See Your Script Through The Agent's Eyes
Once you have a well written, emotionally involving screenplay that has real commercial potential, getting your work read is essential to your success in Hollywood. But sometimes doing so can seem even more daunting than writing the script was.
Most writers who face the challenge of marketing their work fall into one of two traps. Either he listens to all the statistics about how hard it is, takes his first couple rejections personally, and then recedes into the woodwork; or, he assumes that agents and producers are just sitting around waiting for his script to arrive in the mail, so he scatters his screenplay to hundreds of agents with little thought of who will be interested or how it should be presented.
If your screenplay is truly ready to submit, you must take one additional step before going out with it. Before you pursue any agent (or any producer, development executive, financier, pitch fest buyer or contest judge) consider your submission from his or her point of view. By better understanding how your screenplay affects the agent's goals and workload, you can be far more effective at getting your desired response.
These are some of the basic components of an agent's work life:
1. She is incredibly overworked. An agent's typical ten to fourteen hour day includes a breakfast meeting, a lunch meeting, staff meetings, negotiations, contracts, memos, emails, evening screenings, and at least a hundred phone calls per day. As soon as you contact the agent, you've added one more item to her endless "TO DO" list.
2. She is being pulled in several directions at once, with demands from bosses, clients, clients' managers, other agents, producers, development executives, her company's lawyers, the studios' and networks' lawyers, and (if she's foolish enough to try to have a personal life) her own family. As soon as you make contact, you've become one more person who wants to be taken care of.
3. She never has time to read screenplays. Every Friday, her back seat is piled with scripts and novels she must be prepared to discuss at her agency's Monday morning meeting. If she agrees to read your script, her pile will just get bigger.
4. Clients of the agency, bosses' requests, and deals "on the table" will always be given priority over submissions from unknown writers.
5. Her agency only wants clients who can make them money. No matter how nice, or sympathetic, or even talented you are, if the agent doesn't think she can sell your work, she can't take you on.
6. She doesn't want clients who will add to her problems with unreasonable demands or unprofessional behavior.
7. And finally, in Hollywood, there is a single universal principle: the easiest way to avoid more risk, responsibility and stress is to simply say NO.
Sounds hopeless, doesn't it? But it's not. As I repeatedly remind my clients, readers and students, if making a living as a screenwriter were impossible, the Writers Guild wouldn't have 10,000 active members. I just want you to approach the people in power in an intelligent, professional way by appreciating their point of view and adhering to the following guidelines:
1. RESEARCH THE PEOPLE IN POWER. Never take a shotgun approach to submitting your work. Use the abundance of available submission services (like InkTip!), pitch fests, web sites, newsletters, magazines, directories, conferences and organizations, as well as your own contacts, to determine the specific individuals appropriate for you to contact.
2. MAKE EVERY CONTACT PERSONAL. No one likes to get a form letter, so don't simply mail merge your request with that list you bought from the Hollywood Creative Directory. Laziness runs rampant in the industry, and writers who do their homework impress the people in power. You also stroke an executive's ego when you say you're contacting him because he was involved with a person or project you admire.
3. SEND WELL-WRITTEN LETTERS AND EMAILS. All your correspondence must be clear, concise, and absolutely error free. This is the first sample of your writing the agent will see, and if it's filled with typos, misspellings and grammatical errors, or if it's not an original, PRINTED (rather than typed or hand-written) copy or a well designed email, the agent will assume your screenplay is no better.
4. KEEP PHONE CALLS BRIEF. Always ask, "Is this a good time for you, or would you like me to call back when it's more convenient?" A little chitchat is OK to break the ice, but then get to the point.
5. PREPARE A TELEPHONE PITCH. When an agent asks, "What is your script about?" the worst thing you can do is stammer around and then go into a lengthy description of your entire story line. Compose a powerful, 1- to 2- minute description of your story, and rehearse it thoroughly before you make the call. Don't try to tell the plot! The goal is simply to get the agent emotionally involved, so they'll begin asking questions or ask to read the script. (To read my entire article on mastering telephone pitches, click here.)
6. NEVER MAKE AN UNSOLICITED SUBMISSION. The goal of all this research and networking is to find people who will consider your screenplay. Don't mail it to anyone who hasn't already agreed to read it; it's a waste of time, paper and postage, and will probably be returned to you unopened and unread.
7. SHARPEN YOUR SCRIPT PRESENTATION. Conformity is the key to presenting the screenplay itself. You want your script to look exactly like all the scripts on the executive's pile that were written by professionals and submitted by agents. This means three-hole punched with brass fasteners on the two outside holes only, and no binding, illustrations, footnotes, cast of characters, typos or errors of any kind. And of course, use proper, industry standard format throughout.
8. SIMPLIFY YOUR WRITING STYLE. Your prospective buyer or representative would much rather be skiing or playing tennis than stuck at home on a Saturday with a pile of reading to do. So she's looking for the script that can easily be read in a little over an hour, not the one with long, convoluted sentences or the vocabulary of an Oxford linguist.
9. MAKE YOUR SCREENPLAY FUN TO READ. Because so many terrible scripts get submitted in Hollywood, the executive always (mistakenly) assumes yours is awful as well. The script that surprises her by being clearly written, emotionally involving and commercially viable is the one that will get recommended Monday morning.
10. BE PATIENT. Don't be discouraged if it takes a long time to get a response to your script. This often means the agent or producer is reading it himself, rather than passing it on to a reader. Simply call once a month to politely ask the assistant if it's been read yet, just to make sure it hasn't fallen through the cracks at the agency or production company. Since you're pursuing a hundred other people simultaneously, any one person can take as long as he needs, without you getting frustrated or angry.
Finally, two other cardinal rules for considering a buyer's needs without thwarting your own screenwriting goals:
1. NEVER APOLOGIZE! I may have given you the mistaken idea you should feel sorry for taking up an agent's or an executive's valuable time. Not true. You are a professional, giving another professional the opportunity to make money off your work. Be kind and considerate, but also direct, passionate and certain of your talent. Courage and assertiveness are always more effective than withdrawal and self-deprecation.
2. REJECT REJECTION. You're playing a numbers game here, and if you take rejection personally, you'll get depressed and give up. There are lots of political and commercial reasons scripts get rejected, none of which has anything to do with the quality of the writing. Keep at it, and sooner or later you'll find others who share your passion for your work.
The one common quality that all successful screenwriters share is neither intelligence, nor talent nor connections. It's tenacity. So stop dreaming, stop complaining, and just get busy.
MICHAEL HAUGE is a story expert, author and lecturer who works with writers, filmmakers, marketers, business leaders, attorneys and public speakers, both in Hollywood and around the world. He has coached screenwriters, producers, stars and directors on projects for every major studio and network, most recently THE KARATE KID and CONCUSSION for Will Smith and Overbrook Entertainment; MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE for Columbia Pictures; BAKUGAN for Universal Pictures, and LOVE, ROSIE for SONY Pictures and Constantin Film.
Michael is the best selling author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, as well as the new 20th Anniversary Edition of his classic book Writing Screenplays That Sell. A number of Michael’s seminars, including The Hero’s 2 Journeys with Christopher Vogler and Add Hollywood Magic to Your Stories, are available on DVD, CD and digital format through his web site, and through booksellers throughout the world.
Michael has a Masters Degree in Education from the University of Georgia. He has worked in Hollywood for the past 35 years, and has presented seminars, lectures and keynotes in person and online to more than 70,000 participants worldwide. He lives in Sherman Oaks, California.