“You shouldn’t be waiting until you’re ready – you should be busy getting ready.”
I’ve always been curious about the “origin stories” of
superheroes creative professionals.
I love learning how someone went from a person with a passion for writing or directing to someone who is actually known for writing or directing (or acting or comedy or singing, for that matter)! I find the paths people take while their star is on the rise to be intriguing and, often, inspiring.
One thing that’s always bugged me, though, is how agents and managers just sort of show up in these stories, like some kind of magical genie. One minute this person is working at a coffee shop writing screenplays on napkins and the next, poof! – an agent’s getting them jobs.
Such stories rarely reveal the process. It’s not magic. The truth is, those people spent a lot of time creating on their own, and then they somehow – often through a query letter or personal connection – got in contact with an agent or manager, who decided to offer them representation. The process of reaching out to agents and managers in the hope of having them represent you is a whole part of the professional filmmaking journey unto itself, yet it’s hardly ever talked about.
As I mentioned recently while explaining the role of agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers in the film industry, after college, I joined a boutique talent management firm as assistant to the firm’s talent managers and to the president of the company. I worked there for several years, and in that time, I got a well-rounded education in the business side of the entertainment industry. A big part of that education involved dealing frequently with writers, directors, and actors who were calling or emailing my bosses hoping to land representation.
At a talent management firm (or a talent agency), an assistant is the “first line of defense”. The assistant is who answers the phone, and in order to get their boss on the phone, you’ll have to talk to the assistant, often at length, first. And a lot of times, if an email comes from someone a manager or agent doesn’t know, they’ll forward the email to their assistant and ask them to vet what it’s all about. So, suffice it to say, I was knee-deep in queries from prospective clients pretty much all the time. And most of the time, I was the one who decided whether a query got to my boss or not.
We’re going to get into this on a much deeper level here today, but, to put it simply, the queries that stood out to me (and the ones I passed along to my boss) were those that were coming from an artist who was clearly dedicated to his or her career and to taking that career to the next level. The projects they described were finished or at the very least written, they spoke professionally, and they had a clear vision for themselves as artists.
The ones that didn’t make it fell by the wayside for a few common reasons:
- The person reaching out hadn’t actually directed or written anything yet (even on his or her own).
- A writer sent a query about a script he or she hadn’t written yet.
- The person’s artistic interests were all over the place. Rather than knowing themselves as an artist and talking about their unique vision, they tried to be everything at once.
All of the above reasons have one thing in common: the person sending the query letter was not ready for representation. They weren’t at a point in their careers where they had done enough, or where they knew themselves well enough as an artist, to enter into a professional relationship with an agent or manager.
I should pause here to say – it’s totally okay to not be ready! And if you aren’t, the truth is, there are things you can start doing today to start getting yourself ready for that future day when you are ready to start querying agents and managers.
Here, we’ll look at how you can begin to prepare yourself for seeking representation from an agent or a manager. What do they look for in talent, and what can you do to make yourself stand out from the crowd? How can you start the wheels turning today so that when it comes time to reach out to these film industry connectors, you’re up for the task?
What type of an artist does an agent or manager want to work with?
To put it simply, agents and managers want to work with people who are talented, passionate, and who they believe they could have a symbiotic relationship with.
You may be wondering, what do I mean by a “symbiotic relationship”? Let me explain.
I recently had a student ask me if an agent or manager might be more likely to take him on if he let them know he’s not interested in making money; that he’s just in it for the art.
The answer is: no.
Agents and managers, like pretty much all professionals out there, do their jobs to make money. The way that agents and managers make money is that they charge commission on money they help you, a director of screenwriter, make. Typically an agent’s cut of your earnings is 10%. So, in order for your agent or manager to make that 10%, they have to get you an opportunity to make money. In other words, they scratch your back, and then you scratch theirs (ah, symbiosis)!
As Jennifer Boyce, head of the Commercial Talent Department at The Savage Agency said in a 2015 panel discussion:
“I work for free until you work, so if I worked for a year for you to finally get a job, that’s one day’s work. You will earn $627.00 at scale for a commercial. I will make $62.70. So I don’t make money unless you make it. So I want clients to work. If I make a suggestion you should pay attention to that. You have to show me you are passionate about this.”
