Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » Managing Your Agent or Manager

Agents and managers are a different breed. That's not much of a news flash - there are so many well-worn stereotypes of both that you can take any lawyer joke and simply substitute "agent" and end up with the same punch line!

All aspiring screenwriters want an agent or manager, but not everyone knows precisely what role they play in a writer's career. A strange relationship develops between writer and representative because it is one of the only employment situations in which the employee (the agent) decides if the employer (the writer) is worthy of the employee's work. As a writer, an agent hires you as a client so they can work for you!

Did you follow that? Well, stay with me, because the whole deal is just crazy enough to work in Hollywood. Still, it's important to understand the relationship between representative and client so you can get the most out of your agent.

First, let's look at the difference between an agent and a manager. The individual screenwriter must gauge his own needs to determine which one they need, but some generalities remain for the categories of representative.

Both can bring an attorney's education and experience to the table, but at the very least, they bring a skill for contract negotiation and a list of industry contacts to which they can submit your material. While an agent usually focuses on one particular arm of the entertainment industry (film or episodic TV, for example), a manager can oversee all facets of a writer's career. A manager can even work with an agent if the writer has the skills to warrant enough work.

For the purpose of this article, we will assume that you have an agent or manager. But once you have representation, how do you work with them and keep them as a professional advisor?

The best way of examining the agent-client relationship is to go right to the source and discover how professional agents and managers interact with their clients.

What is going through the agent's head? To find out, we start at the top. Rob Carlson of the venerable William Morris Agency is one of Hollywood's hottest literary agents. Working with his partner, Alan Gasmer, Carlson represents some of the biggest A-list writers in the motion picture industry. He and Gasmer are the undisputed kings of spec script sales, and they also keep their clients busy with a mix of assignments and rewrite gigs.

Carlson says his relationship with his successful clients is not that distinct from that of a small boutique agency and its lesser-known, aspiring writers. The agent-client or manager-client relationship still depends on working with each other to determine the best course for a writer's career.

"The dealings are not significantly different," Carlson says. "The stakes are simply higher in our case.

"It's interesting, because Alan Gasmer and I started out differently than most motion-picture literary agents. We were both TV agents and weren't representing writers in the film industry. But we had TV writers who wanted to move into writing for movies. They wrote spec scripts, and we set out to sell those specs." Carlson says he and Gasmer steadily gained momentum and built their reputations as top motion-picture agents. But it all started by working with their clients' wishes and encouraging those clients to develop their material.

"I've always said, 'You don't write a spec script to get it sold. You write a spec script to get a job.'" Carlson says. "So we agents need our clients to keep writing spec scripts, because we need that selection of material to market a writer."

Carlson explains, "We often hear from companies where we've submitted material-something like, 'We loved it! What else do you have from that writer?' So even if a writer is A-list talent making $1.5 million a script, we still need spec material in those situations. Plus, if we're still trying to establish a lesser-known writer, it can often take four or five specs before he or she hits."

Carlson offers some hope to struggling writers who must constantly prove themselves with spec after spec. He says that even well known scribes need to go out on a limb if they want their careers to branch out in new directions.

"If you're a drama writer, and you want to write comedy," Carlson said, "you need to write a spec comedy. We always try to encourage our clients to pursue those kinds of challenges, but even an A-list writer still needs to prove he or she can write material for a new genre."

While smaller-scale agents and managers might seek to option or sell a script to a independent production company to build some heat for a lesser-known writer, Carlson looks to hook up his clients with top directors to forge hot movies. Also, he enlists his stable of writers for production rewrites, involving their top-shelf talents in the key phases of a movie's development.

Still, Carlson stresses the necessity for writers to write simply for the sake of creating new screenplays. "We have clients at the top of their games getting big money for assignments," he says, "but they still write scripts simply because they feel a need to get a story told.

"As agents, we always encourage that for the client's sake," Carlson adds. "Plus, it's great for us as agents because it gives us more material to enter into the marketplace."

Adam Shulman, a literary agent for the Beverly Hills firm APA, builds many of his client relationships with the writers of low-budget, experimental independent films. While his agency remains a Hollywood player and maintains ties with the studio system, Shulman is comfortable guiding the careers of more independently minded scribes, creating a supportive environment for his clients.

"A significant part of my business is the independent film industry," Shulman says. "I still work within the studio system as well because I like both." Shulman encourages his clients to pursue whatever artistic course they feel compelled to follow.

