The delicate dance when your agent suggests changes in your spec…

bogart and lorrieI 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.

scripts 2After 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!”

pitchSo, 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.

piggybackrideIt’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.

Scriptcat out!

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… That’s why an artist must be a warrior and, like all warriors, artists over time acquire modesty and humility.  They may, some of them, conduct themselves flamboyantly in public.  But alone with the work they are chase and humble.  They know they are not the source of the creations they bring into being.  They only facilitate.  They carry.  They are the willing and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.“—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”—William Falukner

“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” ― Stella Adler

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”— William S. Burroughs

“When the last dime is gone, I’ll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a ten cent notebook and start the whole thing over again.” — Preston Sturges

“Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. If you succeed, keep working. If you fail, keep working. If you’re interested, keep working. If you’re bored, keep working.”—Michael Crichton

Danger! You may think your new agent or manager is working for you when they’re not…

danger development hellIt’s so important not to waste time with someone who doesn’t have your best interests in mind for your career. I’d rather not have any representation than someone who I think is working for me every day and eventually I find out is not. Time burns so quickly in Hollywood and aspiring screenwriters get so excited with any rep shows them any interest in their work. Agents or managers show their real interest by their concrete actions and game plans. Are they reading your material and getting back to you in a timely manner?  Giving you great notes and suggestions? Making plans for the long haul and following up on leads and contacts?  Setting up meetings? Sending out your material to producers and executives who need to get to know you and your work?

I once found a manager on the internet.  Yes, any story that starts out like this probably ends in tragedy.  Again, this was when I started out in the business and was happy for anyone to read my stuff. Well, this cautionary tale ended with an important life lesson—always trust your instincts.  This manager and I played E-mail tag and I sent over a few scripts and he wanted to meet.  We had breakfast  (he paid) and he laid out a game plan to get me working.  I liked that he was thinking of the bigger picture and wanted to hit the ground running.  I was already working on stuff, but as always, needed to meet a larger circle of producers who might offer more writing assignments.

Our working relationship appeared as if it was going well until the communication began to slow on his end.  Never a good sign.  I was living up to the bargain on my end, working on pitches, executing his notes on my existing scripts, but I could sense that something wasn’t quite right.  He had one lead on a producer that never ended up with a meeting and that was pretty much it for him.  It was foreshadowing where our working relationship was going—nowhere. It fizzled out and he stopped returning calls and E-mails.  It was then I learned that he was actually my neighbor who lives not more than one-hundred yards from me.  He was done, baby done.

Time passed and I was at a local coffee-house, enjoying a coffee and reading the newspaper when I recognize this very same “manager.”  No surprise, because I would see him around the neighborhood every once in a while but he never did recognize me, as if I wasn’t even worthy of remembering.  That’s okay, my anonymity allowed me to eavesdrop on him and listen while he told the very same spiel to two young and eager looking writers.  I just listened, feeling very much undercover, as he didn’t know who I was, and I felt like leaning over and warning these guys of my experience with this bottom feeder.  Who knows, would they suffer the same fate?  Or maybe these were the guys who he would catapult into super stardom.  Bottom line, like any relationship, if it’s not working after many attempts, get out.  Your time is precious too and better to spend it working and not spinning your wheels with a rep who promises the world and delivers nothing. You’ve worked too damn hard to entrust your journey to an amateur.

handshake cartoonYears ago when I had a writing partner, we once snagged an agent at a mid-level agency with the help of our then manager.  This agent was young and a real firecracker.  He was the guy who could get our career jump started in a big way.  He loved to sell specs and our new comedy spec and went out wide on a Wednesday — forty companies, do or die.  Friday came, end of business day and no bidding war.  Not a good sign.  That was a horrible weekend to slog through.  Monday came along with the responses, overall good feedback, but no sale.  A few of the producers even sent it to the studio level for consideration, but no takers.  We did get a handful of meetings and everyone told us they “wanted to keep us on their radar.”  A catch phrase in Hollywood for “my development exec will keep in touch if he keeps his job.”

