Writing Movies That Get Made


Unless you know a bankable director or star, the best person to put your script in the hands of someone who can buy it is an agent. A literary agent is someone who represents you, and takes 10% of whatever you make from your screenplay, and is therefore highly motivated to get you as much money as possible. If you don't get paid, she doesn't get paid. (In the book business, someone who represents books is called a "literary agent" whether the books are literary or not. But in show business, a screenwriter's agent is called a "literary agent" and someone who represents books is called a "book agent.")

What a lit agent does all day is:

  1. Call development people and producers and tries to get jobs for her clients
  2. Call development people and producers and tries to get them to read and buy her clients' spec screenplays. (A "spec" screenplay is any screenplay the writer wrote without getting paid by a producer to do it. You're writing a spec screenplay.)
  3. Have breakfast, lunch, cocktails and dinner with industry people and try to do (1) and (2).
  4. Negotiate deals for her clients when they have succeeded at (1) or (2).
  5. Go to screenings of movies her clients wrote.
  6. Go home and read scripts to see if they, and the writers who wrote them, are worth representing, so she can do more of (1) through (5).

What she is looking for is a well-crafted script with a great hook. If she thinks you've got one, she'll sign you.

Here's how it's supposed to work:

A good literary agent knows a big chunk of all the people your screenplay should go to. She has built up a reputation with them for sending good material, so that if she tells them your script is really good, they'll read the script quickly.

Once she signs you, she is going to spend a week or two talking up your script to all the development people she knows at the major production companies. Then on the appointed day, she'll "go out" with it. That means she has a stack of thirty copies of your script sitting in a box, each in a 9 1/2" by 12 1/2" envelope with her agency's logo on it, each with a cover letter introducing you and your script. Go Between, a courier agency, picks up the box and delivers all thirty of the scripts to the various recipients within about three hours.

Then she waits for the phone to ring. Well, actually, she makes about a million other calls for other clients, waiting for the phone to ring on your script.

What she hopes is that two production companies will love the script and want to buy it. A bidding war is the only way you get those big paydays you read about in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. If all goes perfectly, within a week she has a buyer or two, and you make a deal.

If no one buys your screenplay, your agent will try to get it set up somewhere on an option deal. (I'll explain what that is in a moment.) Now she's sending your script out one copy at a time. Depending on how much she believes in you, she may keep you on as a client for six months to two years, hoping she can sell or option your script or get you a writing job, or that you'll write a new and better spec script she can go out with. In the mean time, she will keep your script in the back of her mind, so whenever a producer or executive mentions that he's looking for something like it ("right now we're looking for edgy children's movies," or "I need a thriller that can be shot in Puerto Rico for a price") she can say, "I've got the perfect thing" and send your script.

If you live in LA, or can come to LA for a few weeks, she'll try to set up meetings for you with producers and development people who liked your script but didn't buy it. At these meetings, you talk about your upcoming projects and hear about what they're doing. You may be considered for writing work. They'll give you some material - a novel that needs adapting or a script of theirs that needs rewriting - and ask you to read it and think about and come back with your take, the theory being that if your take is the best they'll hire you to do the rewrite. (I have my doubts about how many times they actually do hire the person with the best take if he's not someone who's already sold a spec script, so you'll need to decide for yourself whether working all week on a take for a producer is really worth your time.)

You can't do any of this yourself. You can't send out thirty scripts all at once. You don't know whom you should be sending them to, and you probably can't get thirty development people to read your script even if you have a superb hook. You don't know how much money it's realistic to ask for. You'll ask for too little, or too much. You won't know when to take the money offered, and when to hold out for more. You can't create a bidding war. You don't know when it makes sense to accept an option deal and when you should insist on a purchase deal.

Here's why even an unsuccessful agent is better than no agent:

So, you need an agent.

So, how do you get an agent?

The best way, of course, is to get recommended by someone who knows her personally, or whose name she recognizes. Catch-22? Sure.

The usual way is to send an agent a query letter. It's exactly the same query letter as discussed in Chapter Two, but it says that you are looking for representation. You probably want to send out dozens and dozens of query letters to different agents at different agencies, hoping that at least one will spark to your material.

The usual way to get the name and address of agents is to get the Writer's Guild's list of signatory agencies. You can either send a stamped, self-addressed envelope and a dollar to the WGA at 7000 W 3rd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90048-4329, or you can go to their website and get it for free.

The WGA list notes which agents will accept unsolicited scripts. "Unsolicited" doesn't mean that you just mail the script in; you never do that. It means that the agents don't know you, and you weren't recommended by someone. However, these agencies tend not to be the hottest and most powerful agencies, so you may as well send query letters to everyone.

Don't bother with any agencies not on the WGA list. I don't believe that any agent who hasn't signed with the WGA can possibly help you, and I think they could hurt you.

Don't bother with any agencies not in Los Angeles County (including Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, or in New York City.) If you're Canadian, add Toronto to the list. There are also a few agents with primarily local practices in Montreal and Vancouver. I have 335 literary and talent agents in my rolodex. Except for a handful in London and Paris, they are all in the following area codes:
(310) Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, L.A.'s West Side
(323) L.A., to the East of La Cienega Blvd.
(818) L.A.'s San Fernando Valley
(212) New York City
(416) Toronto
(514) Montreal Over two-thirds of these are in (310).

Agents elsewhere can't help you because they don't go to lunch with the right people. If I get a letter from an agent or lawyer in Arizona, it gets no more attention than I would give to a letter from a long-haul trucker in Arizona.

