Friday, March 28, 2014

How to Get an Agent

NOTE FROM DOUG: This week, Let’s Schmooze will do something a little different. This blog entry is an article I have co-written with Ken Aguado. Ken is a producer and my co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible.

How To Get An Agent

As established members of the entertainment community, we are frequently asked to speak to aspiring writers and directors, both in a classroom setting and outside. Doug also does this on a weekly basis in this blog-space and a glance at the links on the right will give you a pretty good sense of the vast range of subject matters he has covered. With the success of our recent book The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the number of invitations has greatly increased and we are now regularly invited to speak at numerous entertainment industry events, festivals, film schools and conferences.

No matter what the topic of the event, inevitably the dialog with the audience veers onto our views about the industry in general and life in the biz. Overwhelmingly, there’s one question we get asked more than any other: “How do I get an agent?” We also get this question or a regular basis from our film students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Often the question is asked with such intense interest, that we sometimes wonder if the rest of our lecture has just been “filler” for the audience, who are just waiting to get to this topic.

There is a common belief among aspiring writers and directors that getting an agent is the key to launching a successful career. And it’s not hard to see why – the primary role that agents play in Hollywood is to be the middleman between artists (writer, directors, actors, etc.) and the people who can hire them (studios, networks, production companies, etc.).

But when we are asked the question “How do I get an agent,” we know that what the audience really wants to know is “How do I get work or sell something in the biz?” They want to work as an artist, and see representation as a way of achieving that dream. And because the question is really one question masquerading as another, our answer is more complicated and probably less satisfying than you’d hoped. So how do writers and directors get that first job in their chosen field? We will get to that. But the short answer is you may not need an agent to work, nor does having an agent guarantee you will get work.

Who Are These Representatives?

Before we discuss getting representation, let’s regroup and make sure everyone knows the differences between the familiar Hollywood “representatives” – agents, managers and lawyers – what they do, and how they earn a living. Notice that we put the word representatives in quotes. There’s a good reason for this that has nothing to do with us being smarmy.

What do agents, managers, and lawyers do in Hollywood? There is a lot of confusion on this topic. Some of this confusion is understandable, especially if you’re new to the industry. But some of it is the result of the sometimes-confusing overlap in what these representatives actually do in the real world.

In California and New York (but not all states) agents are licensed, bonded, and allowed to solicit work on behalf of their clients. Managers and lawyers are not licensed to solicit work for their clients (although lawyers are licensed to practice law and regulated by the state bar associations where they practice). This is why we used quotation marks above when we described them all as representatives. While agents, managers and lawyers are all “representatives” in the colloquial sense, only agents are legally authorized to represent their clients to solicit work on their behalf.

So if they are not procuring work for their clients, what do managers and lawyers do? Managers are supposed to provide what can generally be described as career guidance for their clients. Lawyers do legal work and contracts for their clients. For their services agents charge 10% percent of their client’s income. Managers are usually paid the same percentage (actors typically pay a 15% commission), though unlike agents there is no rule as to what a manager’s commission must be. Lawyers typically charge 5% or bill hourly. If you are just starting out, you can expect to be billed an hourly rate by most entertainment attorneys. While there’s no universal rate, many charge between $350 and $500 an hour, sometimes more, and very often it is money well spent. If you are going to discuss obtaining legal services from any attorney, be sure to ask up front what their services will costs.

There are a few more differences with practical implications that we should mention. Agents are prevented from producing their clients’ work, hiring their clients, or being active owners in a business that hires their clients. This is intended to prevent a conflict of interest.

Managers, being unregulated, have no such restrictions and many managers use this freedom to work as producer on their client’s work. In fact, many management companies are also active production companies. Because they are allowed to perform this dual role, there has been a proliferation of management companies in the entertainment business over the past couple of decades. In fact, many of these new managers are former agents.

Some managers will also help clients develop their material, though this service varies from manager to manager. Most agents act primarily as salespeople and do not want to spend their time giving feedback on their clients’ work.

