Friday, November 25, 2005

The Futility of Pursuing an Agent

Here's an interesting post on chasing agents from:

Done Deal

I haven't posted on the board recently, but I am a Top 5 repped writer that has worked for studios for seven years. Production just wrapped on my first "real" (read: 20mil+ budget) film, helmed by an Academy Award nominated director.

I have many friends and even more acquaintances who want careers as screenwriters. The passion for that result is something I am intimately familiar with. My 20's were consumed by it. The first question out of my mouth during my pre-professional years was: "how do I get an agent?"

The logic being:

A. My work is excellent.
B. The only obstacle between me and a career is the dissemination of my work to an audience of buyers.
C. The only way to expose my work in a viable way to those buyers is through an agent.
D. The most imporant thing for my career is to get an agent.

Unfortunately, that logic is fatally flawed and always has been for the following reasons. And let's presume for a moment that we're talking about Top 5 agencies, the place where the real business is done and the real money is made.

First of all, let's put on a different hat and look at the world from the perspective of an agent. An agent pays his bills by getting his existing clients work. That's how the agent achieves his or her hopes and dreams. Good agents are on the phone eleven hours a day, having breakfast, lunch, drinks and dinner meetings six nights a week. These meetings are most often about claiming the market. Meaning, finding out what assignments are available, positioning their clients to be the ones chosen for those assignments, helping clients arrange pitches and acquire rights, negotiating deals, getting their clients invoices paid (if you think getting a deal is hard, try getting paid after you've made the deal), keeping up with the most recent festival hits, the newest round of hot scripts for their director clients, reading the latest drafts of each client's recent work... you get the idea.

Signing new talent is in the "important but not urgent" box in the agent's life. If you are a Top 5 agent, you know you're pretty much the last stop on the train anyway. So how do agents sign new talent?

Let's say a good agent spends a couple hours a week checking out or thinking about representing new talent (my bet is it's much less, but let's be conservative)

70% of the time, the talent they consider "new" are people we know to be celebrities. In other words, they target vulnerable clients at other agencies, take advantage of turnover at other agencies, and aggressively sell themselves as the "turnaround artists" that can improve this Known Quantity's career.

The other 28% of this two hours a week is spent chasing talent that has already "broken". So, for example, let's say a film has just won the Audience Award prize at Sundance. Or a foreign film from a first time director is meeting with rapturous reviews - the agency targets the writer or director and pursues them with the full knowledge that this person is being pursued by other agencies as well.

The agent would rather sell against competition now to get a proven commodity then to try to create that commodity themselves.

In other words, agents - for understandable reasons - chase the heat. The heat is there first, and the agent seeks to be the one that wins the battle for the potential client with the heat. Because selling that person will be easy. Everyone knows about the movie - or the script - and they can/will be the agent that has the hot property. It's the same principle at an ad agency. The effort is targeted towards getting the big account, and then basking in the rewards afterwards. Not in taking on a tiny account and making them into a big company.

In other words, your career is yours to create first - and after you have, an agent can help increase the scope of that career.

So assume for a moment that the goal is not an agent - it's the heat that an agent follows. How to create that heat?

1. Make a movie that's so good it's the talk of one of the major festivals (Sundance, Toronto, Cannes).
2. Write a script so good it wins - WINS - a major contest like Nicholls, Sundance or Chesterfield (though my friend that won Chesterfield is still looking for work).
3. Write a script that delights and dazzles every single person that reads it. This is your "Magic Script" - the one that will swim like a strangely talented guppy through all the land mines the business offers. The one that will turn the rules and conventional wisdom on its head. This kind of script could very well get talent and financing before an agent ever gets wind of it.

There are wonderful fluke stories. Jon Lesher once told me how he signed Harmony Korine ("Kids"). He came into the office on a Saturday. The familiar slush pile was in the corner of his assistant's cubicle. On a whim, he did something he had NEVER DONE before. Like never, as in, never in his years as an agent had he engaged in this activity. He picked a script randomly off the slush pile and read the first page. It was "Kids". He was hooked. He tracked down Harmony and signed him.

But that's a fluke. That is not a career plan.

Excellence is the only viable career plan. A respected indie producer tells his filmmaker clients (he consults sometimes) to spend 10 percent of the film's budget on "dramaturgical advice".

He routinely gets them to call up the agents of Scott Frank and Alvin Sargent, and offer them five thousand dollars to read and critique the script. Often the guys will do it. The result is a mirror of reality onto the state of the script. Neutral observers of this caliber will not lie and will probably not be mistaken. They also will probably have lots of suggestions of work that still needs to be done.

It's never good enough.

I asked the question "how do I get an agent" because I couldn't bear for years to ask the question "how do I become one of the best screenwriters in the world?".

Because after all, isn't that what you're asking? How do I become one of the best screenwriters in the world?

Do you see NBA hopefuls tracking down Leigh Steinberg to convince him of their skills on the court before they've excelled in playground, high school, college and pro ball? No, and screenwriters shouldn't go that route either. Agents are not the best advocates for developing talent. They are terrific advocates for established talents.

Becoming one of the best asks for enormous sacrifice. It asks that you educate yourself. That you do research. That you draw on a unique well of experiences and observations.

And it presumes that you have a natural knack for the game. Which is something that the world probably will tell you one way or another at a pretty early age.

Seven years ago, after banging my head against the wall, my logic had to change.

It changed like this:

1. Write from the darkest place inside me. The place where I keep my secrets and my shame. Reveal the few things I know about the human experience that are unique to me.

2. Use twelve years of learned craftsmanship (college degree, three years of intensive study of Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Beckett, Brecht and other great dramatists, the experience of writing six scripts, twenty or thirty short stories, poems, songs, and receiving merciless professional quality feedback that increased in rigor as I went along) to elucidate that darkness in the medium of screenwriting, knowing that medium the way a great mechanic knows exactly how the different parts of a car move together.

3. Rewrite into blood hours. Go back to the readers. Listen. Kill the darlings. Rewrite again. Be certain its perfect. Go back to the readers. Listen. Throw everything out. Start over. Rewrite again, this time from scratch. Find out from the readers that the entire concept is flawed. Start all over again with a new script. Repeat process.

4. One day, when there's a breeze, when you're least expecting it, you get a phone call from one of your readers. The breath is out of their voice. They don't even bother to comliment you. They want to be attached as a producer. They have ideas who to give it to. It moved them. It actually moved them, altered them, interrupted their weekend, motivated them to have conversations with spouse, friend. They never thought you had it in you. They want to help.

5. Throw the script in the street and put double locks on the doors as the forces of forward motion take over. Talk to producers, managers, financiers, actors, directors. Make a deal. Make a movie. Begin your life as a functioning, self-supporting screenwriter.

6. Pick an agent.