An Agent Likes Your Script, Has Notes - Complications Ensue
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Monday, September 01, 2008

Q. An agent liked a script of mine, and wants some changes. They're good notes, notes I was already planning to incorporate in some fashion into the next draft.

They asked me to try to have another draft by mid-September, and call them when it was done. I finished the draft in 10 days and called them back. They are reading it over the weekend and supposed to call me next week so I can come to their office and meet them.

Is this all pretty typical behavior, and also, what should I be concerned about when I do meet them? Am I trying to impress, and if so, how do I do that? Or is this just a pleasant sit-down preliminary to ... something? They've stated their intention of trying to sell it, but I can't tell if they're really going to be taking me on as a client or just shopping the script around for a while.
They'll tell you whether they want to rep you or just the script. In a big agency, an agent might "hip-pocket" you, which means you're repped only by the agent, not the agency, until the agent can get you a gig, which entitles her to walk your name into the Monday morning meeting as a worthy client. There isn't a big dividing line in a small agency. If all you have is one sellable script, that's all they're going to push either way; and either way, if you get an offer, why wouldn't they negotiate it for you and take 10%?

More importantly, either way, if they got decent responses on your first script ("we like the writing, we'd like to read the next thing this guy has"), you should always take your material to them first. In fact, before you write your next script, you should run the idea by them. They can tell you if it's something they can sell or not.

One flag in your email: you blitzed the rewrite. Wrong impulse. If they want your script by mid-September, take the time to make it as good as you possibly can. Turning it in early gets your nothing. If an agent likes your script, you should be busting your ass to take all their notes to heart, and then some. You know that flaw that you hope no one is noticing? Fix it, even if it means ripping up the first act. People tend not to fix things that ain't broke; but a good write realizes when something really is broken and needs fixing even though no one is saying anything about it. Now that you have interest, light a fire under yourself to turn in the best rewrite you can possibly manage.

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23 Comments:

Aren't we missing a part of the discussion here? Why should anyone do a free rewrite for an agent that hasn't agreed to represent you if you aren't supposed to do them for producers or anyone else?

The principle of free rewrites is that they are bad because they are bad, not because of who you do it for, right?

I realize that it's a different relationship since you aren't trying to get paid by the agent, but just what kind of agent would they be if they make their potential employers work for free?

Aren't agents supposed to prevent that?

If anything I'd be concerned right away if an agent I approached thought that it was ok to rewrite for free under any circumstances. Sharing notes and ideas over the phone or in person is one thing, maybe rewriting a scene or two just to prove you've got some rewriting chops sounds reasonable, but spending time rewriting a whole script for free just to please an agent -- a person who is supposed to work for you not the other way around -- sounds shady.

It's certainly a backwards relationship. These guys/gals work for you, not the other way around. Their fee comes out of your paycheck which means money is transferring from you to them, that makes you the boss and them the employee.

If anything, they are the ones who need to be working for free until they prove themselves capable.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 3:54 PM  

No, Paul. The agent is on your side. If your best friend gave you good notes, you'd take them, wouldn't you? A producer asking for a free rewrite is trying to get you to do work he's supposed to pay you for. But an agent doesn't pay you. He gets other people to pay you. He can't do that if your script isn't good.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 4:48 PM  

"No, Paul. The agent is on your side."

Not until a contract has been signed, they aren't. Until then they are on their side, pursuing their agenda of filtering good bets from bad ones without having to do any actual work.

I think writers should approach the situation with at least an equal amount of caution and self interest, which doesn't include doing work for free.

If they want something from you, they should be prepared to give you something in return.

"If your best friend gave you good notes, you'd take them, wouldn't you?"

Sure, I'd take good notes from anyone, but I wouldn't rewrite based on those notes without some expectation that I'm going to get something out of it.

You might say that free notes to improve your script is benefit enough because your script is going to be better in the long run, but without having a relationship with this agent, how do you know those notes are good, or given honestly, or worth anything?

