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 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 acquired 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, on the rare occasions my take was choses, 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…

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.

When It Gets Challenging

It’s a tough time of year. The weather is hot, both in the way that August is always hot and the way that portends the ever-nearing climate apocalypse. The autumn is nigh. In the way that August always precedes the too-fast downhill slope into the holidays and the end of the year.

We’re housesitting for a few days in a beautiful house with air-conditioning and a calm, well-behaved dog. An ideal writer’s retreat… but I am not being the ideal writer. It makes me feel ashamed of passing hours lacking in accomplishments, and it’s all too easy to make the mental jump from passing of hours to the passing of ones life.

I have my reasons for minimal output, as maybe writers always do. So far, 2019 has been yet another year of almosts, of promises, of feigned excitement and “contracts on their way from business affairs,” that in the end turn into nothing. Some “untruths” are no doubt innocent, others intentional — they are plentiful enough to have some of each.

So what should I be writing? I have two stories, a feature in need of a rewrite, and three feature outlines all begun, and I find myself in a state of paralysis, unable to make a good dive into any of them.

There is the pervasive Hollywood myth, that I am realizing is much the same as myths perpetuated by abusers everywhere, that there is some right choice, some story, that (if you can execute it in a way that’s transcendent) will make the relationship healthy, will make the abuser act not act like a sociopath. If you can just be GREAT ENOUGH then THIS TIME all the promises will be made good on. THIS TIME you will be pulled from your indentured servitude into the rosy future — if you can pass all the tests and reach it.

I’ve come to recognize this as the psychological fuckery it is, and I don’t believe in it anymore… except when I do. Like a seven-year-old coming to certain conclusions about Santa, I’m still like, “but WHAT IF?” What if he does exist and there are awesome presents that you get because you’re good?

So, there’s still this temptation to place an irrational weight on choosing which project to invest in, because what if one of them has the potential to be a project that CHANGES EVERYTHING and what if I choose wrong? Or, what if NONE of them will change everything, but there’s a project that will at least give me personal satisfaction, but instead I’m choosing to chase promises and pots of gold at ends of rainbows again?

At this point, either my compass is so messed up or — because it’s actually impossible for anyone to predict — I’m having difficulty even choosing what will give personal satisfaction. Which project, a year from now, will be worth the frustration of finishing a draft and realizing I need to tear it down to the bones and build it again and then again?

So here I am at a fork in the road, unable to choose a way forward, waiting for clarity.

At least there’s a pool.

 

 

 

Writing: Obstacles and Stakes

The other day, I was asked to give notes on a short script that had an interesting premise and main character and cool settings, but felt lacking in dramatic dramatic tension. In my notes I talked about obstacles and stakes, which are elements that come up commonly enough with clients or students, that I thought I might do a mini-lesson here.

Here’s a simple four-step structure you might use for a short film:

  1. A character has a goal.
  2. The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
  3. The character attempts to execute the plan.
  4. The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.

Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)

  1. A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
  2. The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  4. The cat eats the treats.

What would happen if we added some obstacles and stakes to this story?

OBSTACLES in writing are pretty much the same as obstacles in life — they are whatever gets in the way of our progress toward a goal. These can internal, like self-doubt or external as in this case: Let’s say that there’s a pile of dishes on the counter, waiting for their turn in the sink. There’s only a TINY area of counter where the cat can land without dislodging a dish…

STAKES are what a character stands to gain if she succeeds or lose if she fails. We already know what our kitty-cat gets if she reaches the top of the fridge — delicious cat treats, but we can make those treats a little more important. Let’s say the cat didn’t get any dinner, so she is legit HUNGRY. Maybe her owner was making an important romantic dinner for someone, got distracted and forgot to feed the cat. (Then she brought the dishes into the kitchen, and forgot again!)

So what happens if the cat FAILS? If the cat jumps and lands badly, she will dislodge a pile of dishes — they will come CRASHING to the floor, breaking the good china and ruining the romantic vibes happening in the next room. The cat’s owner will be pissed, and will throw the cat outside — still with no dinner! Oh — and it’s RAINING outside!

What does our story look like now? (EXAMPLE 2)

  1. The cat, locked in the kitchen, looks mournfully at her empty bowl. Her stomach growls. She looks at the treats on top of the fridge and licks her lips.
  2. The cat evaluates her route to the top of the fridge. There’s a pile of fragile dishes on the counter, but there’s also just enough space for a pair of kitty feet. The cat decides to go for it.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter and lands perfectly on the counter — but what she didn’t see was — it’s WET. As she makes her leap to the fridge, her paws SLIP! She madly claws for the top of the fridge but doesn’t make it and falls backwards. Now she’s in danger of smashing the dishes AND seriously injured! [We’re RAISING the stakes.] BUT at the last moment, she TWISTS and sinks her claws into the CURTAIN on the window. She climbs the curtain, and drops down to the top of the fridge!
  4. The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.

THE END

Representation!

So, here’s a little news on the professional front.  I’ve got representation now! A little more than a year ago, I received an email from a college classmate, introducing me to his manager and suggesting that we might enjoy working together. I had some work ready to go, so I sent the manager some samples which he liked and thought maybe he could do something with. He suggested that we spend time working together to see 1) How we worked together creatively and personally/professionally, 2) If I could continue producing work, 3) If he could get my material read (and what the response was), and 4) If we could get me more representation in the form of an agent.

Early on, I think most aspiring writers have a vision of being “discovered,” by someone who “falls in love,” with their writing. Clearly, this scenario was a bit less romantic. After taking a moment to calibrate, I was grateful for this. There’s a certain rush that comes when people LOVE you immediately, and say you are brilliant, and “you’re going places, kid.” But I’ve now had some Hollywood relationships that began with enthusiasm and fanfare end with no fanfare at all. As the saying goes “If you let yourself  get swept off your feet, you’ll probably land on your ass*.” So, this probationary arrangement was not unappealing to me.  I figured it would keep me from getting complacent and keep us both working to impress the other.

For about the next six months we tested the waters.  I was very happy with both his notes and his work ethic. Creatively he was insightful but not too pushy, and I liked how he was responsive, detail-oriented, and didn’t over-promise. We discussed formalizing our relationship based on that, but there was an issue that we were having a hard time getting readers to respond to the work we sent out. And by respond, I don’t mean emotionally respond–I mean even glance at the material and take the time to say no. This is not surprising, because feature scripts, especially from new writers are a hard sell**. But, it was a point of concern.

Then, I tried my hand at writing a television pilot.  This time, when my manager sent it to three people, amazingly, all three people responded. They didn’t all respond with “yes, tell me more about the series,” but they all read it and responded (and one of them said, “yes, tell me more about the series.”) This seemed like some movement in the right direction, and gave my manager the confidence to show the pilot to agents and a couple of agencies. One of them was interested, and I went in and met with them. Before our second meeting with the agency, the manager and I signed a contract.

So, for this moment, I have a “team,” consisting of both and agent and manager. They cannot work miracles, and they will not be champions of everything I write. But for certain projects that they feel have marketplace potential, they can amplify my visibility…to convince more people to read a script, and arrange some meetings with people at companies who have a track record of getting things made. That, for me, is a huge step forward.

So, YAY, representation!!

___________________________________________

*Actually, this is not “a saying,” I think I just made it up. It’s pretty good, though, right?

**Some depressing but informative articles about selling spec feature scripts.

The Odds of Selling a Spec Screenplay (2011)

What are your real chances of success? (2012)

What Screenwriters Can Learn from Hollywood’s Dismal Spec Market (April, 2016)

2016 Spec Script Sales to date (October, 2016)