One of the most difficult tasks ahead of aspiring screenwriters is finding representation. Agents in today’s screenwriting marketplace are so busy scratching and clawing to get their established writers work, they have little time to grow “baby writers” who may or may not ever sell anything.
Adding to this is a troubling trend among the studios away from buying original screenplays, and especially away from buying original screenplays written on speculation. Studios want built in audiences, and favor adaptations of works (comics, novels, plays) that already have a significant following.
The reality is that breaking new writers is more difficult than it’s ever been. Agents increase their odds of selling material by pushing screenplays from their most experienced writers.
Managers are different. Of course, not all managers are alike. However, in general, while agents tend to restrict their activities to “fielding offers,” packaging projects and closing deals, managers are known for growing screenwriters.
They’re willing to take on baby writers. Once they like your writing, they’ll help you rewrite material and they’ll give you professional feedback.
Agents are more likely to read your screenplay and send it out, only if they like it. If they have problems with your work, they may say something, but they probably won’t sit down and help you fix it.
If they do send it out, and your work isn’t received well, they’ll stop. Nobody wants to get a reputation for sending out “second rate” scripts, or material that’s just not “commercial.”
Some other differences. Agents work for an agency. They usually have dozens of clients. Managers tend to have fewer, with an average around 20. They’re restricted to taking a 10% commission. Managers usually take 15%.
Managers are also interested in producing projects. This can be a plus. They may actually produce your script. However, sometimes their priority is more to about producing than selling scripts. They can make a lot more by producing.
My advice is to try to find representation with a manager. Managers tend to be more patient with writers who are just finding their voice. They’ll be more willing to nurture new talent –up to a point. Their time is valuable, too. And if they don’t see improvement, they’ll pull the plug.
If it works out, and you’re able to sell a screenplay, or get a job on a TV series, agents will be happy to represent you –to take ten percent, and close your deal. Once you’re a proven commodity they’ll figure out how to make the most money with your career as they possibly can.
What are agents and managers looking for? They’re looking for writers who are writing at a professional level. Your first few screenplays will probably not make the cut. If you don’t get a manager based on your first effort, be patient.
Both agents and managers are looking for writers who understand the market, who have a commercial sensibility. They’re looking for writers who are committed to their craft, over the long term. They don’t want to nurture a writer for months or years only to have them give up when the going gets rough.
Screenwriting representatives are also looking for writers who are comfortable in a room, who know how to pitch and talk story in meetings with producers. A writer who’s good on paper but freezes up in meetings can have a short career.
How do you approach an agent or manager to get their interest. Most importantly, you have to stand out in the crowd. It’s not enough to write solid screenplays. The writers who win screenwriting contests, who get great coverage, who direct their own material will get the advantage. Be creative. Market yourself.
I met my writing partner at USC Film School. He was ahead of me in the self-promotion department. He’d been sending his own half hour spec scripts directly to showrunners with a signed release form. This was a risky move. It could have backfired.
However, one of these producers. Tom Tenowich, was encouraging. He liked his work, but didn’t feel he was ready to pitch their shows. That was huge for his career, and luckily, for mine too.
Together, we wrote a feature and some tv specs for Barney Miller and Taxi, two of the best half hour shows airing at the time. Since my partner had created an ally who was in a position to buy scripts, we sent our scripts to him. This time he was impressed enough to ask us in to pitch his show, Mork and Mindy.
We didn’t have an agent at he time. Actually, we never even sent scripts to any agents. We went in to pitch Mork and Mindy. At the time it was the number one show on TV. It took us about six pitch sessions, but we finally sold a story
We celebrated. Our dreams had come true. Further down the road, however, they decided not to use it. We got paid, but our career was over just as it began. Fortunately, though, our producer friend felt bad for us, and recommended us to another show.
That show was The Jeffersons. We pitched to the producers there, Ron Levitt and David Duclon. We went in with ten story ideas. And they bought one. This time we wrote the episode, and it aired on CBS. Now we’d sold to two of the highest rated half hours on TV.
The news traveled fast. We didn’t call agents, they called us. We signed with William Morris. Here’s what we learned: you don’t have to wait for an agent or manager to sign you. Sell scripts. Agents and managers will find you.
Of course, the other way works, too. You can get an agent or managers first, then sell. This is how it usually works. You have to write great scripts. Representatves are looking for scripts that sell. Keep writing, and be phenomenal.