You’ve seen the movie Weird Science, right? Two nerdy high school guys create the girl of their dreams by feeding the machine until lightning strikes. That’s the representation game for you. You spend years chipping away; writing, networking, selling yourself as a bankable storyteller and when your big break finally comes, despite all your effort and all your angst, it still feels like luck. Reject that notion. Luck has nothing to do with it. The film industry loves the plucked from obscurity narrative because it’s charming and it keeps screenwriters feeling grateful rather than deserving. The five stages below will outline the work you’ll need to put in. There are no shortcuts, and it can be disheartening at times, but when you reach the final stage, you’ll know that you’ve earned every bit of your success.
Stage One: Create a Signable Portfolio & Persona
As a screenwriter, you understand that if it can’t be shown on the screen it doesn’t belong on the page. The same logic applies to representation. Managers and agents have zero interest in your tell; “I have a million ideas. I was meant to do this! Just give me a chance!” They sign writers who offer them a portfolio of work and the skill set needed to book assignments, write green-light worthy scripts and deliver consistent commissions. Don’t look for representation until you’re ready to show your full potential as a professional screenwriter. At a minimum, you’ll need:
Two Finished Scripts & A Sellable Idea
That may sound like overkill but think about it from a manager’s perspective. They have limited time to work on deals for their existing writers. They can’t afford to take a risk on a one-hit-wonder, it would waste hours that could be spent on their proven earners, and worse, risk damaging their relationships with producers and studio execs. They need to be confident that they are making a good long term investment and that you’ll be able to positively represent their brand every time they send you into a meeting.
An Elevator Pitch for EVERYTHING
Managers are looking to fill specific needs; comedy, animation, sci-fi, horror, cheesy holiday movies and bullying unsigned writers into giving an elevator pitch is an easy way to speed up the vetting process. If you’re not ready to sell your stories, you’re not ready to be signed. Give yourself a ticking clock, two-minutes to persuasively sell any script, concept or loose idea you have, so you don’t get caught in some variation of this conversation:
UNSIGNED WRITER So, the script takes place in… MANAGER I read the logline. Sounds interesting. What else are you working on? UNSIGNED WRITER I… Well… I’ve been playing around with an idea for a pirate movie. MANAGER Is it called Disaster Waiting to Happen? UNSIGNED WRITER What? No. It’s… It’s a genre-bending take on the classic… MANAGER (looking away from the unsigned writer) Shane! Let me buy you a free drink. All the free drinks! We need to talk about you finally jumping ship.
Representation often comes from the strangest of places; a conversation with an assistant at a film production company could lead to a meeting with a junior manager, the woman sitting next to you at a film festival could be an agency assistant on the cusp of a promotion. You have to be ready to sell yourself, and your stories, at any given moment.
Stage Two: Sell Your Stories. Sell Yourself. Be Creative About It.
It’s all about who you know; and you, presumably, don’t know anybody. Change that. Find creative ways to build a network of industry and creative contacts. Your quickest route to representation isn’t via email, it’s via have you met…
Here are a couple of true things:
- Artists love helping artists, especially when they are potential collaborators. You might get the occasional jealous vibe from other writers but actors and directors will love you. You write words that make their art possible. Capitalize on that.
- Industry types love a gathering of artists. It’s an easy way for them to meet unsigned talent, and let’s be honest, most of them probably daydream about writing, acting or directing themselves.
That’s easy if you live in Los Angeles but not out here in…
Don’t fall back on that old excuse. Regional film scenes exist all over the world. Start by building up a local network:
Attend Film Festivals
Film festivals are a great way to meet other artists and they attract a surprising number of agents, managers, and producers. Most Hollywood types grew up a long way from Tinseltown. They love supporting their hometown film scene.
Enter Screenwriting Contests
Doing well in a screenwriting contest can open a lot of doors. Look for contests with a conference component and a proven track record of facilitating representation deals and script sales for the winners. Be leery of any contest that boasts cash prizes over potential connections.
Start Your Own Film Scene
Use social media to reach out to other artists, then organize meet-ups. Watch movies, talk about movies, brainstorm ideas and push each other to succeed.
Make a Short Film
Collaborate with creative people in your network. A short film is easier to distribute and market than a screenplay. If it gets attention, you might get a few meetings, which would give you the opportunity to show off your pitch skills and hopefully get your screenplay into the hands of agents and managers.
Stage Three: Narrow Your Search
In the film industry, people come up together. Assistants become junior agents, agents and eventually super agents. Assistants become development executives, executive producers and eventually producers. As an unsigned writer, you need to find your counterpart; an ambitious and talented individual who is determined to have a career in the representation business. You need someone you can grow with.
Do You Know How Writers Get Agents? Through their Managers
Agents are in the business of packaging movies, not nurturing talent. They want Universal’s summer tentpole to be an in-house project; written, directed by and starring their talent. You’ll get an agent when you’ve already made it.
Focus your efforts on finding a manager; an up-and-comer who needs you as much as you need them. A good manager will be focused on your career, fight for jobs, and when you’ve gotten big enough to be included in packaging discussions, help you get an agent. It’s not magnanimous. They know that they’ll still be needed AND unlike agents, managers can double as producers. You’ll open up a production company together, package your own projects; you see where this is headed.
Leverage Your Network to Get Script Requests
Managers are bombarded with material every week, requested material, suggestions from development executives, suggestions from existing clients. It is more than they can possibly get through so the last thing they need to do is leaf through a stack of query letters looking for a gem. If you haven’t been recommended, you’re not going to get read. Lean on your network to make the necessary introductions.
Query Letters Will Get You Nowhere
The age of unsolicited material is over. In the past, assistants were the gatekeepers. If you got their attention, maybe, just maybe, you’d have the opportunity to submit your script. These days, unsolicited materials (query letters included) won’t make it past the legal department.
Stage Four: Manage Your Expectations
You’ve heard this one, right? Shane Black was 23 years old and had just graduated from UCLA’s film school when he sold Lethal Weapon for 250k, then in short succession, The Last Action Hero for 1 million, The Last Boy Scout for 1.75 million and The Long Kiss Goodnight for 4 million. He was the kid who couldn’t miss—and his legend has been seeding silly dreams ever since. The rest of Shane’s story is fascinating; disillusionment, hiatus, an indie movie comeback but nobody cares about second-act Shane. It’s first-act Shane who screenwriters idolize. The prodigy! The wunderkind! The millionaire!
The bidding wars that created first-act Shane are Hollywood tales you tell at Trader Vic’s. If you want to succeed in today’s market you have to expect a slow climb; projects that go nowhere, rewrites you don’t want to do, a part-time job when things lean. Finding representation isn’t a golden key to instant success, it is simply a necessary step forward.
Stage Five: Be Great in the Room
Meetings are an integral part of being a signed writer. You’ll go from production company to production company, studio to studio. You’ll get blown off, hear false promises and maybe land a few gigs. It’s a mixed bag mostly filled with crap but it’s how movies (and careers) are made. Come prepared, pitch well, accept criticism (and terrible notes) with grace—it’s all worth it.
Because you’re a professional screenwriter. And how many people get to say that?
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