Aaaah … after a week off — I’m back!
First of all, a huge thank you to Zac Sanford, Jamie Livingston, Gray Jones, and Vivi Anna for a wonderful time at the TV Writer Chat a couple weeks ago, where I was the special guest. I had no idea what to expect, and it was a blast … so double thanks to everyone who participated and asked questions — you guys made it a super-cool, terrific hour — THANK YOU, and I hope to do it again some time! If you missed it, we covered everything from why it’s not usually valuable to create a bible … to what specs to write … to whether or not you should shoot a pilot on your own — and you can read the entire transcript by clicking HERE!
Secondly, I wanted to kick off this week with another quick plug for this coming weekend’s TV/Film Summit here in L.A. (June 25-26). This should be a tremendous two-day event. The first day focuses entirely on the craft, art, and business of television… I’ll be speaking alongside Ellen Sandler and Jen Grisanti. The second day focuses on film, with classes from Chris Vogler, Linda Seger, and Dov Simens. So if you’re in L.A … or can get here … check it out — it’ll be a jam-packed whirlwind weekend, but well worth it!
Anyway, today’s question, which comes from several people, is about agents. I get asked about agents a lot, and some questions are more specific/focused than others, but this week I thought I’d hit on the big one … how do I get an agent?
Jason writes …
How do I go about getting an agent? I realize there is no hope of even being looked at for staff without representation. But … I’ve heard query letters don’t do a thing. So not really sure what I can do on my end to make writing for a living a reality. Any advice on this matter is greatly appreciated.
Theo writes …
I have a super idea for a reality show, along with ideas for the episodes. How do I proceed? I’m probably going to want to contact an agent with strong ties to reality TV producers. How do I locate good agents?
My personal story is that of a lifetime artist … who got tired of writing job proposals. I finally overcame my writing blocks and turned out … a pretty decent movie script. So — now what? I need an agent and a WGA card?
I want to answer this as a two-parter.
This week, we’ll focus on how to make yourself attractive to agents and representatives. Next week, we’ll talk about the delicate art of asking agents to read you, represent you, etc.
First, a disclaimer: This is a TV-writing blog, and as someone who’s spent his whole career in television, I can only speak to getting an agent in television. Feature lit is a different world entirely … and a world I don’t work in … so I can’t speak to that.
Also, before we discuss how to get an agent, it’s important to be on the same page about what agents do … and what “tools” you need in order to be hire-able in television.
I wrote about this in greater detail in my February 3rd post, “Does Having an Agent Allow You To Live Outside L.A.?,” so I won’t rehash it all now. But I think people often misconstrue what agents do — and how they do it — so I’d recommend clicking HERE to read that first post, then coming back.
So understanding all that, there are three basic ways of landing a TV lit agent:
- Through personal connections and relationships
- By getting yourself a job
- By creating a property with marketable value
Here’s how NOT to get an agent:
- By sending your scripts, unsolicited, to agents you’ve never met (even if the Hollywood Creative Directory says they accept unsolicited submissions)
- By sending query letters (these go directly into the trash)
- By cold-calling
People think these cold-calling, querying, etc. are viable methods … and when they don’t work, writers tend to think they’re simply doing something wrong. If they just knew what to put in the cover letter … or who to send it to … or how to describe their TV show idea … or some other “silver bullet,” they could land an agent via a cover letter and submission.
But the truth is … YOU CAN’T.
These methods DO NOT WORK. They will NEVER work. Using them will be a waste of your time, energy, and money.
This doesn’t mean that as someone trying to break in and get your first job … or sell a TV show … you can’t get an agent; it simply means you need to understand how the process works — and that it often take a bit longer than simply “contacting an agent.”
So let’s take an up-close look at methods that do work …
1) Using your own personal connections and relationships.
I began working with my current agent, Lindsay Howard at APA, six years ago. At the time, I had spent the last few years as a development executive at the Littlefield Company, a production company with CBS-Paramount. A reality show I’d developed, Foody Call, had been picked up to series at Style Network, and I was transitioning from being an executive at Littlefield to producing Foody Call with Warren, my boss, and the two showrunners we’d hired.
I figured I needed a new agent. (My last agent had left the business, and since — as an exec — I didn’t have much need for representation, I had gone unrepresented for a couple years.)
So I called three or four agents I knew through my work with Littlefield and liked. Tom, an agent at APA, brought me in to meet the rest of the APA team. When I sat down with everyone, Lindsay — whom I’d never met — and I just clicked. She became my “point agent,” and I’ve loved her ever since.
