So – you want to be a scriptwriter? Really? You crazy fool. OK – but if you really do, then one of the things you are going to need, sooner rather than later, is an agent. Some writers do fine without one, but if you want someone to get your work read around the industry, who can negotiate deals for you and make sure the money arrives when it should, can advise you about your work and your career and generally be on your side, then get an agent. You will pay them between 10 and 15% of your earnings, plus VAT. However, unlike an accountant or a lawyer they only take money when you make it, so they are taking a risk on representing new writers too. Which is why it isn’t that easy to get an agent. Here are some tips on how to approach it.
1. Have written a script. Don’t laugh – a number of people get in touch saying they ‘would like to be scriptwriter and have some ideas’. Writers need agents when they are ready to go out there and write professionally, so you need to have developed yourself as a writer; have a voice, have things to say, have a style, have practiced by writing a number of different scripts. Make sure you are approaching people with the strongest possible script – workshop it with friends, read it onto tape, put it in a drawer for six weeks and come back and see if it is still what you want it to be. Agents may not look at a second piece of writing. Yours has to be knockout. Be prepared to show that you are experienced, professional and practiced, however ‘new’ you may be.
2. Find an agent. Spotlight publishes an annual contacts book, which lists all the literary agents; have a look through their websites and see which feels like a good fit. Some agencies specialize in comedy, or television drama, but it often isn’t that clear cut. Have a think about some writers you admire and see who their agent is.
3. Approach an agent. Check how each agency likes things submitted and follow the format. Make sure your submission is clear, easy to read, with a short introductory letter that covers the basics but doesn’t go into detail about the story. And make sure the spelling is correct! You don’t need to be able to spell to be a screenwriter but you do need to look like you have an eye for detail and perfectionism… It is fine to approach a number of agents at once, but do make sure your submission to each is personal (round robin e-mails are deeply irritating). Most agencies will have submissions guidelines on their website.
4. Make your submission stand out. Agents get 10+ submissions across their desk every day, so your submission letter has to give a reason why an agent should look at your work. Best shortcut for that is a recommendation (and a real one!) – if your introduction says ‘Jimmy McGovern thought you would be a good fit for me’, then the agent will almost definitely look at the work. Also, any recognition or awards one has had – basically, anything that means that someone else thinks your work is good already - helps. Failing these, evidence of getting your work out there e.g. any commissions, or performances – even rehearsed readings, performances in pub theatres, no-budget short films etc. Screenwriting is not a ‘locked in the attic’ job. Personally, I like evidence of drive, ambition, determination, a sense of vision and something to say before I got stuck into the most important bit, the script and the talent.
I like evidence of drive, ambition, determination, a sense of vision and something to say before I got stuck into the most important bit, the script and the talent.
5. Having a contract or a potential contract on the table means there is a deadline for an agent to get back to you, and you’re already an attractive client.
6. Once your script is submitted, don’t nag. Give a nudge after about 8 weeks, and if you hear nothing after that, let it go. They’re too busy/not organized enough for you! And if you’re rejected – burn it ceremoniously and move on. Put it down to experience, reconsider your approach if you like, but be aware that agents take on very few writers, so it may be nothing actually to do with you or your work.
7. If an agent likes your script, they’ll probably offer a meeting. It is important to meet in person if you possibly can. If it works well, you will have a productive professional relationship for many years. You are interviewing them as much as them interviewing you. Can you be frank with them? Do you like them, and trust them? You need to be able to have strong discussions with your agent, and not necessarily always agree with each other, and come away still happy to be working together. Ask them about how they develop their writers’ careers over time. Listen to what they have to say but equally, if they’re pushing you down a path you’re not interested in, alarm bells should be ringing. The big questions for you to be asking yourself are a) do you think they’re well enough connected to get your work widely seen, b) do they share your vision for your career and get what your writing is about and c) are they interested in the longterm?
8. Be clear about yourself and have a mission statement about who you are and what stories you want to tell. Agents need to be able to pigeonhole you to be able to sell you. I don’t mean limit yourself but if your ambition is to write for major post-watershed drama series, because you love gritty drama and well told crime stories then say that. If you would like to work towards writing major thriller feature films, say that too.
9. Never give up, and get on with being a writer. Get involved with the sort of writing you like – either writers groups through your local theatre (and if there isn’t one, start one), or online communities such as Raindance. Apply for schemes through BBC Writersroom, or to Rocliffe New Writers Forum. The blogosphere is full of interesting blogs and supportive communities. Make short films, or put on plays in pub theatres, or submit radio plays. If you love writing, do it. Word will get around!
Jean Kitson is a script and directors’ agent at MBA Literary and Script Agents Ltd, who represent writers from Oscar nominees to people with their first theatre commission. She works particularly with new writers, writer/directors and children’s writers, as well as representing a number of writers working in mainstream UK drama.