Since I started writing this coluumn three years ago, the most commonly asked question by far has been some variation on "How Do I Get an Agent?"
Although I’ve touched on the issue obliquely, I’ve avoided answering the question directly for one simple reason: I have no idea.
Some of my most talented writer friends have trouble getting a good agent, even though they live in Los Angeles and are doing everything "right." It’s frustrating for them and it’s frustrating for me. If we were all beginning screenwriters living in Wichita, we could chalk it up to being some sort of California conspiracy, but it’s harder when you know the agents involved and understand their very difficult job.
So before getting into any how-to, let me lay down a few simple truths:
- You don’t have to have an agent. It’s not like a driver’s license; you’re not breaking any laws. Even though I had an agent at the time, the first few writing jobs I got were through other contacts I’d made at grad school and working as an assistant. My agent handled the deal-making, but in truth I was being paid the least the companies could legally pay me (called "scale"), so a lawyer could have done the same job.
- Agents need clients who work. That sounds obvious, but other than disliking your writing, it’s the main reason an agent will pass on you. Before she signs you, the agent has to believe that (A) enough people will be willing to pay you good money to write movies for them, and (B) you’ll be able to make those people happy.
- Most beginning writers worry about agents way too much. After fantasy-casting their script and practicing their acceptance speech, a newbie writer spends 20 minutes a day fretting about an agent. It’s wasted time. Work on your script; enter some competitions; make a real plan. Anything is better than sitting around worrying.
In my first year of graduate school at USC, I wrote a script called HERE AND NOW. It was a romantic tragedy set in Boulder, Colorado (my home town), and in hindsight was very overwritten. But still, it was well-overwritten. Friends who read it liked it, and I could get about 35% of readers to cry, which ain’t bad.
An instructor at USC took a shine to it, and gave it to a literary agent at CAA. Every day when I came home from work (I was interning at Universal), I checked the answering machine, hoping to hear that CAA loved it and wanted to sign me. For more than a month, nothing. I was paralyzed and despondent. Finally, the agent called the instructor and said no, thanks.
Those weeks spent waiting were completely wasted. It was an important lesson to learn.
That same summer, a friend in my grad program was interning for a producer, and gave him my script to read. The producer liked the writing and wanted to submit it to the studio where he had an exclusive deal. Supressing my joy, I said sure, but that I needed to get an agent first, and asked if he could help.
We made a list of agents we thought would be right — all of them smaller than the powerhouses like CAA. He called and got them to read it. I ended up signing with one at a boutique lit agency about a week later. That first script never sold — and probably shouldn’t have. But it got me meetings with a lot of other people whom I’d later work with.
While the story of how I got an agent might seem unique to my situation, it’s actually very typical, as you’ll see in other responses.