What if you make the changes the agent wants, and the agent builds on that by pitching you ideas and asking you to write an entire script from scratch, again dangling the possibility of representation in front of you like cheap bait?

What if you take the notes, make the changes, and the agent just tells you to get lost anyway?

You probably know far better than I that the quality of outside advice is highly subjective, what sounds like a good note to you and your prospective agent has great odds of looking bad to the next 10 agents that come along and meanwhile, you're spending time implementing them instead creating something new to satisfy someone you don't know for unknown gain.

Perhaps it's just me, but I wouldn't rewrite for an agent without something on the other end, so that the agent isn't the only party getting something out of it, and I think that's pretty reasonable. It's not like I'd sit there and demand to be signed for five years, where you could say "I'll take your notes and rewrite, if you agree to rep *this script* before I put pen to paper. Then we'll see where we stand."

Now, if I were desperate, I might bite my tongue and end up cleaning the guys floors and doing his laundry to get repped at first, but it'd be nice to act like the things we create really are worth something even if everyone else does not.

Free notes that sound good are great, but they don't implement themselves -- we've still got to do the work.

I'm curious how you think an agent you've never met before would react if the situation were reversed. You came up to them, said that you like their style but have some notes before you're ready to ask them to rep you.

You'd be laughed right out the door.

My philosophy however flawed is to remember that the agent works for you, and under that premise, the very least that should happen is that you're not doing the equivalment of going to a landscapers house doing his laundry for free to convince him to come to your house, work on your yard, for which you'll be paying him.

"A producer asking for a free rewrite is trying to get you to do work he's supposed to pay you for."

I'd like to believe the rules in spirit go further than that. No free rewrites should be about placing something other than monetary value on our work, that principle should be at least as important.

I see no difference between an agent that you don't have a contract with asking you to work for free, and someone you do have a contract with.

In the end, both are still asking you to work for free, and that sucks.

"He can't do that if your script isn't good."

If they think it's good enough to just need tweaks, then it's good enough to put their butt on the line and sign you. Be it for that one script, or however long it takes you to do the rewrite. If they are iffy on one script then that's why you have more than one ready to show them.

After all, aren't they representing you, not The One Script(tm)?

If they really think your material stinks, then this is all moot anyway.

Maybe I'll never get work because of this, but there's just no way I'd do rewrites for an agent that's on the fence about me. If the material I've already written isn't enough to bring them on board, then chances are no amount of rewrites are going to do the job.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 11:16 PM  

Great attitude, Paul. That's showing those evil agents trying to take advantage of you!

Let us know how the career works out, eh?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 11:45 PM  

Come on Alex, there's no need for that.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 11:49 PM  

Paul, how else do I explain to you how off base your point of view is? You just can't have that attitude and get anywhere. Having an agent like your script well enough to have notes is a break. To suggest that they're out of line for wanting you to improve your script -- I can't even begin to fathom that point of view. Sorry if I was snippy, but I just don't understand where you're coming from.

Agents are on YOUR SIDE.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:26 AM  

"Sorry if I was snippy, but I just don't understand where you're coming from."

It's alright, let me go back about 8-9 months in time and show you where I'm coming from.

During the WGA strike, several agents who were partners at the big agencies (CAA, Endeavor, etc) stepped in as intermediaries for WGA leadership and the studio execs (bypassing the WGA negotiating committee and the AMPTP people.) I felt like it violated the relationship between agent-writer where it is assumed that the agent is on the side of the writer, rather than a neutral party who might push back against what the writer wants in favor of what the producer/studio/management wants (in service of getting a deal.) If there's a balance to be had, I thought it should bias towards the writer at least a little bit.

For a while progress was made, so I can see the benefits of it and at that point, it was worth a try even if it was an uncomfortable situation.

Although I had no financial stake in it, or business, or personal, I had an emotional stake in what was going on. I may not have sold any scripts, but I sure as heck have had my butt in the trench in the early hours of the morning writing my share. I cared about what was going on and I had my opinions like everyone else, and what happened next really surprised me and changed how I look at agents and the business in general.

