By Chad Gervich | Indiewire October 18, 2013 at 11:42AM
[Note: An earlier post attributed this excerpt to another book. Indiewire and Focal Press regret the error.]Below is an adapted excerpt from the book is published below courtesy of the book's publisher, Focal Press, in which Gervich answers the eight questions screenwriters have about their agents.
1.) What does an agent do if a client is passionate about writing something the agent feels is un-commercial?
Scott Hoffman, Folio Literary Management: It depends on the client, and it depends on the project. There are projects you think are entirely wrong projects, career killers, and there are projects that are just not the right next project for a client, in which case you have a dialogue about each of your respective roles, and what the benefits and drawbacks are to each specific party. [Likewise], if a client turns in work that happens to be not their best work, or not up to the kind of quality you as an agent feel you would like to represent, it’s up to you to have an open and frank discussion and say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable sharing this [with buyers]. When I send something [out], there’s an implicit endorsement of it. I don’t think this work is your best work, and I don’t think it’s the kind of thing I would like to be professionally associated with.’ But, in general, if the dialogue is working between the agent and the client, what needs to happen for both parties will happen for both parties.
2.) Is it okay to ask my agent for help or feedback as I’m writing? Can I show her early or interim outlines and drafts?
Hoffman: I don’t want to see anything till there’s a script,” says one feature agent. “I hate to say it, but I don’t have time to read more than a couple of drafts. The job of the manager is to read the first draft, maybe another draft, then give it to me.”
3.) One of writers’ biggest frustrations with agents is that agents don’t always read and respond fast enough to clients’ material. When this happens, writers are unsure how to respond. They don’t want to get angry and alienate their representation, but they’re also anxious and frustrated. What should you do?
Zach Carlisle, agent, Verve: Given the life of an agent—given the life of just people in general—giving someone a weekend to read it is fair. So if you give it to them on Monday, the following Monday. [And if your agent hasn't read by then?] It depends if the representative has reached out and said, “I’m sorry . . . I had something go on this weekend—I didn’t get to it. Give me a couple of days and I’ll absolutely get to it.” But if Monday rolls around, and Tuesday rolls around, and you gave somebody a piece of material for [the previous] weekend, then you have a right to pick up the phone, call your representative, and say, “What’d you think?!” Maybe they’ve read it and just haven’t have had a moment to call you.
Robyn Meisinger, President, Madhouse Entertainment: This is where a good manager comes in handy. Part of our job is to work those agencies. We’re usually the ones driving the strategy, driving the process. Also, it gets to the point where we (managers) do so much, the agent feels like he or she has to keep up. So if you have a manager who’s in there nudging, saying, “We’re going to go out with this script whether you read it or not,” they usually do.
Carlisle: Put the onus on your representative. That’s something clients don’t do enough, and are afraid to do. [Clients] think "Oh, they’re doing something more important," or, "They’ve got other things going on; I don’t want to bother them." But what clients forget is we own ten percent of your business. I work for you, so never hesitate to pick up the phone, put the onus on me, and make sure I’m doing my job. [That] job consists of: when you give me a new piece of material, reading it and figuring out what to do with it—whether it needs more work or to go to a producer—then executing it in a timely fashion.
4.) I had a general meeting with a producer yesterday, and I mentioned the screenplay I was developing. The producer loved it and suggested developing it together. On one hand, I’m thrilled to have someone excited about my project! On the other, it’s my idea. Is working with this producer a valuable partnership? Is it worth attaching a producer before the script is written?
Tanya Cohen, literary agent, Verve: It’s a case-by-case situation. If a writer came up with an idea [on his own], I don’t see the value in developing it on spec with a producer—unless that producer adds a substantial amount of creative value in terms of breaking the story. If you have a writer who is a great executor, but has a hard time coming up with the next great thing, and a producer gives him an idea—something he loves—then I would encourage it. In some situations, it’s [even] easier to just go and pitch it, to try and get a studio or financier to put up money for development. If you’re a brand new writer, and there’s a great producer who has a track record, fantastic actor and director relationships, and is invested in the project . . . it can open doors where there are paying opportunities that the producer is working on.
5.) I’m a young screenwriter who signed with my first agent about five months ago. I haven’t sold anything yet, but I’d love to make some money doing open writing assignments. I’ve mentioned this to my agent, but he hasn’t put me up for anything. If he believes in my scripts—which he says he does—it should be easy for him to get me an open writing assignment . . . shouldn’t it? What should I do?
Ryan Saul, literary agent, APA: There’s only a handful of people that can get open assignments. I have newer clients who might be ‘right’ for the job, but aren’t ready for the job; they need more experience. Generally, to be considered for the assignment world, you have to have sold a script or have a spec that’s so hot it gets you forty or fifty meetings. For a writer to expect their agent to start getting them a bunch of assignments is silly, there’s a process to it. In the best case scenario, it’s an eighteen to twenty-four month process before they reach that critical mass where they’re ready to get assignments.
6.) I recently got hired for my first open writing assignment job—rewriting a low-budget thriller for a small indie production company. The draft is due next week but to be honest, I don’t think I’m going to have it done. What happens if an assignment writer misses his deadline?
Aaron Kaplan, Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment: The vast majority of the time: nothing. You might have an angry studio exec or an angry producer, but very rarely does anything happen financially or contractually.
Michael Goldberg, manager, New Wave: If you’ve got a problem, communicate it. You might have eight weeks, but it might take ten weeks to crack a couple of problems. People are understanding. Theoretically, as you’re doing open writing assignments, you should be talking to the producers, showing them half drafts. Don’t go into a dark hole, because if you accidentally go in the wrong direction creatively, you’re off the project and you might not get hired again in the future.
7.) If I have more than one agency pursuing me, could I negotiate a lower commission—say, eight percent instead of ten percent?
Lenny Beckerman, agent-turned-manager: If you’re a baby writer, and you try to bring your percentage down, you’re not really incentivizing your agent. Ten percent is not a lot of money in this market. [An agent] needs a lot of clients working until that ten percent buys something decent to live in. So I would not go with that. I would go with the idea of "Who do you feel is going to be the best agent for you?"
8.) I spent four years in Los Angeles trying to get an agent so I could start a career as a TV and film producer. It never happened. I signed with a couple managers, but it was a terrible experience. Now, I’ve moved back to Oklahoma, and while I’m obviously far from Hollywood, I’d still like to create stuff, put it online, and hopefully have a career. As an online producer, do I still need an agent or manager?
Shilphi Roy, producer, Hipsterhood: Absolutely not. For TV and film, you have to have an agent or manager to get anywhere. In the world of digital media, you can totally do it by yourself, it just takes a little more work and effort. [The truth is,] a lot of agents and managers don’t understand the space very well yet; they don’t know how to move in it. If brand sponsorship is vital to your show, then yes—you’re going to need help with that.” It doesn’t necessarily need to be an agent or manager, however. Many online distributors and MCN’s, like Big Frame or Blip, shop their producers’ work in hopes of finding advertiser partners. “Blip is doing that for me,” Roy says.