The ongoing myth that you ‘need an Agent’ to get your screenplay seen by Hollywood’s gatekeepers continues to hold back countless writers from gaining real traction with their careers.
Does this mean a screenwriting agent serves no purpose? Or that you won’t someday work with one? Or that agents are only out to screw you over? Of course not!
Three Reasons to Become Your Own Screenwriting Agent
Agents are extremely valuable figures in the Hollywood landscape. But signing with one fresh out of the gate, before you secured your first solo screenwriting deal, might actually do more harm than good.
1. Screenwriting Agents Are In Business for Themselves, NOT You!
Agents make money by brokering deals, not by finding new writers and promoting their scripts. Just because an Agent signs your script (or you as a writer) doesn’t mean they have any obligation whatsoever to broker a deal on your behalf.
Most screenwriting agents are not looking for talented writers. They are looking to keep talented writers from slipping through their fingers and getting gobbled up by their competitors! Additionally, they want to keep an overabundance of available ‘properties’ (scripts) to meet requests from Production Companies.
This means a typical screenwriting agent will take on more scripts and writers than they know they can adequately broker deals for. Obviously this is good for a screenwriting agent. But it is bad for you.
Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly stellar agents out there. A good screenwriting agent will work with you—for a period of time—to get your portfolio into strong shape. But if your work doesn’t sell soon after, all the attention and accommodation will fade away and get focused elsewhere, even though your contract still has several more years prior to expiration.
2. Everything a Screenwriting Agent Can Do, YOU Can Do Better!
But don’t you need an Agent in order to sell that first script or commission your writing talents?
Nope! In fact, I would argue that when starting out, it’s much easier for you to get your work in front of Hollywood decision makers and close a deal without a screenwriting agent. And while agents do negotiate deal terms for agreements between writers and production companies, there’s no reason you cannot bypass this process and simply negotiate on your own behalf.
Negotiating a deal is really about finding common ground. If you’ve presented your scripts (or your ability to write) to a Production Company and they want to work with you on an upcoming project, then there’s plenty of common ground for the two of you to build a deal from.
That Production Company will send you an offer. You agree to the points you like and ask questions or draw attention to the points you don’t like. And if you’re confused about terminology or meaning, you can always consult my favorite reference: Google.
If you’re really uneasy about negotiating a contract on your own behalf, remember that you can always commission the one-time services of an entertainment attorney. Yes, you will have to pay them, but you’d have to pay your agent regardless. And a Lawyer will be much more accommodating to your direct needs since you’re the one hiring them.
This means you’re the one dictating the rules. Once the current deal is fully negotiated, your obligation to the Lawyer would be over. With an agent, the term can go on for several more years.
3. Agents Won’t Help You Hustle Your Work
One other major misconception newbie writers have about agents is that the moment they sign on the dotted line, that this ‘suit’ will somehow take over all the hard work and be out their pitching and promoting their work… But this is yet another myth!
Whether you have an agent or not, you will have to be the one out pitching your work, making blind phone calls to get production companies to take notice, in a constant hustle for an opportunity. However, once you’ve got a solid lead and someone likes your script, rather than following up all on your own (which makes the most sense), you now have to introduce whomever you’ve been dealing with to your agent—and once that intro takes place, you have little control over how your agent will handle it.
Since agents are out for themselves, that balance of ‘common ground’ outlined in point 2 gets shifted. Now the deal is no longer just about the production company and the writer. It’s also now the agent wedging themselves in for a 10% cut.
I’ve seen positive conversations between writers and producers turn sour (and good writers lose jobs) from the overly aggressive tactics of eager-beaver agents. Again, having a screenwriting agent can be a great thing, but tread carefully when choosing. Don’t sign with one prematurely.
As I explain in my book, Writing for the Green Light, you cannot view an agent as some sort of “career messiah” who will make all your dreams come to life after entering a deal with them. You must only think of a screenwriting agent as someone who assists you in managing your workload. An agent is not the gatekeeper to your screenwriting success.
Quit Waiting for the Phone to Ring!
Once you’re out securing your own jobs, building a stellar reputation as a writer who can deliver, agents will be coming to you.. But until then, you will have to be the one creating your own opportunities for work. No one will do that for you. Signing with an agent will not put you ahead or increase your odds of getting screenwriting work.
So when is a good time to get an Agent? Later in your career. After you’ve closed a few deals on your own, either by selling your own scripts or successfully commissioning your writing talents.
A good rule of thumb would be to seek out an agent only when the time you spend negotiating your new writing gigs starts to interfere with your ability to meet current professional writing deadlines.
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Scott Kirkpatrick is the author of Writing for the Green Light: How to Make Your Script the One Hollywood Notices and is the Executive Director of Distribution for MarVista Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based production and distribution company that produces original Lifetime and SyFy channel films, co-produces TV movies with Disney and Nickelodeon, and has managed international TV deals on major franchises including Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Digimon, and Julius Jr. Scott has also produced and directed TV series and feature films including Eye for an Eye, Muslims in America, and Roadside Massacre.