The original post for this episode can be found here.
JOHN AUGUST: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
CRAIG MAZIN: And I’m Craig Mazin.
JOHN: And here we are recording another podcast. The topic of Scriptnotes is really things that would be interesting to screenwriters, so screenwriting, for example, film making, the film industry. What else are we going to talk about?
CRAIG: Napping, video games, procrastination, substance abuse. [laughs] Just running down the stuff that I think of when I think of screenwriters.
JOHN: At some point I think we need to have a podcast that talks about why you always see screenwriters’ careers falling off after 40, and it’s because of children.
JOHN: Children are the death of all screenwriters.
CRAIG: God, it’s true. My kids are just killing me. You basically replace yourself. It’s like nature knows that you’re obsolete.
JOHN: Yeah, it’s a very sad thing. You always wonder why do writers have such great careers in their 20s, and they really achieve stuff in their 30s, and then at 40, it’s just a wall. It’s not really ageism, it’s children.
CRAIG: Children. And I have two of them, John. Two.
JOHN: I have one child. Kids are great, kids are amazing, kids are awesome, but they really do sap it out of you.
CRAIG: They do. It’s amazing how nature creates them to be so lovable and sweet so you almost don’t even mind it as they dig your soul out and your energy with a spoon and just eat it in front of you, and slowly choke your life out.
Just kind of love them for it.
JOHN: It’s the sunken costs. You spend the first three years of their life trying to keep them alive and afterwards you’re like, “Oh, I’ve kept them alive,” and you’ve built this love for them, so therefore you forgive them of everything that they have taken from you. You also forget all the things you used to have when you didn’t have children.
CRAIG: It’s amazing, I’m tired all the time.
CRAIG: I honestly feel like I need Geritol or whatever the modern Geritol is [laughs] because…
JOHN: Wasn’t Geritol actually just alcohol or it was some sort of…
CRAIG: No, no, [laughs] but that’s a funny idea. Geritol was iron supplements. I always remember Geritol because the famous, or not really famous, Australian tennis player Evonne Goolagong would flack for Geritol and she would talk about her iron poor blood. Evonne Goolagong, I think she was half aboriginal and she had this funky accent. I just thought the name Goolagong plus iron poor blood was the funniest thing I’d ever heard as a kid.
JOHN: Yeah. You realize though that men don’t need more iron. It’s only women who need iron because they lose blood every month.
CRAIG: Yeah, and by the way, this podcast, I think we should regularly talk about menstruation.
CRAIG: We should always talk five minutes to just get into any kind of gynecological issues.
JOHN: Yeah, because if there’s one thing we know even more than screenwriting, it’s women’s reproductive health.
CRAIG: I am so uterine. I’m uterine.
JOHN: I think we should focus on something we do know a lot about. We’re going to rip off the band-aid this week and we’re going to talk about something that in six years of running the blog, I’ve never actually written a post about this because it’s just such a dreadful morass of something to talk about.
CRAIG: It’s the worst, it’s the worst.
JOHN: It’s the worst, and at least 80 percent of the questions that come into the site are basically this question. You’re ready? I’m going to paraphrase the one question that I’ve heard my entire blogging career.
CRAIG: Just do it, do it fast.
JOHN: “How do I get an agent and/or manager?”
CRAIG: Oh, God. Now, let me just say, just so that anyone out there who is struggling to get an agent or manager doesn’t think that we are mocking your pain.
JOHN: No, not at all.
CRAIG: We’re not. Really what we are embracing is the pain of the question itself because here’s what’s difficult, guys. If you really get down to what John and I know about getting an agent or a manager, what we know is how we got an agent in 1995. [laughs] That’s what we specifically know.
Some of the pain of this question is it’s like a 15-year-old boy coming to you and saying, “How do I lose my virginity?” I could tell you how I lost my virginity [laughs] in 1986. I just don’t know if it’s going to be applicable to you.
JOHN: I think I do have a little bit more experience just because I’ve gone through generations of assistants who have become writers themselves and have gotten agents, so I’ve seen their process.
CRAIG: Good point.
