As a screenwriter, there are a few ways to get your script sold and—possibly—made into a movie. Screenwriting contests have emerged as a way for unknown writers to get their name out there, but this requires either winning the contest or placing very high, and more than likely having to do it in multiple contests to get noticed. If you have the money and are a director as well as a writer, you can go the indie route, but providing you get the movie made, there is no guarantee of any kind of distribution. The most traditional way for a screenwriter to get his or her work sold and made into a movie is by getting an agent.
The first step is to find an agent. Agents, by virtue of their occupation, are well connected and can help a screenwriter immensely. If you find representation, this helps you out because an agent is supposed to only have talented writers as their clients, enhancing your reputation, while using theirs in the process. An agent should not charge anything unless they’ve sold your script.
While the Internet and social networking tools like Facebook have forever changed the way that writers and filmmakers interact with each other, this may be a time to go the old school way. Filmmaking is a notoriously closed off industry, and to break in, many studios, agencies and managers will only give you a chance if you go through the proper channels. You can certainly use different methods to search out a particular agent, but trying to contact them this way probably won’t work.
As David Trottier notes in “The Screenwriter’s Bible,” going through the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is a good place to start. The WGA will provide you with an approved list of agencies. Look for an agency that is accepting new submissions; the WGA’s list is coded, which will help determine which agency may be right for you. And while the WGA provides the names of agencies, they do not list individual agents. A publication such as the “Hollywood Representation Directory” would be your best bet.
This is where it can get tricky. Your aim is to get the name of an individual agent. If an agency lists its personnel by seniority, go for the agent farthest down the list. Don’t tell the agent that you are seeking representation or say bluntly that you need an agent. Merely ask who is accepting new clients or inquire to whom you should send a short query to. Calling an agency and asking who is accepting new clients may be a last ditch maneuver.
Once you have made contact with an agent, do not send them your script. Either fax or send a query. Don’t e-mail a query unless the agency states that they accept e-mailed queries. Send queries to multiple agents but not within the same agency; try not to put all your hopes on the first agent that you find. Do not include a synopsis or treatment. Sending out multiple queries will help you gauge their responses to you and help you tailor the queries you send out.
After you’ve garnered the interest of an agent, and they’ve requested to see your script, more likely than not they will ask you if you’ve written anything else. Hopefully you have, because it shows that you haven’t only labored over this one script for ten years with nothing else to show and you have a stable of ideas. At this point you’ll meet with the agent, discuss other ideas, and the agent’s contract. The agent gets 10%; no agent should charge a reading fee. The agent should also not ask for cash up front or referrals to specific script consultants.
WGA signatory contracts have a 90 day clause stating if the agent has not found you work in that amount of time, you can terminate the contract. But, and this is especially true for the novice screenwriter, remember that it takes time. Many agents will not tender a contract unless they’ve received an offer for your script or talent. If your agent is WGA-signatory, the amount of time shouldn’t matter, as the contract will still be approved by the Guild.
Once you meet with an agent, you will discuss your long term goals, and what avenues you are looking to pursue. This depends on what you want out of your career. Try not to have too narrow of a focus, thinking that you are only open to writing feature films, or only certain types of scripts. Have a clear idea of what you want, but be open to new things. It’s a long process, and if you’ve gotten this far, you don’t want to close the door too quickly.
If you are a novice screenwriter, be clear about the situation. Your agent has multiple clients, and if they are established, they are probably already making him or her money. The agent is more than likely motivated by money; that doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t believe in your talent, but know that you are being represented because the agent believes that you can make commission for them.
Keep yourself open to assignments that come up, or development deals. But until you make a sale, this possibility is fairly remote. You should also be working on your ability to pitch ideas. Many meetings between agents, producers, and writers come down to the pitch. And how you come across in those meetings will have an immediate impact on your agent’s ability to sell your work.
One of the main things about having an agent is the connections that they have. They are in constant contact with producers and your agent should have the ability to match either your script or your talent with what somebody else is looking for. And if that connection is made by your agent, you can get a meeting with a producer.
Once your agent arranges a meeting with a producer, there are four scenarios that you should be prepared for.
1. The sale of your spec script. If you have a good script and an even better agent, then they will be doing everything they can to generate “buzz” about your work. If your agent can garner interest from more than one buyer, there can be an auction for your script, you can become a millionaire and even get a bonus if your script is produced. This is the screenwriter’s dream.
2. Your script gets optioned. This is more likely than the first scenario. The producer may think there is some potential, but doesn’t buy it outright. Instead, he or she will buy an option for the rights for a period of time (six months to a year) and try to get interest in the project. If nothing ever comes of it, you keep the option money and the rights to the script. The producer also can buy it outright, or option it again.
3. You get a development deal. Your agent uses your script to get a meeting with a producer, and there is enough interest to get a pitch meeting. You can offer up some of your other ideas or the producer can buy your script.
4. You get an audition. Your spec script is good enough to secure a meeting and a deal with the producers and you get an open writing assignment (think in terms of episodic television, where you would get the chance to write some episodes and even get residuals). It could be that the producer has an idea and you get the chance to script it.
If you do get a deal with a producer, the check is sent to the agent, and you will then get your 90%. A cardinal rule of this process is that even if you do most of the work, make the contacts and attend all the meetings, your agent is still entitled to 10%. It should be apparent to you by now that this process is not always entirely fair.
As the writer, you should always arm yourself with as much information as possible in trying to find a reputable agent. They are out there, and much of it comes down in how hard you want to work for your career. Remember, an agent can get you in the door, but ultimately it’s your talent that will make the deal.
Segments of this article can be found in “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier