The delicate dance when your agent suggests changes in your spec…
May 20, 2015 § 2 Comments
I recently spoke to a screenwriter friend of mine who asked me about making changes to his spec from his agent’s notes. He obviously wasn’t happy with the prospect of reworking the script and wanted to know if this was a customary procedure. My advice was—make the changes. I told him this was the agent’s first test to see if my friend was a team player and collaborator when it came to changes. If my friend bristles at every note the agent gives, how would he react if the agent secures him a job and he flips out when the producer or executive gives notes? My friend could shoot himself in the foot early on by the way he reacts to his agent’s suggestions.
It’s been my experience that many agents don’t take a lot of time to give notes and managers tend to do this more because of their development or production backgrounds. I told my friend that it’s a question of how much he is willing to change his script and risk that the changes will help the agent feel confident about sending it out. You must remember, agents need to feel confident with the material they send out because it’s their reputation on the line with the producers and executives, and if they send out something that is substandard and it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t look good for their image.
Also depending on the size of the agency, the agent has a boss who is looking to see if the agent is commissioning and how many clients are selling and working. Also don’t forget that coveted holiday bonus or the invite to the agency’s Bermuda retreat. If an agent’s ten clients are not working and the agent can’t sell anything from them or secure jobs, how will that look to the agency or the business? The agent’s sensibilities will be in question and it’s a downward spiral from there.
Generally, I’ve had my managers give me more detailed notes than any agent. Usually my managers came from a production or development background and could actually help with story and getting the script ready to unleash upon Hollywood. My agents in the past had very little notes (not sure if that was good or bad) and once my agent was confident enough in my script to send it out to forty production companies. Yes, the script was “sent out wide” as they say on a Wednesday with a strategy forged by my agent and manager at the time with hopes for a bidding war.
Unfortunately at the time, my writing partner and I were uncredited and unknown screenwriters, and no producer really stepped up to the plate to buy our script by Friday at 5:00 PM. Needless to say it was a long and brutal weekend after that. On that Monday, the responses came in and mostly positive, but no sale. We heard that a few of the producers took our script to the studio level where they had their deals and it was considered, but again looking back the script was not strong enough to garner a sale. We took nearly a dozen meetings as a result, pitched our new idea and got back to writing.
After our big send out, our agent at the time asked us, “What other specs do you have?” Luckily we did have another comedy spec and he agreed to send it out, but to only ten companies. It was a lackluster strategy and again, that script didn’t garner a sale, but more meetings and opened doors. At this point our agent was pretty much done with us—and it felt like we were clinging by a mere finger hold outside on the agency’s tenth story patio waiting to be pushed. This is when my writing partner pitched our agent an old idea that he dusted off right there in the office. My eyes went wide as I didn’t know he was going to do that and went along for the ride. After the big song and dance, spinning plates and jumping through hoops, our agent ponders the pitch for a moment, his eyes go wide and he tells us: “GO WRITE THAT MOVIE!”
So, for next six weeks we hammered out that movie. We completed a first draft and our manager sent it to our agent and it took him three weeks to read it. This was not a good omen. Finally, the phone rang and it was our manager with the bad news, “Yeah, he read your new spec. He didn’t really care for it and said, ‘It’s not for me.'” BZZZT. That was our agent’s way of telling our manager and us that he was done trying to break us into the biz. He now had two clients who had two specs that did not sell and a new script that wasn’t what he expected. It was time to cut us loose. We learned a valuable lesson the hard way.
It’s a delicate dance and you risk offending an agent or manager if you refuse to make changes in your script. Now, you must believe that the changes will make the script more marketable and easier to compete professionally, but who ever knows? I’ve been in situations where you make the changes and the agent reads the next draft and it turns him off even more. At this point you can’t tell your agent, “Yeah, but these were your notes that I executed.” It doesn’t matter because you live or die by what’s on the page regardless of who suggested the changes. It’s the writer who ultimately gets the blame for the misdirection not the person who foisted a bunch of lame ideas upon the writer.
It’s always a long haul journey to reach any level of screenwriting success. You’ll get burned, cheated, rejected, criticized, ridiculed, and a myriad other forms of disrespect, but if you have someone in your corner whose interest helps champion your script, weigh the risks and benefits.
My friend is an aspiring screenwriter with no credits and agents don’t like to break unknown writers. Agents love writers who have credits and are working, as it makes them easier to sell and send out for jobs. It’s rare that your spec is “the one” that agents have looked for all of their careers—no offense. The reality is it’s just another one in the pile and heat will garner more of their interest than if they have to work from scratch and develop a script with you that could take months. What if the writer isn’t capable of executing the agent’s notes? This could be another test for the agent to see if the writer does land a job, will he/she be able to execute the producer’s notes and stay on the job or get fired? If a writer gets fired, it doesn’t look good for the agent’s reputation either—and of course it damages the writer’s reputation too by getting canned.
If an agent wants to develop your script with you, strongly consider doing the work necessary to make the agent feel confident about sending out your spec. It’s also a test to see if you are a client who is open to changes and is a team player. You must have multiple projects in the marketplace at all times and not be a one-script wonder—and when your spec goes out and doesn’t sell—lather, rinse and repeat. That’s how it works, your spec opens doors, you pitch and plant your flag and get them to say “come back” and you write a new script and go out with another and another until something breaks— or they break you!
Keep screenwriting and filling your blank pages because if you stop—you’ll never have any chance at success.
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