Navigating The Agent and Manager Conundrum
There’s a wall in Hollywood that every screenwriter stands before, staring up at its towering height with dread and discouragement. That blockade is built on the foundation of six words: We Do Not Accept Unsolicited Material. Etched on the stone surface, some dismissive legal jargon, “Material is only accepted for consideration when submitted by franchised literary agents or film production individuals with whom we have established a working relationship.” There are, however, ways to break through, even if the odds are against you. With enough persistence, determination, and smart timing, that wall can crumble with the right people swinging the sledgehammer. Before long, you’ll have embarked on your voyage towards a prosperous screenwriting career.
We Do Not Accept Unsolicited Material
“In an industry that can lean on hiring ‘who you know,’ representation opens doors for writers to meet people on the merit of their work and being read,” said Juliana James, Star Trek: Pickard writer. “It doesn’t guarantee you a job or a development deal, but the taste and value of your ‘rep’ can shine a spotlight on your written work when you need it most.”
Representation generally refers to three types of professionals—agents, managers, and entertainment attorneys. “Understanding the law behind ‘representation’ helps to explain the function of agents and managers, and the option of retaining an entertainment attorney to shop your project to networks, studios, and cast,” said Brandon Blake, Entertainment Lawyer, BLAKE & WANG P.A. “As agencies became large and somewhat impersonal, talent managers emerged as personal representatives to look over artists’ careers. But because managers are not bonded under the Talent Agency Act, typically the artist is required to also have a talent agent or an entertainment lawyer.”
Randy Greenberg, founder of The Greenberg Group and producer of The Meg and Cowboys & Aliens, explained, “Writers without representation usually don’t understand the business side of entertainment and are skeptical of producers and executives. Most working producers, directors, actresses, actors, studio executives, and network/streaming executives will not look at unsolicited material—we delete the email or throw out the package without opening it.”
“Agents and managers are how the film and television industry filter out new talent,” clarified Tim Kwok of Convergence Entertainment. “Producers and studio executives have no time to go out personally searching for new talents outside the traditional sources.” Some use them interchangeably, particularly agents and managers, but there are key differences. By law, agents can’t ask for more than ten percent. Managers can demand as much as they want, although typically around fifteen percent. Entertainment attorneys, on the other hand, are often overlooked.
“I think, in the beginning, it’s more important to have an agent who is just getting started him/herself,” explained Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy Award winner Russ Woody, whose credits for television include Cybill, Parenthood and The Drew Carey Show. “You want someone without a large roster, especially a roster with big names on it. You want someone who is new and anxious about building a roster of successful writers.”
Writers without representation are like sharks circling bait in the water, fins darting above the surface, narrowing in on something they can’t chew. There seems to be a secret the insiders are reluctant to reveal. You need an agent or manager to get an agent or a manager. This is a conundrum many are puzzled by. There are companies that accept open submissions. They’ll take time to read queries and consider new talent.
A “boutique agency,” one outside of the Big Four — CAA, WME, UTA and ICM Partners— isn’t something to scoff at. Bellevue and 3 Arts Entertainment, for example, have landed big deals for new screenwriters.
Jeff Belkin, manager at Zero Gravity Management, believes representation is a necessity. “The simple, resounding answer is ‘yes.’ Sure, anything is possible in Hollywood (I’ve seen and heard it all)—but why would you go without a rep if the offer presented itself? Especially when we work on a percentage basis (we don’t make money unless the writer does!). And having been on both sides of the aisles — as a former writer — I can truly appreciate the value a manager can bring to the table.”
“It’s vital to have solid representation in your corner, especially starting out as a young scriptwriter trying to make a name for yourself,” stated Josh Dove, manager at Stride Management. “So many people in that position get taken advantage of every day in Hollywood because they don’t know any better or understand the ins-and-outs of how the business works.”
“We have the relationships and contacts to advocate for our clients,” said Bradley Stewart Glenn, literary agent at Buchwald. “What do I do? A lot of communication. Before COVID, it was on the phone and in person. Now it is emails and zoom calls. I gather information. Try to match clients or their projects with people who can get the product made. I ask for offers. I negotiate deals. I try to close said deals. I hold hands. And try to give sound advice.”
People with no major film or TV credits, or friends or relatives in the business, struggle the most. A willingness to outwork the competition is a headstrong mindset few have. Writing in another capacity, going to film school, and winning contests can boost chances drastically. “As a recent graduate of film school, I have developed a somewhat jaded view of the film industry,” said Laura Rudnicki, comedy writer-director and Savannah College of Art and Design alum. “I keep finding out many of my favorite talents come from a massive amount of money, and/or a long family line of people who have worked in the business. It feels like talent can only take you so far when you don’t have these kinds of connections.”
Trudging forward anyway, Laura wrote and directed a short film called Worry Warts, which became a top 5 finalist at the 2018 Just For Laughs Film Festival and an official selection at several other festivals. Getting noticed that way displays talent that representatives want to cultivate.
A ghostwriter by day and aspiring screenwriter by night, Anna Bielkheden said, “I’m in it for the long game. I think every aspiring screenwriter would benefit from a similar long-term outlook; prioritizing continuous development of one’s craft and voice, while keeping an open mind to direction and criticism. In that respect, I think writing in a non-creative context can be a great learning foundation to handle the movie and TV industry.”
While most suggest pursuing representation right away, some have differing views, insisting that relying on someone else isn’t the most productive approach to launching and sustaining a screenwriting career.
“At the beginning of your career, it’s not important,” explained Diane Bell, writer-director of the Sundance favorite Obselidia. “What’s far more important is focusing on creating the work that will have agents and managers lining up to sign you. People tend to think that getting an agent or manager is the secret to getting work, but it’s not. Even with representation, all they can do is get you in the room. You still have to get the work yourself.”
“Not everyone is a natural-born networker,” said Nora Jaenicke of Nostos Screenwriting Retreat. “When it comes to negotiations of contracts, I think it’s important for an artist to have the support of someone with the know-how.”
Andrew Jay Cohen, one of our biggest names in comedy, strategically moved through the winding maze of the industry’s complicated system and developed a lustrous career. Starting out as Judd Apatow’s assistant on Anchorman and Kicking and Screaming, he then produced The 40- Year-Old Virgin, Talladega Nights and Funny People before writing the Neighbors films and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. His directorial debut, The House, came next and now he’s solidified as a major player in the world of cinema.
“I have had both a manager and agent for the bulk of my career,” reflected Cohen. “In fact, I got a manager first, and that manager set up meetings with different agencies and we chose the one that was the best fit creatively and personally. In my experience, a manager handles more day-to-day operations as well as the ‘five-year-plan’ strategy, and an agent is more focused on bringing projects to the right people. I like to think of it as having ‘professional avatars’ out there working on my behalf, talking to people and pitching projects, and seeing who is interested. I am so glad to have other people hustling and schmoozing and selling me because all of that is so tiring. That way, I can concentrate on writing and directing whatever project I’m working on.”
Randy Greenberg continued with this closing thought. “I understand it’s very hard to get representation—potentially the hardest thing to do for a writer besides staring at a blank screen. This process requires a strong backbone and fortitude and not taking no for an answer. There are plenty of agents, managers, attorneys, and assistants out there that are looking to make a name for themselves off the backs of a few clients. Maybe you are that client! Keep at it!”
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