Misdirection in how to get or ‘manage’ an agent, has always been abundant
I wrote what I believe to be a still useful Indiewire article, If You Want Screenwriting Career Tips, Ask A Literary Agent, in 2015. For those of you who believe writers need an agent in order to have a writing career, my advice, then as now, is the same: be open to learning about and appreciating agents as uniquely trained professionals. They’ve been taught to carry on basically the same work ethic and industry practices handed down to them since the Golden Age of Hollywood. No joke.
Every class I teach, I ask: “What does an agent do?” and then wait. There’s silence until someone finally volunteers. Typically, it goes like this:
“They make calls…”
“They make deals.”
Many people seem to think the relationship between agents and writers as being some form of doctor/patient relationship — a dreaded necessity due to illness or injury that requires clinical intervention, but much harder to appreciate. It seems to be a lot more logical to trust a physician’s skills than your average literary agent’s. Not so with managers, who generally receive a globally hearty thumbs-up. “They really care about you,” is the comfort meme, while the conventional sentiment “agents only care about the deal” won’t go away.
All the managers I know personally or professionally care just as much as the agent and the client do about the deal. But, managers also care about the essential role agents play. Yet, unless that manager was once an agent, or trained to become an agent, even the manager might consider the literary agent’s playbook to be as mysterious as a magician’s hat. One thing everybody does know for certain is that lit agents zero in on high-profile media buyers in order to broker intellectual properties. While they’re sharpshooting in the stratosphere of the insider media-marketplace, they can also secure gainful writing employment for their clients. But, no one is sure exactly how they do that. I can assure you it would take a few hundred pages to explain the how and why of what lit agents do.
Some aspects are deceptively simple: agents are clinicians to clients, and magicians to buyers, and vice versa. Nevertheless, their skillsets, though obviously invaluable, can also generate doubt. Doubt creates instability within the intimate alliance between a writer and an agent, a situation that is routinely disrupted by the demand that literary agents be experts in negotiating changing realities in an evolving marketplace, while also staying in touch with a writer’s usually static expectations.
Yet, even when they are far apart about one issue or another, agents and writers have more in common than you might think. The majority of literary agents, like their clients, work alone in organizing meaningful information from multiple sources in a committed effort to convert that intelligence into calculated opportunities. From raw to refined data on any given day, agents customize complex immediate and long-range strategies to further their client’s overall career. These are skills that are not fungible to a writer’s immediate and long-range overview of their tangible creative work, so it’s harder for a writer to evaluate or measure what an agent is doing for them. The efforts made in representing a client appear to be awfully subjective, making the agent’s job hard to appreciate. When it comes to paying up the ten percent generated by mutual success, nearly every writer becomes a stingy tipper. Add to that the often universally expressed suspicions both inside and outside the industry about what agents do, and it seems everyone is quick to denigrate them as a whole population.
Whether they’re understood or appreciated, lionized or devalued, literary agents, often in close tandem with managers and entertainment attorneys, professionally orchestrate more than 99% of all screenwriting careers.
Yet the web contains no end of screenwriting career recipes snapped from the lens of one person’s single literary or literary-related career in declarative “listicles” of career must-haves and must-do’s. Doesn’t insight from the lens of only one career seem a little… narrow-minded? Those who know most about the professional screenwriting trade are literary agents, whose seasoned expertise encompasses thousands of careers.
I was often told I didn’t “seem like an agent,” as though this were a compliment. I was proud of the job, handed down to me by my mentors, Phil Gersh and Scott Harris, who created his own fiercely independent agency that consistently books high scores in the daily talent hunger games. Scott was trained at what was once the William Morris Agency by TV maven, Jerry Katzman. Also, Scott’s dad had been among the well-armed ranks of Lew Wasserman’s MCA, once upon a time the largest talent agency in the world. Wasserman invented the 16-hour workday and broke the long-term studio contract system. Jack Valenti likened Wasserman to a God, rather than a mere Hollywood “Godfather.”
Phil represented a dazzling array of talent — among them, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Wise, and Don Siegel. He didn’t dwell on his own past, but preferred to toss me Golden Age nuggets about the career-steering feats of legendary agents Charles Feldman and Ray Stark. Feldman invented packaging and profit participation in 1942. His clients included Cary Grant and John Wayne, while Stark started out as a literary agent representing Raymond Chandler, then branched out into talent and shepherded the careers of Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton and Ronald Reagan. Phil also enjoyed reminiscing about lesser-known participants, like the raspy, chain-smoking studio business affairs attorney, who invented rolling “breakeven” — which may have been inspired by his tobacco habit, since it was as inexhaustible as a studio’s overhead expenses.
Conversations with Phil made it clear to me that agents had the best access to information by virtue of their incentivized maneuverability, especially when it came to the guarded inner-workings of the entertainment machine. He taught me about very specific insider-business behaviors, gauging predictability and unpredictability as part of the art (and science) of the deal. I learned that in Hollywood, a negotiation could be as grubby as a wrestling match over the cash drawer, yet at the same time, as cerebral as chess.
He explained many other important concepts, while warning me about routinely camouflaged snares. He was also quick to give tough love. While I was still a baby agent, I made the mistake of insisting that a production start date for a script I’d sold was poured in stone, though no star was set. The director’s pay-or-play date passed, so to update the agency’s talent and below-the-line departments, I announced the film’s production start at the staff meeting, to which Phil retorted, “She’s right. They’re starting on that date… with or without actors!”
The key difference between a missile and a rocket is that one is guided while the other isn’t. Agents strategically calibrate career trajectory for maximum impact using their unique tactical training in service of creative storytellers. If you want to know all about what it takes to have the screenwriting career you want, ask a literary agent.