Recently, a high ranking employee of one of the two major agencies in town (you figure it out) came to speak in my UCLA Extension Screenwriting class.
He must go unnamed due to various public speaking clauses, but was very forthcoming in our class.
Here’s what he had to say…
“One Thanksgiving, when I was just starting out, I had the privilege of sitting next to Paul Newman at dinner. I asked him what the key to the business was, and he said, ‘Longevity.’ Twenty years later, I see what he meant.” After attending USC’s film program, where his fellow students included John Singleton, Agent X started in the mailroom at the agency where he now works.
He talked about what happens to your script when it’s sent to a large agency. “There is a reader who will read it and they’re basically going to write a book report on your script. We call this coverage. Most likely, the agents will read the coverage before they ever read your script.” Although he wasn’t discouraging, he wanted the students to know what they’re getting into. “If you think writing a screenplay is a golden ticket, it’s not. It’s too competitive, it’s not easy. It’s absurdly hard. All of you are on the one yard line and there’s a football field ahead of you filled with people who will try to stop you. But you will also meet people on that field who will help you. And it’s important to recognize them when they appear.
The agent then told a story about how this works. Recently, he was asked to speak at a high school career day in South Los Angeles. He went and was discouraged by the response. Most of the questions hovered around, “How much money do you make?” and, “What kind of car do you drive?” Each class got progressively worse, until the last one, which was attended by a very interesting student named Sean. This agent said, “How would you like to come to Agency X? I’ll introduce you to the people there.” Sean said he would like that. At the end of the day the principal came up and gave the agent one of the high school’s t-shirts to thank him for coming. A week goes by, Sean doesn’t show up. Another week, he can’t make it then either. So he never comes. He has this opportunity, and he never follows up on it.
A month later, the principal of the high school calls up the agent and says, “Do you remember me? I’m the principal at the school you came to on career day. My son is thirty, he works at the Olive Garden, he’s written three screenplays, and I wondered if you would be willing to talk to him.” The agent says yes, the writer calls him and pitches the logline of his latest script in one sentence. It sounds interesting, so the agent says, “Send it.” The writer sends it immediately via email. The agent reads it that night.
Needless to say, he loved it, and the 30-year-old writer who works at the Olive Garden is now meeting with directors at this high-powered agency who are interested in making his movie.
So clearly, part of making it down the football field, is recognizing the people on that field who can help you. If this principal hadn’t gotten up his courage and called someone he barely knew, his son wouldn’t be having the success he’s experiencing right now.
Agent X had other tips for the class…
1) “It’s important to know what the premise is. The logline. The elevator pitch. Pretend you have 30 seconds while the elevator is moving up, to pitch to the person next to you. What are the two or three sentences you are going to say that will pull this person in? This is how you’ll be pitching yourself and the project. And whether you like it or not, readers will reduce your screenplay to one such sentence in the coverage.”
2) “Write good characters. Write a part an actor will want to play. Not just the lead, but the bad guy, everyone in the movie. All the parts have to be good.”
3) “Write great dialogue. If I’m a reader and my boss is going to a lunch meeting, he or she will ask, “How is the dialogue?” If it’s really boring and vanilla, the reader will expose you. If the dialogue doesn’t ring true, or isn’t witty, you’ll be busted.”
4) “Everyone is different. Everyone’s a snowflake. Be yourself.”
5) “Write a script that other people will want to see. “
Here are some specific questions the students asked…
Q: What’s the best way to get your script to a decent agency? Is it only through a relationship or can you be ballsy?
A: If you can, use a friend who is a producer to get the script out there. Let them do the work. Email a PDF. Agents are usually only interested when someone else is. If a producer is interested, they will be too.
Q: What are some beginner red flags that make you drop a script like a hot potato?
A: When there’s no clear two-sentence premise, when there aren’t good characters, when the dialogue isn’t great. Basically, I’m going to give you ten pages. If you haven’t got me at the end of ten pages, it’s over. Make sure your screenplay doesn’t start on page 30. You got five pages to introduce the reader to the premise. If you start with a clever opening line, or a great bit of dialogue, or the cool way we meet someone, I’ll keep reading. You have to remember, I am not motivated to finish your screenplay. You have to make me motivated, with your writing.
Q: Do agents not want to accept material directly from the writer?
A: Some agents are willing to take a flyer on someone new. But most agents take scripts only from other producers, their friends.
Q: When should you give up?
A: This process takes time. Give yourself five years, a good long time, to devote to this, to move the needle. You’ll know if you’re not going anywhere. You’ll know it, trust me.
He then closed by saying, “Hopefully, you understand what you’re up against. What you’re up against is people who were given your script by their boss and have to cancel their plans to read it. But that person still wants to read the next ‘Good Will Hunting.’ They still want someone to knock their socks off.
It’s your job to be that person.”