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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Q. In CRAFTY TV WRITING, you write:
"All agencies have junior agents who are looking for hot new talent. The trick is finding out who they are, and making sure you don’t sound clueless when you talk to them or their assistant."
Please tell us how to find them and not sound stupid!
It's tricky, but what I would do is find one of the senior agents, and talk to his or her assistant. The top agents have very knowledgeable assistants who will be able to tell you who the hungry young agents are in their agency.

You find out who the senior agents are by checking the Hollywood Creative Directory Online; they're usually listed first. Or, the really big agents will appear in VARIETY and THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER associated with big spec sales or as having negotiated big deals for their talent. Or, you could call the WGA, ask for "representation," and ask who reps a couple of big-deal writers; they'll give you the name and the phone number of the agent.

The key is to talk to people who are near, but not on, your target. The receptionist is your enemy -- her job is to keep the aspiring and emerging from transgressing the gate. But the top assistants know everything, and don't mind a chance to show it, so long as (a) you're not trying to actually talk to their boss and (b) you're not asking them to read anything.

Anyone else have a good idea for how to find out the hungry young agents?



This is a great question... here are a couple helpful (I hope) thoughts...

The unfortunate truth is: I know very few agents (read: none), at the top or the bottom of their agencies, who accept unsolicited submissions from strangers. Even if you manage to get past the gatekeeping receptionist and talk to a junior agent, they probably won't let you send in your script. And if you somehow convince them to let you send in your script... or just do it anyway... I can almost guarantee you that it'll immediately land in the circular file.

Most agents only take clients who are either… A) already working, or B) friends or contacts. The notion of undiscovered writers submitting material to agents who read it, love it, and sign the client is—for all practical purposes—a total myth. It’s also a myth that an agent’s job is to find young talent and build careers. This isn’t what agents do (although it’s occasionally—but not always—what managers do). Agents take rolling stones and keep them rolling. They take careers that are already in motion and keep them moving or make them bigger. And just doing this for a small roster of clients already takes an enormous amount of time, so most agents rarely have any interest in finding and nurturing baby writers (which is why, as Alex points out, it’s often more beneficial to find junior agents who don’t have enormous top-shelf client lists. On the other hand, many junior agents are busy servicing their bosses’ clients… and some aren’t even allowed to sign their own clients).

How, then, do unsigned, undiscovered writers get agents? Well, two basic ways…

1) MAKE YOUR OWN WORK. Shoot a short film, get a job on a TV show, sell a novel, win a contest, make an online video that becomes insanely popular. Do SOMETHING that gives you marketable value… and by that I mean, do something that generates buzz and income. If it’s not making you huge dollars (like an Internet video), let it be something that shows you have a fan base, an audience, that—if utilized correctly—CAN make you huge dollars.

2) FORM PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH AGENTS. This is often the best way to get an agent… or, for that matter, to get ANYWHERE in Hollywood. It’s an insular industry based entirely on networks and contacts. So how do you do THAT?...

Well, you put yourself in positions where you can meet and become friends/business contacts with agents and agents’ assistants. The easiest way to do this is, honestly, to get a job in the industry. You’ll probably start at the bottom as an assistant yourself—either a production assistant, or a mailroom runner, or an executive’s assistant, or an agent’s assistant—but you’ll be shocked at how quickly you begin meeting people and building your rolodex. It won’t be long till you’re buying beers for and rubbing elbows with junior agents or assistants at William Morris and ICM.

Secondly, begin frequenting places where agents and agents’ assistants hang out. And I don’t just mean lurk around popular Hollywood watering holes with your script in hand. But there are several Hollywood organizations that sponsor industry mixers, parties, and events. Groups like the Junior Hollywood Radio and Television Society… or Connecting Reality… or the Entertainment Division of the Jewish Federation. Sniff out and join the groups that feel the most right for you… and begin going to their events and meeting other young people whose feet are already in Hollywood’s door.

As you meet people—whether through a networking organization or your job—work hard at nurturing the relationships. I always say the most valuable thing you can do is invite someone to lunch or drinks… especially low-level people like assistants, who rarely get taken out or shown any appreciation by the higher-ups. This means, of course, that YOU PAY for the lunch or drinks… but it’s not just spending money on a new contact—it’s investing in your future. That person who’s an assistant today is going to be a junior agent tomorrow… or, perhaps more importantly, recommend to their agent boss which scripts he should take home and read tonight. Which means if you have a good relationship with the assistant—and they’re read and liked your script—they get to decide whether or not it will make it into their boss’s reading pile.

So… now’s the time where I take a moment to disagree with Alex. I don’t believe the agency receptionist is your enemy. I believe she’s your friend… your BEST FRIEND. In other words, she is EXACTLY the person you want to meet when networking or going to industry events. Receptionists, assistants, PA’s… these people ARE the gatekeepers of Hollywood. Not only because they decide whose call goes through to their bosses, but because—very often—they read material before their bosses and decide what gets passed on. And if they don’t like something—or someone on the phone—their boss may never even know it exists.

I think this is important because not only can a good relationship with an assistant or relationship get your script passed on to the powers that be, but NOT having a good relationship will work against you. Keep in mind: if assistants are deciding their boss’s nightly reading lists, and you’re a stranger to the boss AND the assistant… you’re probably not going to make into the pile.

So receptionists and assistants aren’t people to be avoided or circumvented, they’re the EXACT PEOPLE YOU WANT TO MEET, EMBRACE, AND BEFRIEND.

