Agents Are Not ProducersComplications Ensue
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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Had a bit of back and forth about agents in a the comments to a recent post:
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?
I think this is seriously wrongheaded.

Agents are on your side. If an agent is interested, that means he is interested in helping you make money.

An agent only gets paid when you get paid. This is the polar opposite of the financial relationship you have with a producer. Every dollar you get paid, your producer doesn't have any more. So they want to pay you as little as possible. Your agent wants you to get paid as much as possible.

But they can't do that till your script is salable. If they give you notes, they are giving you the benefit of their commercial judgment. They might be wrong, but on the other hand, they are trying day in and day out to sell scripts. So their commercial judgment is probably a hell of a lot better than yours.

And notes are not free to the agent. If he's doing notes on your script, he's not making calls on behalf of his clients. It takes time to read a script, time to consider the script, and time to communicate the notes. I used to charge a lot of money to give notes; now I don't have time to do it at all.

From an agent's perspective, if you're not willing to do the notes, you're either lazy, or arrogant, or just plain dumb. Any of those is a dealbreaker for repping a beginning writer (and neither is a plus for an established writer).

Now, you may disagree with the notes. If you think they're dumb notes, then you might feel the agent doesn't "get" your writing. You might be right, if you are brilliant and offbeat, and the agent is a sloppy reader, or not very imaginative, or stupid.

The odds are, however, that your agent is more attuned to the market. Unless you are Joel the Reader, your agent has read more scripts than you have, and tried to sell them. The odds are that you are not as brilliant as you think you are. (Lots of aspiring writers have extremely high opinions of their own work; I sure did.) The agent's notes will make your script more commercial. Not necessarily "better" in some literary sense; a good agent is primarily concerned with whether they can sell the script, not whether your script achieves your artistic goals.

I have a section in my first book about how to evaluate an agent. It boils down to: how ritzy is their setup? If they're answering their own phone, they're not making a lot of money. If you have to go through a receptionist and then an assistant, then they are supporting that receptionist and assistant and themselves on 10% of their clients' income. So they probably do their job fairly well.

I think that an agent who gives you notes is a caring, dedicated agent who helps his clients develop their material. That is better than an agent who just throws your stuff out there willy nilly and sees if someone grabs it. An agent who gives you notes is working for you on all levels. If he gives you notes before taking you on, he is investing his time and knowledge in you already. That's the kind of agent you want!



The main note I have gotten from my agent over the years is "Go write! Get me more material!" Which is fine. But one former agent of mine read through a spec I'd given him, and said "The teaser is pretty talky; how about starting with an action sequence and making the teaser the first scene of Act One?" It was a simple, respectful, and CORRECT note. The script was improved tenfold and I have gotten at least two staff jobs off that particular script. I'm so glad I listened to him.

By Blogger GH, at 3:09 PM  

It's interesting how resistant some writers are to revising. I only really know this from the print-writing side of things, but in any case, comments that help you revise are the kind of comments that help. And while the comments in the last post pointed out that "improvement" is subjective, it's not completely random. A comment from one competent reader is likely to echo the feelings of other readers; it's unlikely that one agent will suggest a change, and that change is a deal-breaker for the next ten readers.

However, I did think of one counter-example. I read somewhere that when the writer of Akeelah and the Bee was shopping the project around, he repeatedly was advised to change the teacher's character from a black man to a white person, making it another story about an inspirational white teacher who guides a poor black student to success. The writer stuck to that crucial part of the vision, and I think that's admirable.

However, if you think that every part of your writer's vision is crucial, and never compromise on anything, it probably won't work out for you. Writers must pick those battles carefully.

By Blogger Andrew, at 4:06 PM  

I don't even understand calling this a "free rewrite." This is a draft. A rewrite is something you do for a producer. A draft is something you do for your script, for yourself. I know I'm pretty closely mincing semantics here, but I just don't see how this is a "free rewrite."

Do people know how much you normally have to pay for good notes, let alone a phone call with a knowledgeable person where they have a conversation with you about your script? It's in the hundreds. I got these things for free. If anyone should feel used, it's this agent, but I don't hear him complaining.

Because this is a potentially win-win situation. I get a better script, and possibly representation, and the agent gets a good script to sell, and a good client who he knows is willing to work to improve his writing.

What about this situation is bad?

By Blogger glassblowerscat, at 4:54 PM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:37 PM  

There are many good points about why you should do rewrites for your agent, but there are a couple of situations in which an agent can get out of bounds on this. One is if he takes too long. If it takes him a couple of months to get you notes that's a serious problem. The agent has to act promptly or he destroys your writing momentum.
Second, an agent's notes should never include a grade on your script (C-, B+ and the like). He's not a teacher. His notes should include both things he likes and dislikes about the script.
Like any notes you get on any script, they are open to interpretation. Even if the note suggests a solution, you don't have to take it. The note is an indication that something isn't working. You are free to work out your solutions.

By Blogger Jill Golick, at 11:47 AM  

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