Friday, April 07, 2006

Chronicles 7 - If only I had an agent


December 16th 2001

I had just finished the final flourishes on my second draft, hit the print button and was about to invest some money into Her Majesty's Royal Mail service. It was time to query UK agents.

I don't really know what I was expecting from an agent, (a miracle perhaps?). The UK film industry is not like Hollywood where an agent can send a 'spec' script 'wide' to 60-80 production companies (or to a select few) and hopefully within a few days get feedback on whether a production company or number of productions companies, (the bidding war!), want to take your script into a studio, (the buyers), and 'set it up'.

There is no weekend-read-bidding-war-spec-market in the UK. An agent in the UK would probably send the script to specific producers/production companies on a one by one basis. Since producers take ages to read this will take some time.

And unless it's a Working Title or some lottery funded production house then, even if a producer loves your script and wants to do your movie there is no guarantee when or if it ever gets made.

That producer or production house will have to scrape together money from a variety of sources such as UK tax-funds, (which change with the weather), equity funds, UK Film Council money, (dream on...), soft money from regional funds in Europe or other countries such as Australia or Canada, pre-sales, (tough) and gap (bank) funding.

Then he or she will have to start sending the script out to directors and actors. He'll probably not be in a position to make offers to actors or directors so he will be up against not being taken seriously by some agents, (the bigger UK or US ones), or he will get the 'slow read' i.e. he'll spend months waiting for an actor to pass on his script and by then the UK government will have changed their tax laws. More of this later.

Of course, when you're sitting there writing your 'vision' you're not aware of the vagaries of the independent film world. You envision an almost magical process where you send off your script, get multiple offers from agents, spend some time choosing the 'best fit', map out your strategy for success with your new 'mummy' or 'daddy' and then wait for 'the call' from Tim Bevan at Working Title who has read your script and 'absolutley loves it'. The rest will be history. No, the rest is something else - a long drawn out process of ups and downs, rejections, set-backs, disappointments, highs and lows that goes on for years where you will not only wonder if this script gets made but whether any thing you write will ever get made.

Okay, that's the positive side ;-)

Only, (half) joking, again.

Okay, so I sent a number of letters and emails out to about 20 UK agents. Many of them wrote back saying that they 'weren't taking on a new clients'. Yeah, right. What they were saying was they weren't taking on writers with no track record and zero industry heat. The truth is, you have to take agent-speak such as the above or the, 'referral-only' note in the Writer's Handbook or Hollywood Agent's Directory with a pinch of salt. If you have some serious industry interest or actual success then they will be open to 'taking on new clients' and will waive their referral-only stipulation.

Well, I had no track record, apart from staging a couple of fringe plays, and I didn't have any industry interest. All I had were the words on the page. The letters and emails went out before Christmas and I continued querying until February 2002.

January 2002

I received a letter back from a London film/television agency:

"Thanks very much for yours of 29 December. I've now had a chance to look at the script and I'm afraid it didn't really do enough for me."

I was going to have to become very familiar with such dream-crushing sentences. The first of many!

"I think the dialogue is very sharp and there's a nice sense of satire".

Well that's positive!

"but..."

There's always a but...

"I found myself struggling in the first 25 pages with too many characters"

Too many characters? Do you suffer from attention deficit syndrome? Come on, this isn't The Iliad!

"...the story starting a bit slowly and I also have to overcome quite a strong resistance to scripts set in or around the film business".

I was going to have to get used this last remark. The, 'film-biz' thing. I pitched the chairman of a production company in Cannes and was half-way through my pitch when he said, "Can I stop you right there? We, as a company have decided to stay away from projects about the film business".

"Well it's not about the film business, it's...". At this point I would then attempt to tell them that it was a romantic comedy about how we as humans pretend to be something we are not, how we put on masks, how we each have our own personal 'spin machines', but, if they have a problem with the setting it's time to move on to the next project. N.B. Make sure you always have the 'next project'.

Some more letters came back. One praising the structure and the writing requesting me to keep me updated on future projects.

I still remember two contradictory sets of feedback that I received from two different literary agents.

Number one:

"We didn't warm to your central character".

and number two:

"We loved your central character".

