomplished producers. You can read more stealth producers in chapter six of Save The Cat! Strikes Back.
“I don’t want a manager. I want an agent.”
With all this talk about managers, what about agents? Here’s the reality:
If you're thinking of finding an agent, and you haven't yet sold anything, and no one is about to pay you money for your writing, then you're probably not going to find an agent -- at least not a highly reputable one.
One manager that I spoke with for this blog said that agents have become lazy; they no longer want to do the work of building a writer’s career, they just want to come in when the writer is about to collect a check so they can shave off that 10% commission.
Getting One (“Danny Rose, where are you?!”)
But, seriously, how do you get an agent? You don’t. An agent gets you. One thing you can do is get recognition through high caliber contests (see this previous blog entry). If a producer becomes interested in your contest entry, an agent won’t be too far behind.
You can also attend pitch conferences like the Screenwriter’s World Conference Pitch Slam. If you don’t have any contacts that can put your work in front of reps, this is a way to get some guaranteed face time. And you’ll attain a stronger sense of what meetings and pitches are like at the same time.
Or you can blaze your own path.
A writing team I know struggled to even get a meeting with a manager or agent for many years. They finally gave up on that strategy and started taking out their work in other ways, like starting a comic strip and slipping it into L.A. Weeklys on newsstands in parts of L.A. that they knew were frequented by industry people. A producer at one of the big networks came across their work, liked their creative voice, and hired them to work on a big series. The writing team then got to choose from an assortment of agents and even got to ask agents, “Why should we pick you?”
"What will representation really do for me?"
A manager once told me his job was forwarding PDFs of his clients’ scripts to his contacts. If the contact responded positively, the manager would set up a meet-and-greet and then it was on the writer to try and turn it into something more.
Other than serving as an email forwarding service, reps can help you vet possible projects. With their access to the industry, they know before the writer does if something similar is already in the works and possibly save the writer time and effort.
If you’re willing to deduct 20-25% from your paycheck, you can have both manager and agent. Ideally, they can work as a team and use combined contact lists to put you and your work in front of more producers. They can then serve as bad cops or nags for writers when dealing with companies.
The other reason why you need to have an agent or manager (or both) is so you can say you have one. Saying you have representation makes you sound more legitimate, even if they never get you any work.
If you’re going to focus your search for representation, look for a manager. Rest assured when someone’s ready to pay you, an agent will be there to always have your back -- for all its worth.
Maybe your very own Broadway Danny Rose will make an appearance.
Have a question for Mario? Just leave it in the comments below, and yours could be in the next Screenwriter's Guidepost!
- More Screenwriter's Guidepost articles from Mario O. Moreno
- Writer's Edge: Creating a Powerhouse Contact List
- Submissions Insanity #1: The Basics of Online Script Submissions
- Breaking & Entering: 100 Reasons to Say No
- Balls of Steel: Pitching Insights & Tips For Before You Submit Your Script
- Good in a Room: 17 Phrases That Make You Sound Like a Hollywood Rookie
Tools to Help:
- Hollywood Screenwriting Directory
- Screenplay Query Letter Critique
- Writing Successful Loglines, Query Letters and One Sheets On Demand Webinar
- FREE Query Screenwriting Executives Download
Learn how to find a literary agent in our FREE download, Screenwriters' Guide to Navigating the World of Literary Agents and Managers!