Friday, February 17, 2012

10 Things Your Agent Will Never Tell You

Think your rep is giving you the real skinny? Maybe not. There are certain secrets they will never divulge to the likes of you. Let’s pull back the curtains, shall we?

by Jim Cirile

Agents and managers by definition are wheeler-dealers. So don’t expect a lot of honesty from them, right? You’d be surprised. Our panel floored us with their candor. When it comes to dealing with clients, many have decided it’s easier to just be honest -- so as to avoid the “Which Lie Did I Tell?” syndrome, to paraphrase Bill Goldman.

That said, don’t ever assume you’re getting the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There are things that even the most forthright representatives may be reticent to tell you. Thus, with our panelists speaking under condition of anonymity, we proudly pull back the curtain to bring to you the cold, hard truth. Ten things your agent or manager will never tell you, comin’ at ya right now…

10) Your script blows. This is the obvious one, so we’ll get it out of the way first. There are a couple of different scenarios here. If you’ve finagled a submission into an agency or management company, you are no doubt familiar with the “Thanks, but it’s not what we’re looking for at this time” response. “You really want to keep (passes) as generic, as vague as possible,” says Agent A, veteran of one of the big 3-letter agencies. “You don’t want the writer whose script sucks to perceive any sort of opening.” In other words, provide any details about why they’re really passing, that opens the door to conversation (or argument.) ‘Not what we’re looking for at this time’ is non-judgmental and shuts down most writer responses.

However, the picture changes a little bit if you’re a client. If your new script bites it big-time, it’s in everyone’s best interest to convey to the writer at least a version of the truth. “I might say, I was really excited to read it, and as you know, I’m always looking for something that I can rally behind,” says Agent A, “but I didn’t respond to it the way I was hoping to. Sometimes the writers will accept that and try to fix it or move on to something else, but other times they’ll insist you do something with it.” In those circumstances, Agent A might send the script to a few industry friends, wait for the inevitable third-party confirmation of the script’s asstasticness, then delicately pass that along to the writer. “I’m not always right, and there have been times I’ve been surprised,” says A. “But if I’m right, I’m right. If (the writer) gets it then, great. If they don’t, we’re going to have a problem.”

9) How the Hell Am I Supposed To Sell This Thing? Look at what’s playing at the local 32-plex. Can you see your movie alongside those others up there? Agents and managers earn their daily bread by being keen judges of the market. If you give them some quirky experimental script that could never sell in a quintillion years, they may honestly want to throttle you. “Generally we know if advance what they’re working on,” says Manager B, from a well-known boutique management company. “But there have been times when a client drops this lead sinker on us and expects us to do something with it.” Now this doesn’t necessarily mean the script isn’t any good. It could be great, just a tough sell. “Let’s say someone has a period drama -- I don’t even want to read it,” says B. God forbid the rep actually loves the script. That puts them in the awkward position of having to mount a quixotic, time-consuming and likely doomed mission to sell it. “I did have this one drama once; it was amazing. I had to make it happen,” B enthuses. “It took over a year but I finally got it set up (at a small production company.) An amazing, rewarding experience I’m not in a big hurry to repeat,” she laughs.

Manager C, however, uses the picky marketplace as an easy way to pass. “I just say, I don’t think this is something the market will respond to right now, and that’s that.” And if the writer pushes it, “I have to tell them, look, I think if I do send this out, ultimately it will be detrimental to your career. You don’t like saying that, but sometimes you have to.”

8) Never Read It. Never Will. When you submit a script to an agency or management company, do you think the rep actually reads it? Ha! At smaller firms, it will often be covered (read) by an assistant or intern; bigger firms also use freelance or in-house readers to provide coverage. I have been in meetings where it is clear my agent had not read the script and had to keep referring back to the coverage. Even if you’re a signed client, there are some reps who simply never read. “It’s pretty well-known in town who reads and who doesn’t,” says Manager D. “Some guys actually brag that they can sell a script without even reading it.”

But we’ve got a good panel here – they read. “Sometimes my clients try to catch me,” says D. They’ll name a character after me in the third act or something. I always make it a point of mentioning that I caught it.” Still, it goes without saying that if it’s a pass, it’s more often than not based on the assistant or the intern’s coverage report. So when does an agent actually read a (non-client’s) script? “I trust my assistant, but she had to work hard to earn that trust,” notes Agent E from a mid-sized agency. “It took a while for her get to the point where I am 100% confident in her opinions. So when she tells me to read something, I know it’s worth my time.”

7) He’s Just Not That Into You (Anymore.) It’s sad, but like any relationship, you and your agent or manager may someday fall out of love. How do some reps deal with this? Why, radio silence, of course! “Those are the calls you dread making,” says Agent A. “It’s no fun to tell someone it’s not working out. So to be honest, yeah, sometimes I’ll just not call and hope the person eventually gets the message and starts looking for new representation.”

Of course, there are different reasons why a rep might want to end the relationship. “If it’s going on two years, and the writer hasn’t gotten any work,” notes Manager B, “but they’ve come close, I’ll hang in -- if a spec almost sold, or if they’ve gotten traction. But if there’s just nothing at all? I might say, look, maybe I’m not the best rep for you. There might be someone else out there better suited for what you do.” In other words: it’s not you, it’s me.