JOHN: Yeah. It’s not identical to what my process was and a crucial thing for framing this whole discussion is that there’s not one way it happens. Just like everyone does lose their virginity in a slightly different way…
JOHN: …everyone gets to an agent or a manager in a slightly different way. We can only talk about general systems for success that people tend to find when they’re looking for agents and managers. I think we need to start by talking about what the hell an agent or a manager really is because they’re used interchangeably and they’re actually different things.
CRAIG: Very, very different, yes. There’s something called the Talent Representation Act or Talent Agency Act, I can’t remember quite the exact name, but it’s California state law. Basically, the law says if you want to represent artists of any kind as an agent and procure them employment — that’s the big one — you are regulated. You have to be licensed by the state, you cannot charge more than 10% of what they earn and you also can’t own any of it. For screenwriters what that translates into actually is that agents cannot produce your material because producing is a kind of an investment in the material itself.
That was the way it was for a long, long time. Then came the rise of managers who are not beholden to that law and they can, in fact, charge any percentage they want, and they can also produce your material. Technically, however, they are not allowed to procure you employment.
JOHN: Now, procure sounds like a very legal term and I assume that, obviously I know that there’s a lot of overlap between what an agent does and what a manager does, but what is the difference between procure? So the manager is not allowed to say, “Pay us this amount of money?”
CRAIG: The manager I do not believe is allowed to directly negotiate the terms of employment, I think. I’ll have to check on that one. By the way, as a general note, if there’s anything like this where I’m not quite sure, I can always lob a clarification on your blog when you put up the link. I know for sure that managers legally can’t seek employment. In other words, they can’t field requests for employment. They certainly can’t call up and say, “My client is available. Do you have anything that they might be interested in?”
Essentially, the manager is supposed to manage. Again, this is all the technical side of it and then there’s the real side. Managers are supposed to handle your day-to-day life. They help you develop material if that’s the way you want to use them. They help take care of your day-to-day needs when you’re working on a project. Let’s say you’re out of town working on something and they help facilitate your life. They’re not supposed to actually go out and get your a job.
JOHN: Right. Now, it’s not an either/or situation. Many writers will find they have both a manager and an agent, and in many cases they’ll have a manager a year before they have an agent.
JOHN: It feels like there are many more managers in the business and that they’re easier to gain access to than an agent.
CRAIG: I agree.
JOHN: Agents tend to be gathered together in very big, powerful agencies. There are certainly smaller boutique agencies that represent writers. Managers tend to be in smaller shops where they’re representing a smaller group of writers, or directors or other talented people and focusing on them. Managers, in general, might read every draft and an agent very likely would not read every draft. A manager might give you notes. An agent would be much less likely to give you notes.
JOHN: I approach the conversation with a dim view of managers, and this is just my generational bias. I’ve been called out for my generational bias because when I started in this business, the writers who had managers weren’t getting a lot out of their managers and they were just looking for the excuse to fire their managers. Now more writers who are working regularly are talking about having success with their managers and keeping their managers as an active part of their career even after they’ve had a few features produced.
CRAIG: Yeah, I’m with you in the generational [laughs] bias. I’m somewhat suspicious of managers. I had a manager for a long time, and in many ways it was a good thing and in a number of ways it wasn’t, and it didn’t end particularly well.
I think that there are basically three reasons that writers gravitate towards…I’m going to give myself a fourth reason. One is, as you pointed out, sometimes they’re the easier representation to get just to start with. Two, managers are much more willing to help you develop your material. If you’re the kind of writer who actually wants to bounce material off of somebody who isn’t a writer or a producer, a manager can help with that. Three, I think some writers feel like look, “I can’t have two agents at once. I can’t be represented by CAA and UTA, but I can be represented by CAA and Three Arts. That’s twice the bang for the buck.”
I wish I could remember what the fourth one was but that was probably the most important one of all.
JOHN: Those are three good points. To bounce off your third point there, being represented by two different people gets you exposure to more people who you could potentially be working with.
JOHN: And so even though the managers aren’t supposed to be out there giving you employment, they may be sending you out to meet with somebody and that someone they have you meet with ends up becoming an important link for future employment.
CRAIG: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I don’t have a huge problem with it, and if you love your manager, awesome. New writers who are seeking desperately for representation, and understandably so, I think can actually benefit a lot from a manager. But just be aware — this is the great currency problem – when you are a new writer without a track record and limited earning potential, you’re going to get a certain kind of manager. As your career advances, you owe it to yourself to fairly evaluate whether or not your manager [laughs] is appropriate for where you are in your career if you advance.