Now that you understand the division of services that the various representatives perform you should know that, in practice, there is considerable overlap between all three jobs. Managers often do solicit work, agents often do give career guidance, and lawyers sometimes make project submissions and help their clients get work. As a client, you’re probably best served by letting them all do these things, even if technically they’re not supposed to.

Doug has written extensively on the topic of agents, managers and lawyers. For those readers interested in learning more please check out these posts.

Breaking In

Now that we have summarized what the various representatives do in Hollywood, let’s get back the original question: “How do I get an agent?” which as we’ve said is really a placeholder for the real question – “How do I get work?”

The short answer is: do great work. Not just good work, great work. So problem solved, right? Okay, maybe not, but the point is this: if you want to get work as an artist in the entertainment business, no one will hire you unless you have already demonstrated substantial skills in your desired profession. For directors this means directing an impressive piece of filmmaking. For writers it means writing spec screenplays.

The truth is, most aspiring screenwriters and directors do not yet have representation because their work is not yet of high enough quality to attract representation. And it’s not just fledgling artists that are seeking representation. Many established artists are looking for agents (and work) as well, so new artists are competing with many seasoned pros. All the more reason you must make sure your work stands out from the pack.

We know what the follow up question will be: How do you know when your work is good enough? What is good?

We cover this topic in detail in our book, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, but the short answer is this: learn your craft, accept that every artist loses perspective about his or her own work, and seek out honest feedback about your work from trusted friends.

Of course very few people get to start their careers in their dream job, no matter what the industry. And this is certainly true in entertainment. You may have to take an entry- level job to get established and work your way up. And while working your way up, you may discover your natural talent in the business is actually some other job you didn’t anticipate. You may really be a great editor, sound mixer, development executive, or production manager at heart. Keep an open mind and always work hard and do your best. You won’t impress people if you act like you’re too good for the job you have.

For writers, working in development can help you make contacts and teach you a lot about writing. Many professional screenwriters got their first industry job as professional script readers. Ken Aguado, the co-author of this article, started out as a script reader. Doug Eboch, the other author, did script coverage as part of an internship.

Many directors get their initial directing opportunity by proving themselves in another area first. Sometimes they’ve been very successful writers or cinematographers or producers who have impressed people in the business and are given an opportunity to move into the director’s chair. They’ll also have contacts and favors to call in to help them succeed at this rare and critical opportunity. Often they need some other leverage as well – for example, they’ve either written or acquired an excellent screenplay.

Other directors have worked their way into Hollywood gigs by creating an impressive body of independent directing work. Very often this means directing at least one feature film. Few directors are able to break into the business if they’ve directed only a couple of short films, a music video or a spec commercial, etc., but it’s not impossible. Sometimes a collective body of short-form work can be enough. But it has to be great and consistently demonstrate a mastery of things like tone, technical skills, acting, and other less tangible qualities, such as commercial intent.

If you want to be a writer you will probably need at least two great screenplays of the same genre under your belt. After all, you can’t really call yourself a writer if you don’t have a body of work to back up that claim. And it might take you several attempts to master the skills or learn where the sweet spot is for your talent. If you plan to seek representation, all the more reason to make sure you’ve done a variety of work and made it the best it can be. “Breaking” a new writer is a lot of work for an agent or manager, and your first deal is usually pretty small. Representatives want clients that will have a long-term career, not one-hit wonders.

You’re Great. Now What?

So let’s say you’re a writer with many terrific scripts or a director with a great film or killer reel; what do you do next? Well, as we’ve said, the real goal is to work, right? If you were able to pull it together to actually direct a film, you probably had to convince someone your project had merit, even if your family or friends financed the film. That’s a start.

So let’s lay out a few strategies for cracking the business.

If your goal is to be part of the mainstream entertainment industry, your first step should be moving to Los Angeles or New York. That’s where 90% of the business lives and works. Some initial contacts can be made by long-distance phone call, e-mail or snail mail, but that will only take you so far. There are pockets of active production elsewhere in North America in places like Georgia, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina, Toronto and Vancouver, but most of the creative decisions on those productions are made in NY or LA.