One last thought… and jumping backwards for a second… I know it’s a bummer that many agencies don’t accept unsolicited submissions… and I always talk to writers who wish they would, or look for agencies who DO take unsolicited submissions…

But the truth is—I don’t think you should WANT an agent who takes unsolicited submissions.

Agents are so incredibly swamped just trying to get work for their own clients that they rarely have time to read material submitted by close friends, co-workers, etc. So I would be very wary of an agent who DID have time to read unsolicited submissions.

It’s easy to say that agencies who won’t accept unsolicited submissions are snotty or elitist or whatever… but that’s not it at all. It’s just that with the amount of work they have to do, they have to institute some kind of “shit filter.” And that’s not to call young writers’ material “shit,” it’s just to say that agents need a priority system… and they’re much more likely to find marketable clients by signing people who are already working, or by taking recommendations from friends and colleagues, etc. It’s insanely rare to find a literary gem out there among the masses; and it’s just not cost effective to look for new clients that way.

Second of all, any agent will give more time, energy, and attention to clients who either A) are already making money, or B) they already have some kind of personal relationship with. So if you submit, unsolicited, to an agent who somehow DOES agree to sign you… it’s a fair concern that you’re going to be at the very bottom of his priority list, far below his already-working clients and people he knows personally. Not only do you not want to be at the bottom of your representative’s priority list, but what’s it say about your agent if you already know that he’s taking time to read random unsolicited scripts rather than pounding the pavement, trying to peddle your material, meeting new execs or producers, etc.

So again, this brings us back to… well—how the hell DO you get an agent? And again—the best ways… often the only ways… are to either:

A) Get work yourself… make something or get a job that gives you real marketable value. Or…

B) Get out there and start meeting agents and manager yourself. Form the relationships that will give you value when it’s time to approach them about possibly becoming a client.

I hope this is helpful… and good luck!

Chad Gervich

By Blogger cgervich, at 4:36 PM  

Chad makes some excellent points. I had one or two agents whom I found from unsolicited submissions, but they never sold anything of mine. Later agents who were more successful, either because they were better or I was better, I got through recommendations by development people I already knew from prior work. If you can come in with a recommendation, you're not "unsolicited" any more, by the logic of Hollywood.

The absolute best way to find an agent is probably to WORK at an agency. Eventually you'll make friends and someone will offer to read. (Try to avoid asking for a few months.)

Being a writer's assistant is also an excellent way to get a recommendation, though wait even longer in that case before asking for a recommendation.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 4:44 PM  

I should have said right up front that I'm a working writer, but with no agent (I write for 4KidsTV in NYC). How does someone like me get an agent? Should I write a letter of inquiry, saying what I'm doing now and what I'd like to do (with or without enclosing material)? Do I call and talk to the assistant of a senior agent and ask who the hungry juniors are, as Alex suggests? Or is there a better way? (I've tried working from my 4Kids connections, but they've been non-starters.) Thanks for the help.

By Blogger Mark Thomas, at 5:08 PM  

Hey, Mark--

I'd try to contact agents who specialize in kids' material... or at the very least, small cable stuff. If you don't know any personally, try talking to some of the other writers on your staff... and if that's no help, maybe your show producers or network execs. While it's good that you're a working writer, I always think some kind of personal connection is the best way to go.

You can even talk to the agents of some of the other pieces of talent there-- child actors... or even animators, editors, etc.

I don't work in kids' TV, but I know there are agents who deal with writers, actors, and artists working in highly specialized genres like that... and they probably all know each other. There are several talent agencies, for instance, that deal ONLY with kids.

You can try cold-calling and hope your status as a working writer will open some doors, but I still don't think it'll be as strong as using contacts.

(Do you have friends who write children's books and have agents? You don't want a children's book agent, but they may know children's TV agents.)

Hope that helps!


By Blogger Chad Gervich - Script Notes, at 7:23 PM  

Reading Alex and Chad, one would be led to believe work not submitted by a close personal friend will not be considered or even read by agents, producers et al. I am not in any way disputing this, they are better connected than I. I just find it ironic that the most important part of being a successful writer is living in a few select zip codes and having excellent social skills.

The book publishing world is similar. If you want to get published, be nationally famous, have previously sold a book or else be doomed to the slush pile.

My naive inner child keeps hoping there is a place where work is evaluated on its own merit, but my outer adult knows better. Praise God for the internet, with all its noise and confusion there is a corner and a soapbox for everyone.

By Blogger Dan Judd, at 6:55 PM  

Another way to look at it is that you shouldn't forget that assistants are people with their own career aspirations as well as plenty of shit to do. Why should they help you out? They're more likely to help their friends and colleagues than randoms who call in and take up their time. Make friends with agents or aspiring agents. Make friends with writers who have agents. Make friends with executives (or assistants who will become executives) who deal with agents daily. People help out their friends.

Also Chad's right on about the rolling stones thing. I heard several agents use the word "heat" today. Creating heat is hard. Agents want to sign writers that are already being talked about, already have fans at studios, etc.

By Blogger Amanda, at 2:00 AM  

Hi Dan. Nicely written.

Amanda: Thanks for keeping it real, as always. Please sound off about whether there's as little hope for strangers writing letters of inquiry as there is for strangers calling on the phone. (Has there ever been a "stranger's letter" that made you or anybody in your agency stop and consider?)

By Blogger Mark Thomas, at 11:26 PM  

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