JOHN: Yeah. Let’s start the next part about what is an agent or a manager actually looking for. Let’s stop looking at it from the writer’s point of view. I need someone to represent me, to take me in and introduce me to all the right people and get me jobs. What does an agent want?
CRAIG: They want to make money. Bottom line.
JOHN: They’re there to make money for themselves, for their agency. They’re there to try to get their clients hired and working continuously in the business. From that perspective if they’re looking at a range of possible writers who they could represent they’re going to look at the ones they believe are talented, the ones they believe will work really hard, the ones that they believe can actually land the job which means going in there to the meetings for the nine meetings and convincing a bunch of people that they are the right person to be hired for the job.
The ones who are going to deliver. If an agent has a client that can land a job but then won’t actually turn in the script or finish the script or will turn in a really substandard version of what the script should be, that’s going to hurt. The agent has a limitation of time. The agent can only represent so many clients. There’s only so many hours in the day.
They can only put up so many clients for jobs. Taking on a new person is bringing a new person into the fold, someone they have to introduce to everybody, someone they have to try to keep employed, someone they have to be talking on the phone all the time and trying to get them hired.
CRAIG: Also, just as an extension of that, too, when an agent takes on a client that client is an extension of their reputation. I’m vouching that if I’m an agent I have a brand just the way that you and I have a brand. We’re known for writing certain kinds of things. Agents are known for representing certain kinds of people.
They take on the wrong person and that person craps out, that’s an uncomfortable phone call for that agent. That damages their standing and that’s going to hurt them. There’s a ripple effect. When writers approach getting an agent and they look at this incredibly steep wall and the barrier to entry and they go why? Why is this so hard to do? It’s because of that.
JOHN: Yeah. It’s important to remember screenwriting is about pushing those words around on the paper and it’s being able to write a really good script. Screenwriting, the career screenwriting, is also the ability to land a job and to get paid for what you are doing.
An agent is excited to read a really good script. They’re not going to sign a writer, in general, without sitting in a room with that writer and making the judgment call, “Could I send this person out on a job and get them hired to do something?” They are measuring the social skills of a person who they are going to be possibly be representing.
CRAIG: Yeah. That’s right. You can definitely be a complete Asperger’s weirdo if you are just killing it on the page. If you are a conventional screenwriter writing conventional material and you’re just a zero in the room, it’s going to be tough. I have to say that part of the business is unfair, but it’s real.
We can’t deny the fact that part of what we’re offering the people who hire us is a sense of comfort that we’re going to deliver and everything’s going to be okay. They’re just as scared as we are. Everybody’s scared.
JOHN: It’s very much a business of trust. As the person hiring you, I am trusting that you will actually be able to deliver me this script. I base that trust on the things I’ve read on the paper but also looking you in the eye and seeing “Okay, he gets it. He gets what it is we’re trying to do here.”
Yes, it’s incredibly important when you’re talking to the writer you’re bringing in for $1,000,000 to finish the script that’s about to go into production, but it’s also important just that the scale job that you’re trying to get made. Every step for one of us executives is important.
CRAIG: All right. Here’s the big question as we hit the midpoint of our podcast and everybody’s been really patient. They’ve listened to us talk about uteruses and the law. John, how do these people get a manager or an agent? [laughs] We ripped the Band-Aid off that 15 minutes ago. We’re still dancing around it aren’t we?
JOHN: I think you get an agent or manager through…I can think of three ways. The first is recommendation. So someone has read your work, has met you, and said, “This guy is awesome. This guy should be writing movies for Hollywood and I’m going to take this script and I’m going to take you, introduce you to this agent or manager, and say you should represent this person because this person is great.”
If that person has the ear of the right agent or manager and there’s already trust and taste being established between them that agent or manager will read your material, say yes or no, and be interested and excited about possibly representing you. That’s how I got an agent, is a friend took the script I had written to his boss.
He was interning at a small production company. The boss liked it, wanted to take it to the studio. I said, “I really need an agent, can you help me get an agent?” He said yes and he took it to an agent he had a relationship with. The agent read it because this guy who he trusted said that it was worth his time reading. He took it, read it, met with me, and he signed it.
