Justin Marks is a screenwriter who has worked on feature films ranging from the geek-driven to the way-too-serious. I first met him on the Film France trip to Paris in 2008, when his career was in its early stages.
Last week, Justin tweeted:
Protip: Get a manager. A great manager. The best manager. It’s the difference between having a career and having no career.
On that last note: there are pros who disagree with me. But they came up in a different generation. So be mindful of that.
I mildly disagree, but: I came up in a different generation. I may be wrong. It’s entirely possible that the experience I had coming of age as a screenwriter in the late 90s is enough different that some of my reflex opinions (e.g. managers are useless) should be questioned. I asked Justin to write up his experiences and opinions. He has has graciously agreed.
You can follow Justin on Twitter @justin_marks_.
Hello, my name is Justin Marks, and I’m a working screenwriter.
Feels great to say, doesn’t it? It’s not the kind of job description that happens overnight. It was born of more than a decade of frustration and hard work. Good scripts and bad scripts. Good advice and bad advice. Good days and bad days. Easily the most satisfying and unnerving years of my life.
But when exactly did I become a screenwriter? Was it the first time I wrote a screenplay? The first time I got paid to do it?
For me, the moment I became a screenwriter was when I met my manager. He taught me the fundamentals -– how to build a career in a competitive and at times impossibly frustrating business.
Which is why, with John’s permission, I’d like to speak about this thorny issue of literary managers.
So let me come out and say it: if you want to make it in today’s business, I believe you need a manager. It’s as simple as that.
Strangely, among the community of established writers, you’re not likely to find a strong consensus on this topic. Opinions range everywhere from “they’re awesome” to “what kind of moron are you for giving up ten percent to someone who does nothing?” And while I won’t pretend to be some kind of ultimate authority on the issue, I think my insight can be particularly helpful to other young writers looking for a way to get their start.
Here’s the thing about the writers who say you don’t need a manager: chances are they “broke in” during a very different era. As early as five years ago, there were better DVD sales, a writers’ strike that hadn’t yet happened, and far more studios willing to spend far more money on the development of scripts.
Today, not so much. There are fewer screenwriters being paid to do what they do. Even if you’re an established writer, it means doing a lot more work for free, competing with a lot more writers for assignments, and accepting significantly less than your quote for the assignments you get.
And if you’re not yet an established writer…oh boy. The window of entry has narrowed to a pinhole, and your margin for error is nearly non-existent. Write a bad script, slip it to the studios, and your name will be in that computer system for years to come. Every time someone looks you up, you’ll have the stink of negative coverage tied to your name. It puts ever-more precedence on starting with your best foot forward.
Not to mention the agent issue. Say you’re lucky enough to score one. Congrats! They’ll look out for your best interests, right? Sure. There are great agents out there. But they’re also looking out for the best interests of a thousand other clients their agency now represents –- the result of mergers necessitated by the shrinking job market.
How do you get the attention you need when your agent has to handle hundreds of phone calls from dozens of clients, many of whom are competing with you for the same job?
Enter the manager.
A lot of people wonder what a manager does. After all, an agent gets you jobs. A lawyer negotiates them. So who is this other strange person collecting ten percent in the middle of all that?
Let me answer your question by telling you what my manager does. Or rather, what he did to get me where I am.
When I first met Adam Kolbrenner, I was a senior at Columbia University, majoring in architecture and writing screenplays in my dorm room at night. At the time, I knew I loved writing and wanted to be a screenwriter some day, but I also knew next to nothing about how the hell I might go about becoming that writer. I knew it meant moving to Los Angeles, and I’d been interning at studios during summer breaks to “make connections.” But beyond that, I was pretty lost.
Adam was a young literary manager, five years older than me, who had started a super-small company (read: three people) after deciding he didn’t want to be an assistant at an agency anymore. In short, he wasn’t at the top of the manager pyramid. He wasn’t even somewhere in the middle. He was trying to get his start from rock bottom by doing what he felt he did best -– finding good writers and making them better.
I found Adam through a mutual friend on a fact-finding visit to Los Angeles. This was not some “Hollywood connection.” This wasn’t some bigwig exec who owed my dad a favor. This was the John-August-tried-and-true method of making friends with peers and being introduced to their friends. He agreed to read a script of mine that shall remain nameless because it was embarrassingly bad. Adam didn’t think he could sell that script to studios for a million dollars. He made that very clear. But he saw some talent in it, and he gave me some advice…
He told me I should probably get a day job.
And then he told me something that no one at that point had ever said: “I’ll help you become a screenwriter.”
They were words that changed my life. I graduated from college, hustled out to Los Angeles, and for three years, I toiled away at a day job to pay the bills, while Adam read draft after draft of what must have been a dozen different ideas. I emailed him several times a week: what do you think of this? Could you read this new script? Is this a movie? He sent me copies of produced scripts, so I could read what the marketplace wanted. He told me stories of other writers and why they were successful and what I could learn from them. And he was one of the few people who believed in me, time and time again, as I built my career.