If you’re looking for an agent, both the DGA and WGA websites have lists of signatory agencies. These are not lists of every agency out there, but rather lists of the ones that have agreed to abide by certain practices. The problem is that most top agencies will not accept unsolicited submissions. This means you will get your script or reel back with a polite but unambiguous form letter saying, thanks, but no thanks.

There are some agencies that will accept unsolicited submissions, usually after you send a query letter or email describing your qualifications and what you intend to submit. We have seen lists of these agencies online – in fact the WGA website includes such a list - but often the lists are wildly inaccurate, out of date, or contain agencies we’ve never heard of. Conversely, there may be agencies out there that aren’t on the list that would still look at your work. The only way to be sure is to start making calls. Agencies get these call 100 times a day and the person who answers the phone will answer the question in 30 seconds. If they do accept unsolicited materials, sometimes they will require you to sign a release form before they consider your work. This cold-call route to representation is the hardest way to go. Very, very few artists get an agent this way.

It’s Who You Know

The truth is that almost all writers and directors (even working ones) get representation as a result of a referral from a current client of the agent or manager, another representative (e.g. your attorney or manager refers you to an agent), a producer, an executive, or some other established member of the entertainment community. So if you think you need an agent to get your work to producers, you’re thinking of it backwards. You might need a producer to get your work to an agent! Most top agencies will only agree to represent artists they consider “bookable:” the ones production companies are eager to hire.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. You shouldn’t assume that getting an agent is your only, or even best, strategy for getting started in showbiz. And as we’ve said, getting an agent doesn’t guarantee you will get a job. Plenty of established artists with agents and managers can’t get a job. So what should you do if you really want representation?

Yes, we know we said that agents are the only kind of representative legally empowered to seek work for the clients. But we also said there is some overlap with other forms of representation and the reality is that for many artists a manager will end up performing many of the same duties as an agent. And because managers can also produce their client’s work, this is added incentive for them to seek out new clients. But managers aren’t the only ones who can produce. You know who else can produce? That’s right – producers.

Managers and producers are usually more receptive to discovering new talent that comes their way through other means. What are some of these other means? Major film festivals, the major screenwriting contests, film school instructors, and referrals from friends, are all common ways it can happen. In other words, you have to show your work to people who are in the industry who aren’t necessarily representatives or buyers, but who may know representatives and buyers.

This is known as networking. But good networking doesn’t mean cornering a producer at a party and assaulting him or her with your “elevator pitch.” It means getting involved in the business and meeting other people with similar interests and aspirations. People who will support you, look at your work, and when they see something great, tell others about it.

This is why doing exceptional work is so important. Perhaps you’ve heard the maxim “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your front door”? The same is true in showbiz, which is why it is crucial that you’ve taken the time and effort to create the best work you possibly can. When people in the industry see truly great work, they are excited to pass it on. After all, they are all anxious to get credit for helping to discover the next big thing!

And here’s the kicker – after you get representation you will still have to produce great material and network. So really, stop worrying about how you get an agent or manager and just start building your career.

If you make your own success, the agents, managers - and more importantly, a career - will come to you.


Douglas Eboch is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. His credits include the original script “Sweet Home Alabama.” Follow Douglas on Twitter @dougeboch.

Ken Aguado is a producer living in Los Angeles. His most recent film is “Standing Up,” written and directed by DJ Caruso.

Doug and Ken co-wrote “The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television," which is available at Amazon, iTunes and selected bookstores around the country.


Unknown said...

This is an exceptional spelling out of the situation. Thank you. I will be sharing this with my directing students & clients.

Doug Eboch said...

Thanks Stephanie!

Lifestyle for Senior sirens said...

Hi Doug, I have a humor book called Cinderella has Cellulite, which is selling in the top 100 in its category on Amazon. Are there particular agents that work with humor?

Doug Eboch said...

There are agents that specialize in comedy. A good way to target is to look at other material like yours (whether comedy or not) and find out who represents the writer. For screenwriters, the WGA website has a "look up a member" page that will show you member's representation.