6) Reconsider Dad’s Plumbing Business. This is definitely the hot potato. On the one hand, as ICM’s Emile Gladstone once said, “Screenwriting is a craft -- like carpentry. It can be learned.” On the other, there are just some folks who should not be writing screenplays. “I’ve read some queries where the writer can’t even compose a sentence,” says Agent E. “It’s like, dude, what are you thinking? Buy a Subway franchise or something.” Manager B notes that if it’s been 8 or 10 years and you haven’t gotten anywhere -- no contest showings, no industry interest, no connex, nada -- “That may be a sign that you just don’t have the goods.” Still, she notes, the problem may be correctable. “It could just be the writer needs to take some classes and get some real feedback, work with someone who knows what they’re doing.” But don’t look to our panelists to actually tell you this. They won’t. “Don’t try to be a writer if you have a passion for anything else,” says B, “and don’t quit your day job.”

5) Your Neediness is Going to Cost You. We writers tend to be a fairly insecure lot. We often work alone for years on end, each 'pass' another tiny incision sucking your soul away. Suddenly, success! But all those neuroses you’ve built up don’t just evaporate. The reality is: your rep doesn’t want to deal with that crap. “I’m not a babysitter,” says Agent A. “I have a lot of clients, and those clients need to respect my time. I’m happy to talk about a project or your career or if something is going on. But if you’re calling up just to chat, or for the sixth time that week, my patience is going to run out quickly.” In short, it’s the writers who can be kickback and exude cool that reps keep around. Learn to front, and vent those neuroses to your shrink or your journal, not your agent. “How much of a pest they are, that definitely figures into the decision-making process (of whether to retain a client or not,)” says A.

4) I’m Not Going to Do As Much For You as You Think. You’ve just landed your first agent or manager -- congratulations! Now you can sit back and coast. They’ll line up meetings for you and do all the work, right? Wrong! The reality is that even with representation, you still have to market yourself. Agents are an interesting lot -- the more your career heat you have, the harder they’ll work for you. But if nothing is happening, don’t expect them to whip up a furor out of thin air. It’s up to you to fan the flames.

Oftentimes a rep will “hip-pocket” a writer-- acting as official (unsigned) representation-- in the hope that the writer will take flight or bring in deals on his own. In these cases, the rep may not do anything for you at all! We’ve all heard writers grousing on and on about their agents. There’s even that joke about the writer who comes home to catch his wife in bed with his agent, and the writer beams, “my agent came to my house!” Yeah, it has its basis in fact. “Don’t expect me to send out every script from your back catalog,” says Manager D. “Bring me great new material I can sell, and I’ll bust my ass for you. If not, eh…” Segue to…

3) Write Something, You Lazy Bastard!
“This drives me crazy,” says Manager C. “You’re supposed to be a writer. Well, let’s see some evidence of that. Don’t expect me to keep sending out the same spec a year later. Move on.” Yep, writing is hard work. Douglas Adams (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) famously said he much preferred having written to writing itself. But in Hollywood, “new” is a commodity. “I might gently urge them to get back to me with some ideas, and from there we should figure out what they should work on next,” says C. “But what I really want to say is, What is wrong with you? How do you expect to be a professional writer if you don’t write?” C calls this his biggest pet peeve and notes it’s oddly endemic in writers. “I just don’t get it,” he opines.

2) It’s Not the Team. It’s Me. Only after being reassured this was strictly anonymous, Agent F, head of lit at a medium-sized agency, hits us with a technique. “I often blame the (agency feature literary) team,” he notes. “I’ll say hey, I really wanted to make something happen with this, but I couldn’t get a consensus among the team.” Sayonara, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out. F also mentions this same approach is useful when attorneys or managers call up trying to recommend someone, “and it’s some fourth-rate writer I have no interest in, or someone whose career has completely bottomed out. So even though I know it’s a pass, I’ll tell them I’m excited to read it, sure, send it in. Then a week later I call up and say, sorry, you know, the team just wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as I was.”

And finally, the number one thing a rep will never tell you:

1) Anything. A rep will never tell you anything. By that I mean, if you’ve managed to get an agent or manager to agree to read your script, a Herculean task in and of itself, you may think you’ll actually hear back from them at some point, even if only to pass. And sometimes you do (see number 10.) But more often than not, all you get is… (crickets chirping… )

Couple reasons for this. The first is time. It takes time to reply to all those submissions, and none of that time is revenue-producing. That means it rates just below toe fungus inspections on the agency or management company’s scale of importance. Second reason of course is, again, not wanting to open the door to any time-wasting back-and-forth. Simply not saying anything conveys the “no” loud and clear. But the main reason you’ll likely never hear anything back is they don’t really care. You either have a commodity they can sell or you don’t. If you don’t, next! It’s nothing personal. “I get hundreds of queries a week,” says Manager B. “I sometimes peruse them and occasionally respond to one or two. But if I sent ‘No, thank yous’ to everyone, that would literally chew up an hour or two of every day.” Concludes Agent A, “Writers have to develop a thick skin anyway to survive in the business. Radio silence is just part of the deal.”


Now that you’ve read this universal translator of agent/manager-speak, we hope you’ll scrutinize your own habits and the way you interact with representation now or in the future. These guys are sharing what drives them nuts and what they really mean when they tell you something. Use this intelligence well and save your career. Show your rep you know the rules of the road. They’ll love you for it. And maybe someday, you, too, can have your agent show up at your house.


gkn said...

Great! So getting a rep is just like not getting one! Thanks, Jim! This explains a lot (and no sarcasm intended!) Sounds like we're all better off dealing with prodcos directly these days, then just get a lawyer. I've been wondering...!

Admin said...

I've been saying for years that writers need to be less focused on getting an agent and more focused on simply building fans -- producers and managers. Agents will usually come on board when your career is already starting to purr. breaking a new writer is too much work. You have to do that yourself.


gkn said...

That would be perfectly fine with me, and no doubt a great many people...if only we could find a way to get read without one! (And yes, I know small prod cos often will...IF you're marketing zombies or found footage films...only, pretty much.)