Debunking Screenwriting Myths, Part VII — MANAGERS, AGENTS AND ATTORNEYS, OH MY!

negotiating_handshakeRarely a day goes by where I’m not asked directly or through a group forum post on LinkedIn or Facebook, about the subject of agents. To be more specific, the question is usually on an effective strategy on how to GET an agent. More specifically still, it is a plea “I NEED AN AGENT!”

My response, generally, is “No, you don’t.”

The fact is the questioner doesn’t really KNOW what they want. They THINK they want/need an agent because that’s how it is in the movies… isn’t it? You write a screenplay, or a book, and an agent calls and says “Hey, heard a lot about you and your (script/book/graphic novel). I think it can be a BIG HIT!”

And they rest, as they say, is history.

Well, that’s more like fiction, or, at the least, revisionist history.

There are three types of people that generally represent the professional screenwriter and their projects before, during and after the deal-making process. They are literary managers, agents, and entertainment attorneys, and you need to know the difference in their functionality to know which one, if any, you really need.

A manager generally works on developing your spec screenplay projects, as well as your writing career. They target building relationships and look for paid assignments for you. They are generally career counselors and personal development executives. Managers can charge anywhere from 10-50%, but are generally in the 15% range, but there are no strict guidelines for this. They do not register with the state. What a manager cannot do is negotiate deals for you, so they usually partner with an entertainment attorney firm to handle this. One advantage (?) to a manager is that they can negotiate a deal to be a producer on a particular project. This generally saves you the percentage, as they end up negotiating more on the profit side of the margin. If they are attached as a producer, there is an extra incentive for your success, and generally much more team involvement in your career.

The agent IS registered with the state, and must adhere to state regulations. They cannot negotiate separate producer credits on a project, like a manager, but they can negotiate with studios. Their goal is to find writing assignments, set up meetings and close deals when selling your projects. They charge 10%, and you may only speak with them once or twice a year.

The entertainment attorney does not send out your projects or works with you on your development, but they will acquire rights for you, review contracts and close production deals for you. They will charge up to $300 per hour (or a percentage of the deal) for this expertise, but you have a much higher level of legal protection with an EA on your team.

So, as an undiscovered spec screenwriter, you’ll ask yourself “Which do I need? Which do I get?” You’re probably not going to need an agent anytime in the near future, unless, of course, you write the next “The Hurt Locker”, and get blazing hot overnight. Agents generally find YOU and if they are not reaching out to you on their own, that’s usually a sign that you haven’t created enough “heat” for yourself. Winning top-tiered contests, and getting your name out through several high-level media interviews usually results in calls and emails exchanges with agencies, like ICM, WME, and CAA.

Attorneys will be available to you “as needed” so there is no reason to retain one at this stage. It’s a good idea, however, to build relationships with EA’s so you have someone to call when that time comes. If you are an active writer, getting your name out there among the groups and such, you’ll encounter many wonderful EA’s- in California and outside the Hollywood community who are always available with some helpful legal advice and direction.

So, your best choice at this stage is the literary manager. They work on getting you and your voice “heard” and try to generate a cash flow for you doing what you love to do best. A good manager will be in regular communication, provide smart advice and recommendations on steps to improve your material and your persona, and generally look out for your best interest.

This doesn’t mean they’ll do all the work for you; far from it. They are NOT taking 10% of your earnings while doing 90% of the work. Uh-uh. YOU are still going to be expected to learn, write, network and market yourself heavily and regularly. The best thing you can work on is yourself.

Work on being someone others would love to work with. It would help your world, and the world that revolves around you.


3 thoughts on “Debunking Screenwriting Myths, Part VII — MANAGERS, AGENTS AND ATTORNEYS, OH MY!

  1. Marc Johnson

    Another great post. Your words have a ring of truth, no one goes looking for greatness really, they just sort of wait to see what happens. If it turns out your spec script gets bought, developed, distributed and makes tons of money, then you are sought after, but only then. I would imagine an entertainment attorney is more of an asset to the writer, but I guess that depends on the type of writer you want to be.

  2. FAST Screenplay (@FASTscreenplay)

    This is a great blog post. I would add that a writer doesn’t need an agent until the agent needs them.

    Agents live on commission. They NEED your work to sell in order for the relationship to be sustainable. Every time a writer has asked me this question, it was premature. Writers think agents are a shortcut to the sale, but they’re not. They rep a career, not a screenplay. Approach them only after you have several immediately sellable screenplays; that’s when you’ll grab them.

    1. thescriptmentor Post author

      Thanks, Jeff. Great blog post AND great blog! 😉 Your points are correct, especially when you talk about needing an agent to make the sale. Not so. As I pointed out, the agents will find YOU when they believe you’re ready, but you should also market yourself to them when you think you are, and that is ONLY after you have had some measurable achievements in the business, and have generated the proper heat, and prove you can sustain that heat. More often than not, screenwriters get dropped from agents within the first two years (sometimes after one year) for not being able to maintain that momentum. Most of the writers I know should be seeking a manager instead. Thank you for your comments!


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