PrimeTime: How Do I Get an Agent? – Part Two

First of all this week — thank you to everyone who came out to this weekend’s TV/Film Summit! It was a tremendous turnout … and one of the most fun classes I’ve taught. There are some similar events in the works, so if you missed this one — or are hungry for more — I’ll let you know as soon as I have more info!

Secondly, thanks to everyone who sent e-mails and comments both agreeing with and bashing my June 6th column, “The TRUTH About Protecting Your Work.” Keep ’em coming!  And in related news, here’s an interesting news story which broke a few days ago …

Two years ago, writer Mark Gable sued NBC, claiming they’d stolen parts of his screenplay, Karma, to create My Name is Earl. Gable’s script followed a character who won the lottery, then used the cash to turn bad karma into good … by righting wrongs he’d done to people in his past.

Sound similar? … Maybe.   But, according to the Ninth Circuit last week, not similar enough to constitute copyright infringement.

I think this story beautifully illustrates two things we talked about in that June 6th post:

  1. How similar two ideas can be … and no matter how original you think your idea is, someone else is always writing the exact same thing.
  2. It doesn’t matter how identical your “idea” is to someone else’s. Ideas, especially in television, are worthless; it is only execution that matters.

To read more about Gable and NBC, click HERE.

Now … for the long-awaited PART TWO of my June 20th blog: “How To Get an Agent!”

Last week, I wrote about the three best ways of attracting TV agents:

  1. Through personal connections and relationships
  2. By getting yourself a job
  3. By creating a property with marketable value

This week, I’ll talk about how to actually approach and “woo” an agent. I’ll be focusing mostly on the first “path” from last week — personal connections — because most of the time, if you’ve gotten your own writing job or created a property with genuinely marketable value, agents will find you.

(And if you believe you’ve created a marketable property and agents have NOT found you … your property probably isn’t as marketable as you think it is. In other words, if your property has achieved a level of marketability to make it sellable in Hollywood, good agents already know about it.  It’s rare that someone writes a blockbuster play … or successful novel … or award-winning indie film … and agents totally miss it.)

The key to finding an agent is NOT about trying to convince one to sign or work with you.

Finding an agent is about building a long-term relationship.

And if that sounds strangely like dating advice … well … it is.

Will you sign me?

You wouldn’t meet a girl in a bar and immediately ask her to spend the night. (Or rather, you might — but this probably wouldn’t be a girl you’d trust with intimate details of your life and business.)

You wouldn’t even ask most girls to spend the night after a first date. (At least, I was never able to pull this off.)

Rather, you’d spend time getting to know each other … feeling each other out, getting a sense of each other’s tastes, passions, likes, dislikes, sensibilities, personalities. Then, once you feel this might be a match … you’d talk about taking the next step.

The same goes for agents.

Yet many young writers are so eager, so desperate to get representation, they immediately ask any agent they meet to read their work.

Nothing is a bigger turn-off to agents … or a better way to label yourself an unprofessional wannabe.

Asking an agent to read your script … like asking someone to spend the night … is something that must be EARNED.

So how do you “earn” that?

Let’s break it down into three components or steps:

  1. Knowing which agents to target
  2. Building the relationship
  3. Sealing the deal

Let’s dive in …

1)  WHICH AGENTS TO TARGET

Many writers think they want to find the biggest, most powerful agent or manager they can find.  They’re dazzled by thoughts of being represented by veteran heavy-hitters like Ari Emanuel at WME, Chris Silbermann at ICM, or Jimmy Miller at Mosaic Media.

But this is naïve and backwards thinking.

Wanna find an agent?… Aim young. (But maybe not this young.)

Big-wigs like Chris Silbermann and Jimmy Miller don’t need to find hot young writers … they’re busy running the careers of people like Judd Apatow and Shonda Rhimes — and those people are much busier, and more lucrative, than you are (at this stage of your career). So the big agents have no need — or time — to search for baby writers.

The agent you want is a young agent … maybe even an assistant … who’s eager to find talented new voices, prove his own agenting chops, and get promoted.

These young agents and assistants (read: “agents-to-be”) are as eager as you are to take the next step … but in order to do it, they need an undiscovered writer they can champion.  (Case in point: CAA agent Peter Micelli supposedly spotted Damon Lindelof when he was working as a writers assistant on Kevin Williamson’s short-lived ABC series Wasteland.  Although it was years before Lindelof co-created Lost with J.J. Abrams, signing with Micelli would prove to be a career-changing move for both of them.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll meet an ICM agent’s assistant who will read you, sign you, and impress his bosses by getting you a job on Dexter. But the assistant may read you, like you, and pass your script onto his boss. After all, anything submitted to an agent or manager is read first by his assistant; if the assistant doesn’t like it, the boss never bothers reading it.

Your job, therefore, is to put yourself in a position where you can meet and interact with up-and-coming agents, managers, and assistants. As I said last week, the best way to do this is to get a job in the industry … and last week’s post offered links to a plethora of job-hunting resources.

