Get the Most Out of Your Literary Agent
Congratulations! You have just signed with an agent who has validated that you are a terrific writer and that you have written a fabulous script (and even perhaps more than one) that is worthy of being seen on screen and is imminently and eminently marketable.
It is natural for you to expect that your agent will aggressively market your screenplays and your writing and rewriting services when introducing your work to potential buyers, but there are a number of things you can do to facilitate your agent's efforts on your behalf.
Communication with your agent is paramount and should reflect that you are not just relying solely on the agent to advance your career. In some ways, you should look at the agent/client relationship as a partnership. Therefore, you should also bring something to the table that demonstrates you are pro-active and will continue to advance your own career in concert with the agent. More on this later…
If you haven't already done so with your agent, it is a good idea to ask how often and in what way would the agent give you progress reports to have awareness of where and to whom your material has been submitted. Some agents prefer to give you periodic calls every few weeks or they may suggest that you call in bi-monthly (or some other time frame) for updates. Other agents will provide you periodic updates via e-mail. And some agents prefer to call you only when they have something meaningful to report. In this last case, if you don't hear from your agent within a reasonable time (a month or so), it's time for you to pick up the phone and call to see what's happening. The idea behind setting ground rules about updates is that you don't want to be a pest in your agent's eyes on the one hand; and on the other, you don't want to die of benign neglect. If your calls or e-mails aren't being answered after several attempts, I would suggest that your current agent might not be the right fit for you.
Now I want to make a few suggestions about what you might bring to the table of this agent/client partnership.
1. Stay abreast of what's happening in the business by trying to read everything you can get your hands on such as one of the trade papers (Daily Variety, Weekly Variety or The Hollywood Reporter) or Written By (the WGA publication) or Creative Screenwriting magazine, and if not these periodicals, make sure that you read the movie reviews and film entertainment columns in your local paper or from newspapers on the Internet. Many newspapers can be accessed on the Internet and don't require actual subscriptions, such as the New York Times, L.A. Times or Washington Post. Agents much prefer clients who are aware of, and knowledgeable about, the industry and the marketplace.
2. Network, network, network. It's a given that networking may be easier and more productive for those writers living in the L.A. or New York area, but you will be surprised at the amount of contacts you might uncover in your own area once you set your mind to network. Networking doesn't always "net" you contacts, but it often may be enlightening and informative. Of course, the first avenues to explore are all your relatives (even long lost cousins who may have a connection somewhere in Tinseltown) and near and distant friends. Next, check with the college or university from which you graduated to see if any alumni are working in the film and television industry and if so, get their addresses and write to them. Did you have a favorite teacher in high school or college who was a fan of yours that you could write to and ask for possible contacts? Check your newspaper for upcoming film festivals, entertainment seminars or conferences, book signings (if the author is tied in some way to the film/TV industry), writers clubs or workshops; and then go to these events and meet people. It should be easy to strike up conversations with people who share a common interest. Take film writing or production courses at your local college; the professor or others in the class may be a conduit to a contact. And then talk to just about everyone else you know (attorney, barber, hairdresser, dog groomer, insurance agent or cable repairman) and see if they can point you to anyone they know. Keep a journal or log of all the contacts you make so that you can refer to it when needed.
3. Don't write in a vacuum. Take film and writing classes and/or join writers workshops. Share your work with trusted friends whose opinions you value. If you have several ideas for future screenplays ruminating in your head, talk to your agent about them as he/she might be able to guide you as to what might be most marketable. And don't be shy about asking your agent what kind of projects are currently in demand; it might be the impetus for you to start or finish another project you have had in mind. Go see movies, rent DVDs, view cable and television movies and shows, and read as many produced scripts as possible (www.joblo.com is one of several Internet sites that offers produced scripts to read on-line); they all will add to your ongoing learning experience and expanding knowledge.
