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Friday, March 13, 2009

Are You Ready for Representation?

Good morning, Wavers. Sometimes I think I've said everything there is to say about screenwriting on The Rouge Wave. I struggle to come up with a fresh take and by jiminy, I do it. Other days I reach back into the archives and find older blog posts that are just as relevant as the day I wrote them and could use another airing. So that said, here is a post about whether you are really ready to be repped yet:

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Hollywood often feels like a very exclusive club with menacing bouncers standing at the door. And you, the writer, are one of thousands standing in line outside in the cold waiting and hoping for your chance. The line seems to shuffle forward little by little but like a Sisyphian nightmare, you always find yourself standing at the back of the line. Watching other people get ushered inside. And everyone who gets inside has one thing in common: a smartly dressed escort at their elbow. That would be an agent or manager.

An agent or manager is a necessity. But how do you get one? Many writers try the scattershot method of listing their script with a query-blasting service, which sends your logline to any producer with an email address like so much spam. Others list their loglines on websites that producers browse. Word on the street is that successful producers have time to browse the internet for scripts. That make sense to you? Other writers invest in a Hollywood Creative Directory and start with A and end with Z, sending out one query letter after another. I know these methods well because I tried them all. And nothing came to fruition for me. Work sent in these ways usually winds up lost in a sea of other loglines and queries. The question is: How do you stand out from the rest?

It seems everything is stacked against us. Some agents don’t accept unsolicited queries. So how do they get new clients? They may not be looking for clients except through referral. So how do you get referred? If you sometimes feel that everything is designed to keep you and your work at arm's length, you’re not far off base. In my adventures reading for production companies I have been - and continue to be - shocked by the piles of scripts I see. I call them “the slithering stack.” They literally slither to the floor because there are too many. And these are represented scripts.

In order of efficacy, here are the best methods for seeking representation:

1) Know a friend of a friend
2) Be a competition winner or finalist
3) Go to a pitch fest and blow an exec’s mind
4) Query selectively using the HCD
5) Engage in the Schwab’s Drugstore Fantasy

FRIEND OF A FRIEND
The friend of a friend is obviously something very few people can take advantage of. But you can cultivate relationships in the business that could lead to a hand-off at some point in the future. You never know. That’s how I got my manager. But as I look back, it was a long time coming until the stars were aligned and I just so happened to have a good script and it just so happened to be right up my manager’s alley. Luck = timing + opportunity.

COMPETITIONS
A much more realistic approach is to enter your scripts in competitions. There are many to choose from; and, by and large, they really are a terrific way to get noticed. I would avoid those contests that run competitions frequently and that don’t seem to have much in the way of industry credibility. In my opinion, some competitions that can really pay off for you are:

The Nicholl Fellowship
The Austin Film Festival
The Silver Screenwriting Competition (natch)
Final Draft Big Break
The Blue Cat Screenwriting Competition
The Disney Fellowship
Slamdance
Creative Screenwriting’s AAA Competition
Creative Screenwriting’s yearly Expo Competition

Deadlines for most of these competitions are coming up quickly, so if you do want to enter, do your research and be ready to send your script shortly.

Competition winners will have their work exposed to industry professionals. Some competitions are more illustrious than others – Nicholl comes to mind – but all of these competitions are designed to help launch writers. I urge all my clients to enter as many of these competitions as they can. I am sad to report that the Fade In Screenwriting Competition has had some pretty serious complaints against it so I'd caution you away from that one.

PITCH FESTS
Attending a pitch fest is also a good way to seek representation. If your work is not only highly polished and ready, but you feel confident pitching – this could be a terrific opportunity. The Great American Pitch Fest, which is, in my opinion, head-and-shoulders above any others, is coming up in June.

QUERYING
If none of the methods above have paid off for you, or do not appeal for any reason, you can go old school and query. This is not the most effective method, but still – there are exceptions. Buy yourself the latest edition of the Hollywood Creative Directory for agents and managers (it is updated quarterly) or get an online subscription of same. As you flip through the book, have your IMDB at the ready. Read the company descriptions carefully, look up execs and their resumes.

Sometimes as a new writer, the smaller boutique management shingles are the best place to look. The HCD will include absolutely everybody but there are two things to be very aware of: the long shots and the shysters. A short list of the long shot agencies and management firms would include:

CAA
ICM
William Morris
Endeavor
Benderspink

We know that these agencies represent the crème de la crème in both the literary and acting realms. Not the best place for a newbie to come a-knockin’. Which is not to say you can’t try – just be aware that it would be quite an accomplishment to even get a response to your query through these venues.