Now, my pre-existing relationship with Tom (and a couple of the other agents) did four things:
A) It moved my material to the top of their reading pile. Agents receive thousands — literally thousands — of submissions ever year. More submissions than they could possible read. So they prioritize, and because these agents had known and worked with me, my material moved to the top of the stack. (You can learn more about how agents and execs prioritize their reading by clicking HERE and reading my January 7th post.)
B) They knew my qualifications: my work and experience. An agent trying to get anyone a job must know he’s working with someone able, productive, and professional … and it often takes more than just reading samples to know this. A sample can illuminate your talent, sure, but it doesn’t always speak to your professionalism, your productivity, your ability to get things done. This is especially important for people like Theo, who want to be show creators and sellers. Selling a TV show involves much more than simply having a show idea; production companies and networks need to know they’re buying from someone capable of actually running and producing a show … and this is NOT something that can be done by a newbie with no experience. Yes, networks or production companies can pair you with a showrunner, but they still expect and need you to be heavily involved. Thus, agents only consider people who have the actual qualifications to staff or sell — and having a strong sense of this usually involves more than just hearing a stranger’s idea; it often means knowing him or her personally.
C) They knew I had professional relationships. As we discussed in the February 3rd post, scoring TV writing jobs is not just a meritocracy based on talent. You have to be a talented writer, yes … but you also need professional relationships. Because APA had worked with me (and knew most of the other people I had worked with), they felt comfortable that I had a decently sized network of contacts to make me hire-able. Even the industry’s strongest agents rely on their clients’ lists of personal and professional relationships, so agents need to know you have a network. If you don’t, it’s nearly impossible to staff or sell you.
D) They liked me. This is more than just friendship and cronyism. You might write brilliant scripts alone in your office, but TV writing is a highly collaborative, social endeavor, and execs, producers and showrunners need to know you’re “good in a room.”
Writing staffs spend 10-14 hours a day together, jammed into tiny writers rooms. Scripts are often written, and rewritten, by entire groups working together under tight deadlines in pressure-cooker environments. As you move up the ladder, you will be expected to supervise and collaborate with directors, designers, actors, and on-set crew. As a showrunner, you may spend almost no time writing at all — much of your energy will be spent managing people and departments!
Thus, interpersonal skills are imperative to a being a successful TV writer, and agents need to know they’re representing someone who’s got a great personality, a sense of humor, patience, adaptability, and all the other qualities TV writers need.
These three reasons are why it’s pointless for an agent to sign someone off an unsolicited submission, query letter, or cold call. Even if the script is good, a quality script is only half the battle … the agent must know the writer has connections, is good in a room, etc. And it’s impossible to ascertain this from a letter or phone call.
What you can do: Put yourself in a position where you can meet and form relationships with working TV lit agents. Ideally, this means being in Los Angeles (or, second-best, NYC) and working in the industry. You could be an assistant, a PA, an intern, a publicist, a runner … anything that allows you to begin meeting people and forming connections.
If you don’t currently live in L.A., and you’re serious about a TV-writing career … MOVE. If you can’t move, get a job wherever you are that puts you as close as possible to the action. Take a job at a network affiliate TV station; these places have incredibly strong ties to their parent networks, advertisers, local producers, etc. Work at a professional regional theater, and make it your mission to seek out TV agents who may represent TV writers that have playwriting experience. Volunteer with a film festival where you can begin networking with filmmakers, writers, directors, producers, and agents.
In short, put yourself in a professional position — wherever you are — that allows you to begin networking. Here are two previous blog posts laden with valuable job-hunting information:
• April 12, 2011 – Getting Your First Job in Hollywood
• December 10, 2010 – How To Break In If You’re Not in LA
2) Get yourself a job.
Jason, I actually disagree when you say, “there is no hope of even being looked at for staff without representation.” Many baby writers don’t get their first gig through an agent; they get it through their own contacts and relationships … often by being a writers assistant and getting promoted onto the staff.
Now, landing a job as a writers assistant is often just as hard and competitive as getting an actual writing job, and — again — it means having strong relationships. But writers assistants do get promoted … and they also write freelance scripts for shows they work on. (TV shows that have been on air for more than a season are required to give two freelance scripts to writers not on staff … so these often go to the writers assistants.)
And because breaking a baby is such an uphill battle, even for the most powerful representative, agents look for young writers who have already gotten their own first job … or are in a position to get their own first job (as a writers assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, an EP’s assistant, etc.).
