My Journey from Contest to Manager to Agent to Paid Writer… Maybe!

Depending on how long you’ve been exploring the business of being a writer in Hollywood, you’ve probably asked or heard someone ask, “How do I get a writing job?” One of the first answers to this is often, “You need to have an agent.” The following question is, predictably, “How do I get an agent?” To which you’ve probably heard someone say,  “Get a manager and  the manager will get you an agent.” Which of course begets, “How do I get a manager?” And the answer is often, “Win a contest.”

So, if you win a contest you’ll get a manager then get an agent then get a writing job. Is this true? Yeeessss… ish.

Does winning a contest get you a manager? In 2011, not long after I graduated from school,  I  won a pretty big contest. It was sponsored by Amazon Studios and had a chunk of prize money attached. Amazon ended up optioning the script, twice. Both times, the executive pursuing the option waxed poetic about how they were going to introduce me to agents and get me repped. Once I signed the paperwork, he never mentioned the idea again and any emails where I brought it up the subject went unanswered. I also probably sent a dozen cold queries citing my contest win — (note that this is pretty much NOTHING in a numbers game like cold queries) and also didn’t get a response. Certainly no one ever sought me out based on my contest win. So I did my day job and allocated my extra time to writing. A few YEARS went by…

THEN, about four or years later, I was invited to a party by an old USC classmate. At that party, another classmate introduced me to his manager. A couple months after that, the same classmate heard that the manager had a specific opening in his roster.  He wrote to both of us, recommending me.  So at that point there was a combination of things at work. This classmate knew me personally from school, had read my writing and knew it was in the genre the manager was looking for. AND he knew I had won this contest.  I think the contest win helped give him the confidence to make the referral, because it was like having someone else, someone more important, vouch for me. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have gotten the referral, or the manager’s interest, without the contest win. But the personal connection with someone who had actually worked with me, who was also connected to the manager (enough to know his needs) was also key. The fact that the manager had met me face-to-face among people he already liked probably also worked in my favor. I think if any of those things had been absent, it wouldn’t have happened. So:

  • Contest win  + Degree from Name School + Referrer familiar with work AND personality + Intangible Group approval of having been invited to party + Writing samples = Manager.

Does having a manager get you an agent? Almost a year into my relationship with my manager, I wrote a pilot script that “popped” more than the other scripts I’d been working on. The manager used this to get me read by two agents he knew. The first wasn’t responsive, but the second was. This agent worked at the same company as a senior agent who had taught a class at USC. I had worked hard in the class, and kept in touch in the years since (without agenda, I’ll note. He had promised he would never rep one of his students, and I believed him). So again — it was a confluence of things… an exciting script, the manager’s relationship with the agent PLUS the goodwill of the senior agent based on the effort I had put in to the class and to staying in touch… and I had the good school credentials and the contest win, AND – at this point a script I had been working on while un-repped had won a fancy prize — a fellowship in Switzerland. As a note, I don’t think the agent particularly liked either of my contest-winning scripts,  but he liked that he could tell people it had won because it made me shiny.

  • Manager + Manager’s Agent Relationship + Senior agent as secondary referrer familiar with my work AND personality + Degree from Name School + Hot Script + Other samples + Contest Win + Fellowship Win = Agent.

Does having an agent get you work? My new agent used the exciting script to get me a “water bottle tour” and  some pitches.  Ultimately one of the companies I pitched became attached and entered into the development process to pitch the series. Everything was going according to plan! However, the project ultimately floundered and didn’t move forward. The exec who had loved it never responded to another email. My samples earned me the opportunity to pitch for some open writing assignments, I got to break stories, go to meetings and give my “take.” Though my take was occasionally chosen, the projects ultimately fell through,  I enjoyed the process. I could feel myself becoming a better all-round writer and pitcher.

There was only one problem:

In the four years of being unrepped + year of having a manager + four years of having both manager and agent (= nine years), none of the work I’d done had been PAID.  All this time, I was teaching, editing, consulting, doing random side hustles and admin work — or going deeper into debt — or both.

Today, as I write this, this seems like it might be about to change. Not in a big way. Not even in a “quit my day job” way. But, in a way that at least breaks the almost decade-long cold streak. (Knock wood — send good vibes!)

To say it is to jinx it, so details must wait for a future post , but I can tell you now that the answer to the question “Does having an agent mean paid work” will be an equation containing a number of factors…

The Semantics of Survivor

This article, about how “cancer survivor” came into popularity, is my first attempt at posting something on Medium.

Update: I got a note from Medium saying I had been “curated,” which is apparently a good thing, and would be promoted in the “Health” section. Woot!

