Today’s question comes from Jim, who published a response to my December 17th post, “How To Break In If You’re Not In L.A.” We’d been having an ongoing discussion about whether or not aspiring screenwriters must live in Los Angeles, and Jim posted the following…
Shouldn’t having an agent and/or manager allow you to live anywhere in the world?
Great question, Jim! And before I answer, I want to clarify: I’m answering only for the world of television. I’ve never worked in features and I don’t know much about them… so I’ll speak only to what I know—TV (plus, this is a TV column).
Having said that, should having an agent or manager allow a TV writer to live anywhere in the world?…
Sadly, NO. And here’s why…
People often misunderstand what agents do; they think agents are supposed to find talented writers and help them get hired or sell their scripts. And while there’s a bit of truth in this, it’s actually not a fair perspective on agents’ jobs.
Let’s put all the glamour aside, we’re an employment agency. That’s what we do. Let’s not sugarcoat it.
This is an important notion, because if you look at Hollywood agencies like any other employment agency, it changes your view.
First of all, employment agencies don’t survive by gathering up talented, experienced workers and trying to find them jobs. They don’t seek out unemployed plumbers and accountants and executives and contractors and nurses and bankers and astronomers and try to find them all jobs. Rather, they work “backwards,” keeping tabs on available opportunities, then finding specific people or clients to fill those very specific needs as quickly as possible.
Several months ago, a close friend of mine—who has a long successful career in the financial industry—was looking for a new job. She spoke to several headhunters and employment agencies, but none would take her on… not because she wasn’t talented or experienced, but because there were no available openings for someone with her expertise. She was rejected by agent after agent… because they knew there was nothing they could do for her; she wasn’t someone they could easily use to plug a hole.
TV agents work the same way; they monitor available writing jobs, then take on clients they think they can staff quickly and easily.
In other words, an agent’s job is NOT to find talented young writers and get them work… it’s to fill networks’ and studios’ job vacancies as quickly as possible.
Once you know this, once you allow yourself to look at the TV job market through this lens, you start to see and understand some other truths:
There are very few jobs for young, inexperienced writers.
The entry-level job on a TV staff is “Staff Writer,” but many shows don’t hire low-level writers. With series struggling with budget crunches, many showrunners prefer hiring veteran writers who need less training and supervision. Others hire low-level “diversity writers,” writers from studio diversity programs who are paid from a special studio fund, saving their show’s money for higher level writers.
Showrunners who do hire staff writers often hire people they already know. Some promote a writers assistant. Others have a talented production or personal assistant who gets the job.
Thus, it’s nearly impossible to “break a baby,” or get a baby writer (a first-timer with no staff experience) his/her first job. There are few entry-level positions out there… and those that exist are hard to land.
Agents know this, and—as a result—are wary of taking on baby writers.
In fact, most agents I know say getting a baby writer his/her first job is their favorite part of being an agent… it’s what they live for… but it’s so hard, the obstacles so extreme, they can’t afford to spend much time doing it. Most are only willing to represent one baby writer at a time—and staffing that baby is rarely that agent’s top priority (not because the agent doesn’t believe in the writer, but because agents need to make a living… so they must concentrate on more lucrative clients first). Many agents refuse to represent any babies; as much as they want to, it’s simply not cost-effective.
When agents do agree to represent baby writers, they want writers whom they can staff immediately. Agents aren’t in the business of finding talented, but raw, writers and shaping them into professionals. Remember: an agent’s job is to fill job opportunities and plug holes as quickly as possible. If an agent doesn’t think someone is ready to be that plug now, she won’t represent them.
(Managers, on the other hand, take more of a long-term view. They often spend months and years working with clients, helping to hone talent and material until they’re seaworthy. So if you don’t have the requirements to get a staff job today, if you’re still working on your material, your network, your pitching skills, etc., you may be more ripe for a manager than an agent.)
Thus, writers who want to attract agents need to have certain tools and qualities, besides talent, already in place. A writer may be hugely talented, but if he/she doesn’t have the necessary tools/qualities/resources to get a job asap, there’s not much an agent can do.
