One thing I hear more than any other from new writers in particular is how much they want an agent. It is, without any doubt in my mind, the single most important thing to them: above contest placings or even wins; above collaboration; above getting the respect of their peers even. And why not? When I first started, there was one single objective in my mind that counted above all others and that too was getting an agent. How else was I to know whether I was any “good” or not? Getting representation was proof of my ability if you like. It was, quite literally, the be all and end all to me.
Now I have an agent? I realise it’s not.
Don’t get me wrong. Having an agent is vastly better than not having one. Being represented means certain opportunities are open to you when they weren’t before: the “bigger” production companies are more likely to read your work; certain courses and competitions are more likely to take you; maybe a producer here or there is more “approachable” if you have an agent. But that’s the thing you see: the operative words there are more likely. Nothing is for certain in this game. It's just that now I realise having an agent does not equal automatic success as I might have once upon a time.
It seems agents are much misunderstood by new writers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had non-represented writers by the dozen express disbelief to me that their spec (which really is good) has been rejected YET AGAIN by a particular agent or agents. The draft went through three million rewrites! It’s going to be the next big thing! Plus so much worse gets to screen! Is this place INSANE?
But there’s another thing. A good spec is *generally* not your golden ticket to success either – not in the sense you might think, in that it gets an option, gets made, makes it onto screen and hits the top ten movies of the year, that is. It may get optioned and that’s all well and good and an achievement in itself, but is it likely to make it to screen? Not hugely (though not impossible, look at James Moran’s SEVERANCE). But you only hear about the successes, not what goes on behind the scenes. Many writers though have had LOADS of their specs optioned, yet have seen just one or two of their specs actually made. These aren’t your average new writer either, but guys and gals who’ve had loads of commissions on shows and projects that you and I would recognise. Take Marc Pye as your example here: he is a pretty “safe bet” to any investor, having had literally hundreds of hours of TV made, yet he was still told by potential investors that they could not see his film “Act of Grace” actually “working”! Same goes with Adrian Mead and NIGHT PEOPLE. They had to quite literally resort to DIY filmmaking to ensure their projects made it to screen, regardless of them both having agents AND a big track record.
What hope then do you and I have, you might say: if they can’t get something made, we’re DOOMED. Certainly this realisation has “picked off” many a newer writer – they can’t see a way round their lack of credits or representation and they give up. I might say that’s a shame, but if they give up so readily, perhaps it was not meant for them. I don’t hold with this notion “I’ll give it five years, then I’ll give up...” Would you approach any other facet of your life like this if it was meant to be your vocation? I can just see that with something like Parenthood: “I’ll give the kid til it’s five, then if we’re not getting on, I’ll send it back...” I don’t see quitting as an option: writing is for life, not just for Christmas... Or something. Joking aside though, maybe I’ll never get further than I am now: so be it. I’ve had fun and I’ve learned a lot – and really would not rather be doing anything else. That’s a success in itself as far as I’m concerned.
Agents don’t take on writers with good specs just to sell those specs generally; they take on writers who could get work using those great specs as samples. Who will make my TV Drama Pilot? I’ve had loads of great feedback about it and some interesting meetings and opportunities because of it. Yet no one will make it. I’m untried and untested. But that’s not what that Pilot is about: it’s an advertisement if you like of what I can do. My agent believed it was a good enough advertisement, which is why he wanted me to sign with him. Same goes for my supernatural thriller. But at the end of the day, I’ve made him no money. Yet.
And there’s the final thing. The reason it’s such a struggle to get an agent is because they are preoccupied with the clients who DO make them money – and lots of it. Why should they give you the time of day, especially when there are SO MANY writers vying for it? Even a small agent will receive in the region of thirty submissions a week. We hear all the fairy stories: this author or this screenwriter took a sample script into one agent, blew them away, had two agents competing for them, blah blah blah, got it sold, made a million pounds etc etc. I’ve never heard of that happening in reality. In reality you’ve got a squillion new writers sending their scripts off, crossing their fingers and a squillion scripts being sent back unread or gathering dust in a vault somewhere for months. I recall one place asking me to simply put scripts back in the return envelopes because they “didn’t have the time to flick through them, let alone read them”.
Yet there are ways you can avoid this happening to your script; we’ve talked about all the ways to impress the reader regarding format and scene description and scenario, yet until now we’ve not talked about what impresses an agent. Now I have no great authority on this, I’ve never been an agent, but I have talked to plenty and I believe there is a secret ingredient to getting on to their radar and stop being ignored--
--Getting on with it. Write, write and write some more. Stop using agents for free feedback and concentrate instead on collaboration. You’ll undoubtedly end up doing it for free at first, but as your experience and craft increases, you might get on shorts courses run by your regional screen agency and The Film Council (always a great start); maybe you’ll meet a young up and coming producer or director who will always come back to you because you’re a great writer , fast and easy to work with. You’ll be making pocket change at first, but then you’ll be making more substantial chunks of money and working on different projects from website copy through to computer games and eventually IPTV and beyond.
In short, get your own work. Get better at what you do. Be proactive. Stop targetting people, companies, agencies etc who are being targetted by everyone else in the known universe at the same time: the "big name" companies and individuals might be great to have on your Facebook Friends or Myspace page, but can they really help you get started? Should they, when they already have loyalties to writers who've "grown up" with them through the ranks? Instead forge relationships with people at the same level as you, make a network of contacts, create a world for yourself and squeeze yourself in through the key hole of bigger worlds with those "big names", quite literally! From small acorns and all that.
Getting an agent is not the be all and end all, it’s just the beginning. Make it part of your journey, not your destination and it will all fall into place. Write it and they will come (oo er).
PART TWO: What do agents actually do?
Read English Dave’s thoughts on agents here.
Read Danny Stack’s thoughts on how to get an agent here.