The shysters are the one-man outfits, usually. With addresses outside of Los Angeles or New York. Yes there are managers and agents in Chicago, Atlanta and Minneapolis - but that’s not where the business is. How effective and connected is a manager who can’t do lunch easily and regularly with potential buyers? As you peruse the HCD, IMDB the principal and see if anything comes up. If you do call or query, absolutely do NOT pay a fee for anything. Some of these unethical charlatans prey on new writers by charging fees to send your work out. These types of people are tempting for new writers because they will pick up the phone more or less immediately, they will talk to you and they will agree readily (most often) to read your material. That’s because they aren’t in the business of making deals – they are in the business of bilking writers. If it’s too good to be true – it probably is.

Do not pay any fees – ever. Believe more highly in your work than to be lured into the grasp of these bottom feeders.

A resource for checking out the creds of agents and managers is the Done Deal Message Board. There, writers can post about their experiences. Do a search and spend some time on the site; you may find all the answers you need right there.

SCHWAB'S
We’ve all heard stories of an actor or writer being discovered at odd moments or locations. And yes, it can indeed happen. Which is why you should always be prepared to talk about your work. However. The instances of a writer making a profitable connection with a representative or producer while shopping for shampoo are – well – miniscule. If you are doing everything in this list to find representation and then you run into Tom Hanks while you are checking out with your Clairol Herbal Essence - terrific. But don’t count on it.

The big question really is – are you ready for representation? It’s not just a matter of the stars being aligned – it’s a matter of the maturity of your material. How many scripts have you written? If this is your first script, the chances that the material is rep-ready are pretty slim. And that’s okay. It takes time to learn the craft, and you will improve with each new script you write. It took me 7 ½ scripts before I got repped. And I tried everything from spamming producers through a service to dressing up like Dorothy and hanging out in front of laundromats handing out scripts. Well, okay, my friends had an intervention before I made it out the door on that one.

My point is that yes, getting representation is indeed the opening through which your career can sashay into the exclusive club. It doesn’t guarantee that you will then sell the project or be a real working writer, but you are in the game. But before you look for a rep, make sure you have accumulated a body of work. An arsenal, as some say. Read the how-to books. Take some classes online or in person. The UCLA Writers' Program has great online and weekend classes. Also the Writers Boot Camp in Santa Monica has online and on-the-ground courses. Give it some time. Then, when you are ready, you will have just upped the chances of getting a rep by 1000%. Trying to get a rep before you’re ready will ultimately be a blow to your confidence as a writer. You will find yourself on the receiving end of a whole lot of unreturned phone calls and/or dismissive letters. Make sure you and your material are up to snuff.

The $64,000 question is this: How do you know if your work is good enough to be repped? Have you sought feedback from either professionals in the industry or trusted and literate friends? Have you done everything in your power to improve your writing at every turn? Are you perhaps rushing things and looking for the instant $1,000,000 spec sale? Slow down, take your time and do your homework.

And even after you've dotted every "i" and crossed every "t," the fact is, you’ll never be 100% sure if your work is all that. Even accomplished writers feel like frauds, it’s just part of being a writer. But if you’ve done your due diligence, then take a deep breath and jump in.

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4 comments:

Nicholas said...

For someone on the East coast, one of the simplest ways, though potentially one of the longest shots, is entering the Nicholl Fellowship. If your script is really good, and truly worthy of Hollywood, you will most likely place as a quaterfinalist. And if you can get there, you will most likely receive a phone call from at least one agent/manager/producer.

It is suspected that that is how Damon Lindelof broke into the business, and my screenwriting professor made it in after an agent read his script in the middle of the competition. He ended up selling something right then, effectively dropping out of the competition because the money was too good to pass up.

From what I have heard, Nicholl is the only competition that anyone who is anybody actually pays attention to.

Ergo, there's a reason why I will be entering a script in another month.

E.C. Henry said...

I am ready for representation. Thanks for the tips, Julie.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

PJ McIlvaine said...

Note: Endeavor and William Morris are merging, according to Deadline Daily.

Luzid said...

Funny you should mention BenderSpink -- when I moved to L.A. back in '99, I somehow wrangled a lunch meeting with their head of new media (or whatever they called the guy who ran their online presence back then).

He was very nice, generous with his time... but I was in no way ready for representation. Hell, I had only written my first script! But maybe he saw something in me -- even after that lunch wherein it was painfully clear how much of a noob I was, he invited me to the premiere of FINAL DESTINATION (with the producers in nearby seats).

Fast-forward ten years, and it looks like I've finally earned the right to feel ready for representation. I've gotten feedback on both pitches and scripts (from more than one pro, and the feedback's been very "great ideas, you're a great writer, keep writing, you'll make it" positive). I've studied story daily (because story rules) and write at least a couple of hours a night (because writing likewise rules). I've placed in a bigger contest (in my first round of contests). My work's been both passed to producers and requested by them based on the strength of my loglines. I have two excellent high-concept scripts (described as such by those in the know) and more currently in progress after having written a few "trainers", and a collection of cool ideas waiting to be explored some day.

So am I ready? Signs point to yes, as the 8-ball says. Now the trick is keep writing, keep networking and see what I can get going. I'm currently querying managers, and hope to land a decent in-town rep this year.