Hollywood agents: to trust or not to trust?
What is the reality of an agent’s role in your screenwriting career?
Our Hollywood insider, Steven Fernandez gives us the low down…
One of the many learnings I gained from my 4½ month sabbatical at LA was a reality check about what an agent delivers. In my experience over there both Australian and American unsold screenwriters had harmfully naïve expectations about what agents do.
I should make one formal disclaimer however: I am not an entertainment attorney, nor am I a seasoned expert on agents. Therefore you should not be basing critical career decisions on this essay alone. Seek the advice of others as well!
With that out of the way, I would like to confront head-on the most universal (and dangerous) wrong belief that unsold screenwriters have about agents. The belief that they are going to be your career ‘daddy’. That is, the presumption that once you have secured representation you will thence be ‘looked after’ and have all the business side of your occupation ‘taken care of’ for you.
If you learn nothing else from this essay, unlearn this fairy tale!
Get rid of the presumption that an agent will be your career ‘daddy’.
Firstly, at a fundamental life level, if you are not prepared to sit in the pilot seat of your life, then you’re not a genuine adult. Quite frankly! To surrender the pilot seat to someone else and adopt the view that that person will make all the ‘hard’ decisions for you is not just childish, it’s plain retarded!
That’s exactly how scamsters make their profits: by counting on the smucks never asking many questions. Leave your unquestioning faith for Sunday mornings – not your vocation or investments.
Secondly, an agent should never be seen as your boss. Instead, they are your sales facilitator. You are the CEO of your writing enterprise. They work for you. Not the other way around!
Now don’t get me wrong here: By all means listen to what they have to say. Chances are they have industry savviness that you should pay much heed to. But never abdicate the executive decisions to them. For example, if a studio or production company wants to do sodomous changes to your screenplay, then you make the final call whether to fold or walk away. That is never a decision an agent should make for you.
So how do you approach an agent when you have yet to sell your first screenplay?
My advice is that you wait until a producer or production company makes a definite offer to either buy your screenplay, or an option on it. If you think that is bad advice, consider life from an agent’s point of view.
An agent is paid by commission (15% being typical in Hollywood) and, just like any other salesperson, needs to close frequent and regular sales to take home enough net cash to pay rent. Necessarily this means that they must represent a stable of high-value writers who each produce at least four screenplays per year.
For them to contemplate including a new writer into their client list, their bottom line consideration will be will this guy produce saleable product several times a year, year on year? If they are not convinced the prospective writer can be that productive, it simply is not worth their while having him as one of their regulars. This is true even if the writer is unquestionably talented.
For example, if Jim has the talent to produce a Lord Of The Rings calibre story once a year, but that is the only screenplay he can deliver in the whole year, then Jim is a fifty-fifty prospect for most agents. Purely on practical business cash flow grounds.
Do you now get why most agents are so hesitant to take on unsold writers? Without a proven track record, it’s a big ask for any agent to take the risk.
That is why I advise you invest your time wooing a producer or production company first. Once you have a definite buyer for your work then you can approach a mid-tier agency with real credibility. Don’t try to woo the agent first, because in that case you’ll come across as just another wannabe (which LA is full of).
The exception to this rule is when you are networking. In which case, by all means chat and build rapport with several agents … So long as you make it clear that you’re not seeking any heavy favours or commitments from them at this stage.
Without a proven track record, it’s a big ask for any agent to take the risk.
Importantly, even when you have a buyer for your work, you still must be sensible and realistic with your demands on any agent. Ask them for a ‘hip pocket’ deal. ‘Hip pocket’ means that they’ll represent you for this one sale, but is not expected to ‘look after you’ thereafter. (At least not yet.) They get a quick extra injection in their revenue stream while you get the services of a professional. It may not be your first choice arrangement, but it is a realistic ask for a first sale. Also (and importantly) it forms the beginning of a business relationship that can evolve over time. Certainly they will be more receptive of you on your next script sale.
If you are now wondering how on earth you are supposed to woo a producer without the benefit of an agent, the short answer is: by pitching well. See my essay on pitching for pointers.
One last and very important thing: no legitimate agent in LA charges you an upfront fee to sign up with them. If you ever encounter one that does try to slug you, be assured that they are a shark and walk away. That simple!
In summary, an agent is your savvy sales rep. Nothing more, nothing less.
Steven Fernandez is a writer-director of short films and theatrical shows in Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing Human Liberation – an epic novel and screenplay package set in mythic ancient Greece.