Well, there you go. This getting an agent thing wasn't going to be like falling off a log.

Early February 2002

I received an email back from a one-man-band agent based in the centre of London saying he would be, "happy to read my script". I sent him a reminder 3 weeks later and then in June. You see how long this stuff takes. The film business doesn't do 'quick'.

Of the five US agents I had given the script to (i.e. lovingly delivered by hand to their agencies in November 2001), one passed, another who I'd met in 1999 said he wasn't taking on new clients, another, to this day, never read the script, and the 2 others took over a year to read!

Did I mention that Hollywood doesn't do 'quick'.

June 2002

I receive an email a few days later that the agent, "...enjoyed it very much and perhaps if you would care to, we could meet and have a chat".

Great! Positive news!

Prior to waiting back from agents I had tried to contact UK companies directly by phone. A very disheartening exercise. Each one told me they would only read my script if it was submitted via an agent. I was in the classic Catch 22 loop. Can't get read by an agent without a referral from a producer, can't get a referral without getting read by a producer. This sucked. So, the prospect of getting representation was good news, right? Sure, but it was good news with no guarantees.

April 2002

I received a message from another one-woman-band agent that she would like to meet me. We met in her office. After the niceities were dispensed with she proceeded to ask me questions about my script, which I wasn't expecting. I thought it would be a case of, "Hi, love your work, I'd like to sign you".

I felt slightly ambushed, I didn't think I was going in for a notes/inerrogation meeting! Anyway, I tried to field the questions as best as I could. They were good questions and I could see that she was a good notes-giver.

Her main positive note was that I'd managed to "pull-off", what many people are not able to do i.e. write a convincing trans-atlantic romantic comedy. That was nice to hear especially after being ravaged by self-doubt when writing the first draft.

The upshot of the meeting was that I would send her the next draft of the rom-com along with examples of my other work.

Back in:

November 2000

I had met with a couple of agents in Los Angeles. One of them offered to meet with me for breakfast in a popular film-biz restaraunt on Santa Monica Boulevard. I forget the name.

He told me straight that he had no intention of representing me, told me why it would be very difficult to sell my first script which he'd read but told me that it was well written and structured.

So why did he meet me? He said that he rarely met with unrepresented writers but that he met with me because he, liked my style and thought my strategy regarding approaching Hollywood was smart. Mmmh...interesting. What strategy? That I gave good phone? He gave me some advice which basically planted a seed in my brain.

Later on I got involved with a number of animation projects and in:

February 2002

I started thinking about setting up my own production company. I had a number of projects, both live-action and animation that meant, ta-ra! I was a producer with a 'slate'! A 'slate' being producer-speak for a group of projects that one is trying to 'set-up'. So, even though I was about to get an agent my head was already planning how to present myself as a production company to both Hollywood and the forthcoming Cannes 2002 film festival.

May 2002

I got a phone call from the female agent. She'd read, but wasn't so impressed, with my other projects. Some of it was for personal reasons regarding the subject matter. She wasn't so impressed with the animation projects, either. By this time it was clear that I would set up a 'production company' and I was about to aggressiely market myself and my projects. We met again. She told me in so many words that because of my own marketing strategies that she wouldn't be able to keep up with me. She said that she might not speak to someone for a year and would then contact that person for a specific project to look at, probably, exclusively. What I was doing was going out wide in a very agressive campaign and she thinks that I wouldn't have the patience for her way of doing things. I didn't argue. I felt she was right. Although I think she would have made a good agent on one level, I wasn't happy that she didn't warm to my other projects.

June 2002

I signed on, (verbally) with the one-man-band agent who was enthusiastic and interested in selling all my projects, both animation and live-action. Positive!

April 2002

I set up a limited company to promote my projects and to present myself as a producer at the Cannes film festival.

At this time I also watched a DVD by a self-development consultant called Jim Rohn. Mr. Rohn inspired me to keep a journal. I've kept one ever since. Since I've pretty much kept a record from April 2002 I should be able to provide a more detailed chronicle from this point on.

So to re-cap:

Summer 2000 - rom-com conceived
April 2002 - Production company set up
June 2002 - 'Signed' with UK agent
See Chronicles 6

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