Mind you, all this was only possible because Adam and I were, at the time, in similar positions: trying to make names for ourselves. We had a mutual interest in my career, just as Adam had an interest in several other careers he was managing. He had to be patient, insightful, and constantly attentive -– qualities all afforded because, well…he didn’t have much else to do at the time. He wasn’t some “sexy” top tier manager who was going to introduce me to Leonardo DiCaprio. He was a schmuck just like me, who happened to have a few more years in the business than I did and who happened to have really good taste.
Then, finally, almost four years from when I met Adam, I walked into my boss’s office to tell him I’d just received an offer to write a screenplay for a major producer, and that it was time to give him my two weeks’ notice.
It was an incredible day. I was beside myself, holding my WGA-minimum payment that was more money than I’d made in a year. I went out to a drive-in theatre and watched three bad movies on a loop, thrilled to know that I was closer than ever to having my name on one of those tattered screens.
And then, the following Monday, Adam hit me with the hard truth…
Our work had only just begun.
Because breaking in was really just the first chapter of being a screenwriter. Maybe it was even just the preface -– you know, the part with Roman numerals, before they actually start numbering the pages.
The true work comes when you’ve finally been paid to do what you do, and now you have to find a way to stretch a single job into an entire career. This profession is so much more than just the words we put on a page: it’s the assignments we take, the meetings we give, and the friendships we make along the way.
So for the next six years, Adam turned me from an aspiring writer into a working writer. We collaborated hand-in-hand, deciding what jobs I should audition for, what new scripts I should write, whether those scripts were ready to be handed in to the studio or whether they needed more work. When I’d dug myself into a hole with a producer, he’d show up with a shovel to dig me out. When I started making real money and didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do with it, he even recommended financial advisers who knew what to tell me.
He became my partner, my creative sounding-board, my thirty-minute phone call strategizing about how to get out of one job when what I really wanted was another, and most of all, my personal advocate.
Through good times and bad.
That’s a very important part of this equation. My manager calls me on the good days to tell me that I’ve gotten a job. He also calls me on the bad days when the studio has chosen someone else. And on those bad days, he’s able to give me the real reason why, so I can either adjust my strategy or shrug it off and move on to the next. He manages the overall business of my career, not just the did-you-or-didn’t-you-get-a-job part. And he knows me well enough to know when I want to hear the truth or when it’s best to sugarcoat it.
So if I were recommending to a younger writer how best to start out, I’d say get a manager. What are you waiting for? They’re out there –- not just the established ones, but the young ones, the hungry ones, the ones who are just dying to find an original voice like yours and turn it into a career.
Make friends, talk to your film school pals, find out who’s trying to blaze the right path and get your script into their hands.
Obviously you have to find a way to avoid the bad managers. There will be lazy ones, or ones who are selling you on skills or relationships they don’t have. Find someone who maybe worked at an agency at some point in their lives, or who is just starting out at a bigger management company. Find someone who comes well recommended from a mutual friend. Someone who’s out there meeting with young executives and even assistants and who can hustle in your name. Find someone who loves to read, and who loves to share what they’ve read.
And when that someone gives you advice, damnit you’d better listen. These are people who genuinely want what’s best for you, and I can’t tell you how hard it is to hear the truth every now and then. Remember we can always learn more, we can always be better, and in the case of a manager, they’re getting their ten percent to help you along that path — especially when they’re getting ten percent of nothing.
Today I’m lucky to be a working writer: trying to land jobs, finish rewrites, and get my movies made same as anyone else. And Adam is no longer the young ex-assistant with dreams of becoming a manager. His office with no windows has turned into a building with valet parking. We worked our way up together.
I can easily say that while I can credit many people with my early success (first boss, first agent, spouse, etc), I would not be where I am without my manager. It’s not that these strange animals teach you how to write or get you jobs (although you’d be surprised at how many times they do both). It’s that, in this difficult climate, they hold your hand through the near-impossible process of having a career. Without my manager’s guidance, I would have been lost in the woods.
My own experience has a lot of overlaps with Justin’s, only instead of managers, I was dealing with an agent. I never had a manager.
My original agent was a a well-established (and well-regarded) indie rep. We parted ways only when it became clear my commercial ambitions were pretty damn vast, and beyond what he could service. My second (and current) agent was an up-and-comer, a generational peer at a bigger agency. Like Justin’s manager, we grew together. I’ve always felt he had my back.
But in terms of screenwriting, his guidance is strictly on the career rather than the words. My agent is not reading every draft or giving notes, proxy for a novelist’s editor. I was already well past that point when I met him. That writing advisor function was filled by teachers and peers, producers and execs. I got it for free. Sometimes, I even got paid for it.
I wrote five paid steps for my first screenwriting job. That seems impossible today. The amount of writer R&D the industry is willing to pay has dropped. I recognize that my bias against managers may be out-dated. They may fulfill a crucial writer-development function.
That said: It’s always been hard to be a newbie screenwriter. It wasn’t the writers’ strike. It wasn’t agency consolidation. If I asked a newly-employed screenwriter in 2005 or 2000 or 1972 to write about the state of the industry, he’d answer that it’s tougher than it’s ever been.
I fully agree with Justin on one point: you need someone. You need a champion and defender, an advisor and motivator. If a manager fills that role — or some of those roles — then sure: get a manager. Just make sure to get a good one.