To me, the idea of getting a screenwriting agent is akin to a magic pill for weight loss: a lot of writers think that if they can sign on to a literary agency or major talent agency, they'll finally earn income from their screenplays. It's just not the case, and often, the person (or people) you want on your team are not agents at all. So, what should you look for in building your screenwriting bench? With help from screenwriter Ricky Roxburgh, we detail what to look for in a literary or screenwriting agent, manager, or attorney.
Even if a screenwriter has the right team in place, landing screenwriting jobs is still hard work. No magic pill exists – it's calories (scripts) in, calories (scripts) out. Roxburgh, who spent time writing those adorable "Mickey Shorts" and "Tangled: The Series" at Disney Animation Television before moving to Dreamworks as a story editor, explained to us that he landed those very jobs on his own with no screenwriting agent attached. So, there may be some confusion as to what screenwriting agents do. Do screenwriters need an agent?
To recap …
Get screenwriters in the room or screenplays through the door to producers, studio executives, and financiers (many of these folks won't accept unsolicited scripts without an agent attached to them)
Negotiate screenplay deals on your behalf
Have an ear to the ground for new opportunities, especially in filmmaking hubs, such as screenwriting agents in Los Angeles, screenwriting agents in New York, and script agents in Atlanta
It is uncommon to find screenwriting agents who accept submissions, and they will likely find screenwriters when they're "hot" or have a script or scripts that can make them money
Will take at least 10 percent of the screenwriting contracts they negotiate for you
Most often represent authors
Can work on behalf of an agency to bring in new book deals
May crossover into screenwriter representation
Broker deals to purchase book rights for TV and film
Some entertainment talent agencies may have a literary department
Help guide your screenwriting career
Are more open to being approached, rather than the common screenwriting agent mentality of "don't call me, I'll call you."
Give you tips on what kind of screenplay to write next
Develop your screenplay so it's ready for production (managers sometimes become the producer on your film)
Are on the lookout for new screenwriting opportunities
They can't negotiate or broker deals
Often referred to as an entertainment attorney
Unlikely to find you new screenwriting opportunities
Are often brought in after you've already found the job to help you with contracts
Usually take less money than agents, at around five percent commission on your contract's value
Screenwriting attorneys are often the representation option of choice for screenwriters who have established their own entertainment industry connections. These screenwriters typically find their work through intense and years-long networking. They don't rely on script managers and screenwriting or literary agents to get their foot in the door (take this funny story from screenwriter Adam G. Simon, for example). Harder? Maybe, but maybe not. Depending on your screenwriting agent, you may be doing a lot of this heavy lifting on your own anyway. So, why pay extra?
There are benefits to getting a screenwriting agent, of course. Screenwriting agents typically work for big agencies such as the William Morris Agency (now WME), United Talent Agency (UTA), International Creative Management Partners (ICM), which has screenwriting agents in Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC and London, and the Creative Artists Agency. Screenwriting agents have connections and are often the first (or only) people to hear about opportunities. They can package deals since they represent various entertainment industry professionals, such as producers, directors, and actors. Most producers and studios won't accept unsolicited screenplays, but you can make it past the gatekeepers if there's an agent attached to your script. And screenwriting agents can manage the screenwriting business side of things since creatives often don't want to be part of that. But screenwriting agent representation goes both ways – there's a bit of "managing your manager" that has to happen.
Ask yourself these questions before you decide to sign on with a screenwriting agent or find a screenwriting manager:
- What do you need?
Do you need a screenwriting agent because you have several polished scripts ready to go, or would a screenwriting manager be better for your career development? Are you ready to get a screenwriting agent? Maybe you've built your own connections, and you just need help brokering a deal – can an entertainment attorney offer a better financial deal for you, then?
- Does the talent agency or screenwriting agent or manager have solid connections and noteworthy clients – but not too many clients?
You want to find a balance between getting an agent with a strong roster of working clients (indicates they're putting in the work for your work) and too many clients. If you're a new voice without many credits to your name, you may get overlooked and, eventually, dropped. Make sure this is an agent or manager that has time for you. Especially with managers – you want someone who will help you grow your screenwriting career.
- Does this screenwriting agent or manager love your work and love to work with you?
Good screenwriter representation will be passionate about what you're creating, want to stay in touch with you and meet or connect regularly, and will pitch your ideas and talent often. They'll also help you decide what to write next and have a keen understanding of what's selling on the spec script market.
- What is the agent's expectation for your screenwriting path versus your vision for your screenwriting career?
Ensure your vision for your career trajectory aligns with your agent or manager's idea for what's in store for your screenwriting career. Does your agent expect you to get screenwriting jobs on your own and only come to them when it's time to close the deal? Or, will your screenwriting agent be checking in with you via email a few times a month, with planned strategy meetings once a quarter? Ask them how they plan to get your work in front of screenplay decision-makers. Make sure you're on the same page.
- Is the agent a WGA Signatory (if in the USA)?
The Writers' Guild of America is a union that protects screenwriters by ensuring that any entertainment industry professionals that sign on will agree to a specific set of rules. This protects creatives, ensuring they're paid fairly, represented fairly, and get the credit they deserve. You'll want an agent to also sign on to these rules (as most major talent agencies do). There are several reasons to join a screenwriters' guild or union, no matter the country in which you reside.
No matter the representation that works best for your screenwriting career, having someone or multiple people on your team does not mean you can rest on your laurels, screenwriter. Like any job, making a career out of a creative pursuit requires constant work on your craft and business.
There's no magic pill,