Much as it may be about art for the writer or director (and, make no mistake, it does have to be about the art), for the agent, it is all about that dollar dollar bill, y’all.
So, when you’re seeking representation, a prospective agent or manager needs to see you as someone with whom they can have (can you guess what I’m going to say?) a symbiotic relationship. They help you access new opportunities, which pay you money, and in turn, the agent or manager gets paid.
This means that when you’re reaching out to agents and managers, you need to present yourself as someone who is professional, passionate, and ready to work.
You should be prepared to express, in a range of ways, that you possess the following qualities:
I. Show your passion for your work.
An agent or manager wants to know that you eat, breathe, and live your passion for filmmaking. They want to know that this isn’t just your hobby, and that if they get you the right opportunities, then you’re willing to dedicate yourself to the work.
One of the best ways to show you have passion for what you do (and what you’re hoping to do in a bigger, more professional way) is to have a lot of work to show off. Your future agent or manager wants to know that although you’re ready to start getting paid for your talents, you love what you do so much that you will (and have) done it for free. If you’re a writer, this means having a lot of scripts under your belt. If you’re a director, this means shooting some stuff (anything, really!) that shows your unique eye for the visual medium that is film.
Having work under your belt is the #1 thing you should worry about when asking the question, “Am I ready to reach out to agents and managers?” Your passion for your work will be distinctly evident if you can show that you’ve been working really hard at honing your craft.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a magical number I can throw out here, like “have five short films” or “have two feature scripts and three short scripts.” As with all things creative, there’s really no one-size-fits-all formula here. One person may be able to really prove their chops in two features, another in a couple of shorts, another in a combination of the two. Rather than try to match a quota, you should try to accumulate a body of work that shows off your talents and really embodies your voice as an artist.
That said, a little variety never hurt! Having a few short pieces is always really great (agents and managers get a lot of submissions, and being able to dig into something short is always welcomed), and having a longer one (or two) is great, too.
II. Own your creative vision.
Have a vision for your future, and be willing to talk about it. An agent or manager wants to know you’re in this for the long haul, and they want to know what sets you apart from the crowd. What can they tell their producer, writer, director, studio head friends about you? What makes you interesting as an artist?
Your existing work will help you express this, because it will embody your personal style as an artist. You should also be prepared to distill, in a sentence or two, what makes you unique as an artist. Why do you want to make films? What do you want to help audiences learn or feel? What sets you apart from your fellow filmmakers visually, or what makes your narrative voice different than others? Be ready to express this – succinctly and professionally – in a cover letter and in conversation with prospective managers and agents and with their assistants.
III. Be professional.
We refer to agents and managers as “representatives” of their clients, because they are often calling producers, studio executives, and television show runners on behalf of their clients. However, in a perfect world, an agent or manager sets his or her clients up to meet with all of those aforementioned people – producers, studio executives, television show runners – most of whom the agent or manager has long-standing professional relationships with. So in a sense, the client is a representative of the agent or manager, too. The agent or manager is putting their relationships and reputations on the line by going to their circle of trusted colleagues and saying, “I have a client who is absolutely fantastic – you have to meet him (or her)”.
Since they’re sticking their necks out for you, agents and managers want to know that when they set up an opportunity for you, you are going to make the most of it. You’re going to show up on time; you’re going to be engaged in a professional, creative discussion; and you’re going to follow through on any promises you might make to whomever you’re meeting with. For example, if you’re meeting with a producer and you tell him you’re going to email him a link to your latest film that night, you’ll do it.
You can start communicating your professionalism to prospective agents or managers from the first time you make contact with them, as this manager at IF Management reminds us: “Everybody wants to work with a team player, so you’ll sell yourself more efficiently with a good attitude. Show the qualities that would make someone want to work with you: be level-headed, look toward the future and be a hard worker.”
How can you express professionalism?
If you send a query letter to an agent or manager, be friendly and concise.
If you mention in your letter that you plan to follow up after a certain amount of time, do it! You want to show that you have follow-through skills.
If you call an agent or manager’s office, be kind and professional with anyone you speak to at the office. Often, agents’ and managers’ assistants have the ear of their bosses. If you’re unprofessional to an assistant, the agent or manager is going to hear about it, and you likely won’t be considered for representation.
