Business of Screenwriting: Getting an Agent

Getting an agent isn’t hard to do.  That’s a surprise, isn’t it?  Well, it’s true.  I spent 25 years of my life as an agent in Hollywood and I know how the system works. During those years I signed new writers, older writers, men, women, tall, short, fat and thin.  Their personalities were quite varied as were their personal lives.  How they found me or I found them was also different with each case.  However, they all had certain things in common that made me want them in my world.  They all had commonalities that made me want to represent them and find them work, sell their scripts and handle them on a daily basis.   I am happy to share the information right here.

getting an agentFirst, you need to know that all agents want great clients.  The definition of a great client is one who has a body of work, as opposed to one nice script.  They know how to listen and are amenable to change.  Great writers are constantly coming up with new ideas and executing them.  Great writers appreciate an agent’s work for them and show it.  You’d be amazed how a small Christmas or birthday gift can propel an agent to work harder for you.  A great client calls their agent when they have a new idea, a new finished script, has met a producer who wants to see their work and/or is calling to tell you about a meeting they just had. The best clients call when they have something to share about their career.  They don’t call just to say: “What’s happening?”

OK, now you know how to be a client, but you don’t know how to find them or get to them.  Agents are everywhere.  The only good ones live in Los Angeles or New York.  That tells you where you need to be.  These agents do make themselves available all over the country by attending pitchfests and film festivals.  They give seminars and classes at a zillion events.  They go to these events for one reason only… they are looking for great clients.  Let’s say you go to one of these events.  There are agents so close you can touch them.  Here’s the rub:  are you ready to have a professional agent?  Do you have that body of work?  Are you willing to move to Los Angeles?  Are you neatly and cleanly dressed and coiffed?  Are you enthusiastic about your own work?  Have you practiced your “elevator” pitch so that it is perfect?  Do you have a good log line, a short treatment, a long treatment and a clean script in your room, briefcase or car?

When you sit down to pitch, agents don’t want to hear that you are nervous, new at this, exhausted, or that your cat is sick.  They only want to hear about the project.  When you finish your pitch, sit quietly and listen to the agent.  Really listen.  Then ask for their business card or email address.  Follow up the next week with a thank you note.  If they wanted to see your material you must get it to them immediately.  No bells, or whistles, no balloons or confetti.  Just send or deliver the script with a nice cover letter that shows your appreciation and perfect spelling and grammar.

Your next job is to sit and wait for two weeks.  If you haven’t heard by then, you can call or email their assistant to see if it is moving up on the reading stack.  Wait another two weeks then call again.  Keep in mind that you have no idea how busy these agents are and how hard they work.  It’s a 24/7 job.  They have breakfast, lunch, drinks and dinner meetings.  They have department and client meetings.  They receive hundreds of emails and calls each day.  They have to sign new clients, service old clients and sell everyone.  They have to negotiate difficult and complicated deals then they have to review the contracts, read new material and soothe unhappy bosses or clients.

Your job is to make an agent’s life easier, not more difficult.  You need to be nice, understanding, enthusiastic, a workaholic and a member of the team.  You can even take them to lunch on occasion.

Show business is a people business.  Everyone wants to do business with someone they like.  Whether you meet agents or buyers at festivals or if you are lucky enough to meet them at a party or are referred to them, all of the above applies.  Remember that the agent/client relationship can be the best relationship of your life.  These people live to give you a fabulous career, get you tons of money and fulfill your dreams.  What could be better than that?

Just keep writing.

mind-your-business-michele-wallerstein_mediumMichele Wallerstein’s book: MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide to Your Writing Success may be purchased via The Writers Store, E-Bay, (in paperback and on Kindle) and local book stores.




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One thought on “Business of Screenwriting: Getting an Agent

  1. rnova

    Dear Michelle. We’ve met before once. I was intrigued by your opening sentence “getting an agent isn’t hard to do”. I must beg to differ. I thought I was very good at getting people on the phone. I’m partner in a technology company. It usually takes 15 minutes and three phone calls, average, to get anyone on the phone. I got the CEO of the biggest company in the Southern hemisphere on the phone in 15 min. I got the top IT directors of some of the three major banks in South America on the phone in 15 minutes. I got Neil Simon, yes, the king of Broadway, my teenage idol, on the phone, in 15 minutes — he called me back! Invited me to come to his place and spend a day talking about his career and his life. I flew to NY two days later and attended the avant premiere of The Odd Couple, with my freakin’ hero in the audience. I ended up producing and directing a revival of one of his plays with great TV talent. I get sponsors, marketing companies, players, anyone, anytime, anywhere. It takes 15 minutes and three calls, average. Cold calls, no introduction, no previous knowledge that I even existed. But here’s the surprise: in four years, I have never been able to get a single agent on the phone.
    Just for fun I called one of those boutique agencies somewhere on the outskirts of LA.
    Not even to attempt to read and say my s*** sucks.
    And that’s because, in the last four years I helped greenlight an animation feature that was six years in development, develop dozens of screenplays — the last one won ‘Best Film and Screenplay’ last year in Brazil, worked on a sitcom pilot (directed by Debbie Allen). I also had everything I wrote, whether it be essays, or short plays, raved about, an outstanding academic record, and almost sold a series to a major studio last year, since the VP so loved the pilot, all with no agent, thank you very much.
    So, I don’t think getting an agent is hard to do.
    I think it is the most mind-boggling, supremely difficult, awesomely insurmountable endeavor a human being can undertake on the face of the earth.
    It befuddles my comprehension how can anyone run a business like that and be successful at it.
    I don’t think agents are in the business of searching for talent. I believe they are in the business of chaos and probabilities, breathing the rarefied air of chance encounters, recommendations and parties. A universe where a writer is only a writer, ipso facto, if he or she has worked on the staff of Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead–as if a writer needed permission from those shows to be creative and validate his or her talent.
    But here’s the thing, talent is riding the bus right now. Talent is working on a laundromat while paying his or her bills. Talent is the single mom, unemployed, who dares to write something called Harry Potter. Talent–could be anywhere. It does not need recommendation. It asserts itself from the life force of the individual who is gifted to see far and look deep, which is rare in this industry.

    I’m studying Quantum Physics now and Classical Piano, since writing became less of an intellectual challenge for me (although I write every day). So, is it hard getting an agent? From where I sit, I’ll learn to play Rachmaninoff Second Concerto first, and that, Michelle, is hard.