Writers on the Verge: Should Writers Pay Up Front For Representation?

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It’s a disheartening thing, but I hear about it more and more lately: Writers are paying for representation up front, and NOT by percentage based on work procured or material written on spec being sold. A new client recently confided in me that the manager he’s been with for the past few years has been charging an exorbitant annual fee, and add-ons for material distribution to boot. Another client, who is represented by one of the bigger and more respectable management shingles in town was recently approached by an agent from a respectable mid-level agency at an out-of-town event, who told my client that while he does have a loaded roster, he does consider taking on additional clients for a fee. Which leads me to the only obvious question I can think of: What the hell is going on here?

pay up frontBefore we go into logistics, let me spell out one simple thing: Money and integrity rarely can mix. If a representation executive takes a piece of work out based on a fee paid up front rather then one to be collected on spec, the integrity of the representation executive can be compromised. This is an industry that works on spec. Writers write on spec, producers – for the most part, and unless they are part of a studio deal – work on spec, and so do most reputable representation executives.

There is a common message that’s solidified by this approach: We are all taking a chance here. We are all investing our time and/or our resources, or taking on a specific client because we believe. We believe this is a movie that can be made, we believe that there’s a story here worth telling, we believe that a particular client can and will break, whether they write the next great original pilot, sell a feature spec or get staffed.

This is exactly why, a million years ago, when I ran ScriptShark, I never took money to scout a script. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: The moment my colleagues in the industry would find out that I was getting paid up front for getting a script out there rather than sending it out because of its resounding quality, they would lose any and all interest in the script. They would no longer have faith that I am getting a script out there because I believe in the content or its creator; rather, they would know that I was getting it out there because I was being paid to do so and – that quickly – my previously eager-to-read friends in the industry would stop reading scripts. At least those that would be coming from me.

In all fairness, the industry has changed in recent years. Many an agent and/or manager will tell you flat out: These days it takes double the time to break a writer or sell a spec screenplay for half the money you could get just 6 years back. Therefore, many representation executives working out there today have to find new ways to supplement revenue, specifically when working on commission only, which is the case with many managers (as opposed to agents in an agency environment who usually receive a base salary). Gone are the 90’s in which specs sold in a matter of weeks, and talented writers were quick to break. These days, agents and managers have to work significantly harder in order to break a new writer or sell a spec from an unknown scribe.

However, that’s where the balance of professional and emerging writers on a manager’s roster should play a role: The revenue garnered from the sale of material generated by professional writers, or the procurement of work for writers who’ve established a reputation through work done in the past should afford a manager the bandwidth to develop a new writer until they break.

Now, there are exceptions here. There are small, single-manager operations that keep a small roster, and therefore collect a small administrative fee from their clients every year. This is not the sort of fee I take issue with. That said, it should be in the hundreds at most, and NEVER in the thousands. If you choose to sign with a manager that collects such an administrative fee, be sure that you have clarity about what that fee does, and does not, cover. For example, I recently heard of a manager who was collecting an annual fee in the thousands from each of his clients, only to request additional fees from his writers for the distribution of their materials such as one sheets and scripts at events the manager was attending.

Let’s take it a step back and consider an agent or manager’s primary role in a screenwriters’ career. Beyond making deals and getting contracts written up, their job is simply this: To be your advocate in the industry. In order for an agent or manager to be effective in the space, their story sense and taste levels have to be appreciated by industry colleagues who would eagerly read new material coming from his writers based on this. The moment you throw up-front money into the mix, the manager or agent is compromised in my opinion, and therefore they become less effective. While some smaller managers still building their roster and reputation may collect some up-front funds from their scribes, this is not a practice that you will see in any reputable agency or management company. Consider that while paying a small up-front fee may indeed garner you representation, if this is from a representation executive known for collecting money up front, they may not have the reputation, and therefore the critical relationships, that would help you move your career forward.

The decision whether or not to pay annual or administrative fees to a rep is in your hands. You should know and take into consideration that this is generally NOT something that reputable individuals and firms collect. That said, you should consider that the higher the fee, the more a manager’s reputation can and likely will be affected by it. While nominal administrative costs that range in the hundreds can be explained or excused for single-manager operations, fees that fall within the thousands are considered to be a bit more suspect.

Ultimately, a manager should be motivated by his belief in the work and the writer who created it. It is that belief and enthusiasm that should lead you both to that big pay day or spec sale.

Editor’s Note: Lee Jessup is having a book signing (FREE) at The Writers Store on April 5th from 1:00 to 3:00 PDT. I’ve personally read Lee’s book and love her straight-forward advice. Plus, she’s just cool. Don’t miss the chance to meet her in person!  ~ Jeanne

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2 thoughts on “Writers on the Verge: Should Writers Pay Up Front For Representation?

  1. ruscarletboy

    If you don’t believe that aspiring screenwriters, like myself, should pay money upfront, what good is it to enter contests or sign up for paid websites that present your scripts? How do you get your screenplay read if your aren’t on an Ink Tip or Talentville or any of the other pay sites that purport to get access for your hard work, blood, sweat, and time?

    1. Lee JessupLee Jessup Post author

      My apologies for any confusion – I am all for high profile contests and vetted listing services that have the attention of the industry, and think that spending your money with those is a worthy cause. This column is specific for paying for representation (agent, manager) which I am not necessarily a proponent of.

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