What can you do now to help yourself for the future?
As we’ve discussed, to be ready to seek representation, you have to have some work under your belt. As television producer Chad Gervich puts it in his book, How to Manage Your Agent:
“Lots of people want a literary agent or manager, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready, career-wise, to attract or have a literary agent or manager. And if you’re not ready to actually have representation, to participate fully in an agent-client relationship, your time is better spent gathering or building the tools, resources, and credits necessary to eventually attract and use representation, rather than pursuing it prematurely.”
Yes, it’s best to wait until you’re ready. But in this realm, waiting is anything but an idle activity. You shouldn’t be waiting until you’re ready – you should be busy getting ready.
IV. Write, write, write!
If you’re a writer, you should make a writing practice part of your daily life. Carve out a specific amount of time each and every day to hone your craft, and try really hard not to let yourself off the hook. If you say you’re going to work every day for an hour, then really, actually do it!
By writing every day, you’ll give yourself the best opportunity to do what you need to do: have a lot of work to show for yourself. If you are seeking representation either as a writer/director or solely as a screenwriter, you should have a writing portfolio ready to share, which should showcase some of your best pieces of writing.
Remember, not everything you’re going to write is going to be your best. That’s okay! Writing often gives you the freedom to have a lot of writing to choose from when it comes time to pick your best pieces.
V. Direct, direct, direct!
There’s definitely a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to seeking representation as a director. You may feel like you need an agent in order to use your directing skills, but you need to have directed something to really land an agent.
The truth is, an agent or manager is going to want to see that you have real creative vision and talent, and for a director, vision and talent are expressed on the screen. So, if you’re a director, find ways to make films, no matter how small they are. Technology today – from the ability to shoot a film on an iPhone to affordable, indie film-friendly cameras – makes it truly possible to produce a film shoot on a shoestring budget.
A director should have a stellar reel to show a prospective manager or agent. Your reel should get the viewer excited about you as an artist. It should show off all of your best work and it should be inspiring and energizing. As this IF Management manager puts it:
“Agents want to see a reel that is compelling enough for them to be able to entice a potential station or network to hire you. Therefore, you should consider your reel like a movie trailer. Get the agent excited enough to want to see more of your work and to pick up the phone and call you. It’s a bit like dating: put your best foot forward, don’t seem needy and remember that less is more. Don’t give it all away in the beginning. Be a little tempting and elusive.”
VI. Live like you have the job you want, not the job you have.
There’s an old piece of advice that gets thrown around in a lot of industries: dress for the job you want, not the job you have.
The idea is that if you give the appearance that you’re capable of looking and behaving as though you have a job that’s “higher on the totem pole”, then people will see you as having that potential. So if you’re working in a law office’s dusty mail room but want to be a legal assistant, wear a suit and look like you could be pulled into a meeting at any time, and at least visually, play the part. When the office is looking to move someone up the ranks, they’ll think of you because you already look like you’re ready to go.
Sure, this advice is a little vain and appearance-obsessed, but there’s a kernel of truth in there. The more you behave as though you already are a paid, working film director or screenwriter, the more people will see you as someone who has the potential to fully embody that role in your life. Believe and start the snowball rolling.
What does this mean? Feed your passion. Attend film festivals. Work on film projects with friends, whether they’re your projects or projects dreamed up by someone else. See films. Talk about film. Eat, breathe, and live film.
Today, it’s pretty easy to find out what someone has been up to and to make a judgement call about their interests, abilities, and passions based on their social media accounts. It may sound simple, but if you go to, say, someone’s Instagram account and see that it’s filled with pictures of film sets, film festivals, and movie tickets, then you’re going to associate that person with a passion (and probably talent) for filmmaking.
As Brian Koppelman, writer of Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen, and other films and television shows said of finding an agent:
“Agents are, for the most part, reactive, not proactive. They have to be; their days are spent servicing current clients, movie studios, producers, deal flow, all of it. And, they know, most screenplays that get sent in by amateurs are not going to be game changers, million dollar sales, the beginning of an auspicious career.”
“Yeah,” I can hear you saying, “but my screenplay is a game changer, a million dollar spec, the beginning of an auspicious career.”