4. Now that you are well informed about the industry and marketplace, you can help yourself and your agent by querying production companies that seem to be a good fit with your project(s). However, first check with your agent to see if he/she thinks it is a good idea to contact that company or person or that it doesn't conflict with his/her efforts on your behalf. Sometimes you can write to a development executive or principal in a company who is looking for exactly what you have written. Be sure to state that you are represented by "agent so-and-so," and that they would be making the submission on your behalf if the potential buyer has any interest. The potential buyer will give more credence to, and show more interest in, a writer who has an agent.
There are two industry organizations that I would recommend that are helpful to writers who are trying to market their material (along with their agent or without an agent). The first is Jerrol LeBaron's InkTip (www.InkTip.com) and the other is Jeffrey Gund's Info List (www.infolist.com). Both of these Internet sites offer information and access to potential buyers for your scripts or writing services. Again, you should check with your agent before submitting your projects to any potential buyers.
5. Enter your very best script(s) into screenplay competitions. Information on screenplay competitions can be garnered from the trade papers and aforementioned magazines and web sites, and just googling "screenplay competitions." One site that I have found to be most informative and has a rather extensive list of screenwriting competitions (and costs) is www.filmmakers.com/contests. Entering more than one competition can be a very expensive proposition, so it is best to study what kind of scripts do well in a given competition by checking out their web site and talking to your agent if you need further advice. If you win or place well in one or any number of competitions, it can provide you and your agent with an additional "selling tool" when promoting you and your script. And, potential buyers often "comb" these screenwriting competitions for both new talent and material.
6. You should know that what you consider to be your very best work -- your "masterpiece" -- can always be improved upon and benefit from taking a vacation from it and coming back with a fresh eye and perspective. I don't know to whom the following quote can be attributed (some say Ernest Hemingway), but it is so apt: "Writing is re-writing." If your masterpiece isn't attracting the studios to the bidding war you dreamed about or it isn't resonating with an ever-growing list of potential buyers, then there is more likely room for improvement. If your agent has had the script out to numerous buyers, and there is a consensus of opinion from those who have read and considered the project as to why they are passing, then you should take heed. Get back to work. If you have several ideas as to how you might fix a given script problem but are struggling with which way to go, talk it over with your agent. Sometimes an agent may offer a good idea or suggestion (perhaps one you never even thought of) or can dissuade you from a possible wrong direction. But, remember that the life of an agent is a very busy one, and you should use this option with your agent very judiciously.
Another, and perhaps more important, word of caution is to not rush your rewrites. You may be very excited about the changes you have made, but I strongly urge you to "sit" on the latest revision for at least a week or two; let it "marinate" for a while. You will often find that the moment you ship the newest draft off to your agent or trusted friend for their reaction, you will come up with a better idea and will continue to tinker with it. If you are still elated about the revisions a week or two later and you have definitely stopped tinkering, then you can involve your agent. It is important that you value and respect your agent's time and input; the last thing you want to do is abuse that relationship.
If, after many trials and errors and extensive exposure to buyers, you haven't got an option, sale or assignment from that "masterpiece," it just might be time to put it away in a drawer for another day. I always believe that good material will get produced some day; you may just have to wait for a more favorable time.
7. You should have more than one script, treatment or idea in your arsenal. Knowing which project to work on next will evolve from your knowledge of the market, your agent's advice and perhaps even more importantly, your muse. The next project you work on should be one that excites you, and hopefully, there will be a market out there for it. If you solely write for what the market can bear, you might be doing yourself a disservice. Even if a project you have written does not sell, it could very well "sell" you as a writer-for-hire because you generally do your best work when you are passionate about it.
Having written or developed lots and lots of projects might sound ideal, but remember the old adage: "It is quality, not quantity that counts." Some writers struggle to come up with a second script, and on the other end of the spectrum is the writer who constantly comes up with new ideas and scripts. However, some of those writers would rather work up new ideas than refine, hone or polish one they have already written. Rewriting takes discipline, and some writers don't have it. Agents want quality projects to take into the marketplace, so why not give them what they need?