Don't bother with anyone who runs seminars, teaches extension classes, offers screenplay analysis, or does anything else for a living. Anyone who's a real agent should be supporting herself on her 10% commission on all the money she's getting for her clients. Someone who runs seminars is probably making most of his money giving seminars. He might send your script to one or two people, but the important thing in his mind, I think, is to get you to take his seminar so he can collect the $500 fee. You can make a lot of money giving seminars at $500 a head.

(That doesn't mean don't take seminars, if you feel you'll learn useful things. It just means you want to be represented by someone who only gets paid when you get paid.)

Don't just send a letter addressed to the agency in general. You must send your letter to someone in particular, or it will get shunted off to a nameless minion. (It bears repeating: at every step of the way, you want to avoid minions, because they can only say "no.") Take the trouble to find out who is the hungriest young literary agent at each agency. She's the one who will give your script the most attention, because she is still building her client list.

To get the name of the hungriest young agent, try calling the agency. Be perky and gracious and brief. Ask who'd be the most interested in reading your script and representing you. If the receptionist doesn't know, you can either try to dig out the names of agents from the trade papers (The Hollywood Reporter and Variety) in the weekly "spec sales" column, or you can get the Hollywood Creative Directory's Agents & Managers Directory. You can buy it online, by phone from (310) 315 4815, or from your friendly local movie bookshop.

The Agents & Managers Directory won't tell you explicitly who's young and hungry, but the lowest names on any agency's listing of their agents will be those with the least clout and experience. Practically any time you run across a list of people in show business, if it's not in alphabetical order, then it is in strict order of who's got the most clout. People get irritated if someone with less clout is above them in a list, so people making lists are very careful about that sort of thing.

The top agents get the top assistants. So another way to find out to whom you should send your query is to ask for one of the top agents by name. His assistant will pick up the phone. Ask the assistant to which other agent at the agency you should send your query.

You don't absolutely have to send all your query letters out at once. If you don't, you might occasionally get some feedback from a friendly agent who's willing to talk to you after rejecting your script. Then you can revise. On the other hand, if you do shotgun your query letters all at once, you stand a greater chance of getting two agencies interested at the same time. That way you can choose the one you like best.

If you are incredibly lucky, two agents will want to represent your material instead of just one. Choosing between them is a simple formula:

A wildly enthusiastic middle-level agent is better than a mildly enthusiastic high level agent; but an agent who isn't taken seriously isn't going to be helpful no matter how enthusiastic. I doubt any agent working out of her apartment in Minneapolis can help you much. But a wildly enthusiastic agent at a small working agency (assistant, but no receptionist) can be more helpful than a semi-interested agent at even a top agency.

How do you know if someone has clout? You can look for material success. The more layers you have to go through to talk to your agent, the more real her agency is. If you talk to a receptionist, and then an assistant, and only then the agent, you're dealing with an office with at least a handful of agents and enough income to hire staff. Agents only get income if their clients make money, so layers of staff mean their clients are working. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if your agent is answering her own phone, or voice mail is, then she's not doing that well.

If your agent wants you to pay for copies, she's probably not doing that well. If you're a client of even a B-ranked agency, your sole responsibility is to deliver her a clean copy of your script, or email her a digital copy. The agency's minions make copies, put on covers, and courier the scripts out. A not-so-successful agent might ask you to reimburse her for photocopies. A very not-so-successful agent might ask you to pay for postage. If an agent asks you for any other payments - reading fees, consultation, or anything else - immediately call the WGA and blow the whistle on them. Agents are allowed to charge for photocopies and postage, but nothing else.

Anyone who wants to "represent" your script who is not an agent, whether they charge money or not, will probably not be able to help you. There are online services that claim they will, for a substantial fee, read your script and, if they like it, pass it along to important people. These "services" make their money from the fees you pay them, not from a commission from the money you make selling your screenplay. Save your money.

If an agent wants to represent you, you can and should also ask her whom else she represents, or what scripts she's sold in the past year. Write the names of the clients down and check their credits on the Net and see if they're successful people. If she has no successful clients, what are the odds she's going to be able to help you? It's also a good idea to look her up on the Internet. Did Variety report two months ago that she sold someone's first script for $500,000 against $1.5 million? Or is her only mention on the Net an article in the UCLA student paper The Daily Bruin three years ago?

I should tell you that practically no one gets a good agent through query letters. You get good agents through contacts in the movie industry. (Yes, Virginia: it is not what you know, it's who you know. Everything they say about Hollywood is true. What makes it possible to survive here is that everything they say is also not entirely true.) But you have to start somewhere. I did get my first agency through the WGA list of agencies that accept unsolicited scripts. Those guys didn't sell my script or get me a job, but they sent me on some meetings and I got some exposure. That made it easier to get my next agent, who was a step up, and she made it easier to get my next agent, who was another step up, and so on.

How do you make contacts in the film industry from scratch? Leverage. You use a faint contact to work your way into a stronger contact, and the stronger contact to work your way in the door somewhere. Let's say you've already sent one script out, and someone liked it, though he didn't buy it. Ask him if he can recommend an agent who'd be right for you. He can probably tell you the name and number of an agent who makes up for her lack of clout by hard work and cheerful perseverance, who keeps sending him good scripts from "baby writers." That's the kind of agent you want at this stage. Now you can write her a query letter that starts with, "Joe Thalberg at Wahoo Productions suggested I contact you." As soon as you get a positive response to your query, you can send your script to the interested agent.

By the way, you don't need to live in LA to get an agent. Just make clear that if your agent wants to set up meetings after your script goes out, you'll be able to come to LA for a few weeks. You don't need to live in LA unless you want to get a sense what you're up against, in which case getting a day job in the industry, such as being an agent's assistant, might not be a bad idea. (For more information about that, see my online FAQ.)

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