How writing a good script is more important than just getting literary representation...
Those of you who have heard me lecture, or who have worked with me as a consultant, know that I believe writers place far too much emphasis on getting an agent, and far too little on writing a script that won’t need
an agent. Talent and commitment rise to the surface quickly in Hollywood, and once you have a well written, emotionally involving screenplay that has real commercial potential, there are many paths to a deal.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you can stick your completed masterpiece under your pillow and wait for the Script Fairy to bring you a three-picture deal. Developing relationships and getting your work read is essential to your success.
Most writers who face this challenge fall into one of two traps: they listen to all the statistics about how hard it is to break into screenwriting, and after a couple rejections, recede into the woodwork; or they assume that agents, managers and producers are sitting around with nothing to do, just waiting for the writer’s script to arrive in the mail, so they scatter it out there with little thought of who will be interested or how it should be presented.
If your screenplay is truly ready to submit, you must take one additional step before marketing it. Before you pursue any agent (or any manager, producer, development executive, financier, pitch fest or contest) consider your submission from that person’s point of view. By better understanding how your screenplay affects the agent’s goals and workload, you can be far more effective at getting your desired response.
These are some of the basic components of an agent’s work life:
- She is incredibly overworked. An agent’s typical ten- to fourteen- hour day includes a breakfast meeting, a lunch meeting, staff meetings, negotiations, contracts, memos, emails, evening screenings, and at least a hundred phone calls per day. As soon as you contact the agent, you’ve added one more item to her endless “TO DO” list.
- She is being pulled in several directions at once, with demands from bosses, clients, clients’ managers, other agents, producers, development executives, her company’s lawyers, the studios’ and networks’ lawyers, and (if she’s foolish enough to try to have a personal life) her own family. As soon as you make contact, you’ve become one more person who wants to be taken care of.
- She never has time to read screenplays. Every Friday, her back seat is piled with scripts and novels she must be prepared to discuss at her agency’s Monday morning meeting. If she agrees to read your script, her pile will just get bigger.
- Clients of the agency, bosses’ requests, and deals “on the table” will always be given priority over submissions from unknown writers.
- Her agency only wants clients who can make them money. No matter how nice, or sympathetic, or even talented you are, if the agent doesn’t think she can sell your work, she can’t take you on.
- She already has plenty of clients and co-workers who add to her problems with unreasonable demands or unprofessional behavior.
- And finally, she, like every other agent and executive in Hollywood, knows this single, universal principle: the easiest way to avoid risk, responsibility and stress is to simply say NO.
Sounds hopeless, doesn’t it? But it’s not.
As I repeatedly remind my clients, readers and students, if making a living as a screenwriter were impossible, the Writers Guild wouldn’t have thousands of active members. Your chances of becoming one of them will greatly increase if you approach the people in power in an intelligent, professional way by appreciating their point of view and adhering to the following guidelines:
RESEARCH THE PEOPLE IN POWER
Never take a shotgun approach to submitting your work. Use the abundance of available web sites, newsletters, magazines, directories, conferences and organizations, as well as your own contacts, to determine the specific individuals appropriate for you to contact. (I discuss these resources in detail in my book Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read.
MAKE EVERY CONTACT PERSONAL
No one likes to get a form letter, so don’t simply mail merge the boilerplate of your query letter with a disc you bought from the Hollywood Creative Directory. Laziness runs rampant in the industry, and writers who do their homework impress the people in power. You also stroke an executive’s ego when you say you’re contacting him because he was involved with a person or project you admire.
SEND WELL WRITTEN LETTERS AND EMAILS
All your correspondence must be clear, concise, and absolutely error free. This is the first sample of your writing the agent will see, and if it’s filled with typos, misspellings and grammatical errors, or if it’s not an original PRINTED (rather than typed or hand-written) copy, the agent will assume your screenplay is no better.
KEEP PHONE CALLS BRIEF
Always ask, “Is this a good time for you, or would you like me to call back when it’s more convenient?” A little chitchat is OK to break the ice, but then get to the point.
PREPARE A TELEPHONE PITCH
When an agent asks, “What is your script about?” the worst thing you can do is stammer around and then go into a lengthy description of your entire story line. Compose a powerful, 1- minute description of your story, and rehearse it thoroughly before you make the call. Don’t try to tell the plot! The goal is simply to get the agent emotionally involved, so they’ll begin asking questions or ask to read the script. (Again, I’ve written entire book about creating pitches that will guarantee you get your scripts read.)
NEVER MAKE AN UNSOLICITED SUBMISSION
The goal of all this research and networking is to find people who will consider your screenplay. Don’t mail it to anyone who hasn’t already agreed to read it; it’s a waste of time, paper and postage, and will probably be returned to you, unopened and unread.
SHARPEN YOUR SCRIPT PRESENTATION
Conformity is the key to presenting the screenplay itself: you want your script to look exactly like all the scripts on the executive’s pile that were written by professionals and submitted by agents. This means three-hole punched with brass fasteners on the two outside holes only, and no binding, illustrations, footnotes, cast of characters, typos or errors or any kind. And of course, use proper, industry standard format throughout.
SIMPLIFY YOUR WRITING STYLE
Your prospective buyer or representative would much rather be skiing or playing tennis than stuck at home on a Saturday with a pile of reading to do. So she’s looking for the script that can easily be read in a little over an hour, not the one with the vocabulary of an Oxford professor and long, convoluted sentences.
MAKE YOUR SCREENPLAY ENJOYABLE TO READ
Because so many terrible scripts get submitted in Hollywood, the executive will (mistakenly) assume yours is awful as well. The script that surprises her by being clearly written, emotionally involving and commercially viable is the one that will get recommended Monday morning.
Don’t be discouraged if it takes a long time to get a response to your script. This often means the agent or producer is reading it herself, rather than passing it on to a reader. Simply call once a month to politely ask the assistant if it’s been read yet, just to make sure it hasn’t fallen through the cracks at the agency or production company. Since you’re pursuing a hundred other people simultaneously, any one person can take as long as she needs without you getting frustrated or angry.
Finally, two other cardinal rules for considering a buyer’s needs without thwarting your own screenwriting goals:
I may have given you the mistaken idea you should feel sorry for taking up an agent’s or executive’s valuable time. Not at all. You are a professional, giving another professional the opportunity to make money off your work. Be kind and considerate, but also direct, and certain of your own talent. Courage and assertiveness are always more effective than withdrawal and self-deprecation.
REJECT REJECTIONYou’re playing a numbers game here, and if you take rejection personally, you’ll get depressed and give up. There are lots of political and commercial reasons scripts get rejected, which have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Keep at it, and sooner or later you’ll find others who share your passion for your work.
The one common quality that all successful screenwriters share is neither intelligence, nor talent nor connections. It’s tenacity
. So stop dreaming, stop complaining, and just get busy.