Friday, February 26, 2010

How to Get an Agent

The one question that is invariably asked in every screenwriting panel, class, seminar or Q & A – regardless of the speaker, audience, or posted topic – is “how do I get an agent?”

The most basic answer and the one that nobody wants to hear is: It is really, really hard to get an agent.

It may in fact be the most difficult thing to do in this business (except perhaps winning an Academy Award). It is certainly harder than selling a script.

I think aspiring writers focus too much on getting an agent. They somehow believe once they have an agent the doors to the industry will swing wide open and their career will take off. It doesn’t work that way.

The two biggest dips in my career momentum came right after I signed with my first two new agents. The reason, I now realize, is that when I didn’t have an agent I worked really hard to advance my career. When I got an agent, I thought I could quit doing that. But no agent will ever take as much of an interest in your career as you will. The agent should enhance your career building efforts, not replace them.

After Sweet Home Alabama came out I wasn’t happy with my current representation and started looking for my third agent with the help of my manager at the time. To my surprise, several of the agents I was interested in refused to read my sample work. I said to my manager, “wow, I thought this would get easier once I had a movie out.”

She responded, “oh no. It’s never easy.”

Still, you will want to have an agent. So, as an aspiring writer, or even one who’s somewhat established, how do you do it?

I’ve had three agents in my career. Every single one of them came from a referral. Pretty much all of my friends with agents got them the same way. Referrals – either by a current client, a manager or attorney, or by someone respected in the industry like a producer or studio exec – are the primary way one gets an agent.

So how do you get a referral? You need to get your sample work out there. You need to write a lot of scripts, send them to contests, network and build your fan base. Then, once you have some established relationships, let them know in a non-pushy way that you’re looking for an agent. If your work is really, really great, one or two of them might make a referral.

(Some previous posts on the topic of networking: How to Network, How Not to Network, Screenwriting Contests)

The truth is you will be better off focusing more on writing well and getting people to read that writing than on trying to land an agent. When you are really ready to have an agent, you will probably start getting referrals without asking. Agents may even come to you if you win the right contest or have a great film shown in a festival.

There is one other thing you can try: the query letter. I did it once with some success, at least in terms of getting agents to read my sample. About one in four of the letters I sent out resulted in an offer to read. (Ultimately I found an agent through a referral, but getting the read is the point of the query letter.)

Here’s what I did: I spent three months poring over the Hollywood Reporter and jotting down any script sales. I looked for agents who sold multiple times in that period – those were the agents I wanted – and I looked for any commonality between the writer in question and myself, or the script in question and my sample.

Then I selected twelve agents and wrote a personal letter to each highlighting the reason I was writing to them. I might say something like, “I saw that you represent Writer X and my work is in a similar style so I believe you might respond to it.”

I did this because I had heard an agent at a panel say that if you had done your research and had a reason you thought he might like your work, he would probably believe you. He said he never responded to letters that sounded generic. I had tried the query approach once before, sending identical letters to fifty agents and got no responses so there must be something to that.

Next I listed a couple of the highlights of my career to date – I had a degree in screenwriting from USC, I had won a contest, and I had a script optioned by a known producer. Now you may not have any of those things. But if you don’t have some success or training that you can point to you probably aren’t ready to have an agent yet anyway. So instead of writing query letters, go take classes, enter contests and get your script to producers!

Finally I gave what I thought was a really killer logline for my script. A logline is a one-sentence description of the story. It needs to be interesting and compelling enough to make the agent want to read that story over the dozens of loglines he’s probably seen or heard that week.

If you write query letters that are targeted, point out why you're special, and give a logline that makes the agents salivate, they just might be willing to read your sample.

One other thing: as I write this in February of 2010 we are nearly a year into one of the worst periods for feature screenwriters ever. Script sales, pitch sales, and writing assignments have plummeted over the last twelve months. I am sure that means it is harder now to get an agent than it has been in decades.

Yet I’m equally sure that over the next three months more than one new screenwriter will sign with his or her first agent. So you might as well keep trying. After all, what’s the alternative?

In the end, my best advice on getting an agent is simply to keep improving your writing and show it to anyone who will read it. The agent will come when you’re ready for them.

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