You should also join organizations, such as JHRTS (the Junior Hollywood Radio & Television Society), where these people congregate and socialize (JHRTS also offers many great panels, seminars, workshops, etc.).

2)  BUILDING THE RELATIONSHIP

It takes a long time to find true love. It can take longer to find a good agent.

Well, again — here’s what you should NOT do: ask an agent or agent-in-training to read your material.

Your job is NOT to try and “get them in the sack” as quickly as possible.

Rather, your job is to START A RELATIONSHIP … which is why, as a television writer, you must be 50 percent artist/writer, and 50 percent networker.

Here are some great relationship-building techniques to make “agent-wooing” as easy as possible:

Invite him or her to lunch (or drinks, breakfast, dinner, or coffee).

When I’m not actively in production on a show, I try to have at least four lunches per week. Sometimes these are with old business friends and colleagues I need to reconnect with; other times, they’re with execs, agents, or writers I’ve just met.  But lunch is where a good portion of Hollywood networking takes place … and where many deals are closed.

However, some things to keep in mind:

1)  When you invite an agent, keep it casual … and focused on him. Don’t invite an agent by telling him you’re looking for an agent. If you’ve just met someone and you’re already having a nice, natural conversation, you can usually use a simple:

“Hey, we should hook up for lunch some time.”

Otherwise, you can be more forward, but don’t apply much pressure.  Try something like:

“Hey, I know you’re crazy busy, but I’d love to take you to lunch some time and learn more about what you do. I’d love to just hear how you got started, what your day’s like, how you enjoy it …”

2)  Don’t be dismayed be people rescheduling. Meetings and lunches get rescheduled all the time in Hollywood.  I currently have a lunch on the books with a studio executive … and we’ve been rescheduling it for nine months. This is not a comment on you … it’s just a condition of working in a fast-paced industry.

3) If you do the inviting, you do the paying. Sometimes your guest has an expense account, and he’ll insist on buying … which is fine … but always offer. Yes, you can rack up some lunch bills this way … but don’t think of it as treating a bunch of people to free meals; think of it as investing in your career, your future.

4)  Do not ask the agent to read your material. That’s not why you’re at lunch. You’re at lunch to get to know this person.  Ask questions … and listen to her answers and stories. How did ths agent get her start? What kinds of shows and movies does she like? Who are her favorite writers? What are her career goals? How does she feel about the company where she’s working?

This shouldn’t feel like an interview, but you are here — just like on a date — to do some recon. Do you and this person share sensibilities? Would his insight help your work or your process? Is he at a place in his career where he can help you? (If the answer is “no,” that doesn’t make the person useless. You’re nurturing this relationship over the long-term, so while this person may not be able to work with you today, he may be ready in a month … or two months … or a year … or 10 years.)

Follow up over e-mail.

After you meet someone, or take her to lunch/drinks/coffee, follow up with a simple e-mail to tell her how much you enjoyed and appreciated her time. Keep it light and short, something like:

“Hey, Martha — great time at lunch yesterday … thank you so much for coming out! Good luck with the army sitcom — it sounds like a great idea … lemme know if there’s any way I can help out! Talk to you soon … Chad.”

Do small favors for people.

Do favors that take little of your own time … and are helpful to other people. For instance, if you had lunch last month with an agent’s assistant who told you he loves period comedies, and this morning you happened to read a review of a funny new novel set in 18th-century Russia … send it to him! If you meet a young agent or producer who’s always dreamed of taking his wife to Tahiti … and you spot an amazing travel deal to Moorea … e-mail him a link!  These little favors take minimal energy on your part … it’s something that will interest and help your new “friend” … and it sends the signal that you remember and appreciate the person.

Search for small opportunities to meet and help new people.

I do a lot of writing for industry trades and publications: Variety, Script, Writer’s Digest, etc. When I’m assigned (or pitching) an article, it would be easy to interview close friends who work in the business.  But interviewing buddies doesn’t expand my network or spark new relationships.

So I use these opportunities to reach out to new contacts, writers I’ve admired and would love to work with or learn from. I get to meet my favorite writers; they got to be featured in Script or Variety.

Do you write for — or have connections to — a magazine where you could write a creative piece allowing you to interview your favorite TV writers? Perhaps you once lived in a small town, and you could pitch the local newspaper editor about doing an article interviewing writers on shows like Parks & Recreation or The Middle, asking them how they find inspiration to write about small midwestern communities?

Or maybe you work for a corporation that has an internal newsletter … and you could convince the boss to let you write a piece featuring interviews with The Office writers, talking about their take on corporate culture.

If you don’t write for magazines or newspapers, come up with other ways you can help people. Do you teach at a school or workshop where writers could come speak? Do you work at a charity where you could auction off autographed scripts? Do you run a catering company, and you could offer to cater free lunch or dessert one afternoon? Do you enjoy doing volunteer work, and you could volunteer at a charity that boasts a lot of writers or producers?

