You have paid your dues, you have written your training wheels scripts, and you’re now a brilliant writer. You deserve an agent. The problem is that any agent worth their salt already has a solid line-up of clients, and receives more submissions than they — or their assistant — can read. Standing out in the noise can seem impossible, no matter how talented you are.
The good news is that you can move up on your own while you lay the groundwork. The great news is that once a contract worthy of their time is on the table, agents will come to you. Before then, your job is to develop relationships so you’re not starting from zero when the time comes.
Please note: the below applies to writers for film, theater, and TV, not to performers, or to novelists and other writers. Some of it may transfer, but some will not.
Step One: Get Ready
All of this is entirely in your control, so start now:
- Agents sign people as much as they sign work. They need to know that you understand the business. You know how to read contracts, and you know what subrights, copyright, royalties (etc) are. You know how to pitch. You don’t say stupid things on social media about showrunners at networks you would like to work at someday. You consistently create your own connections and opportunities. You have a good reputation for being pleasant to work with. They need to be 100% sure they will never get a call from someone saying their client was unprofessional.
- Have your assets in place. Your website doesn’t have to be the best website in the world, but it should exist and feel reasonably well-populated with content. You should have a solid portfolio in the area you want to be in: a late-night submission packet, a feature film, a really great play, etc. You have a log line, summary, and pitch deck for each project that is complete or close enough that you could pitch it. You have other projects underway.
- Be ready to have the conversation. Have a sense of what you want to achieve — are you trying to get staffed? To sell a pilot? To be commissioned to write a play? What else do you do, that their agency handles — performance, voiceover, etc? What companies/networks/shows do you fit into? Consider asking for their answer to this question before giving yours: they probably have ideas you haven’t even thought of. Be able to talk about your brand: what you write, any particular theme that recurs in your work, why your voice is unique and commercial.
- Be proactive. The more projects you execute and connections you make, the better the chance they turn into work worthy of a good agent’s time.
Step Two: Meet Agents
While you are getting ready for an agent, you need to meet agents. Until you’re ready to get signed, your goal is not to get signed, but to start a relationship. A caveat here: don’t ask for introductions unless you are absolutely sure you’re ready to dazzle that particular person. If your friend is repped by the top guy at CAA, that intro needs to wait on the day you have a script and some credibility worthy of WeinsteinCo.
When you do you get an intro, don’t blow it. That doesn’t mean you get signed. It means your introducing friend doesn’t get an email saying you were rude, entitled, inappropriate, or otherwise unprofessional. Whether a connection bears fruit or not, always thank the connector. If it bears fruit, you owe them lunch.
Ways to meet agents include:
- Through a friend: ask for a casual introduction. If Step One is complete, straight up ask if their agent might take a look at your stuff.
- Through a friend’s agent: if you are not the right fit for your friend’s agent, but you are otherwise impressive, might their agent introduce you to someone else?
- Through your other agents: do you have an acting/VO/commercial agent? A manager? A lawyer? Who do they know?
- Through their team: meet agency assistants and invite them to things. Sometimes they pass you directly to their boss. Mostly you remain their contact, which is great: once they become an agent trainee, they need to build their list of up-and-comers. That is the ideal time to become their client.
- Through another contact: many people spend a few years at an agency to learn the biz, then go into development, but retain contacts at agencies. Do you have a friend who used to be an assistant?
- In person: go to parties, shows, etc. Always have a business card and a good answer to the question, “What are you working on?” If you perform, do your most talented friends’ readings and shows. Perhaps their agent friend will be there. Even if they met you as a performer, you can still tell them about your writing.
Step Three: Signing An agent
You have the resume and you have met an agent (or six). What now?
- Keep the agent up to date on big developments. When you have a reading, show, production etc, invite them, either direct or through friends, depending on how warm the connection is.
- If you have an offer on the table, ask them if they’re interested. If they say no, ask them who they recommend.
- If you don’t have an offer but you want the kind of job agents get you (such as getting staffed on a show where you have no connections), and you are sure you’re credible, ask for a meeting. Do not worry if the meeting is a twenty minute call. Twenty minutes of agent time is three hours of regular time. A good agent does not need much time to know they can sell you.
They’ll tell you if they want you, though like a good date, you’ll probably have a good idea whether there was chemistry before you get that formal offer. Congratulations: you have an agent.
You may be well on the way to getting an offer. Still, not all agents are right for you, and you’re not right for them. Here are some additional tips to screen out bad eggs, and then be the best client you can be to the good ones:
- If an agent has a full list, but thinks you’re a great bet, they may make space. In other words, if they say they’re full up, all you know for sure is they’re full to you. Drop it and move on before you get a reputation at that agency as someone who can’t take a hint.
- The wrong agent can be worse than no agent. They ignore you, make promises they can’t or won’t keep, or act like a dick on your behalf. Be willing to say no if your gut tells you this person isn’t the real deal. That said, if they’re at a legit agency and they are specific — names, plans, dates — they’re probably legit.
- A good agent is not an asshole. If your representative is an abrasive jerk then people will avoid hiring you just to avoid talking to them. A good agent is well-connected and knowledgeable, and has the ability to advocate and say no without being unpleasant.
- A good agent will not be bothered if you don’t make them much in the way of commission at first. They should be betting on you long term.
- You don’t need to spend a lot of time talking to your agent. You want them to talk to other people, about you. Don’t bother them with trivialities you should be able to handle.
- That said, do bother your agent when you have a good reason. Offers are good, of course, but you should also let them know about projects you’re working on, scripts you’ve completed, contacts you made that you’d like advice on, etc.
- Since you’re new, you might assume you want a grizzled warrior who has been in the trenches forever and knows everyone. However sometimes a young, hungry agent might be the best option for a young, hungry writer. I know one duo who signed with an agent who also represents the estate of a deceased household name. With thislucrative and obviously low-maintenance (dead) client, this agent didn’t need my friends and their initially tiny commissions, and he was out of touch with opportunities for newer writers. A new agent who is still building their list may have fewer connections and less experience, but if they’re good and they’ll fight for you, you can move up together.
- A smaller agency doesn’t mean a smaller agent. Perhaps they’ve chosen to take a boutique approach. If they’re a warrior for your work and they have the connections you need, they will still help you get where you’re going.
- A big agency can be awesome: it confers credibility, and they can package you up with their bigger clients. Even so, being the smallest fish in the biggest pond can have a downside. One writer I know signed with a huge agency in their early twenties and then was soundly ignored for several years. If you get an offer like this, be sure that your individual rep(s) will advocate for you while you’re a minnow among whales.
- Do not waste an agent’s time if you believe making money is somehow detrimental to your art. They have a business to run.
The whole process can happen in two phone calls or it can take several years. Either way, keep on being excellent, professional, and low-maintenance as you make connections, and eventually you will get an offer to represent you. Of course, sometimes they find you too late and you’ll get where you want to be all by yourself. The more likely scenario is you will get someone great, and hopefully they will be as good for you as mine are for me. Good luck!