How To Spot A Shonky Literary Agent or Manager


Screenwriters beware.

Use common sense and intuition to determine if a prospective agent or manager is right for you. It’s pretty similar to spotting a shifty used car dealer yelling “Have I Got A Deal For You?”

You’ve sent an agent/ manager a query letter and they’ve responded positively. You send them your movie script and they love it. They want to meet you. There is something distinctive, unique and marketable in your work. They see potential in your screenwriting career.

They’re gonna help you break through for a small fee. Hold your horses before you whip out your check book. Turn your horses around and head for the hills.

There’s a wonderful global tool called the internet. Find out which clients your prospective agent/ manager represents and what projects they’ve sold or setup recently. You’ll read lots of reviews online. Some are harsh while others are glowing. This is a bona fide referral system and perfect if you don’t have many (or any) contacts in L.A.

Be wary of a single scathing review. It may be a disgruntled writer venting their anger over a failed deal the agent couldn’t control. However, if these sentiments are mirrored by numerous screenwriters, they may have some validity.

You’ll start noticing patterns in unfavorable agents/ managers. They don’t give a street address or a telephone number. They hide behind a post office box and an email address such as “bestagentever@yahoo.com”. It’s not always a red flag, but tread cautiously. Some agents (especially from the ten percentaries) use temporary email addresses so their regular email accounts don’t get flooded with unsolicited email queries.

Rudeness is something I won’t tolerate, now matter how important an agent thinks he/she is. Neither should you. If they can’t talk, or still haven’t read your script after a few months without an explanation, I ditch them. I once contacted an agent who stressed a strictly enforced, “don’t call us, we’ll call you” policy. They wanted a hard copy of a release form sent to an out of town address. They would then contact the writer and a hard copy of the script needed to be sent to an out of town reader.  It was just like a treasure hunt. They wouldn’t reveal their identity or where exactly they were based.

Beware of agents/ managers requesting “modest” management and/or reading fees. My only advice is RUN. If you can’t run, hobble, skip, saunter, hop. Just get away from them. I once had a prospective agent send me a letter on official embossed writing paper in cursive lettering requesting a reading fee of only $300, which was fully refundable once my script got sold. Hollywood agents don’t work on a retainer; only on commission from writers.

Beware of agents claiming that your film script will get produced by their affiliate production company. This is increasingly becoming an issue with managers who are demanding full ownership of your screenplay. The affiliate company may be an entity from producers trying to break into the industry. If your script does get produced, it may be at a low to no budget level. These people are looking for material with a minimal or absent option fee. Don’t get too cynical. The sharks are few and far between. Everybody wants to make a great movie.

After your initial investigation has confirmed your prospective representation is legitimate, meet them, even if your spidey senses are making you wary. Often they will take you to lunch or coffee, particularly if it’s your first meeting. Take note of where they take you, what they’re wearing and what car they drive. Top agents drive BMWs and are immaculately (or very smart casually) dressed. They also sport some of the most eye-catching shoes I’ve ever witnessed. By the way, they’re doing the same to you, so make an effort.

Think of it as a first date. You’ve checked out each other’s online profiles, exchanged a few emails and are finally meeting up face to face. First impressions count. I remember a psychologist once saying that you know if a first date’s going to lead to a second date within the first 10 to 30 seconds. How’s that for pressure? A similar amount of time is spent on reading query letters.

Ask legitimate business questions. Determine if they “get you” and your work. Do they understand the sort of material you write and what you want audience to gain from it? Is it an awareness of social issues, comedic entertainment or cerebral drama?

Do they have the connections to move your career forward; either by circulating your script as a writing sample or shepherding it into production. Find out what their favorite movies are, both recent and all time. Do you have a business rapport with them?

Ask about budgets and potential attachments such as actors and directors. Find out their vision for your script. Are you both working on the same project? I remember an agent thinking my family script was a comedy. Agent malfunction alert!  You need to be sure whether they are the right fit for you. If they frequently work with Michael Bay and you write low-budget, indie, gritty dramas, they probably won’t be able to help you. But if you love high-octane action comics, a different fate awaits. Having said that, Michael Bay may want to try his hand at tender romance films. I once had a manager who asked me to stop sending him work because our tastes and interests had diverged so much, there was little point in maintaining the relationship. No hard feelings.

There is no grand plot to crush screenwriters in Hollywood. Everyone is looking for something unique that resonates with the times and will set the box office on fire. Make sure your script is fully cooked before you send it out. Nobody likes a souffle being removed from the oven before it’s cooked. It tastes as bad as it looks.

Be persistent and tenacious. Carry a note book and scribble ideas for new movies. I create a list of what I’m writing next. Every agent wants to forget they’re reading and by drawn into your story. After they finish they all want to say “I see it on the screen”.

Once you’ve finished a film script, take the afternoon off and start the writing the next project while you’re on a roll, because you don’t know which script will gain traction. In my case, it’s the one I least expect.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. GK Noyer says:

    This is excellent advice, esp re finding out how they operate, discovering their tastes and whether you’re making the same film they are. I’ve been through a couple of agents already that were a waste of time for both of us, just because I didn’t bother with any of that – I was so chuffed to finally find one interested. All too easy to do!

  2. Your final comment is so true, at least in my case. I have eight completed scripts and one 21-episode family sitcom, and the script that my agent loved from the moment he first read it was last one I expected to be enjoyed by readers and producers. So don’t think of your screenplays in any sort of order, because your agent might change the order and you’ll need to be ready to promote the one at the bottom of your list. That script, by the way, is now in pre-production and my agent has urged me to write a sequel.

    1. Good for you. Keep on writing!

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