Here are things a baby writer needs to get an immediate job and, therefore, be attractive to agents:
The right material – Your writing material is the calling card agents use to impress showrunners, producers, and execs, so it’s important to keep your portfolio fresh and up-to-date. In TV, this usually means having some combination of specs and original material. Right now, original pilots are all the rage and no one wants to read specs of airing shows… but I’m guessing the pendulum will eventually swing back. This also means, if you’re writing specs of existing shows, you need to write specs of “hot” shows that are watched and respected by the industry. (I recently spoke with a friend who was writing a Simpsons spec; sadly, no matter how brilliant his script may be, it’ll be tough to get anyone to read a spec of a twenty-year-old show.)
The right contacts – Every agent—no matter how powerful—will want and expect you to have your own network of contacts. Not only because most of your jobs will come through your own relationships (even if you have Hollywood’s hardest working agent), but because your agent needs to use your network of relationships to get you work. My agent is constantly asking where I have friends, colleagues, contacts. If she puts me up for a job on an existing TV show, she asks if I know anyone on staff. If she puts me up for a new show, she asks if I know anyone at the production company or studio. We also continually review my Rolodex, looking for friends or associates who can make a call to put in a good word at potential jobs. Ultimately, you’ll land most jobs thanks to your own contacts… so if you have no relationships, it makes it exponentially harder for an agent to staff you—or even want to sign you in the first place.
To be in a position to get a job yourself – It’s rare that a baby writer gets his break because an agent sends material to a showrunner, a stranger, who loves it so much she hires the baby. Most babies get their break because they’re in a professional position to get promoted onto a writing staff. This usually means working as a Writers Assistant… or an EP’s assistant… or a Script Coordinator… or in some position that gives you access to writers, showrunners, and producers who will promote you. So if you’re working as a Writers Assistant and have a healthy relationship with your showrunner, you’re much more likely to attract an agent… because the agent knows there’s a strong possibility your boss will hire you. This doesn’t mean an agent won’t work hard… or doesn’t deserve her ten percent (even if you get promoted on your own)… it just means that it’s so hard to break a baby, most agents can only afford to work with babies who have every advantage in their favor—including the strong possibility of a not-too-distant promotion. If you’re not in this position, it doesn’t mean you’re not talented… it just means an agent has a massive uphill battle to get you work… an uphill battle so steep it may, for many agents, not be worth fighting.
Now, knowing these are the things necessary to get an immediate job, some other things become illuminated.
Obviously, you can write brilliant material anywhere. You can write a great Modern Family spec in Winnetka, IL. You can finish your latest pilot in Dallas, TX. You do NOT have to live in Los Angeles to write great material.
However… it’s tougher to build a professional network if you’re not in L.A. It’s also tough, if you’re not in L.A., to put yourself in a professional position where you could get hired or promoted onto a writing staff.
So you might be a phenomenal writer living in Avondale, CO… and you might even get an agent to read your material and agree you’re a phenomenal writer… but unless you also have a strong professional network, or a job from which you could get quickly promoted or hired onto a staff, you’re a nearly impossible client for an agent to help.
And if an agent knows you don’t live in L.A.—even before reading your brilliant writing—it’s a safe assumption you don’t have a strong professional network or a job from which you could get quickly get hired or promoted onto a staff.
And without these things—no matter how wonderful your writing is—it’s incredibly difficult to get you a job.
So that, Jim, is why having an agent doesn’t do much to solve the problem of living outside Los Angeles.
(Having said that, if you live in Maine… or Wisconsin… or Louisiana… and you can convince an agent you have a great professional network—or a job that could lead to a writing gig—great! Perhaps you work at a local CBS affiliate, where you have constant contact with network execs and bigwigs. Maybe you work at a film festival where you’ve cultivated relationships with high-level filmmakers now producing TV shows. Perhaps you founded and built a renowned regional theater that produces plays written by important showrunners or TV writers. All of these paths, obviously, are exceptions and long shots… but they’re ways of trying to gather the industry resources you need—if you’re not in the industry.)
Anyway, thanks for the great question, Jim! If you—or anyone else—has others, please feel free to post them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.