Remember: interviewing someone for a magazine, or asking him or her for an autographed script for a charity auction, does not constitute an actual relationship. It just BEGINS a relationship. Your job is to then nurture it, very carefully, until it grows into something substantial.

Watch for bigger opportunities to help a contact or make your contact happy.

Got floor seats to the Laker game? Forget taking your best friend … invite the young agent you met after the JHRTS panel last week. Have passes to the new Harry Potter premiere?  Take the agent’s assistant you met at a birthday party two months ago. While this may sound “schmoozy,” these are great opportunities to do nice things for people from whom you want nice things in return. So take advantage of these occasions!

Invite someone to lunch … again.

If you have a fun lunch or drinks with somebody, don’t be afraid to invite her again … and this time, tell her to bring a friend. E.g., if you’re an aspiring TV writer and go to lunch with an MP Talent (Motion Picture Talent) assistant at CAA, invite him to a second lunch … and tell him you’ll treat … as long he brings a friend from the TV lit department. You get to meet an agent in your chosen field … the two of them get a nice lunch!

Send Christmas and birthday greetings.

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, saying “happy birthday” or “merry Christmas” is the easiest thing in the world. Having said that, I always find it meaningless when I have 400 birthday greetings from Facebook strangers or random acquaintances. So, rather than posting a happy birthday message to someone I know, I usually see the person’s birthday on Facebook, then shoot over a regular e-mail, making it a bit more personal.

Utilize Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Social networks are great for many of the above suggestions, like doing people small favors. You can easily send people interesting articles or photos, wish them good luck on projects and premieres, “Like” or agree with their thoughts on movies or music, etc.

And finally…

3)  SEALING THE DEAL

How do you know when it’s finally time to ask that young agent, or agent’s assistant, to view your work?

This is a tough one, because — like asking the girl to spend the night — there’s no standard litmus test.

It takes sensitivity, and an ability to read signals and gauge the relationship.

Once you feel the time is right, however, I recommend broaching the topic lightly, casually, without applying too much heat. Don’t ask anyone to read your scripts and to consider representing you; tell these people you’d “like their thoughts.”  For example …

“Hey — I know you’re super-swamped right now, but I just finished a new Modern Family spec, and if you have time, I’d love to get your thoughts on it.”

This gets the script into their hands without pressuring them or adding too much to their workload.

Also, be prepared: it may take a while for someone to read your script. I always wait about two weeks before checking in. And even then, I’ll check in very casually …

“Hey, man — just wanted to check in, see if you’d had a chance to glance at that script yet. If not, no worries … I know you’re slammed. But lemme know when you get a chance — I hope you enjoy!”

When asking someone to read you, or even when following up, you don’t need to specify that you want representation. If he read it and loved it, he’ll be thinking of ways to capitalize on it himself … by either representing you, or passing you along to the boss, or recommending you to another agent, etc.

If he doesn’t like it, he won’t do these things. (He may, however, give you notes or suggestions … which you should take gracefully and graciously, even if you didn’t ask for or disagree with them.)

If someone “passes” on, or rejects, your material, thank the person profusely for taking the time and energy to read. Feel free to ask if he had any thoughts or feedback, but don’t try to pump him for a full notes session.

Do NOT argue with anyone about why your work is good. (If you hate The Green Lantern, and I love it, I’ll never convince you to change your mind … so don’t try to change mine.)

And do NOT ask anyone to read something else. (If you feel you had a stronger sample than the script you already gave, you should’ve started with that. And if your first script didn’t impress, your second-best certainly won’t.)

Perhaps most importantly, if you get rejected or “passed on,” you must CONTINUE NURTURING THIS RELATIONSHIP.

Throughout your career, most of what you write will be rejected by most of the people who read it, no matter what level you’re at. So while a particular agent may not have responded to your work today … she may love your next script … or your third … or your tenth. After all, you’ll be a better writer after your next script … and a much better writer after your tenth. Thus, your job is to maintain every relationship … so you can go back to these friends and allies when you feel ready again.

(Plus, part of your job as a writer is to take rejection nicely. If you can’t do that, you’ll never be a professional … and people will recognize this about you.)

Also — just because someone may not feel your script is quite ready today doesn’t mean that person won’t see other value in you. Maybe a specific agent doesn’t feel he can represent or sell you (yet) … but he admires your passion, personality, integrity, and enthusiasm. And maybe, a few weeks or months from now, he has a showrunner client who’s looking for a writers assistant … or a P.A … or an intern. If you’ve taken this agent’s rejection gracefully, he may recommend you to his showrunner … and getting an assistant or intern gig is a great step on the road to getting an actual writing job!

One last piece of advice: Don’t sue an agency that won’t represent you. Here’s a great blog post from John August about how NOT to get an agent … hilarious!

Anyway … I hope this helps! Good luck … and keep the questions and comments coming! If you have something you’d like to say or ask, feel free to post in the comment section below, e-mail me at chad@chadgervich.com, or tweet me @chadgervich.  See you next week!