Thoughts on Agents
Oh gawd now it begins. The search. The insecurity. Doubts. Prayers. Mantras. You're thinking, "What was I thinking when I decided to become a screenwriter!"
Fear is in the pit of your stomach as you seal the letter and lick the stamp. The letter -- the one containing a query and synopsis of your script. The letter that will be scrutinized and responded to... or perhaps not. The letter that contains your hopes and dreams. Will anyone give a damn? Maybe. Maybe not.
The truth? Agents are a strange breed. They are always looking for new talent --a fresh voice, but rarely do they want to search past their own backyard -- meaning outside the loop of clients and producers, and those recommended to them by both. I can't speak for agents, but it would appear that many believe anyone living outside LA couldn't possibly have a clue about screenwriting -- and that to be a screenwriter one must live in LA. Well, unfortunately, the screenwriting world does not only live and breathe in LA -- terrific screenwriters inhabit the entire planet. Unfortunately, because of this many worthy screenwriters will go undiscovered.
Now, I have to agree that reading every writer that submits a query letter is impossible. Few agencies -- even the largest -- have the manpower to read thousands of scripts a year, but I heartily disagree that a writer should be summarily dismissed because he was not recommended by a client or producer -- or friend. Such a waste of wonderful talent.
Sounds pretty grim... doesn't it? It's not really.
First of all, there are producers who will read your script without submission by an agent. They will require a release form. There are agents who will read unproduced writers. "Newbies". The trick is finding both!
Everyone wants to be repped by a big agency. This is natural. The large agencies certainly do have clout. Large agencies can "package" your screenplay, bringing all elements together: your script, producer, director, and talent. Large agencies have the manpower to scour the majors for assignments and put more than one agent to work for you. However, the chances of being read by a large agency are small unless you are in the "loop".
But that's okay.
There are many fine smaller agencies that will agree to read your material -- agencies that are willing to take a chance with an unknown writer; they are hungry for fresh, good talent. It doesn't matter if agency is comprised of just one agent. What matters is what he/she can do for you. Personally, I would rather have one agent working his tail off for me, than three who are more interested in getting assignments and sales for their established clients, which is often the case at a larger agency.
Do not discount the smaller agency in your search for representation. Many of the smaller agencies have strong contacts and many of them do "package". You will also find agents that have left larger companies in favor of the "smaller" environment, or to start their own agency.
What about location of the agency? I cannot deny that an LA location is best, but, in my opinion, location shouldn't be the deciding factor ( I can see your eyebrows shooting up right now) What is important? Contacts. That's it. An agent does not need to be in LA to have access to top producers. Nor does an agent need to be in LA to gain the respect of producers.
If the agent has contacts and is respected for the material he or she offers, that is what matters. In the world of e-mail, faxing and fed-x, business can be conducted just as expeditiously from the "right" coast or middle America. Remember... contacts .
Remember, an office in LA doesn't necessarily mean that an agent is "good" or reputable. You will find lousy agents in LA, just as you will find them in NY and other parts of the country. There are so called agents who want nothing more than to scam you, but I believe they are few and their reputations usually precede them.
What about a small agency outside LA and NY? Lets say you are offered a contract by an agent in Virginia. The agent has three clients. Oh boy, that doesn't sound good. Well, take a minute and think. Has he sold/optioned projects for all three clients? Ask him. How long has he been in business? One year or ten? Ask him. If the answer is ten, then chances are he knows the score; one does not stay in this business without making money, or if one does not have contacts. It's impossible.
Ask for references. If the agent won't give you names, say good-bye. If you are given a list of producers with whom the agent works, call the productions company. Check.
What if it's been a year since his last sale? Well, consider the possibility that he hasn't found any project worth marketing. Finding a viable screenplay is not easy, despite the number of screenplays circulated. A good agent is very particular about the projects he will represent; his livelihood and reputation depend on it. A small agent has an extremely difficult time finding worthy material. Remember, there are many writers that feel as you: Bigger is better. Because everyone wants to be repped by the biggies, smaller agents often find the caliber of material submitted unacceptable and/or do not receive a lot of submissions.
Small agencies (especially outside LA) are considered the "Last chance gas station", and the number of submissions can be paltry compared to the large agencies. When you think location, think of where you live. Do you live in the midwest or south? Does that mean you are not as capable at your job as someone in LA or NY? And does your location mean that you are not a competent screenwriter? No.
What about rip off agents? Ohhhh...they do exist. How do you know if you will be ripped off? Use your sixth sense among other things. Gut feelings go a long way. If the agent is evasive when you ask questions about his agency and track record, let the red flag go up. If the agent charges fees to read your script, stay away. If the agent or agency recommends an editor before reconsidering your material, run.
Should an agency charge a marketing fee? Marketing is an expensive proposition; you already know that. If you are an unknown writer and the agency wants to charge for postage, fed-ex, long distance calls, etc., the expense should be what you would bear if marketing the script yourself. However, you should be charged the exact amount the agency spends out of pocket; this means the agency should supply an invoice of expenses. I do not agree with an agency charging marketing fees upfront, or contractual fees.
The agency should provide a monthly summary of script submissions, giving the name of the production company and the date of submission, even if they don't charge for expenses. Look for other representation if an agency will not provide a summary. You need to know where your material is being submitted.
What about marketing on the internet? I believe the internet will -- down the road -- possibly replace the agent because it offers instant access for producers, without having to contend with a third party. Also, it seems that many writers are turning to this alternative rather than having to deal with agents. These writers use an Entertainment attorney for negotiations.
Do I think marketing on the internet is safe? I'm not really sure at this point. Many sites have secure downloads, but there is still the possibility of being ripped off.
Do many producers now use the net to find screenplays? Some, and more are utilizing the net all the time. I can think of several topnotch production companies now soliciting on the web. Why? Because their access to talent is severely limited by the present structure. The internet offers producers a limitless supply of writers -- great writers -- who are snubbed by the system.
I applaud the producers who are taking this giant leap. It will change the face of marketing for all screenwriters.
However, be careful. Before you submit to any producer on the net check them out first.
Back to agents....
Do not despair if you cannot find agency representation right away; "Them's the breaks", unfair as it is. Keep writing. Keep submitting to both agencies and production companies. Never give up. Tenacity is the name of the game. You will find representation eventually, even if you find it with a -- gasp -- small agency. But I ask you to remember one thing. If you are represented by a small agency or independent agent, and you are well rewarded, don't forget who sold your scripts -- introduced you to the market.
What about entertainment attorneys? Entertainment attorneys are an excellent alternative to the agent. Most production companies will accept submissions from an entertainment attorney.
An excellent source for "scoping out" agencies are the listservs, SCRNWRIT, and SCREENWRITING (my list), GREATSCRIPTS and SCREENTALK. These lists are comprised of working and unproduced screenwriters who freely share their experiences with agencies. Many subscribers will ask "listers" about an agency or production company before sending their material. These listservs are an excellent source of information for the screenwriter, and provide informative discussions.