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The ultimate Catch-22 of screenwriting. You want an agent. The agent’s not interested until you’ve got some work. But it’s incredibly difficult to get work without an agent. So what do you do?
Don’t rush it. Agents deal with talented writers every day. The competition is extremely high. Potential clients will have found a way to work in the system without prior representation and may have won an award, or made a well-received short film, or have something about them that makes their profile that little bit more enticing and interesting than ‘you’, a part-time bank clerk in Stockport.
Agents also know good writing when they see it. When you’ve written your first screenplay, the temptation is to approach an agent in the hope that they’ll take you on and start your career. But unless the script is truly a wonderful piece of work and is instantly sellable, this won’t happen. Agents like to represent writers, not people who want to be writers. So if you’ve written one screenplay, great, but write one more to show you’re serious. Write another to display your range. If you think they’re any good, truly, then approach agents to show them what you got.
Write a good query letter. Be brief. Three succinct paragraphs should do; one to explain who you are, another to give a little bit of info about your script(s) and the last to express your interest in the agency you’re approaching. There is a lot of debate about whether query letters really work or not, and the truth is the majority probably don’t. But these letters have nothing to do with yours. Write a letter, give it a week, follow it up with a phone call. Do not send your script(s) until requested. Better still, send an email (most agent’s emails are on the internet somewhere), give them some time, follow it up with a phone call. If they do request to read your scripts, give them a considerable amount of time to read and review. You can expect to wait to up to two or three months to get a response because they’re very busy with their clients.
Get a referral. This is far preferable than an anonymous query letter. If you know someone in the business and they have a solid reputation (exec/producer/director/script editor) then show them your work and if they think it’s good, ask them if they could refer you to an agent. Bizarrely, the agent that rejected you last week will show sudden keen interest when you are referred to them by someone who’s well respected in the biz. But a referral doesn't mean instant representation. Expect the normal assessment once your work has been accepted for review.
Naturally, a referral is the golden ticket that is difficult to obtain. Most will rely on the query letter method. This is fine. It does work. This is what I did when I first sought representation:
I had written three feature scripts which I thought were pretty good. As an avid script reader, I knew they were better than a lot of scripts that were on the market. One was an adaptation of an Andrew Davies’s children’s book, Conrad’s War, which came with the great adapter’s blessing, so I knew that was a marketable hook in terms of getting work and finding a potential agent. Conrad’s War was in development with Nexus Productions at the time and I had managed to option my very first screenplay with another producer so at the very least, I was a semi-professional writer - more clout for a potential agent. And I had been paid some money to write a treatment of The Canterville Ghost (a modern update).
So I figured the time was right to seek representation. I made a list of ten agencies I respected and would like to approach. Ten query letters went in the post. The agents all requested to read a sample script and most asked to see my entire work. Eight delivered kind rejections. ‘Liked it didn’t love it’, ‘Good writing but didn’t respond to the material’, ‘Nice but not for us’ etc. Two agents wanted to meet me. One agent was half-interested but wanted to wait until I had a ‘proper’ deal on the go. This was frustrating. Then, the last agent didn’t mention anything about money, or deals, or anything. She just expressed an interest in my writing, thought it was very good and felt she could work with me to build my career. Very reassuring words so I naturally accepted her proposal and signed with Micheline Steinberg Associates, a small but reputable agency. UPDATE: I am now repped by Katharine Vile at United Agents, a move that Micheline wholly supported; she's a class act.
In episode 13 of the UK Scriptwriters podcast, me and Tim talk about how you get an agent or if you really need one. Check it out!
Want me to read your script? Check out my consultancy page.