Life in a Time of Pandemic (April 16-17, 2020)

Thursday, April 16, 2020

I’ve turned a corner somehow, and lost my intrinsic motivation to take my morning walk — maybe because it was raining on a couple of days, maybe because I threw my back out a few days ago. Lately I wake and think, what if I just stay in bed? 

I’ve let nine days pass without updating my journal, and without even noticing. In the news as in life, the days are blending together — the number of COVID illnesses and deaths feature less as unemployment numbers, and and the political work of assigning blame for the pandemic take center stage. In neglecting to journal, I’ve also neglected to record the day-to-day events — but today’s news feels mostly like yesterday’s news: Retailer are facing catastrophe because no one is buying much. There still aren’t enough Covid 19 tests to give an accurate picture of the virus’s spread, and there is speculation that the virus was active in Europe and the US before anyone realized it. (Half a dozen people I know personally surmise they’ve “probably had it” because they had some kind of flu or malaise in the past few months.)

Those of us with direct deposit received stimulus checks arrived yesterday of $1200 each. Paper checks have been delayed by a couple days so President Trump could add his name on the checks. He couldn’t sign them, as he wished to, because by definition he is not the Department of the Treasury, but his name will appear on the left-hand side, below the memo line.

Because of my career aspirations and interests I am on numerous Facebook pages and email lists for various organizations which are offering free content for my consumption during this time. After working and teaching online, it’s hard to feel enthused about more hours in front of a computer . but I try to occasionally take advantage.

There’ll be more time for such entertainments after the next couple weeks. Tonight is my last Thursday class — my pitching class. In a burst of energy, I decided to invite outside guests to our final pitches on Zoom, and, as with life events IRL, I am living with the anxiety and partial regret phase of that decision now. Nervous about my ability to play MC and wrangle the Zoom settings and make people feel appreciated.

Saturday, April 17, 2020

Our little Zoom pitchfest went very well last night. All the students rose to the occasion! Their pitches came in right at ten minutes, which was the target — I could tell they had planned and practiced.  I think we’d all been working toward this and been distracted from the reality of it being the last class. At the end, we let our guests go had a pretty emotional farewell! 

And now I am feeling a little sad. I’ve been pushing through these last weeks of class. I’ve been extra glad to be working during the pandemic, but also feeling I’ll be relieved when the performance anxiety (because even though I feel I’m a good teacher, it is my nature to feel anxiety before every class) is over. But the flip side of having that small version of “stage fright” is that I also tend to feel what I’ve labeled over the years “post-show depression.” Plus I won’t see my students anymore…

But here’s a little inspirational side note. My friend Dmitry offered the students some advice that I could stand to follow myself: “Write first thing in the morning.” During my time here in Florida, I’ve been consumed with teaching, then pitching my TV show, and then, with the pandemic and the closure of my yoga studio, wanting to walk outside before the heat, I have given up my morning writing, and my writing has gone out the window…. I have often noted that whatever I do first thing in the morning is the only think I can guarantee will get done, because the day can go off the rails at any time.

This morning, for example, this journal entry is likely the only thing I’ll write today — especially, since I’ve now done something which will end my fragile writerly flow, which is look at my newsfeed:

A Wall Street Journal article notes that yesterday marked the record for number of US deaths from Covid19  in a 24 hour period. It was 4591– up from the prior record of 2569.  There were 31,451 reported new cases, bring the total to 671,000 reported Coronavirus cases, and 33,000 deaths in the US.  Confirmed cases worldwide is more that 2.15 million and the number of deaths top 144,000. 

Other news highlights:
5.2 million Americans sought unemployment benefits last week — the month total is 22 million.
Aid programs for small companies and individuals have reached their funding caps.
Shares of Gilead Science rose 15.1% after reports that one of their experimental drugs was performing well in trials with Covid 19 patients. 
The shipments of masks and test kits from China are being delayed because of quality control issues.
Some governors in contiguous states in the west and the midwest have formed coalitions to use collective bargaining power to get supplies

After some flurry about who would be in charge, President Trump has said that the governors of states will to set the timelines for their “re-opening.” 
The White House has issued some guidelines — saying that the states should phase in reopening once they’ve seen a downward trend of cases over a two-week period and outlining what those phases might look like:

Phase 1: Reopen movie theaters, restaurants, sports venues, places of worship, gyms and other venues with strict social distancing guidelines in place. Vulnerable people should still stay at home — and no visits to nursing homes and hospitals. Some people would return to work, though telework is still encouraged.
Phase 2: Non-essential travel could resume, and bars could open with some restrictions. Schools and youth activities could reopen.
Phase 3: No restrictions on workplaces, vulnerable people could resume social interactions, but seek to follow social distancing. Visits to hospitals and nursing homes could resume.

Pitch It To Me

In my last post, I was saying that two of the classes I’m teaching this term two are very similar to classes I took in screenwriting school. One — the topic of my last post, I enjoyed.