After they weren't able to help reach an agreement, these top agents which collectively represented and helped to run these top agencies came out publicly -- and many lesser known agents anonymously -- against the writers and sided with the studios.

These people who had contracts with writers turned on them, for morally or technically valid reasons or not, and it was a real wake up call.

I don't have a grudge or an emotional hangup so much as I'd say that it simply opened my eyes to the reality of that relationship was -- a business partnership.

Some agents undoubtedly are great people and good friends and amazing allies, but mostly they are business partners (especially before they sign you) that don't always have your best interests in mind. That's not necessarily bad, and it's certainly not evil, since you don't want an oblivious agent that will hire anyone without doing their homework, but it should cause you to stop and think before blindly doing what they ask, that's all.

Taking their notes and doing a rewrite is good for them, but is it good for you? If it is, then soldier on. I just think the bar for "good for you" should be a little more complex than you do, and regardless everyone should ask themselves that question before ever putting pen to paper, whether it be an agent asking, or the lord himself (Michael Felps.)

I'm only saying that people should remember that. Agents aren't evil and I don't think they are out to take advantage of you, but they aren't saints either.

If an agent likes your script but wants changes, I think it's at least fair to ask for something in return, like a promise that they'll read some of your other stuff as well. Or take a meeting with you. Or take your calls. Or not make you pay for shipping. Or stop saying "oh, you're..that guy, with that script..about that thing. Right. Love your stuff, let's do lunch."

And if they say no, then what to do next is entirely up to the person. If the agent has huge clients and a good rep, then sure, maybe you'll use the notes and do the work and see where it goes.

But maybe you can get something, and you'll never know if you don't ask. At least then you know where you stand.

And that's my perspective and where I'm coming from. Agents are not your boss, they are partners, and they should be treated like that.

Don't you think that's reasonable, Alex?

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 2:16 PM  

I think if you do the rewrite well, you do get something. An agent. Repping you.

I'm going to blog about the agent relationship at more length in a bit. I think you have a bit of animosity towards agents and don't fully appreciate what a gift an agent who has notes really is.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:43 PM  

First time I get notes from one, I'll keep an open mind.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 2:47 PM  

Maybe I'M missing something here, but if you refuse to rewrite your script after having been given notes by an agent, how is that going to make you look? I would think a little difficult. Why is an agent going to want to rep someone who's difficult if they don't have to? I would want to appear as low maintenance as possible, not start making demands right off the bat. The idea is to make the agent WANT to rep you.

And Paul, giving an agent a list of demands if you have absolutely no track record is a little ridiculous, as you say, but you need to expand the analogy for it to make sense. It's like going into a job interview with a list of demands. If you're a nobody, they'll laugh you out the door. If you're sought after for that position, with a long list of credentials, then it would make some sense. Let's do a reality check, here. You need the agent a lot more than he needs you. Consider the amount of aspiring screenwriters to the amount of legit agents. If he says no to you, there's a long line waiting. If you say no to him, you better have lots more options.

Besides, if the agent gave you good notes that would make the script better, why not make the improvements? All it will do is make the script better, probably more marketable, and easier to sell, even IF the agent decides not to rep you.

By Blogger Tim W., at 4:12 PM  

"how is that going to make you look?"

Like someone who values the labor as much as the script. Again, I ask how an agent would react if you asked them to set up a preliminary deal for you at a studio without a contract in place that would guarantee that they get paid for that work.

They'd laugh you right out of their office, and rightly so.

The only people who are expected to work for free in this world are, apparently, writers. Would you expect somebody to build you a house and only charge you for the house and not labor? Of course not, because the labor is equally as valuable as the resulting material.

Exceptions are prudent but asking for some consideration from an agent that is interested in you and your work isn't just reasonable, it's self evident.