We were thankful for the experience and spent the next few months writing another spec and ready to do the same song and dance routine again. Okay, that first script with him didn’t sell and was now burned out.  It had been around town and was now a writing sample or a door stop.  Now granted, this agent only sold spec scripts, and he told us when we first met him that he would not send us out for writing assignments.  He only sold specs for “big money.”  We loved it because we only wrote specs, so this what the perfect agent, right?  Looking back, a spec sale is like winning the Super Lotto and we were gambling with our scripts every time we went out.

The agent then asked if we had anything else and we delivered up another comedy spec.  He went out to ten companies, not forty, and it was a half-assed send out to companies that didn’t really make this type of movie.  Again, no sale but a few meetings.  He just burned up two of our specs that didn’t sell and now we had no more specs in our arsenal.  Sending out a spec is always like rolling the dice, you’re taking a huge gamble that it will not sell.  Specs take time and effort and sacrifice while you work your crappy job to pay the bills as you write your precious spec.

changeOur then manger called another summit meeting with the agent who asked us, “What else do you have?”  After he just burned through two of our specs. My writing partner at the time pulled an old pitch out of his ass, much to my surprise, dusted it off at the meeting and pitched it like we were in the process of writing it.  The agent’s eyes popped open, he responded to the material and told us to write that movie!  We spent the next few months writing THAT movie—and when we finished, our manager sent the agent the script.  It took him three weeks to read it and he get back to our manager with this response: “it’s not for me.”

Did you just hear the dial tone?  He’s done.  Three strikes and we’re out.  “Not for him?”  This was an idea that he championed… loved… told us to write and now it’s not for him?  Easy to say “go write it.”   Harder to like it and send it out.  Welcome to the world of representation. It’s easier to get a rep if you already have heat or a project that already has interest. It’s harder for them to roll up their sleeves and get on with the difficult job of breaking a new and unproven screenwriter in Hollywood.

You quickly learn —no one truly cares like you do about your career.  They read five pages and if it doesn’t happen, they’re done.  The only person who really does care about your career is you because you live it and sacrifice for it every day.  If you remember this fact you won’t be surprised when those people who you think have your best interests in mind—really do not.  If you write something that someone believes they can sell, they will become interested.  If you write something that has a lot of interest before you find representation—they will flock to it like a moth to a flame.

I was courting a manager once and every time I would send over something, he never “loved it.”   He would never tell me to go away, because of the outside chance I just might come up with something one day that he liked.  So, I helped a mutual friend with a sitcom idea and he got a known actress/singer interested, suddenly this manager took us both out to dinner and “loved it.”  He was super interested.   He actually gave us notes and told us he would go into meetings with us and shepherd the project—only because there was interest. He didn’t have to work hard and find that interest—we came to him with the interest already built-in. So much less work for him. But as you’ll quickly find out, interest changes like the wind and one minute a project is hot and the next it’s not.

Just be careful who you bring into your inner circle to shepherd your career moves. Just as agents and managers have to be picky with the clients they choose to rep, you should also be picky with who you entrust to further your career.  Be realistic with your expectations, but always keep your radar up for that gut feeling when you suspect your rep may not be living up to their end of the bargain.  Be aware of passing time and how much or how little forward movement has happened with this new addition to your team.

Sure, it’s great to have a rep, but you need someone who is not just along for the ride and has you doing most of the work.  You are responsible for creating new and solid material and you should never stray from that discipline even if you don’t secure representation. My old writing partner and I used to say, “Just because there is a signature on a contract doesn’t mean someone will work that much harder.”  It means if things are not working out, you both have about six months to legally end the relationship.  Remember, you can never get back wasted time because you thought your rep was pushing you as a writer and your projects, but in reality you stalled and missed so many important opportunities as a result.

Keep screenwriting and keep the faith.


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script odds                      “Every script is a new opportunity or a missed opportunity. It’s how you play it.”—Scriptcat

“Act without expectation.” —Lao Tzu

Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. If you succeed, keep working. If you fail, keep working. If you’re interested, keep working. If you’re bored, keep working.”—Michael Crichton