Thursday, March 20, 2014

Working with Agents and Managers

Agents and managers (collectively, “representation”) are important components of a professional screenwriter’s team. They better be – if you have both they will take one fifth of your income – before taxes! Most aspiring screenwriters are obsessed with how they can get representation. Few bother to think about what happens when they do land an agent or manager.

But that’s important. Just getting an agent doesn’t guarantee you a successful screenwriting career – not by a long shot. Plenty of agented writers find their career stagnant, their representation apparently not lifting a finger to help them. They then complain about their awful agent or manager. (For a description of the difference between agent and manager, look here.)

Is their rep really awful? Could be… there are plenty of bad agents out there, and even more worthless managers. But it’s equally possible that the writer did not fulfill their responsibilities in the relationship – probably because they didn’t realize they had responsibilities.

So today I want to discuss your relationship with your representation.

Your Responsibilities:

1. Keep producing new material. Whenever you don’t have assignment work you should be writing new spec material. If you’re just starting out, or your career is in a slump, or you’d just like to be doing different kinds of work, your reps can’t do much for you without the right new material to show people. And this doesn’t mean a half-assed polish of a script that went out five years ago.

2. Run spec ideas by your representatives before writing them. If you surprise your reps with a new spec they didn’t know you were working on, be prepared for them to ignore it. Do them the courtesy of approving ideas before you write them. I like to present a selection of loglines – between three and ten – for my reps to choose from. There are two reasons for this: your reps will do a better job selling if they’re invested in the material, and they can advise you which ideas will work better in the marketplace based on what’s currently out there.

3. Do your own networking and maintain relationships. Part of your reps’ job is to help you expand your network, but they love it if you help. Get out there and socialize within the industry. Meet producers, directors and executives. Let your reps know when you have a new connection. And when your agent or manager connects you with someone, it’s now your responsibility to build that relationship.

4. When you call your representation, have a purpose and keep it short. Your reps are busy. Don’t call them “just to check in.” Have a reason. And a little chit chat is nice, but try to get to the point within a couple minutes. You want your reps on the phone with buyers, not with you.

5. Respond within 24 hours. If your reps email or leave a voicemail for you, respond as soon as possible, but definitely within 24 hours. If your reps can’t reach you, they will be nervous about doing things like setting up meetings for you.

6. Be prepared and professional in meetings. When your reps do get you meetings, it is your responsibility to be prepared and professional. If your reps hear you annoyed the person you were meeting with or delivered a rambling, half-baked pitch, you can bet they won’t send you anywhere else. It’s their reputation on the line, too. (Same goes for when you are working on an assignment – be professional and reliable!)

Understanding the Relationship:

1. Your reps are not your critique group. Some agents and managers like to give feedback on material, others are of the “sell it don’t smell it” perspective. But in any case you should not expect extensive notes on multiple drafts from your reps. That is not their job. And when they do give you notes, you need to be able to effectively execute them in the next draft.

2. Your reps are not your mother, financial planner, therapist or life coach. Your reps are business partners. Often they also become friends. But that doesn’t mean you should burden them with your financial or personal troubles.

3. Your reps’ job is to expose your material to people and get you meetings, not to get you work. You get work by impressing people with your writing and pitching skills. It’s like a recruiter getting you a job interview – if you don’t get the job, it’s not the recruiter’s fault.

4. They deserve their commission even when you get work yourself. Believe me, they’ll do a lot for you that they’ll never get paid for. The commissions are for your overall career. As an example, I once got a job from a referral through a contact I made myself. I still paid my agent’s commission. Then later when the producer was late on a payment, my agent yelled and threatened them until they sent a check. Boy was I glad I’d given my agent his cut!

If you do your part, what should you expect?

1. Calls returned within 24 hours. The courtesy of a quick response works both ways. Most of the time you should expect calls and emails returned within 24 hours. If you reach a point that you can no longer get your reps on the phone, the relationship has failed. (Give them a couple weeks to read spec material, though.)

2. Follow-through on agreed upon plans. If you make plans with your reps – say they buy off on a spec idea and you jointly make a list of who might get that spec, you should reasonably expect them to actually send the spec to those people. If your reps are making promises and not keeping them, it’s time to find new reps.

3. They have your back when you have a serious work conflict. When you are in a conflict with a producer over late pay or free rewrites or some other work related dilemma, your reps should help sort it out. Keep in mind, they have to maintain their relationship with the buyer, so they may not deal with the situation exactly as you’d like (and it is possible you are actually part of the problem). But some reps are way too cautious about making waves. They forget they represent the writer, not the buyer. If your reps throw you under the bus at the first sign of trouble, you might want to find new reps.

Representation is a two way street and it takes some effort to hold up your end of the relationship. But it’s worth it – ultimately it’s all in service of your career. And being in a dysfunctional relationship with your representation can be worse than having no representation at all!


KarenR said...

Hi, Doug, thanks for the helpful article. I did not understand one phrase, in #2 under "If you do your part..." - what does "buy off on a spec idea..." mean?
And I love "Sweet Home Alabama", watch it every year or two. I'm still trying to put out some metal rods to try that lightning glass thing!

Doug Eboch said...

Hi Karen, "buy off on a spec idea" means the agent or manager agrees you should write a spec based on a particular idea you've pitched to them. In other words, if they've given you the green light to write something on spec, they really ought to make an effort to get that thing out when you finish.

Glad you like "Sweet Home Alabama." Just FYI - lightning glass really doesn't look as pretty as in the movie!

KarenR said...

Hi, Doug, Thanks for getting back to me. That's a shame about the glass. But I still love the idea of it, a little magic never hurts. Just finished my fifth script, the one that's going to get my first major marketing effort. Will use your thoughts to guide me. Good luck with your own work and thanks again for sharing what you've learned.