Behind the Lines with DR: How I Got a Screenwriting Agent

Strange I haven’t written about this before. Especially considering how often I’m asked about breaking into the biz. It’s a constant question. How did you do it? What was your break? Who helped you or how did you help yourself? Not unlike my dubious career, the answer is mundane yet pretty informative.

I called the Writer’s Guild.

William Goldman - Photo Source WSJ

William Goldman – Photo Source WSJ

“Writer’s Guild West,” answered the warm-voiced woman on the other end of the phone.

“Hi,” I began, probably sounding as high-pitched as a hungry, eight-week-old puppy. “I’m a screenwriter and I need to talk to someone about how to get an agent.”

“Are you a guild member?” she asked.

“Not yet.”

“Well, there’s nobody here you can talk to,” she said. “But there’s a list of agents who are guild signatories.”

“Where do I get the list?”

“Right here on my desk. Just come to the guild.”

Dating myself here. But way back then there were no fax machines and no Internet where I could click and download a handy pdf. Nor was the WGA in the business of mailing a copy of this precious list to every wannabe word-jockey who knew how to dial 411. It was on me to gas up my car, drive down to the guild offices, and grab this list for myself. I viewed this as a plus in my favor. There’s little substitute for a personal appearance. Once in the hallowed halls of the Writer’s Guild West, who knew who I might meet, let alone squeeze for some insider advice.

“Hi,” I said at the reception desk. “I called a few hours ago about getting an agent. Someone said there was a –”

“Right there,” interrupted the receptionist, pointing with an index finger without even looking up from her People magazine.

At the edge of the desk was a two-inch thick stack of yellow Xeroxes. I reached and slid off a single sheet for myself.

“How often do you go through a stack of these?” I asked.

“Every few days I put out a new stack,” she said, her nose remaining stuck on her reading.

I quickly did the math. About three hundred sheets of paper per stack. Replaced every few days? There must’ve been thousands upon thousands of writers like me looking to land a rep.

I don’t know if I was too young and dumb to be daunted or buoyed by the massive list. I scanned what had to be two columns of eight-point type printed on both sides of the page. I think I must’ve said to myself something like “There’s so many agents listed that there has to be one for me!”

Upon arriving back at the tiny one-bedroom Hollywood apartment (which I shared with two equally unemployed actors), I was happy to discover neither of my roommates was within earshot or hogging our one and only telephone. Next, I broke down the list of over three hundred agencies. They were divided into two simple categories: ACCEPTS UNSOLICITED MATERIAL and DOES NOT ACCEPT UNSOLICITED MATERIAL. The Sherlock Holmes in me quickly deduced that the reps who didn’t want unknown screenwriters papering them with unsolicited screenplays were likely the better agencies. Either that or, like the women I was accustomed to lusting after, their unavailability made them that much more attractive.

I immediately began systematically dialing every agent listed as not wanting me to call them. Yes. It was cold calling. Something I didn’t mind, having briefly worked in a boiler room operation during my college days. My job was to convince whoever answered the phone that I had personality and, by association, they would assume my writing might be equally as impressive. And like a man brave enough to step up to the hottest woman in a bar and invite her to dance, I got plenty of turn-downs. But I also got a few bites. Each with the same instruction to please send the script with a brief cover letter and a self-addressed stamped envelope. In other words, remind them who I was and to please pay for the return rejection.

Once again, I relied on the unexpected. Since they’d given me their address I would save the postage and hand deliver my work with a wink and a smile. I made my copies of my script, plotted my route, and took the better part of an afternoon knocking on the doors of agents I’d already convinced to read my stuff. I returned to my apartment and tried to figure out which was more insufferable. The stifling heat, my newest actor roomie, or waiting for the phone to ring.

The first call came only two days later. The assistant to a boutique literary agent by the name of Harry Bloom informed that she really liked my script, had recommended it to her boss, and now he wanted to meet me. Would sometime this afternoon work for me?

I couldn’t tell which was faster. My heart rate or how long it took me to shower and dress. An hour later I was climbing the stairs to Harry Bloom’s Sunset Boulevard office. It was modest to say the least, a two-room operation with a reception area for Harry’s assistant-slash-wife and an inner sanctum for the former MCA agent. Seated behind a large desk piled high with scripts and Post-its was the man himself. Harry Bloom. A tiny man with big ears, a silk suit, and silver hair. He shook my hand, offered me a seat, and began regaling me with compliments about my writing. He knew quality, he told me, having repped a coterie of working scribes in his long career which, by his advanced age, I guessed was on the down slope.

“Sorry about the cramped office,” he said. “We just moved in. And I’m not embarrassed to say I miss my old Century City office. You know why?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I could look out my window and see the Bank of America on that corner there,” he said. “And over there, Wells Fargo. And over there? City National Bank.” The little man grinned broadly. He wasn’t kidding. Was I supposed to be impressed with this schmaltz?

“Do you know who William Goldman is?” asked Harry.

“Of course I do,” I answered, telling him Marathon Man was one of my favorite films.

“He wrote this book about screenwriting,” said Harry. “Called Adventures in the Screen Trade. I want you to read it. Then call me back and tell me if you still want to be a screenwriter.”

“I don’t need to read it. I already know.”

“Read it anyway,” he said. “Then call me.”

I have to admit, I wasn’t too impressed with the little man. He appeared the image of a Hollywood cliché from his Gucci loafers to his slick salesman’s banter. But then he wound up our meeting by insisting I read a book that was still only to be found in hardcover. Suffice it to say, when you’re down to sharing a scrubby, un-conditioned one bedroom walk-up with a pair of out-of-work actors, money is probably in short supply. Still, I paid for the book with rolled quarters, holed up in corner of the off-Melrose theater I sometimes worked at, and fully consumed Bill Goldman’s trials and tribulations about his life as a working screenwriter. There was wisdom on the pages. Perspective a young, wannabe like myself could dearly use. Worth every penny.

There were more phone calls from perspective agents. I was lucky. Five of the ten I’d convinced to read my work wanted to rep me. Yet none but old Harry Bloom had put me to a test and asked me to read and respond to a book.

“I read it,” I said to Harry, shortly after we’d begun our phone conversation.

“So whaddayou think,” he asked. “Still want to be a screenwriter?”

“More than ever. Loved every page.”

“Not easy, though. And Goldman’s won an Oscar. You gotta be willing to put in the hard work.”

“I am.”

“Then I want to be your agent.”

And there it was. I had chosen an agent. Or one had chosen me. And that’s how my career began.

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4 thoughts on “Behind the Lines with DR: How I Got a Screenwriting Agent

  1. Leona Heraty

    Thanks for the excellent article Doug. Thanks for sharing your story, and how your persistence paid off. I think you’re right, we should see the obstacles we face as challenges that we can find a way to overcome. We must be persistent and work hard, and we too can become professional screenwriters. 🙂

    Here is a great quote that I keep on my refrigerator:

    “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan press on has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

    Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States

  2. Alioop

    Thanks for the informative article. Is this still relevant? If you can’t walk to the WGA in LA, can you still get a copy of the agents who accept unsolicited scripts by calling? Is this available on line do you know? Thanks again, this is more inspiring than most of the stories out there! Ali

  3. Michelle

    Great article. I always steel myself for misery when someone prepares to tell me how it “really is” in Hollywood, but to see that even the successful writers had to face the same really helps. It seems like the difference between success and the failure I fear on a daily basis is the response, and attitude, towards those war stories. Thanks for the stories, Doug!