8. I am going to share with you a truism that might surprise you; agents don't get you meetings; it's the caliber of your writing skill that does. Yes, the agent can push for a meeting for you, but that happens only when and if your material has impressed a potential buyer or a colleague the buyer respects. Your material is your calling card for a meeting; the agent is the facilitator. Once your agent procures a meeting for you, you should start preparing for it right away by making a study of the production company and its credits (if any) by checking out the company's web site on the Internet or by checking out the credits of the principals in that company (start with typing in their names on www.Imdb.com). If you are not familiar with any of the company's credits, go rent and view a tape of their highest-rated movie (many ratings can also be found on the Imdb). Knowing what a company (or a principal of that company) has done in the past might give you an indication of the company's tastes and proclivities, which will help you determine which project or idea you might pitch to them first. Of course, your agent might have some advice for you in this arena, as well. Then, I suggest you work on polishing the pitches on projects you may already have or work up pitches for other ideas now that you have a sense of what the company might look to produce. Make sure that the pitches are concise and compelling. Practice the pitches out loud with a friend or colleague, and try to elicit constructive feedback.
You should view your pitch meeting much like an important job interview, and conduct yourself accordingly. Always arrive a bit early, well-groomed, nicely attired, and be prepared to be flexible. Eye contact with the executives with whom you are meeting is key. You can make judgments on their interest (or lack thereof) by watching their reactions. If your pitches are not resonating, you can always ask them about what their company might be looking to produce or ask, "What's on your wish list of projects?" If executives do not make an outright "bite" on one of your pitches but you feel you have made a good impression, ask them if you can bring future projects to their attention. Take your lead from the executives as to whether they are conversational or all business. Don't try to engage "business-minded" executives in a conversation of give and take as that can leave them with a negative impression of you. And, always thank them for their time and consideration.
If executives with whom you are meeting offer you a critique of the script that they read that prompted the meeting with you, listen and avoid the impulse to defend. They might just have "nailed" the problem for you, but if you think that their ideas are all wet, don't contradict them. It is much more advisable to thank them for their thoughtful and helpful ideas, and perhaps tell them that you will take the time to digest or seriously consider what they have said. Once the meeting is over and you are past the tension such a meeting can produce, you will think more clearly about what they have said. If what they said doesn't work for you, no harm, no foul. The object is to leave a good impression and hopefully obtain an "open door" policy with buyers who might buy something from you in the future.
9. This next suggestion will probably be greeted with the least enthusiasm, as writers are considered to be artists, not bookkeepers. But, you should keep your own records. Just like the journal or log of networking contacts I previously mentioned, it is a good idea to keep a running log of all those people and companies to which your agent exposed your material. Include what projects were exposed, and the executive's responses to each. This way, when you read that an executive who was a fan of your work when she was at Company A has just gone to Company B, or is now a producer with her own company, you might want to submit another project that's a better fit for that executive's new position. Your agent might be on top of this situation, but you can't and shouldn't count on that. You can bring this bit of information to your agent's attention so that he or she can act on it. Also, if you have changed agents in the interim, you have the information at hand to share with your new agent.
10. Be positive! An agent tends to look forward to speaking to, meeting with or working for a client with a positive attitude and somewhat dreads having to speak with and "shore up" a negative one. And buyers, too, respond better to positive, upbeat people. That is not to say that you won't be able to ever commiserate with your agent. I am just suggesting that you don't make a habit of it. Another aspect of being positive is to acknowledge what your agent has done for you by thanking them or writing your agent a congratulatory note when he or she has achieved a sale for another client.
There are many successful people who truly believe that thinking positively brought them their success. And, some take it even a step further by saying you should "picture your success" in your mind, and it will happen. Why not try it?
STEPHANIE ROGERS was a development executive at Universal and Paramount studios early in her film industry career and subsequently owned and operated Stephanie Rogers & Associates, a successful literary agency, representing writers, directors and producers for twenty years. In 2000, the agency was re-structured to a management and consulting firm which she still operates today, and she currently spearheads a script consultancy service, write 2 wow (www.write2wow.com), where she offers help to screen and book writers.