I think any agent worth something is going to be open to this, I really do, and how would you guys know that's not the case when -- based on what you've said -- you've never even tried? Now if I find out that this isn't the case down the road then I'll have gained something and lost nothing, but what about you? What will you lose or have already lost because you didn't even try?

You can ask for consideration, respectfully, and not blow the relationship you know.

"And Paul, giving an agent a list of demands if you have absolutely no track record is a little ridiculous, as you say, ..."

Well I never said anything about making demands, I said it's reasonable to expect and at least ask for something in return when something is asked of you, which by the way, I'd point out is the catch here.

If an agent hands you notes just as a freebie, then what you do with them is up to you. But if you get those notes and are asked to do something with them, then the relationship has changed and you should change appropriately.

"..but you need to expand the analogy for it to make sense. It's like going into a job interview with a list of demands.."

As much as I love debate-by-analogy-proxy, the one you're presenting here is the literal opposite of dealing with an agent.

If you go into an interview, you're going in as an employee. If you're hooking up with an agent, you're going in as the boss.

You can't compare them.

Agents make commissions but ultimately that money is coming out of your pocket. You sign the checks, you pay them, they do what you tell (or ask) them to do. They work for you not the other way around.

I know a lot of people don't see it that way, but this is reality. You pay an agent (via commission) for a service (getting you employed or your scripts sold.) How anyone can warp that to mean that you are working for the agent is just beyond me.

It's like walking into a law firm because you want a lawyer, only to have to convince that lawyer to want to rep you by doing something for them for free.

Would you ever do that?

What about any other kind of contractor? Because that's really all agents are. They may be their own boss from their side of the fence, but on the side that signs the checks, they work for us.

People may see that as arrogant, but I see it as correcting a huge misconception and standing up for yourself. If an agent wants something you've got, why in the world would you roll over with nothing on the other end except a question mark? If they like your skill and your work, then you've got some leverage.

I suggest people use it.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 4:47 PM  

Paul,

I think your last paragraph is important. "People may see that as arrogant..." I think that's the problem. While in principle, not doing any rewriting for anyone unless you are getting paid might be the right thing to do, but that doesn't mean it's best for your career. And I think there is a very thin line between seeming arrogant and standing up for your beliefs. And while I'm by no mean an expert on Hollywood, I'm guessing that attitude would rub people the wrong way. And I don't know about you, but if you're just starting out, that's not something you want to do.

One important thing to remember is that you're not the only one working for free. Until you've actually sold something, the agent is working for free for you. I think you forget about that. Why is an agent going to want to work for free for you if you aren't going to do your share.

And while you may have something an agent wants, the fact that he wants you to do a rewrite means two things. One, the script is simply not good enough yet and, two, the rewrite may be a test to see how well you can fix up the script. If the script was that good, the agent would sign the screenwriter on the spot for fear they may go somewhere else. I think this is more the case that the agent sees some potential, but needs to see more before committing.

Demanding pay for a rewrite for an agent who decides t take a chance on you is going to paint you as difficult.

"Would you expect somebody to build you a house and only charge you for the house and not labor? Of course not, because the labor is equally as valuable as the resulting material."

Bad analogy. The labour is in the form of the actual screenplay. Selling the screenplay is what will make you the money. Since we're on the topic, it's like a real estate agent asking someone do fix up their house before selling it. Asking the real estate agent to pay for it is a little ridiculous. The payment comes when the house is sold.

"I think any agent worth something is going to be open to this, I really do, and how would you guys know that's not the case when -- based on what you've said -- you've never even tried? Now if I find out that this isn't the case down the road then I'll have gained something and lost nothing, but what about you? What will you lose or have already lost because you didn't even try?"

I think you could most definitely lose something if the agent feels you're too much trouble and decides not to rep you. You could lose a chance to start your career.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:10 AM  

I wouldn't rewrite based on those notes without some expectation that I'm going to get something out of it.

You might say that free notes to improve your script is benefit enough because your script is going to be better in the long run, but without having a relationship with this agent, how do you know those notes are good, or given honestly, or worth anything?