Let’s assume, for a moment, that it is everything you think it is. What then? Well, then, I believe you will find representation. But it may not be by submitting it, blindly, to the top agencies. More likely, if you have written something of real quality, you also can write emails, letters, blog posts, tweets and Facebook statuses in an inviting, memorable, and witty way.
There has never been an easier time to attract attention to yourself. To make yourself and your work stand out. All you need to do is convince people that it would benefit them to invest their time in you and your material. Because that’s how the business works.
Every day, execs in the movie business, and screenwriters, directors and producers, are online, engaging, participating, looking for something great. Your job is to find a way to get them to ask you to read your stuff. The way to do that is not by asking them. It’s by creating a smart, inviting, entertaining persona, by not seeming crazy or desperate or scary.”
Don’t be afraid to let your passion show in all aspects of your persona, including your online one.
Another old adage to share with you: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
We’ve all heard this one, and it can be a little disheartening when we feel like we know, well, no one. It is true, though, that networking will get you far when it comes to breaking into film and television, and that includes getting your materials in front of an agent or manager.
As television writer and producer Phil Breman explains:
“You will want to be sure to let all of your friends and co-workers know that you hope to break into Hollywood as a writer and that you’re in the market for an agent. Chances are someone will know someone who will know someone who will know someone that can get your material in front of an agent.
Literary agents are, for the most part, pretty intelligent people who are always looking for good material written by good writers. After all, they all want to take credit for finding the next David E. Kelly or Aaron Sorkin – and who’s to say that’s not you? If they read your stuff and like it, chances are they’ll seek you out. The hard part is getting your material in front of these people. So, that means you have to network, network, network, and network some more.”
What exactly is networking? It’s meeting and forming relationships with people who may know someone (or know someone who knows someone) who might get your materials in front of the right person.
There are a lot of different ways to network, including:
- Meet fellow filmmakers and students! Whether it’s through us here at Lights Film School or some other forum, your peers now will be your strongest network in the future. Make friends. Read scripts; give notes. If you’re local to one another, work on each other’s shoots. The film industry is full of professionals who brought their friends along with them while growing in their careers.
- Attend film festivals. At most film festivals, the director, producers, and actors of a film are in attendance and eager to talk to audience members. Meet these people. Ask them questions. Let them know you were impressed with their work, and let them know that you’re a filmmaker, too. People at festivals are there to network. Bring business cards with you so that the people you meet can connect with you afterwards, and take their business cards, too.
- To go even deeper with film festival connections, if you live near one, you may want to see if there are opportunities to either work or volunteer at the festival. Being a part of the festival will allow you to make connections with everyone else who’s working at it, plus it’ll give you deeper access to the filmmakers who are there to show their films.
- Use social media. Twitter is kind of like one big networking party, where people from all different walks of life are able to interact with one another. Follow filmmakers you admire (of all levels) and let them know when you find something they say or share interesting. Interactions on social media can lead bonafide, real-life work relationships if you know how to engage!
- Send emails or write letters. If you see a film you really liked, reach out to the person who made it. Let them know you admired their work. This is an especially great way to network with people who are working but aren’t yet at the peak of their careers.
- Keep up relationships with people you meet. For example, how about organizing an informational film-talk night with, say, some friends you met at a nearby festival, where you can converse creatively in a low-key atmosphere? Or what about organizing an outing to see a film with other film lovers? The stronger the bonds you make with those you network with, the more help they’ll be down the road, and the more rewarding they’ll be in their own right.
Agents and managers love to work with artists who are passionate about what they do and who have the potential to make a real impact with their filmmaking skills. The more you craft your skills, the more impressive you’ll be when it comes time to send query letters to agents and managers introducing yourself and your work and seeing if they might be open to considering representing you.
No matter where you are in your artistic journey, the best thing you can do for your future is to fully embrace your work through time, energy, and passion. The stronger your vision, the stronger your passion, the stronger your appeal to agents and managers.
Even if you aren’t yet at the point in your filmmaking journey where you should be querying agents and managers, see their existence as an inspiring goal. As you work on your next script or yell “Action!” on your next film set, think about the awesome work you’re going to have to show your prospective future agent or manager when the time comes. Go forth!
Lauren McGrail, with
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