Your screenwriting career doesn't start with an agent. It starts with a great script.
New writers can become obsessed with finding an agent based on the belief that having one is the only way to get their scripts read by producers and studio executives. In reality, new writers may be surprised to learn that the process almost works in reverse.
In a very illuminating episode of Scriptnotes, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin talk with UTA agent Peter Dodd (who reps August) to learn all about how an agent finds clients and works with those clients to get them hired on projects.
Start thinking about how you can help an agent make her 10% on your ability to write a great script. Repeatedly.
How does an agent find new screenwriters to represent?
Early in their conversation, August asks Dodd how he finds his screenwriting clients. Dodd explained, “Pretty much all of the clients that I have and all the ones that I have signed have come from recommendations. I am a recommendation-based engine. There’s so much volume of content and material just out there in the world that it’s very easy for people to get overwhelmed by the 30 or 50 unrepresented scripts they get submitted a week.”
Dodd recalled that when he worked as an agent’s assistant for a number of years, he networked with other assistants throughout the industry who have since become studio executives, producers and managers. The bonds formed in those early years shaped Dodd's trusted circle of tastemakers: “I…cultivated a group of around 15 people whose recommendations I will read always and quickly, and they are the ones that feed me probably 60% of my clients.”
"Frankly, people suck at writing loglines."
Agents don’t read query letters
There's a pervasive idea promoted by many screenwriting gurus that screenwriters need to write very specifically designed query letters to agents to get the agents to read their material. So, August asked Dodd about query letters and his clients, and Dodd had some pretty frank words about it. In short, Dodd does not have a single client that came to him via query letter.
Craig Mazin picked up the thread, “There’s a large cottage industry designed to take money from people, and in exchange, give them the secrets to getting an agent and getting representation and all the rest of it. And there’s this obsession over query letters. It’s absurd. It is the most bizarre, Felliniesque circus of nonsense you’ve ever seen.” Dodd went as far as to call this industry "complete highway robbery," because, "that’s not the way that agents look at or think about material.”
And, by the way, forget about your loglines, too. Dodd said he prefers not to have one at all. He explained, "I’d rather have someone say, ‘I read this and love it. You read it and tell me what you think.’ Because, frankly, people suck at writing loglines.”
Of course, this doesn't mean that Dodd never gets query letters. In fact, he gets them all the time:
Dodd: “I get many, many query letters a day from people that figure out our email addresses, and send us these crazy subject lines that are obvious click-bait. I open them and I’m like, ‘What on earth is this? How can I delete this faster?’”
Mazin: “Oh, man.”
Dodd: “I don’t even read them. If it’s not from someone I know or I can tell that it’s fake: automatic delete.”
You need to make your movie, and you don’t need an agent to do that.
Stop saying, 'I need an agent.' Start asking, 'Why does an agent need me?'
Agents are looking for screenwriters with unique voices who they can set up on existing studio projects and who will deliver great scripts over and over again. So stop thinking about how an agent can help you. Start thinking about how you can help an agent make her 10% on your ability to write a great script. Repeatedly.
Also, think about why you write scripts in the first place. Is it because you want to be a professional screenwriter? Or is it because you want to make your own films, and writing is a way for you to start that process? If it’s the latter, you need to make your movie, and you don’t need an agent to do that. If it’s the former, ask yourself if you’re actually ready to become a professional screenwriter.
Agents don’t read unsolicited scripts, but in order to convince a working writer, producer, or development executive to read your script, you’ll need to contact them somehow.
How does your script find its way to an agent?
Based on Peter Dodd’s conversation with John August and Craig Mazin, here are three ways your script can find its way to an agent:
- Become a Nicholl Finalist. Not a Quarterfinalist. Not a Semifinalist. One of the 10 Finalists. All of the major agencies will read the 10 finalist scripts. That means your script has to be good enough to run the gauntlet to reach the top 0.1% of all Nicholl entrants.
- Convince a working writer to read your script, and if they like it, ask them to pass it along to their agent. Agents like Dodd trust professional screenwriters’ opinions. Shocker.
- Convince a producer or development executive to read your script. If a producer or development executive loves a script and the writer is unrepresented, they will pass the script along to agents. More importantly, they may want to buy the script or hire the writer for one of their other projects—which is why they will try to get the writer an agent to facilitate their relationship.
Here’s the irony: agents don’t care about query letters and don’t read unsolicited scripts, but in order to convince a working writer, producer, or development executive to read your script, you’ll need to contact them somehow. Instead of sending a query letter to someone you don’t know, look at your networks and figure out if you know somebody who knows somebody. Work your alumni network. Ping your filmmaking circles. See if you can get your script sent up the ladder through recommendations. This is a recommendation-based business.
And if you really don’t know anybody who knows somebody who knows somebody, then you could try a succinct, well-written cold email to a producer or writer who you think may connect with your material based on their previous projects. By definition, I realize this would be considered a query letter, but your focus shouldn’t be agents. Your target should be someone who could buy your script and turn it into a film, thus launching your career.
So, do yourself a favor and stop trying to get an agent. If you work at your craft and finally become a screenwriter worth hiring, an agent will try to get you.