The OTHER was pitching class. 

The room was small and bright. The number of students was less than 12. We sat around a table. It was a class that required performance, real time responses, and a certain kind of salesmanship that — to the untrained eye — seems not to be salesmanship at all.

On the first day of class, our teacher entered and told us a riveting personal story. It was exciting, suspenseful, a little vulnerable and very relatable — the kind of story where you think, “yes, I feel that too, you are just like me!” But just as I was getting sucked in, the instructor dropped a bombshell: The whole story wasn’t true. It was an example of “a ramp,” meant to engage listeners, make them feel connected to you and to the larger story you are about to pitch. The instructor noted that the best ramps propel the listener so naturally into the pitch that the listener doesn’t even realize where the small talk ends and the pitch begins. Even though his ramp was a lie, our teacher said, it wasn’t considered a lie because everything, he said, from the moment you enter “the room,” is part of the pitch.

We were ten minutes into our first class session and I was feeling the first stabs of panic. “I can’t do this,” I thought. I’m a terrible liar. I can lie. It’s just that ten seconds after the lie, I have to tell you that I lied. I’m basically that character in KNIVES OUT who vomits every time she tells a lie except that instead of vomiting vomit — I vomit the truth. Even as a complete newbie, I intuited that my style of involuntary, often crazy-sounding truth-vomits were not going to help me create the kind of “conversational and compelling” experience the instructor was talking about.

During the course of the the semester, my anxiety and discomfort shifted from ramps to just about every aspect of pitching. I left most class sessions feeling like I had profoundly under-impressed in an environment that was all about ones ability to impress. At the same time, I knew that my discomfort was a symptom of growth, that I was learning a skill I needed, and that it was a skill that, with practice, I could eventually master.

Some of my fellow students that semester were amazing, professional level pitchers. I Although it was sometimes emotionally hard to have to follow their dazzling high-wire act with my own, seeing them pitch every week modeled for me what was possible.  And it’s possible that all my emotions during that class helped me better remember what I learned. Certainly it made an impression on me, and I’ve been grateful for that class every time I’ve had to pitch in the years since. I’ve had the experience of going into a room with a pitch and being told by an exec that he requested the meeting purely because someone had told him it was a “fun pitch.” It felt good — I might not be the person with a sold show, but at least I had a fun pitch!

A couple years ago, I placed in an Alumni pitching competition with a feature. Afterwards I chatted with the woman who had won in the TV category and she said, “Did you have pitch class with Trey Calloway?” Indeed I had. It was not my favorite class, but it was a valuable class, so when the folks at UF asked if I could teach a pitching class, I said “yes,” figuring if I can give my students half the experience that was given to me, I’ll have done something helpful.

Something New / Script Analysis

This spring I’ll be taking a cross country trip in order to teach three classes at University of Florida.

Two of the topics I’ll be teaching will be very similar to classes at USC that I feel were the most valuable to my writing career.  One of them I enjoyed greatly.  The other, I did not enjoy as much, but have always been grateful that I took it. I’m going to write a post about each.

The one I enjoyed was called “Screenplay Analysis.”

Flowers-vocabularyBefore my script analysis class, the construction of a movie felt to me like a large amorphous blob. The class showed me how, in fact, a movie is made up of segments and parts that perform various functions — that there are recurring techniques and devices that are recognizable. It was the difference between walking through a garden and seeing “a bunch of flowers” and walking through a garden and seeing tulips and roses and snapdragons and having a sense of why they are planted where they are — either for aesthetic purposes — color or height or when they will bloom — or because of what they need to grow — light or shade or more or less water or a certain kind of soil. And also — to belabor the metaphor — differentiating between kind of gardens and understanding the elements that might go into choosing what kind of garden to plant in the first place.*

Another aspect of script analysis that made it enjoyable was that it was a large class taught in a dark auditorium. The teacher lectured, and unless you raised your hand, you didn’t have to fear he was going to break the fourth wall and pull you on stage. In my pedagogy classes, this was considered pretty old school, but honestly, I enjoyed it. I could process and think and plan out my questions if I had them. It was a class about receiving, and a class about training ones brain to think in a certain way.

However, it was a divisive class among the students. While it was one of my favorites (so much so that I snuck into other sections of the class for the next couple semesters), it was other people’s least favorite class. They found it boring and confusing.

I imagine it will be the same with my students. An odd part of being  a teacher is how at any point you can be rocking one student’s world while at the same time you are simply inflicting torture on another student — by teaching the same material.

So I’m both looking forward to — and daunted by — the opportunity to teach this subject for the first time!  I’ll try to check back in and let you know how it goes!

*I feel I should make it clear that I know next to nothing about flowers or gardens.