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Creative Screenwriting magazine’s Danny Munso examines whether, in this digital age screenwriters really need the services of an agent.
There are two sides to screenwriting that every serious writer needs to be knowledgeable about: the craft and the business. The craft is the art of writing a script; how to write to a theme, how to create great and sympathetic characters, etc. The business is where things can get murky for amateur writers.
Hollywood has long worked off the classic model wherein screenwriters, both veteran and new, need to be repped by agents. But in this day and age, a time where do-it-yourself filmmaking has arrived in full force and the Internet has created so many avenues for independent films to be seen and heard about, are agents still necessary? The answer, predictably, is complicated.
Agents can be an invaluable tool to established screenwriters. While they are always looking at a script from a business perspective, they can also be an important extra set of eyes; most have read hundreds upon hundreds of scripts, so know what works and what doesn’t. They also have their ear to the ground for new and exciting projects; deals are made every day in Hollywood, and if an exciting book or other source material has just been purchased by a producer or a studio, they can diagnose quickly if this would be good for their client. Moreover, if a studio puts out word they are looking for a certain type of original screenplay, they can set their clients up with a meeting.
But an agent also does something else for screenwriters: get their scripts sold! They broker deals between writers and studios in order to get their clients the most money possible for their services, so if you are a screenwriter working in the studio system, an agent isn’t simply a luxury. It is a necessity.
So where does that leave you, the un-produced screenwriter? Let’s say you have a screenplay that is ready to shoot right now. Do you need an agent? It depends on what your goal is for the story.
The world of independent cinema works outside the studio system. If you want to get your script made, there are many different avenues you can take; whether it’s financing the film yourself or setting up investors and producers, you do not need an agent to do any of this. But the true attraction of independent filmmaking is ultimately this: you don’t need anyone’s approval to make your film. There is no board of executives that your script needs to pass through; you get to make the film you want to, uncompromised by the business realities of studio filmmaking.
A lot of writers and filmmakers are taking the independent route these days. The most successful studio screenwriter in 2010 was Christopher Nolan, the writer/director of Inception, which took the box office by storm and will surely hear its name called more than once on Academy Award nomination day. But Nolan’s career began with Following, a 75-minute film he wrote and got made himself with no-name actors and a small crew. That led to the financing of his proper debut, Memento, and at the time you’re reading this, he is about to shoot the conclusion to his acclaimed Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, for Warner Bros.
Nolan’s story is a common one (granted, with uncommon results; very few filmmakers have reached the heights he has): independent filmmaker makes the movie he wants with uncompromising vision, then moves on to make studio-based films. When you make a successful independent film (and ‘success’ has varying degrees of meaning in this case), you won’t have to worry about getting an agent; they will come to you.
At this point, it’s important to state that you do not need to be a writer-director to find success in the independent market. Sole screenwriters have found success there as well although, as with a studio film, you need to hope that your vision is close to that of the director who makes it. Take as an example a writer by the name of Chris Sparling. He crafted Buried, a brilliant, Hitchcockian script that made its debut at Sundance this past year. On the strength of the script, set in one location (in this case, a grave!), the film garnered positive buzz and the filmmakers were able to get actor Ryan Reynolds attached. They made a great film for almost no money, which was sold and released in theatres this fall. Sparling had no agent, and now he is an in-demand writer with several options available to him for his next project.
Sparling and Nolan’s successes are perfect examples of how a career can begin without the assistance of an agent. Particularly in this social media age, when the ability to get the word out about your film is right at your fingertips, it would seem an agent is less and less important to obtain. But this isn’t exactly the case.
Getting your start in independent film certainly has its advantages, particularly artistic ones. But small scripts may not be what you write. There aren’t a lot of indie action films, and the same goes for sci-fi. If you write in a genre where a budget under a few million simply won’t cut it, then going the independent route is no longer an option. In this case, you absolutely need an agent; there is just no way around it. Even if you break in by having your script passed around Hollywood and a studio shows interest, they won’t buy it if you don’t have representation.
The good news here is if you have a script generating buzz, either by placing well in a contest or because you passed it on to someone who passed it to someone, etc., then you are not going to have problems gaining representation. The point is simply that you can’t stick your script in the mail, write ‘Paramount’ on the address label and wait for them to return a contract for your film. It has never worked that way and it never will.
Luckily for you studio-bound writers, there are just as many ways to get the attention of agents nowadays as there are avenues to get your independent film noticed.
As mentioned earlier, screenwriting contests can be a great way to get buzz building about your story—just make sure you enter ones with some sort of prize where Hollywood players will be looking at winning entries.
You can also try a pitch fest, events where production companies, agencies and management companies send reps to find new talent. You can use the Internet to your advantage—just make sure your work is protected first. And then there is good ol’ word of mouth. If you know someone in the industry, make sure they have your script. If they like it, it usually gets passed around.
Here is the bottom line: agents are necessary at a certain point in a writer’s career. Whether that’s now or later is entirely up to your writing calibre and goals. But another important thing to remember is that there is no point thinking about representation until your scripts are up to par. That should be your focus for the time being. If you’ve received enough good feedback on your stories and have entered a few contests and done fairly well, then I hope this column will be helpful to you in the direction you take.
It is easy to get impatient at the rate of your career. Many of you think you are ready to write great films now and have millions enjoy them around the world. Many of you are probably correct. The business side of screenwriting is a lot about opportunity, with a little luck thrown in. Just take this to heart; a high ranking studio executive once told me: ‘If you write a great script, it will be discovered… eventually.’
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