I recently had a chance to conduct a brief interview with a Los Angeles-based literary agent. He asked that I not reveal his actual identity, but rest assured, he’s the real deal. Now, without further ado, my interview with...Agent X!
Q: For a screenwriter, what are the true benefits of having an agent?
A: All agents operate differently, but the main purpose of an agent is to get you work and give you good advice. You need an agent to sell your scripts and negotiate your deals, and pretty much make sure you are not being screwed over. Remember, we know all the projects in town, so having an agent can also save you months and months of writing a script that is already set up at a studio.
Q: What's the best way to get a script onto an agent's desk?
A: There are several ways, and my first blog explains the best ways to achieve this. I would say, if the script has any heat on it, it will go to several agent's desks.
Q: Do query letters work? If so, what makes a query letter make you say, "Wow, I gotta read this script!"
A: It's rare, but I guess if you have no other option, then this could work. I have read scripts based on query letters, but very few. Maybe 1-2% of the scripts that I have read are from query letter. Short query letters grab my attention more than long ones.
Q: What do you look for in a potential new client?
A: The first thing is the quality of writing. Even if it's an indie. Secondly, is what type of person is this screenwriter? If this client shows signs that he/she is going to be out of control and is going to call me 20 times a day and email me 40 times a day, I will just drop them.
Q: What do you look for in a marketable screenplay?
A: Anything I can pitch to a producer and a studio executive easily. If the script has a great hook, that's gold.
Q: Should a screenwriter have more than just one marketable screenplay in his briefcase?
A: This always helps. But if the screenwriter does not have another screenplay, they better have several ideas to either pitch or write.
Q: At what point in a screenwriter's career do you want to be introduced and get involved?
A: It really doesn't matter. Sometimes it's good to get a new screenwriter just because they are not tainted by Hollywood. Other times, I like getting screenwriters who have been at other agencies so they know how this world works and what to expect.
Q: What qualifications should a screenwriter look for in a literary agent?
A: There are a lot of lazy agents out there, so this is a good question. First check to see what clients the agent or agency represents. If they rep screenwriters who wrote movies back in 1960, then that's a sign that this agent isn't up to date with current info. Aside from this, you want to build a partnership with this agent. Make sure you feel comfortable with your agent.
Q: Of all the scripts that are submitted to your agency (or to you specifically), approximately what percentage simply aren't marketable?
A: Most of the scripts submitted to me are not marketable. If they were, I would be signing 10 clients a day. I'm still amazed screenwriters don't go watch blockbuster movies and see why they worked.
Q: Have you ever discovered true talent from any of the myriad screenwriting competitions?
A: There are a few that have been submitted to me from these competitions that have been good. I can't remember signing a client from these competitions, but I've certainly read them.
Q: When you pick up a screenplay, what immediately tells you it's been written by a rank amateur?
A: Formatting and spelling mistakes. Also, if I see a lot of long descriptions and very little dialogue, I won't even read it.
Q: OK, so a script arrives at your agency and receives fantastic coverage. What happens next?
A: Scripts that get great coverage make it to the top of my pile, although I don't always trust the coverage that comes in. I've read great scripts and seen terrible coverage on them.
Q: Should a writer have an accompanying treatment and/or synopsis of a script to aide you in the sales process?
A: Not really. If I signed the client off of the script, then it was good enough for me to remember and I can pitch it without a synopsis. I like scripts that come with a synopsis, because I can read the first 10 pages of the script, and take a look at the synopsis to see where the script is going.
Q: Do literary agents give opinions and/or feedback on the quality of a client's writing? In other words, if an agent feels a script has problems, will they typically ask the writer for another draft?
A: We get so many scripts that there is no way we are going to give any real feedback. You will hear the basic "I wasn't passionate about the material" type of response. You have one shot to make an impression. Also, I sometimes get writers who will send me two scripts to read. Don't. I'm only reading one, so don't leave it up to me to pick. Make sure you have the agent read your best script.
Q: Do certain genres sell better than others?
A: This constantly changes. Although, you can pretty much bet on comedies and thrillers to sell well.
Q: Would you discourage a screenwriter from writing a dramatic period piece?
A: Depends on the writer. But yes. If you want to have the best shot of getting your foot in the door, why limit yourself to writing a dramatic script that very few agents are going to take on?
Q: Do you think a majority of agents are more interested in selling "big budget" scripts as opposed to smaller, indie material—or do they just want to sell good material?
A: Big budget = big commission. Indie material = lots of headaches.
Q: Would you agree that writers shouldn't focus quite so heavily on selling their spec scripts, but focus more on having great "calling card" material that can potentially get them hired for rewrite and/or assignment work?
A: You need to have a sold spec to position yourself in a better position in the assignment world. No new writer should focus on getting assignments if they have not sold a spec. For more established writers, they know how tough assignments are. You are up against a dozen other writers, doing a lot of work. Most of the time, you won't get the job. Why not put all that work into writing a spec script and control your own destiny? This question depends on the writer though. Some writers love going for assignments, and some are great at getting them.
Q: A screenwriter writes a really marketable script, but you still have no desire to sign him with your agency. Why?
A: I have seen some marketable scripts, and there are a variety of reasons why I won’t sign them. Maybe the writing was not great. Maybe I have four other clients who write the same genres who I feel are more talented. Maybe the writer is just a dud in the room. There are a myriad of possibilities.
Q: What qualities and/or traits should a successful screenwriter have?
A: They should love to write and be very prolific. Also, I want to make sure they will actually listen to what we say. I have clients who think they know more than what they actually do...and they don't. I'm an agent for a reason; you are a writer for a reason.
Q: What are the advantages of using a literary agent as opposed to negotiating a deal through an entertainment attorney? Or should a screenwriter have both on his team?
A: If you have the option of picking one, you are better off having an agent. The attorney can negotiate the deal, but can't find you jobs. The agent can get both, so why not go for the agent? If you become more successful, you should have an attorney as well to look over the contracts in detail.
Q: Any final piece of advice you'd like to give the budding screenwriters of the world?
A: Stop writing personal stories. No one cares about those except you. Get your foot in the door and write a commercial script, then once you have made your career, then go off and do the indie script you have been wanting to write since the beginning. Also, read scripts that have SOLD. There are several resources on the Net that you can download scripts.
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I want to thank Agent X for his time and insight. I hope you’ll take a few moments and visit his informative new (and very anonymous) blog.
My book -- Q and A: The Working Screenwriter -- An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today's Film Industry -- now available!