Plus, agents are interested in writers who can earn money … and there’s no better way to convince someone you can earn money than by earning money.
Not to mention — work begets work. You appear more valuable to employers if you’re already busy and employed somewhere else. No one wants to hire the guy who’s been sitting on his duff, twiddling his thumbs; everyone wants to hire the guy who’s busy, in demand, constantly working.
What you can do: Get a job that’s a strong stepping-stone to a staff job: a writers assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, an EP’s assistant, etc. Again, this means living in L.A. or NYC, starting at the bottom, working your way up.
If you can’t do this … get a job writing wherever you are.
Become a news writer for your local affiliate station. Seek out local interest shows that may need writers or producers. Become a journalist for your newspaper … and, if possible, the TV or film critic, a job that could allow you contact and interview working writers, producers, agents, execs. These jobs may not help you build the required network of contacts, but they will allow you to build some cachet as a working writer … and that’s attractive to agents.
In short, agents want writers who can earn money … so if you want to be attractive to agents, you need to land yourself a job that suggests you are, or soon could be, earning money as a working TV writer.
3) Create a property with marketable value.
Agents need writers and properties they can market or sell, and while this is much much much easier said than done, you may be able to attract representation if you create something with real marketable value.
This does not mean simply writing a script you believe is “worthy” of selling.
This means creating something that generates visibly tangible value (read: “significant dollars and/or eyeballs) … and then trying to attract an agent.
The Whitest Kids U Know began as a college sketch group touring New York comedy clubs. They began generating a large, rabid fan base … and eventually scored a TV series on IFC. They’re now repped at APA.
Mindy Kaling, currently a writer-producer-actor on The Office, burst onto the scene when she co-wrote (and starred in) Matt & Ben, a stage play that toured the country, received rave reviews, generated real box office receipts, and gave Mindy a spotlight as a writer and actress. She eventually signed with UTA.
Maxim writer Justin Halpern’s Twitter feed, Shit My Dad Says, racked up over 700,000 followers to become the basis for CBS‘s 2010-2011 sitcom, starring William Shatner and produced by Halpern. He’s now repped at ICM.
I often talk to writers who say they have 10 episodes of a Web series they want to sell. But simply having a work, even a work that exists in an accessible space, like the Internet, doesn’t give it value. It must prove it can generate a significant number of viewers and/or dollars. It wasn’t Justin Halpern’s hilarious Tweets that earned him a sitcom deal … it was his 700,000 followers — developed in less than a year.
Obviously, these people are exceptions to the usual rules. But as a writer-producer, your job is to be constantly writing … and if you do create the next Matt & Ben or The Whitest Kids U Know, agents will come knocking.
What you can do: Be constantly writing, creating, pumping out new material … and getting it in front of audiences. Sketches, plays, books, shorts stories, articles, local reality or game shows … anything you can put into the world to gather an audience and generate dollars.
Write a successful play, produce a festival-winning film, sell and publish a hilarious memoir. Or …
Become a stand-up comic like Wanda Sykes, who used her stand-up to land a TV-writing job on The Chris Rock Show before becoming famous as an actor and performer (she’s now repped at WME). Found a satirical newspaper like The Onion (now represented at CAA). Invent creative ad campaigns, like GEICO’s Cavemen commercials, created by Joe Lawson, which went on to be a short-lived ABC series … and launched Joe’s TV-writing career; he’s now repped at WME and writing on Modern Family.
Again, this path is much easier said than done … but create a property that proves to have real value, and Hollywood representation will come calling. In fact, I don’t believe you can follow this path because you hope it will bring you representation; I think you follow this path only because you’re burning to write or create whatever it is you feel compelled to create. The focus must be on the work … and creating a work of quality and passion … not eventually landing an agent.
In other words, I wouldn’t recommend this path because you think it’s a quick, easy shot to a “career”; most people’s work never produces the kind of attention necessary to become Cavemen, The Onion, or Shit My Dad Says. You have to be writing and creating because you love it … you love the process, the struggle, the thrill of seeing your work come to life … not because you’re strategizing a career and believe this is the most probable path.
The most viable path is to be constantly writing, creating new material … and working in the industry, learning and forming relationships, meeting agents, execs, writers, and producers.
Anyway, I hope this helps! Next week, we’ll continue … talking in detail about where and how to actually meet and connect with agents, when and how to ask them to read you, etc.