That’s a very, very common story for how writers get represented. Second way, I would say, is agents read material that they found through some sort of pre-filtering mechanism. A pre-filtering mechanism could be a really good graduate school program. If you graduated from a top film school and you were the star screenwriter of a USC graduate film school program, some junior agent at an agency is likely reading those scripts and saying, “Oh this is actually a really good writer. This is a person we should consider.”
Even without that writer hunting down that agent the agent was looking for who are the best writers coming out of these programs or the best writers coming out of a competition. These are the Nicholls finalists. Those scripts get read and those people will be having meetings with the people they think are potentially really good clients.
CRAIG: Makes sense. What’s the third one?
JOHN: Just scouring the world to find interesting voices. I don’t know how much of this story is really accurate, but the apocryphal story of Diablo Cody is here’s a young woman who’s writing a funny blog. An agent reads the blog and says, “This woman can really, really write. She’s funny, she has a voice. I bet she could become a screenwriter.”
I don’t think all those details are quite accurate, but there’s always those writers who they were doing standup and they’re clearly very funny and someone sees their act and says, “I think that person is a performer but I also think that person is a writer and there’s something there that’s worth pursuing.”
CRAIG: I like those. Of course, all of them are predicated on you being a good writer and writing a good script, as is always the case, but those all make sense. I actually asked an agent at CAA named Bill Zotti, I gave him a call earlier today and I asked him the question. Of course, he groaned because it was that question, but he had a couple of pieces of really good advice that I figured I should pass along.
One is to make sure that, if you are specifically pursuing an agent, to really know who they represent and ask, “Is this agent appropriate for my material?” He said one of the most frustrating things is when he’ll get query letters or log lines for the kind of movies that his clients just don’t write.
Right now there are a lot of resources out there that are relatively inexpensive, like IMDb Pro for instance, where you can actually see, “OK, let’s say I write movies like Judd Apatow. Who represents Judd Apatow? Let me see. I write movies like John August. Who represents John August? Let me see.”
If I send that person a query letter and say, “Listen, I’m a huge fan of John August, I’m aspiring to write like John August, here’s my log line,” you might actually have a shot. Whereas, if you send it to a guy that represents writers who write rated R broad comedies, that person’s going to go, “Well what do I care? It’s not for me.”
Do your homework. If you’re going to go through the effort of trying to break the rocks to get a rep, do your homework about the rep. The other advice that he gave that I thought was pretty smart was to get a job in the business, which seems so blindingly obvious, but yet so many people resist it. I know why because it’s hard and it involves a commitment that you may not be willing to make.
He said listen, 80 percent of the people in the mailroom at one of the big talent agencies are not really interested in being agents. They’re there to learn the business because they want to do other things. They want to produce. They want to write. They want to direct. When you work in that business and you work in that place you get to know the other people there.
You work next to a guy who suddenly is now an assistant to an agent. You say to him, “Listen, I’ve written a script and I’m going to tell you what the idea is.” If he loves it he’s got a chance now to impress his boss with a great piece of material so he’s going to read it. These personal connections are invaluable.
It’s nearly impossible to do that kind of thing from Rhode Island.
JOHN: Yeah. I would also say what your example stresses is the horizontal networking. Everyone always thinks, “Oh to become successful you have to meet more powerful people and get more powerful people to love you.” It’s really not that case at all. It’s been my experience, but it’s also been the experience of all my assistants, the way they got to their next step was by helping out everyone else at their same level.
They were reading other people’s scripts and giving them notes. Those same friends were reading their scripts. Eventually they wrote that thing that was, “You know what? This is the script I’ve been waiting for you to write and I think I know the right person to take this to.” It’s always been those people who were doing exactly the same stuff you were doing who were the next step.
CRAIG: That’s right. That’s exactly right. I think people should think, as they are horizontally networking, about how they should market themselves. The funny thing is Hollywood, with one hand is saying, “Get out, stay out,” and with the other hand, is saying, “Please, somebody show up,” because they’re hungry for new talent, they’re desperate for new talent.
Nothing makes them happier than a writer who’s better than a guy who makes a million dollars that they don’t have to pay a million dollars to.