I know I'm late to this discussion, kids, but I just can't believe someone wanting to be a professional writer would say something like this.

Of course, the benefit is that your script is better. Wouldn't you be trying to constantly rewrite and improve whether you were talking to an agent or not?

What you get out of it is a better script. If that isn't enough for you, you might want to ask yourself whether you really want to be a writer, (i.e., a person who writes things), or someone who gets paid to be a writer.

It doesn't matter whether the note was given honestly. If it's a good note, you use it. If bad, not. And if you can't tell a good note from a bad note regardless of who is giving it to you or how much of a relationship you have with them, maybe you have more substantial problems than doing free rewrites. Problems like ... learning how to accept and interpret notes. That's a much bigger career block than doing a rewrite "for free."

By Blogger glassblowerscat, at 4:45 PM  

"It doesn't matter whether the note was given honestly. If it's a good note, you use it."

That's what producers/networks/studios say when asking for free rewrites too. It's interesting to see so many people disagree with the WGA prohibition against doing free rewrites, but if this many people like working for free, who am I to argue?

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 4:56 PM  

"Agents make commissions but ultimately that money is coming out of your pocket. You sign the checks, you pay them, they do what you tell (or ask) them to do. They work for you not the other way around."

In my experience this is not true at all. You're not working for them, and neither are they working for you (as in the contractor analogy).

It's a partnership. It's as if you're going into business together. The product is you and your creative work, and agent is primarily dealing with the business side -- negotiations, legal stuff, hustling for gigs. But you're a team... and discussing how to improve a script and/or how to make it more sellable... perfect opportunity to find out if you'll make a good team going forward.

Some of my best notes come from my agent.

By Blogger Jennica, at 7:14 PM  

"In my experience this is not true at all. You're not working for them, and neither are they working for you (as in the contractor analogy).

It's a partnership.
"

I strongly disagree, money doesn't only move in one direction with partners. You pay the agent for a service, that means they work for you.

Realistically you can treat it any way you want, but it's not automatic or necessarily the best way to do it.

It's no different than a lawyer, real estate agent, or a plumber. I doubt anyone considers those to be partners.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 7:45 PM  

You're right, in the most literal sense... but in practice, I don't know anybody who has this kind of relationship with their agent (i.e. "I make stuff and pay you to help me sell it").

In practice, it's more like "we're in a business together; my part is the harder part requiring more labour, so my cut's 90% and yours is 10".

I think the reason you're getting so many responses isn't because so many of us 'like doing free rewrites' but because you're not acknowledging the difference between a producer asking for unpaid work, and an agent making suggestions that will allow both of you to make more headway with the script, or the writer's career.

The lack of that acknowledgment belies your "I want a minion I can give orders to" attitude... such a strange way to approach the agent relationship... hope you're one talented dude!

By Blogger Jennica, at 8:35 PM  

""I think the reason you're getting so many responses isn't because so many of us 'like doing free rewrites' but because you're not acknowledging the difference between a producer asking for unpaid work, and an agent making suggestions that will allow both of you to make more headway with the script, or the writer's career."

I'm sorry, there is no difference between a producer asking for unpaid work and an agent that hasn't signed you asking for unpaid work. It's still someone asking you to work for free, which is wrong.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 9:16 PM  

Paul, so many words you write. So many grains of salt go with them. But good luck to you.

What escapes you is that both parties contribute "labor", which makes it a business partnership. When I hire a contractor, I sit on my ass until the contractor is done and gives me what I paid for. You hire and agent, you're both going to have to work.

By Blogger daveednyc, at 2:59 AM  

"What escapes you is that both parties contribute "labor".."

Not necessarily, if you have an existing spec, the agent can come on board and sell it, which you pay him/her for, and that's that. You didn't lift a finger in this so-called partnership but the person you handed the check to sure did. Sounds like contract labor to me.

I don't think I'd call working with a temp agency to find a job in IT a partnership, but it's the exact same deal.

