Thursday, November 27, 2008

Professional Screenwriter, Step 5: Get an Agent

A lot of new writers consider ‘getting an agent’ to be the Holy Grail of their screenwriting career. Once they nab an agent, then they’re official, and the work will flow. This is not true. Having an agent is indeed a significant and crucial factor of your professional profile but it does not define who you are or what you can achieve. Indeed, a lot of the time, you’ll ‘get your own work’ from personal recommendations and word-of-mouth opportunities, leaving your agent with the cosy job of tidying up your contract and negotiating your fee.

Of course, an agent will champion you and your work around town, and set up meetings with key players and producers but the agent does not ‘get you the work’. YOU always get the work. An agent sets up the meeting, or sings your praises and looks out for suitable gigs. After that, it’s all down to you and your writing. An agent’s reputation will go some way in reassuring a producer or exec that you’re a solid writer, and no doubt your spec script will reflect well on the agent’s tastes, but when it comes down to it, the producers only react to the quality of your writing, nothing else. So, the key question: how do I get an agent?

Well, hopefully you’ve been working feverishly away on step 2 (writing), and you’ve developed a decent portfolio of scripts. Hey, you may have even won an award or been paid tuppence to write a treatment for a producer, so that shows some professional reward. It’s time to approach an agent. Write a query letter. In this day and age, an email could suffice (and most agents’ emails are on the net), but treat it as a query letter, not an ingratiating message that invades their in-box.

In your query letter, tell them who you are, what you’ve done/what your ambitions are (“I don’t do TV, dahling”, “If I don’t write for Holby, I will die”), and why you think the agent/agency is a good match for your ambition and talent. That’s just a basic structural template. Add your own personal touch or flavour to it, but don’t veer away from the point. Be brief. Don’t enclose any scripts. Ask them if they’d like to read a few samples - end your letter with a question as that might prompt them to reply a bit quicker than normal.

Now wait a couple of weeks. If you haven’t had a reply, phone their office and make a polite enquiry with the assistant whether your letter has been received and read. If you did get a reply, and the agent wants to read your scripts, then send them as soon as you can.

Now wait a couple of months. At least. You could get lucky and the agent will get back to you quickly (this depends on how ‘hot’ you are; whether you’ve won an award or already written an episode of Doctors, or whatever) but generally it’s going to take them a few months. Don’t sweat it. Give them time, and then follow it up with a polite email/phone call to give them a nudge.

If an agent is interested in you, they will invite you in to their offices to see the colour of your eyes and get a feel for you as a person. They’ll have pretty much decided that they want to represent you at this stage but if you come across as a flaky psychopath, then that might deter them from offering you a contract. Be nice, charming, funny and friendly. Show that you’re ‘normal’ but don’t be afraid to demonstrate your ‘passion’ either (apostrophes included especially for Mr Arnopp). After a quick chat and a cup of coffee, the agent will offer you representation. Let the commissions begin!

Well, er, not exactly. It’s going to take time to build momentum and shop you around town. Scripts need to be sent out to producers. They need to read them, and like your writing, in order to invite you in for a meeting. These could be typical ‘meet and greet’ affairs or specific ‘would you like to write for EastEnders’ get-togethers, depending on what you and your agent are gunning for, but the bottom line is that this, like everything else in the business, is going to take some time.

One final word: don’t approach an agent ‘flat’. There’s nothing worse than: “Hi, I’m a new writer. Here are a few of my scripts. Would you like to represent me?” While it’s a common approach, it doesn’t do a lot to prickle an agent’s interest. They get a lot of query letters every week. Make yours stand out from the crowd. Not by being bolshy, but by showing that you’ve already achieved something, and you’re on your way, and now you need an agent. It’s easy to spot the writers who simply ‘want an agent’. They’re everywhere. But if you’ve got some decent chops about you, and you’re already hustling opportunities, then an agent will be more inclined to check you out because of your dynamic or proactive qualities.


Neil said...

Hi Danny, love your blog and these steps are really useful. Thanks alot! I have a question I hope you will have time to answer.

In the next two years, I think i'll be ready to look for an agent. I'll hopefully have a solid portfolio and will have left university. I'm currently writing for a guy who is producing 7 projects. I will co-write all the scripts with him and some others. The plan is for them to be made in the next year (well, as many as can be made). This means that I will have written material that has made ti to the screen. When approaching agents/agencies, should I put this man down as a refernce? He has said I can put him down any time, but I'm not sure if i should. I would of course mention what I have written for him, but should I name him speciafically and provide his contact details?

Thanks for reading and I hope you can answer my question. Love the blog!


Lucy V said...

Good post, Danny. It's worth remembering too that often an agent is NOT manning their in tray or email inbox - their assistant or even the work experience kid is. They'll have forty three million things to do AS WELL AS make coffee and generally kiss butt (I mean, make contacts, arf), so it's always worth being brief, to the point and NEVER BOASTING.

BTW, I've called off the price on your head, you'll be glad to hear...

Danny Stack said...

Hi Neil, yes, if you think mentioning the producer's name would be helpful, then absolutely, go for it. For example, if one of my scripts was optioned by Robert Zemeckis, or I was doing something for his company, you can bet your life that would be on my CV or covering letters! It all depends on how well known the producer is, but anything that gives you an edge or an advantage always helps.

Neil said...

Cool. Thanks a lot Danny! Keep up the awesome blogging!

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil and Danny

All excellent advice.

As Lucy says, good agents are incredibly busy and have an assistant who acts as gatekeeper. You need to get past the assistant before the agent will read your work.

I go into lots of detail about approaching agents, what to say at first meetings and working relationships in MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER, plus lots of other stuff about working as a professional writer. All the money from sales goes to Childline. Go to to see testimonials and download a copy

Adrian Mead

Anonymous said...

Great story as for me. It would be great to read something more about this matter. Thnx for sharing this information.
Joan Stepsen
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Tim Crooks said...

Thanks for this; as ever, very insightful.

One question: Where does one start looking for agents? Is there a web directory or something I can consult?

Danny Stack said...

The Writers & Artists Yearbook would have what you need!

Anonymous said...

Selling a screenplay using a UK agent is about as possible as drawing liquid gold from a four leaf clover.