They’re actually looking, believe it or not. If you can market yourself properly; for instance we have a couple of friends who wrote a pretty crazy script and just put it out on the Internet and marketed it as this insane thing. It caught on.
JOHN: You’re talking about the Robotard 8000?
CRAIG: I’m talking about the Robotard 8000. You may say, “Why would you put your screenplay on the Internet, and why would say it was authored by the Robotard 8000?” Well, why, because they have agents at CAA and they’re working. It really got them a lot of attention.
Also, it didn’t hurt that other writers that people trusted were saying, “We read this script. This was really funny.”
Similarly, I’ll tell you, if I were 22 again and I were in a writer’s group, I would say…You and I didn’t have this in the 90s. Let’s get a web page for our writer’s group, and let’s just start blogging about the experience of our writers group. Let’s track the progress of our scripts and the log lines and the rest of it. If one of us catches somebody’s attention, suddenly our writer’s group has a little bit of buzz to it. “What will this writer’s group come up with next?” That’s why that Fempire thing was so cool, with Diablo…
JOHN: Dana and Lorena.
CRAIG: Dana and Lorena. It was like, Okay. There’s a group. Now, it’s not really a group; they all have to write their own scripts. But something about it, there’s a little bit of sparkly dust to it. It’s interesting.
How do you make yourself interesting? Maybe then somebody will be attracted to your script.
JOHN: We talked about marketing, but it’s really almost positioning. People need to know how to consider you, or what to consider you as. Here’s a terrible way to go into your first meeting: You wrote a really good comedy script that people liked, so they brought you in, a manager and agent sat down to meet with you. They say, “I really liked your script; it was really funny. What do you want to write?”
It’s like, “Well, I mostly want to write period detective stories with monsters.” The manager is going to hem and haw and make conversation for about another 10 minutes, but they’re not going to want to sign you because they were thinking about you as a comedy person. Let them pigeon hole you for five minutes until you actually get something going. They need to know how are they going to make the next phone call to somebody else, saying, “This guy has a really funny comedy script, but he’s exactly the right person to hire for your period action movie.” That just doesn’t make sense.
CRAIG: It doesn’t. Listen, these guys, what is their training in? Managers and agents are not there to tell you what to be. Their expertise is watching trends and patterns and pulling people out that fit what they believe is going to generate cash. They can’t tell you who to be. What they can do is see who you are and say, “That looks like money.”
So know who you are. Go in there and be who you are.
It doesn’t mean that you have to go in there as Michael Bay. Not everybody has to make $200 million movies; not everybody has to sell $3 million scripts. To be successful in this business, you just have to work. If I could walk into an agent’s office and say, “I will never make more than $200,000 a year, but I will make $200,000 every year for the next 20 years and I won’t bother you a lot,” that’s an instant signing. Why not? That’s great.
It’s not about how much you’re going to do, but just will you do. If you walk into an office and you say, “Look. I wrote this script and this is how I want to come off. These are the movies I love; this is the niche I want to fill.” If they feel like that’s a real niche and that niche needs filling, that’s a big deal. But they can’t tell you who to be.
JOHN: Exactly. You have to be able to come to them with material that shows what your talent is, and a story, or at least a way of presenting yourself that leads them to believe, “Yeah, I see what he’s going for and I think he or she can achieve that.”
CRAIG: People have to understand that agents and managers are…Let’s call them representation. They’re never going to be your mommy or your daddy. They’re not your savior; they’re not Superman. What they are, essentially, are the vanguard of the endless decision process that leads to a writer being hired. They’re the first people in line to say, “OK, I’m willing to take a shot on you.” You still haven’t made a dollar when you get an agent. But it all is driven by you.
JOHN: I always get the question of, how do I get an agent or manager? Generally, it’s the person who’s like, “I just finished my first script. How do I get an agent or manager?”
JOHN: OK, you wrote a script, that’s great. After your second script, then I’ll believe you actually can write a second script. Or they’re like, “We just started working on our first script. How do we get a manager?” It’s acknowledging that part of the process is the ability to prove that you can actually do this repeatedly.