(If you want to go down that road, I know of at least one very successful writer who doesn't use agents at all. They help, but they aren't guarantees.)

If they get you a development deal later, you're not putting in labor for them, you're working for whoever is paying you. See how the chain works?

I realize people like to look at it as some sort of coop, but it ain't. That doesn't mean it can't be friendly or mutually beneficial, but a partnership it does not make.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 3:29 AM  

Just for the record (and I blogged about this), I think Paul is 100% off base. His attitude will get you nowhere in showbiz.

Speaking as someone who makes a very nice living, I can tell you that there are many unfair aspects of showbiz. Agents asking for rewrites isn't anywhere on the list.

If you are uncomfortable doing "free" rewrites for agents who have done you the courtesy of giving you notes rather than simply telling you to take your half-baked script elsewhere, then maybe this isn't the line of work you should be pursuing. You should think about a career where you get a salary.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:12 AM  

"His attitude will get you nowhere in showbiz. "

Well, I think we've covered the issue fairly well up to this point so I guess I'll just make my last statement on this here.

You've certainly got more credibility and experience than me, but you're wrong on this point. Joe Straczynsky basically hasn't used agents through most of his career, and he's not alone. My "attitude" is irrelevant, you don't even need them to succeed and anyone that argues that you need to be best buddies and do them free favors to succeed -- before they even sign you -- is being dishonest.

My supposed attitude is to treat agents like businessman and make sure you're looking out for your career rather than blindly trusting somebody else to do it for you. That doesn't mean they can't help or even be very trustworthy, but you need to look out for your career too. And if they don't have enough faith in you to sign you, why should you just give them faith and do free rewrites beforehand?

Here's the thing that strikes me, while everyone else is trying so hard to convince me that agents are your friends and partners, writers are the only one I'm seeing making good-faith free-work effort before the contract is signed. If they are your buddy partners, they should put in the effort for that relationship as well.

That's just common sense.

And that attitude will benefit you in life regardless of what your career is.

"Agents asking for rewrites isn't anywhere on the list."

Unsigned agents, Alex. I've seen a trend in this discussion where people started drifting towards a generality and that's really a different discussion. I may even agree that rewrites for them are perfectly acceptable.

Free work for unsigned agents is not, unless, as I've already said, you *know* you can't get anything and that specific agent is worth the free labor.

As is also unique in this discussion, I'm the only person advocating being flexible with what you do to fit the situation. That attitude will also benefit you regardless of your career choice.

"You should think about a career where you get a salary."

Or maybe people should stand up for themselves, their work and their labor and stop giving it away for people they don't have a contract with. It's so very easy to say "just deal with the way it is or run away to another challenge" than it is to say "stand up and change it."

I advocate the latter in common sense terms (don't bargain passively) and see what it can get you. Imagine if your union took that kind of "attitude" toward the companies you work for that also are partners. We'd all be doing their laundry.

Obviously people should make up their own mind, so long as they actually do *that* instead of basing their career decisions on "conventional wisdom" and appeal-to-tradition fallacies.

Anyway, I think this was a great discussion everybody. Glad so many people decided to put in their 2 cents.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 2:03 PM  

Alex, I know I'm now a week or so behind on this, but for the sake of possible later readers, I wanted to add a separate point that I forgot to mention earlier.

You said: One flag in your email: you blitzed the rewrite. Wrong impulse. If they want your script by mid-September, take the time to make it as good as you possibly can. Turning it in early gets your nothing.

And I wanted to clarify that I absolutely agree with you. The writer should never shoot out a draft just to get through another stage of talks with the agent. In my case, that wasn't what was going on.

I'd been thinking through this rewrite for weeks already and had already incorporated many of the agent's notes into the planned draft. Also, I was unemployed, so I had all day to write. The rewrite got done quickly because I well-prepared and worked quickly.

If I had just been starting the rewrite, I probably would have needed every second of time they let me have, and I would have taken it.

By Blogger glassblowerscat, at 6:50 PM  

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