Thursday, April 20, 2006

Big Agent or Ickle Agent

From the mailbag: “One thing I feel people are interested is whether it's better to be at a big agency or a little agency. Just a thought. Also interested to find out how open UK companies are to Irish based stuff. I know they say they are, and they're very polite about it, yet I wonder.”

First, the Irish issue. Of course UK companies are interested in Irish scripts. Naturally, it all depends on what the project is and who you are but no-one’s going to reject a project based on its indigenous locale. It seems that Ireland’s best international export is comedy films that reinforce the stereotype of parochial charm. Grim dramas about ‘The Troubles’ and 19th century poverty are also quite appealing (or 20th century poverty if you’ve seen Angela’s Ashes). There’s a new wave of modern Irish cinema brewing from a lot of talented writers and filmmakers, and it’s very exciting, but it’s likely to remain under the radar for the most part.

However, if you’ve got an Irish script that you don’t think the UK companies are going to go for, then don’t send it to them. There are a few high-profile Irish production companies that would be more interested in reading such work, like Parallel, Element, Samson Films, Subotica Entertainment (all people I’m trying to forge relationships with as an Irish writer based in the UK). And of course, there’s the Irish Film Board itself who accept individual applications for development support. So yes, there’s a great deal of interest in Irish projects. Go knock ‘em dead.

Now, the agents. I would say that the main difference between the big and smaller agencies is that one is more interested in ‘selling’ and the other is more interested in ‘nurturing’. Obviously, if you’re with one of the bigger agencies, like PFD, Curtis Brown or AP Watt, then that’s great because the agents’ reputation precedes them and your script will bypass the spec slush pile. This doesn’t mean however that your work will instantly be bought, optioned or developed. I’ve read countless scripts from agencies all over town that have been complete rubbish.

The big agents are interested in the best writers because the best writers will make them money. You become the best writer when your work has both commercial and critical merit. Agents are interested in the scripts that have an instant and recognisable place in the market. When I was trying to get an agent, I had a lot of interest and meetings from agents saying ‘we like the writing, what else you got?’

In other words, they were saying ‘I can’t sell this. Come back to me when you’ve got a script I can sell’ (I didn’t at the time, just Run For Home which I had deliberately written as a sample but ironically has led to an award and development money). I think this is what it’s like with the bigger agencies. I would say that if you don’t regularly produce work for them to pitch and sell around town, then you might be in danger of being swallowed up and overlooked. Big agencies are great but you’ve got to have the same passion, hunger and body of work that your agent will be able to live and die on.

Smaller agencies on the other hand realise that new writers have to start somewhere and are keen to work closely with the client to ensure that their career develops in a way that they both agree is the best way forward. This could mean ‘starting off slow’; trying to get on TV shows, writing for Doctors, radio plays and the like. Of course, clients at the bigger agencies also write for TV, Doctors and for radio etc but in terms of ‘a feature screenwriting career’, it might be a slower build at a smaller agency rather than an instant ‘smash and grab’ at a more high profile place.

Usually, there’s a closer rapport and relationship between a writer and his ‘smaller’ agency. They’re able to provide feedback on the writer’s latest pitches and scripts, something that bigger agents sometimes won’t have the time for. I’ve seen a lot of scripts from reputable agents that would have benefited from at least another draft, not to mention a simple proof read for typos and spelling mistakes. And I’m sure we’ve all shared the experience of reading a script from a ‘hot writer’ from a ‘big agent’ only for it to read like a huge steaming pile of newbie poo.

Obviously, getting an agent can be one of the most difficult and frustrating tasks a writer can face but ultimately, it’s not about ‘getting an agent’ or whether it’s a ‘big agent’ or a small one, it’s about establishing and developing a proactive relationship that will benefit you both. It’s a never-ending topic though with a wide range of viewpoints and issues for consideration. I’ll try to get a Q&A with one of the more prominent agents to see if they can put any niggling questions to rest. If there are writers out there reading this who are represented by the big boys, do let us know how you felt when you started, and how it is now.


Dominic Carver said...

Interesting topic, one of which I hope to discuss with you on tuesday.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

what exactly is ickle?

Danny Stack said...

'Ickle' means 'Small'.

Anonymous said...

I moved from a small UK agent to a "big" UK agent last year and I think it was a good move. Here's why. I got on fine with my old agent. I had steady work. My income was steadily increasing. I sold a movie script. And that's when I decided to move. Doesn't sound very loyal or British does it? But it was still the right thing to do. Because it's a BUSINESS relationship. A reasonably high profile script sale gave me some chips which I could cash in to get the attention of a bigger agency and as uncomfortable and awkward as the move might have been (for a day or two at least) I believe it was crucial to my future career.

This is what bigger agencies have which makes them "big" - ACCESS and INTELLIGENCE.

Access to everybody you could possibly want to read your material. I don't just mean that they know how to use the Yellow Pages - I mean that they have RELATIONSHIPS with the people who can buy your scripts - they talk, they lunch, they actually KNOW each other.

Intelligence about who is looking for what, who is worth working with and a whole bunch of stuff that you just don't hear about at the smaller agencies.

Of course YOU have still got to come up with the goods. YOU have to come up with ideas which will grab people by the short and curlies and make them desperate to work with you. YOU have to network. YOU have to be "good in the room". Moving to a bigger agency is no time to relax. But no matter if an agent is small or big, they'll only be interested in you if you can write stuff that sells. And why should it be any different? If you can do that for a big agent then you'll get all the nurturing you can handle. I've busted a gut this year to show my new agent how pro-active, prolific and commercially-minded I can be - and he's just negotiated me a great deal for a feature treatment. A deal I genuinely believe my old agent wouldn't have had to clout to secure.

British writers can be way too sensitive about hurting their agent's feelings by leaving. I know too many writers who've been with the same agent for years and think it would be somehow "wrong" to leave, even though they know in their gut that they are not getting enough out of the relationship.

I think the rule of thumb for the ambitious screenwriter should be "Better to have a small agent than no agent. Better to have a big agent than a small agent."