I think we’ll probably say endlessly in the series of this podcast is that the career of being a screenwriter is not about one script. It’s about being able to write 50 scripts. While there may be one script that really gets representation’s attention, they’re really signing you for the next 30 things you’re going to write. They would love to be able to sell this one script. They mostly want to be able to sell you every year to different producers, different studios, to continue generating cash flow and continue making movies.
CRAIG: Yeah, there’s a certain naiveté about the question in and of itself. Again, why we hate the question is just that some people are asking it and they haven’t quite earned it yet. “How do I get an agent or a manager?” Maybe the better way to phrase it is, “Which agent or manager should get me?” Start thinking that way.
Then if you think that way, you realize, “Well, I’d better have something worth getting. I’d better know who these people are and I’d better know what I want, and where I want to work, and what kind of movies I want to be known for.” It’s the American Idol syndrome. “I go on TV, they like me, they pick me, I’m a star.”
JOHN: The lottery mentality, which kills me about screenwriting is that, by writing this one script, I will sell it for X dollars and then I will be set and everything will be wonderful and happy for here on out. It rarely happens that way.
I really liked the way you rephrased it, and I’m going to rephrase it again slightly, is, “How will the right agent find me?” If you can think about it in that perspective, a lot of things become more clear. How do I make myself visible enough that the right agent will recognize my talent and my determination and say, “This is the client I have to represent.”
What you may discover in that process is that, I say “the right agent find me,” the right agent probably isn’t the super-power agent who has Judd Apatow. It’s more likely the guy who has just a couple of clients, but they’re really good clients. I left a bigger agent and went to a smaller agent right before Go, and I made the change because I needed somebody who was generationally closer to me who was hungry in the same ways I was hungry, and I could grow with.
I get frustrated when people aim too high, too fast. You want the person who can grow with you, ideally.
CRAIG: So true. The only thing worse than not having an agent is having the wrong agent. Because then you feel like you are represented and everything’s going to be fine, but it’s a mismatch, so you have all of the lack of benefit of no agent, but none of the drive to get a new one because you have a one.
CRAIG: That’s the worst situation. I don’t care about the size of your agent, how big they are, who their clients are. If you’re just starting out and you’re lucky enough to attract the eye of a very powerful agent, you should ask, because it’s going to happen anyway, that they assign a junior agent to you. You’re going to need more help, and you’re going to need more attention. They’re going to be busy talking to people that earn $20 million a year. They have directors and actors who out-earn every screenwriter. They just won’t talk to you.
[laughs] Get the right guy or girl.
JOHN: And if you get the wrong guy, you can tune into a later podcast in which Craig will tell you how to fire your agent or manager.
CRAIG: [laughs] It’s the best.
JOHN: It’s actually one of Craig’s specialties. It’s one of the things I think he’s best known for, is really how to sever ties and move on with grace.
JOHN: I’ve seen him do it for many, many other screenwriters. It’s a master class.
CRAIG: I’m the Kevorkian of talent representation.
JOHN: Well, for a terrible question, I hope we were able to cover some of most crucial things. I think my recap for our conversation is, think like an agent or manager. What are they looking for? When you flip the question that way, it’s like, “How do I present myself as the person that they want to represent?” You can find that right match.
CRAIG: I like that horizontal networking point you made, too. You don’t have to always be looking up. Your friends are your best resource.
JOHN: With horizontal networking, living in Los Angeles becomes more obvious. You’re not going to be able to be around all those same people who are doing what you’re trying to do if you are in Austin. Austin’s great, but the agents who are going to represent you are not in Austin, so they’re not going to know who you are.
CRAIG: That’s true.
JOHN: Also, I would say win the Nicholl Fellowship, because that’s a good start for anybody.
CRAIG: [laughs] Yes, win the Nicholl Fellowship. That’s the easiest way. Also, be related to a great agent.
JOHN: That’s a giant help, yeah.
CRAIG: It’s a huge boost.
Let us never answer this question again.
JOHN: Yeah, done. We did it once. We never have to do it again. That’s the great thing about a podcast, is this will be around for forever.
CRAIG: I feel like I need to sleep now for 10 hours.
JOHN: [laughs] It’s the worst. All right, thank you very much, Craig.
CRAIG: Thank you very much, John.
JOHN: All right, talk to you soon.
CRAIG: Bye, guys.