"There are some agents like me who work in both the independent and studio worlds, and they're are a few who actually work only in the indie world. But most agents have a problem with directing their clients in that direction because there simply isn't as much money to be made in that area. Or those agents simply might not enjoy those kinds of film. I appreciate both worlds." Shulman adds, "I will submit material to the big studios, but I have always been very open to representing people in the indie world. It all depends on the individual client's work and interests."

Michele Wallerstein of the Wallerstein Company represents established, working clients as well as up-and-coming writers of multiple screenplays looking to make a mark. Her boutique agency handles fewer clients than a big house like William Morris and can offer developing writers more personal advice and attention.

"These days, no one is looking to write the Great American Novel," Wallerstein says. "Everybody wants to be a screenwriter! So they write a screenplay, pass it around to their friends for some comments, and then send it to an agent."

However, Wallerstein stresses that she is not a writing coach and is not in the business of analyzing the work of aspiring writers. "My job is to look for and develop talent; talent that I can market, talent that I can sell," she explains. "I am looking for ability that I can make into an entity in the Hollywood entertainment community. When I forge a relationship with a client, it helps if that writer brings professionalism and a wider range of material to the table.

"There are very few rules in the entertainment industry," Wallerstein adds. "But the ones that exist you must pay attention to."

One rule Wallerstein stresses is that, before finding an agent or manager, a writer must be personally and professionally ready to work with that representative to build a career. "This is a business," she says. "Writers are professionals who deliver a product. I want to work with my clients to make sure they produce the best material possible and develop the most successful career they can."

Tammy Stockfish recently ankled her position at Broder, Kurland, Webb, Uffner to pursue her interest in New Media and has joined the Buena Vista Internet Group, a division of The Walt Disney Company in Business Development, E-Commerce. While an agent Stockfish represented established television writers of hour-long dramatic series, sitcoms and movies-of-the-week. Most of her clients come to her through referrals - from clients, other agents or producers.

Stockfish says that the qualities that build a positive relationship with her clients are often the same qualities that attract her to them as a representative in the first place. "One of the hardest things to accomplish as a writer is getting an agent," she says. "I work best with writers who distinguish themselves as dedicated professionals."

Stockfish advises writers to treat their agents with as much professional respect as anyone to whom they might submit their material. Don't pester your agent or manager with too many phone calls.

Both Wallerstein and Stockfish stress that they work best with writers living and working in Southern California. "I don't necessarily limit myself to writers in LA, but it is definitely an advantage to live here," Stockfish explains. "Out of sight is often out of mind, and if you're not here, you miss out on a lot of opportunities. For example, big meetings can happen here in a snap. A writer needs to be here to take advantage of that meeting."

While most representatives prefer to work with more established writers because they are already making money, Stockfish is quick to add that good agents and managers look to develop and nurture new talent. "We also need to have baby writers as clients. One day, those writers will be in the business," she says. "I feel for young writers. I know how tough it can be, but this is a business of persistence and aggression. Stick with it!"

Stockfish's advice to writers-whether they're searching for an agent or manager or forging a relationship with their representative-is simple but essential: "The professional willingness to pay your dues is important. You need to get out there and fight with or without an agent because experience, information and knowledge are the keys."

Both Wallerstein and Stockfish also urge writers not to rely solely on their agents and managers for career developments. "An agent or manager can help you get work, but you need to do your own research and work with your rep," Stockfish says. "Prepare yourself like you would for a job because being a writer is a job. Watch the changes in the business. Follow your market. Know what you want to write and what genre you want to work in before you begin writing your spec screenplay material.

"Most importantly," Stockfish concludes, "write your passion. If it's on the paper, it will find a home and give your agent the best opportunity to sell it in the marketplace."

All over Hollywood, this writer found agent after agent who support their clients' writing interests and desires while offering their business acumen to guide career paths.

If you are lucky enough to overcome that first major hurdle of finding an agent or manager to help you build your career, be sure to prepare yourself for dedicated, professional behavior. You need to bring your own contacts, your own research and your own plan to the table when working with even the best agent or manager. Never expect your representative to display more concern, respect and ambition for your career goals than you show. You set that tone.

Your agent or manager should offer advice and suggest alternative strategies as you build your contacts and work options. However, he or she should not stand in the way of your passions, but rather allow you to create the screenplays you most enjoy developing. The representative should support your wishes and want to see you succeed how and where you wish.

If an agent or manager is legitimate, he or she will more than earn their percentage. But the relationship between you and your representative is a partnership. Work harder than your agent to promote your own work and you will enjoy a fruitful partnership with your rep when payday arrives.

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